Lorrie Moore at The New Yorker Festival

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Notes I took on what Lorrie Moore said while in conversation with Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker‘s fiction editor, that I felt selfish keeping to myself:

How to become a writer:
-You can’t carve solitude out of loneliness–you need people to get away from them.
-It’s about giving yourself permission. You must also have extreme desire because it will cost you a lot. (She gave herself until she was 30 to make it as a writer. By the time she was 30, she had two books published. She explains how: “desire.”)
-Write to create something that is “beautiful and true and interesting.”
-Don’t rely on writing to pay the rent; always have another plan. (This upset me.)
-You have to be a terrorist: improvise, have ruthless determination to write everyday. As she tells her son, “Do the best you can,” and know when to push yourself and when to forgive yourself.

On becoming a writer via MFA programs:
-“Everyone’s doing it,” said Deborah Treisman.
-What Lorrie Moore believes MFAs offer: “a support system,”; “an environment you can’t afford on your own”; help on building “a tough skin.”
-They “democratize the opportunity to write.”

Moore’s beginnings as a published author:
-First published at 19 in Seventeen Magazine; she wanted to win the art competition but won the writing one instead. She won $500 and thought, “This is easy.” She didn’t make any more money from writing until 10 years later.
-Signed the contract for Self-Help, her first collection written in her MFA program, at 26. The book was published when she was 28. Treisman thought this was young. Moore did not.
-When Treisman asked her how she got the idea for her first book, Moore said, “I probably stole it, knowing me.” (This is the most important note I took because when Lorrie Moore sues me for stealing her material, I will show her what she said and we will probably hug.)
-On writing in second person: “My God, am I ever going to get out of this voice?”
-Her first book sold “only” 7,000 copies. She thought this was not a lot. (I think 7,000 might as well be infinity.)

On writing for women:
-When Treisman said, “Self-Help is about ‘feminine emergencies,'” Moore said, “Really?”
-Moore confided that when she looked into the “literary landscape” (and I’m so upset I had to paraphrase the rest because she said it so well) she felt called to write for women; she felt it imperative. She does not feel this is true anymore.
-When asked about writing from the male perspective, she said, “I like being a guy for 25 pages.”

How much of her writing crosses the boundary between fiction and nonfiction?
-It’s all a collage with real life–“real life,” she said, is boring on its own because you’ve already lived it–with fiction, there is something you’re “discovering and bringing your imagination to.” (What does this mean for nonfiction writers?)

Why she once said writing novels is like a marriage and writing short stories is like a love affair:
-Short stories are quick and it’s intense and then it’s done and you never see each other again.

Why she writes funny:
-The world is funny on the surface and horrifying beneath. The facts of life are difficult ones. When life events knock you out, you can’t write. But when you start picking yourself up, you start making jokes. “It’s about recovery.”
-Sometimes writers insert a joke because those are the things that amuse them alone at their desks.

On the ideal reader:
-An ideal reader has the experience while reading that you wanted them to have while writing.
-There are few of these.
-Don’t write to be liked. “You can’t write for your reader”; they’ll find you. “You can’t please everybody.”

Suggested reading list:

Margaret Atwood
Alice Munro
Mary Gordon
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is the “best novel” (I’ll add that Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is the best memoir)

On why The New Yorker, etc. publishes more men than women (even though statistically more women buy/read books, and there are more women in MFA programs than men):
-“Men have more courage to send their stories to The New Yorker.”

On writing about love:
“It’s everywhere in life, so it’s everywhere in literature.”

Other notes:
-Her son likes to read stories that mirror his life (she said this in regard to an audience question about getting teenage boys to read Pride and Prejudice).
-She’s not into self-discovery when she writes. If she were, she’d be disappointed a lot.
-“Oh, I’m just a sick person.”

[Quoted material is straight from her mouth and everything else is paraphrased because I couldn’t write fast enough for her quick wit.]

Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →