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I’ve only been to three of the six Lighthouse Writer’s Studio events, but I think I can safely say that last weekend’s guest, Lorrie Moore, had the shiniest hair of any of them, and the most melodic voice. I know: I sound like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, but something about Moore’s thoughtfulness and good humor has me a little enamored. Not enamored enough to pet her to death in a barn, but enamored enough that I started drinking coffee again after a three-year hiatus just because she said, “What kind of writer drinks herbal tea?” Well, me. But not anymore. Now I wake up and hear Moore’s voice saying, “I like to get my first cup of coffee on the page.” And she doesn’t mean by spilling it. She means by writing. Which I’m doing nowadays, coffee in hand, optimism almost outweighing heartburn. But you didn’t come to this blog to hear about my heartburn. You came to this blog because you googled Corgis. (True story: a bootlegged photo of a Corgi once caused a major spike in our blog traffic.) Luckily, writers and dog fanciers alike can find solace in what Lorrie Moore had to say.
First, her visit illuminated one of those truths that can get lost in a writer’s eagerness to improve: there is no one way. There is no secret to being a great writer, no magic feather, no rusted key hidden under a rock somewhere. Every writer must find her own path. I first encountered Moore about a year ago at the University of Wisconsin, where a group of students and faculty members had gathered for a talk with the writer Ann Beattie. Beattie described her writing process as quite fast. For many years, she’d used a manual typewriter, and before making a keystroke, she formed each sentence in her head. In this manner she wrote stories for the New Yorker in about three hours. She also testified to never returning to anything—if a story didn’t work quickly and on the first attempt, she threw it aside. I sat in the second row, feeling awe and an acute mental oafishness. I can’t write a grocery list in three hours. I was distracted a little bit, too, by this woman in front of me who had really great hair.
The woman was Lorrie Moore, of course, and I know now that her process is rather different from her friend’s. Like Beattie, Moore writes stories for the New Yorker. But, perhaps unlike Beattie, Moore revises her writing “a million times,” and “tinkers endlessly.” She has never mastered that strict writing schedule prescribed by so many authors and teachers. In fact, when asked by a member of the audience for tips on developing such a schedule, Moore asked with sincerity if the audience had any tips. As a single mother, Moore writes when time allows, and tries to make it to the desk when inspiration strikes. At her Non-Crafty Craft Talk at the Tattered Cover, she described a palpable difference between pages written in moments of inspiration, and those written from obligation, and explained that even great books have a few of the latter. The key is to bring as much energy and enjoyment to your desk as you can, and hope that the number of inspired pages outweigh those necessary others.
“There are a lot of times you get stuck,” she said. “Sometimes you have to go for a walk. Sometimes for years. Other times, you have to force yourself to write something you know is wrong.”
Evident here is some of Moore’s distinctive humor. She finds humor in everything—sometimes so much that she has to cut jokes and digressions from her final drafts. Writing, she says, should be fun. But serious fun. And developing the craft of writing should come after finding the right subject. “If you’re writing about the wrong thing,” she said, “it doesn’t matter if you use adverbs in your dialogue tags.”
To illustrate this, she asked the 80-person audience at the Tattered Cover to write down a description of their latest fiction project, and pass it to the podium. Then, on a second sheet of paper, participants were asked to write down: 1) Something people always say you should write about; 2) the worst thing you can imagine happening in your life; 3) the best thing you can imagine happening in your life; 4) the most important relationship in your life; and 5) the biggest problem facing the world.
In many cases, there wasn’t much apparent overlap between the participant’s current project and his/her fears, desires, loves, and concerns. Several lists hinted at a riveting story that remained unwritten. While the demonstration wasn’t perfect (writers are notoriously bad at “pitching” their own stories, and perhaps many had written about the topics on their list at another time) it was a dramatic reminder of how often writers put the cart before the horse. Or perhaps beside the horse. I suspect that many participants found, as I did, that there were connections between their innermost concerns and the stories they were working on, but that they hadn’t been fully exploited, or that the story had begun to veer away from a potential power source. Moore went on to urge writers to use the illusion of fiction to be more honest than they might otherwise be, and to forget trying to please people. By reading from a snide deconstruction of John Updike’s prose (by Martin Amis, from The Guardian) she’d already illustrated the impossibility of pleasing people anyway, especially with anything as subjective as “craft.”
So write about what means the most to you, even if someone might disapprove, even if that someone is your Corgi (high-fives to the Corgi peeps who are still with us!) and don’t worry about how other writers schedule their time, or what they drink in the mornings. Unless it’s herbal tea. That stuff is for suckers.