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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Feb082013

« In Which Lorrie Moore Returns To Self-Help »

Down Here

by SHAHIRAH MAJUMDAR

This is what life’s done so far down here, this is all and what and everything it’s managed — this body, these bodies, that body. So what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

—Lorrie Moore, “Dance in America”

When Lorrie Moore read at the NYU Creative Writing Reading Series last week to a room that was packed and adoring, she announced, “I’m going to read a story that was rejected by The New Yorker.” And in her sly, dark, conspiratorial way, she added, “Now that Alice isn’t there anymore, I’m not having so much luck.”

It was that kind of evening. Even before Moore called out The New Yorker (she enjoys coming to these things and reading stories that have been rejected by The New Yorker, she explained; once she’d even read one at The New Yorker Festival), Gawker had already been called out by Darin Strauss over this article. It was all ugly for a moment — we were in stitches but also holding our breaths — but, in the end, it was funny and beautiful.

Because writers can be nasty and sometimes it’s a certain nastiness that makes us writers. The nastiness of saying exactly what you want to say even when polite society dictates that you shouldn’t. The nastiness of getting your own back on your parents or an old school bully or Mr. Henry Huggins (okay, Eliza wasn’t a writer, but Shaw was). The nastiness of self-hatred or self-pity or self-destruction, and all the dark things contained therein. And because, like all human beings, we writers feel vile, dumb, arrogant, despairing things from time to time possess us— and the fact that we can find exactly the words to convey just how vile or dumb or arrogant or despairing is exactly what gives a writer pleasure.

{And sometimes we write about feelings of love or hope or happiness, but to read or to write exclusively of those things is boring, is what a child does.}

The story that Lorrie Moore read that evening was called, “Thank You For Having Me.” It was set a wedding and had moments of deep absurdity as well as sadness. There were some sly turns of phrase — “moose-limbed” is one that stood out, though perhaps she said “loose-limbed” and I misheard — and observations of the ordinary that were not so ordinary when hewed from the right words, which she did. There were characters that we knew only through brief gestures or dialogue but somehow we felt we understood. And there was dancing too, which meant what dancing always does: an erasure, a submission, both an escape from and the most ecstatic expression of what it means to be human.

Afterwards, she took questions. First, there was silence and she remarked that she’d told the organizers that Q & A session wasn’t necessary because her readers were so polite and so well behaved (she didn’t say this exactly as if it were a good thing). When someone in the audience finally raised his hand, she laughed to herself. “Oh,” she said, “perhaps this person is not a reader.”

And up they marched to the mic, earnest students from NYU and elsewhere looking for writing advice from the great and inimitable Lorrie Moore. She was terrifying to them all. “Forget the idea of being successful,” she told the first. The second she answered in bits and pieces and then complimented extravagantly on her sweater. Another, she congratulated on her good sense of choosing to live in Queens because writers, she told us, ought to start by living cheaply. She used words like “creepy” and “crazy” (“so crazzzy,” is how she described her younger self’s notion that it was possible to make money writing reviews) and “stupid,” as in, she had “stupidly” thought that she would give up on the writing thing if she didn’t “make it” by the age of 30. By “make it,” she means, be published — which is something, of course, that she achieved well in advance of the age of 30 when Knopf put out Self-Help in 1985.

+

Late last summer, I ran into a beloved former writing teacher of mine, Jessica Hagedorn, in the subterranean caverns of Jay-Metrotech station. We had drinks & dinner at Café Loup later that fall and she — who had come of age in New York in the ‘70s alongside Patti Smith with experimental work that mixed song, poetry, images, and spoken dialogue — gently poured her martini until the cocktail shaker was tepid and talked to me about how this writing life has changed. The kids are so different now. The industry is so different now. Even the audience is different now.

I repeated what a friend of mine had told me upon my return to New York earlier in the year — that to try to be a writer in this democratic, digital-media age means to hustle, to brand yourself, to dedicate yourself to readings and page views and “followers” and panels — and she listened with her hand on her glass, without saying a word. Finally, she said what she had always said before: write what you love, do what you feel like doing, and screw the rest. How should such a person pay the bills? I wondered. “Well,” she said, rolling her beautifully expressive eyes in a gesture so familiar that a full semester of workshop critiques came crashing back upon me… “Go work in a shoe store or something.”

Expect to be poor. Live in Queens. Go work in a shoe store. Eager MFA candidates, do take note. You could always be less earnest. You could always do something else.

+

Lorrie Moore (to get back to the subject at hand) had this to say about the function of writers programs: that they are there to thicken your skin, to make you tougher, to serve as an “inoculation” or “vaccination” for all the rejections and the heavy indifference and the lack of page views or book sales or the gentle or not-so-gentle criticism with which you will (inevitably) collide at some point in your future “career” as a “writer.”

All over the Midwest,” she confided, there exist “survivors groups” for those still traumatized from the experience of being workshopped at Iowa. The Iowa Writers Workshop is the “worst,” she told us, “they are famous for the way they tear each other apart at Iowa.” We loved this. We found this profound and wonderful, possibly because many of us in the room had not been admitted into Iowa…

What she didn’t say however is that MFA programs, despite the thousands of dollars we spend on them, are there to teach you how to write. And I’m glad she didn’t because I’m not sure that they do; though certainly they can catalyze that, especially when they admit writers who are brilliant and brave in the first place. Writing programs serve many purposes — networking, incubating, star-fucking among them — but they cannot produce stronger, finer, more terrifying and original writers when the finely-tuned ear and the terrifying heart aren’t there to begin with.

Moore, when asked if she’d had any vital moments of encouragement early in her career, laughed darkly and brought up her classmates from Cornell, where she studied under Alison Lurie. They “hated” her work but her teachers would tell her privately that she had talent. Her classmates were all so “smart” the way MFA candidates, she remarked, pretty much always are. As for herself, she claims didn’t have much to say in workshops. What always interested her was something dumb like “that line on page 2 about the tomato.” She wasn’t smart like the other kids, she said. But, then anyone who has read her reviews knows that what she really means is that she was smarter.

About the others: “They had so much to say about my work but then, when it came to their own work —“ and this she said sotto voice, with all the riotous pleasure of a wink, “it just wasn’t very good.”

+

There are two things that I credit for teaching me how to write. One is reading: one’s faculty for language is like a muscle, trained daily, exhaustively, immersively from childhood. The other is teaching: there is no better crucible for forging an understanding of a sentence or a story works that having to explain to a class of eyes-wide 19 year-olds how syntax inflects meaning, how repetition works as literary architecture, how red is not just a color but a mood and a symbol and a revelation of character or emotion or motive or a premonition of destiny; or how every mark of punctuation, paragraph break, word and image (or lack there of) is a choice that a writer makes with a weight and a purpose of its own…

The nature of what it is “to write” is what I failed to glean during my MFA years — that writing is a craft, a technology as fine and unrelenting and purposeful as any that thrums in metal or bone or delicately spun silicone. I learned this only later, when my mind was cleaner, my pulse more clarified, and I had fewer and fewer things that I needed to slop onto the page. What I thought was important then was to be smart. To style sentences that sounded good and to run literary theory around people’s ears. It’s only in retrospect, as I try to piece everything together, that I gather the more sustaining thing.

I remember once that I wrote a critique of a friend’s short story during a first year (or was it a second year?) fiction workshop. “I call bullshit,” I think was my opening line, and then went on for several paragraphs to explain in what I thought was a very smart and unassailable way. Months later, over Solo cups of wine at a grad student party, my friend recounted how he had read my critique and laughed and laughed and laughed. Who the fuck did I think I was, he found himself asking. And, 8 years later, once again over wine in plastic cups at an earnest literary gathering, I ask myself that same exact question, who the fuck did I think I was?

Actually, I asked it then. My second year of grad school, I took a seminar with Ben Marcus called “Technologies of Heartbreak.” The class was a cult but it, together with my master classes with James Wood, is where I first began to have a notion of writing as a craft, though that notion was very raw indeed. One afternoon, concerned about the lack of “muscularity” of my prose or perhaps the unremarkable place my work occupied on the “storytelling vs language” continuum, I went to his office hours, hunger in my heart, to be reassured that I would “make it.” I can’t remember what he said, only that it was unsatisfying and that I persisted in my hunger.

I keep hungering, and I keep writing. Even though I now realize that the question I asked him is a question that, in truth, you must only ever ask or answer for yourself. Even though all questions of what it means to “make it” have stolen away from me, have gently slipped the turnstile while I was busy tending my bags at the station.

+

Later, my friend Julia and I walked east to a bar on Prince Street and met up with people we knew. We crowded the bar and talked to strangers (because talking to strangers can sometimes be more clarifying than talking to one’s friends) and Julia quoted from one of her favorite Lorrie Moore stories, “Dance in America.” How funny the characters were, how sad and how beautiful. How utterly, indefensibly themselves. How dark. How true. How radiant with the resinous strangeness of being human… As is Moore herself in her way.

And, as the night wound on and the stars spun, I thought to myself that I have not worked hard enough. I have not believed in myself enough. I have not been honest enough about all the dumb, humiliating, astonishing things that are a part of me. And because I haven’t been honest enough, clarity has failed me; grace had failed me; humor has failed me; beauty has failed me —

We fail ourselves, daily. What a great Lorrie Moore story reminds us is that failing is why we dance, is how we fly. That sometimes it’s all about the tomato on page 2. That this is all there is to being fucking alive.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Vertigo.

photo by christine jean chambers

 

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