Have I Earned These Clichés?


“I love you” is a cliché.

I wonder if I’ll use this cliché again.

The lights are out and I’m typing on my elbows and it hurts so I must stop.

I don’t stop. I clutch my t-shirt and try to get my breathing under control but am unable to do so and worry about passing out and suffocating, alone, for no reason other than Lorrie Moore. I hold my left breast as if forcing my heart to stay put. I’m silent screaming, projectile-weeping, bellowing inaudibly from somewhere deep; everything is wrenching mutely.

As a young writer, I learned the hard way not to read anything by Lorrie Moore before bed.

The panic attack doesn’t come from reading only; that would be stupid. The attack comes from needing to write. Jim Harrison in “Why I Write, or Not” says, “Without going into the anthropological aspects, the beginning of the calling [to write] when I was in my early teens was similar to a seizure.” Pretty much. At your high school or college graduation, no doubt some asshole gave you a copy of Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke and told you, in a supercilious way, that this book will change your life. Clichés exist for a reason. That book will change your life. Rilke says, “Find the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”

How much do books influence us as readers and writers? Kurt Vonnegut said we create drama in our lives to fit the books we’ve read. And Kurt Vonnegut was never wrong. David Foster Wallace in “E Unibus Pluram television and U.S. fiction” reminds us, “Umm, insights and guides to value used to be among literature’s jobs, didn’t they?” They did. They are. I would like to believe they are.

Literature is a dialogic process, and writing itself is a social act. Moore’s books have a moral center. They take on a responsibility to connect and give something back, while other texts can neglect the reader and be soulless, self-contained, and impenetrable. I’m thinking of those strange, lyrically oblique works that exist outside the realm of familiarity, books that scatter into random words. Those that sell disengagement with the world and become so esoteric that they reach few and alienate the rest. Elaine Showalter once told me in an interview that “many graduate students in English deliberately make their writing so obscure and pedantic that it is unreadable.” There is a line where smart becomes stupid. It’s the same with criticism. Henri Bergson says criticism takes us far away from the object of our criticism, when what we care about is the object, not the carcass of the object.

I am the kind of reader who makes demands like “pleasure” and “ethical investment” of texts. When life is not the slightest bit luminescent, I read Birds of America. Its confession of ineffable sadness, its verbal manipulation of human hearts: Moore triggers the metamorphosis from reader to writer. I would call her approach to writing humanistic; she honors a commitment to the search for truth and morality through emotional and reachable means. The antithetical side of the humanistic approach does not aspire to establish the same relationship with reader. She’s cerebral and sentimental, not cerebral v. sentimental. In 2001 James Wood wrote an article, “Tell Me How Does It Feel,” claiming contemporary “experimental” writers are too busy being clever to connect with human emotion, choosing solipsistic über-intellect over feelings. Wood uses the term “hysterical realism” (I imagine a broom and a dust pan; the pan tips and dirt scatters in different and better-hidden places) to encapsulate a post-9/11 literary world where events/politics/societies are transient and therefore obsolete, where nothing is unspoken, and where writers write without feeling because they’re too concerned with performing acrobatic tricks in the Verbal Olympics.

Like any quality satirist, Lorrie Moore does both. In 2001 Wood called for a new genre of novels that tell us not ‘how the world works’ but ‘how somebody felt about something’; in 2009 Moore published A Gate at the Stairs and reminded me that I do want to know how to world works; that constitutes at least 80% of why I read. And reading how the world works, seeing it through the mind of an un-inoculated writer like Moore, bearing witness to someone (someone, thank you, finally someone) rendering the often unsayable and unimaginable into the physical form of a book–this–this makes me feel something too. Ben Marcus in “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It” says, “it is arguably sublime when a text creates in us desires we did not know we had.” All the better when we hunger for the unknown and the all-too-well-known simultaneously, when what we read achieves the unity of learning and also identification. Jonathan Franzen in “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books” writes that books help us resist existential loneliness; they offer a soul-to-soul Contract between reader and writer. With litigious commitment, Moore upholds the Contract. She is that dialectical synthesis of a writer who squares the circle (I imagine Marcus and Franzen with penetrating stares, saying, “Let’s do this,” re: intellectual intercourse/mind fuckery).

Before lunch with my mother one day (she was late), I read Anagrams while waiting. My mother, a nonreader who, in meanness, I thought for years couldn’t actually read, said: “Tell me why you’re reading that.”

“Because Lorrie Moore is [pause for penetrative scan of the self] smart.”

Lorrie Moore, a true literary writer, uses every literary device I studied in school. And I’m thankful for it, for that kind of stimulation. It’s why I read: to get something I don’t get out of real life, boring jobs, disappointing people, and lackluster evenings. Literary language seeks to accomplish something extraordinarily difficult: to engrave the elusive aspects of life’s entanglements, to represent the intensity of consciousness, and to produce the sort of stories that transfix and mesmerize. She writes characters who reflect the wit, passion, and seriousness of their creator. All the way through, she’s humorous and warm and true. Her stories are records of embarrassment and loss; she’s divergent in extremity, in sadness and humor. In Anagrams, she puts two people who seem disparate and wayward, and together they create an appealing friction, where the fantastic and literal makes us, as readers and writers, want to figure out why they belong together and then why we belong anywhere with the people we’re with.

A few of Lorrie Moore’s characters are writers. They are dark and sinister. She puts them in poor conditions and exploits what’s clichéd about them: a baseline failure of empathy. They create worlds after all, worlds in which they are at the center. Jim Harrison says although “good writers seem to know that they are permanently inconsolable…a writer [is] a small god who has forty acres as a birthright on which to reinvent the world.” And yet, for all our lack of human connection, it’s the heart writers are told to reach to move readers. Success means touching or breaking hearts. In the rush of feelings that feels like choking, that feels like dying (and now here’s the cliché): it’s the closest definition I have of living. Frederick Busch in “Where We Do Our Work” says, “In and because of a good story, we respond as if it were a matter of life and death. We believe that it is a matter of life and death. Anything less at stake suggests an anecdote, a tale about the teller (not about the reader and writer allied by their sense of very much to lose or gain).” The most important bits of writing often fall into parentheses.

Again, the lights are out and I’m typing on my elbows and it hurts but I don’t stop. A boyfriend calls and during the conversation I tell him all I want to do is get off the phone so I can write. I briefly wonder if I’ll like anyone as much as I like writing, which requires what relationships require: selfishness, commitment, and a kind of love you can’t communicate adequately or explain because good writers don’t use clichés. (But—“I love you.”)

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 →