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Self Help
Lorrie Moore

"But I love you, he will say in his soft, bewildered way, stirring the spaghetti sauce but not you, staring into the pan as if waiting for something, a magic fish, to rise from it and say: That is always enough, why is that not always enough?"

Reviewed by Sarah Salway

How to become a writer like Lorrie Moore – go for the jugular, shape every sentence until it sings, tackle every subject head-on, observe.  

Self Help was apparently written almost exclusively for her Masters thesis. Although it has a little annoying archness of a young writer showing off, overall this collection has stood the test of time. It’s one I return to when I want to look at unusual structures for a short story, before getting seduced by the quality of the writing. Open any page at random and you’re guaranteed a perfect sentence – "Dream, and in your dreams babies with the personalities of dachshunds, fat as Macy balloons, float by the treetops." Beautiful. As indeed, although in a different way, is, "Wives are like cockroaches…They will survive you after a nuclear attack – they are tough and hardy and travel in packs – but right now they’re not having any fun." Ouch.

Of the seven stories, three titles begin, ‘How to..’ and one is just called ‘How’. The slightly hectoring tone, and frequent use of second person, fits the theme of how Moore’s heroines want to know the answers to questions they can’t articulate, and feel nostalgic for things they’ve never really achieved – true love, belonging, purpose. Only Moore’s witty writing stops this falling into cynicism. It’s hard to resist a story which begins, ‘Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you’.

For me the two stand outs in this collection are How to Become a Writer – The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen – and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes). I took apart the structure of How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) the first time I read it, like a dressmaker deconstructing a fine garment. As it consists of a selection of paragraphs ranging back from after the mother’s death to the moment of conception, I guessed a strategic author like Moore would work in a middle point. Eureka. At exactly the centre of the story, in 1961, the grandmother dies and the narrator has an abortion – leaving only the two women at the centre of the generations, forever stuck with each other.

Although Moore has said in an interview that she shudders at the thought of her work being analysed, it proves to me that these seemingly slight stories have been crafted so tightly, both in language and structure, that it is only in the hands of a master that they can retain any character and passion. Luckily Moore is a master.

In her very funny How to Become a Writer, Moore has her narrator start with, "First, try to be something, anything, else", and at the end of the story, likens her need to write as "a lot like having polio." Interesting, smiles the date the narrator is telling this to, "and then he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction."

Show me another short story writer, or indeed any writer, who can beat the cruel biting humour of an observation like that.

Sarah Salway  is a poet, short story writer and novelist. She is the author of the novels, Something Beginning With and Tell Me Everything (Bloomsbury). Her short story collection, Leading the Dance, is published by Bluechrome, and, with Lynne Rees, she is the co-author of the collaborative classic, Messages.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Niki Aguirre  "29 Ways to Drown"

Karen Russell "St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves"










Publication Date: 1985


First collection?: Yes

Author bio: Lorrie Moore was born in 1957 in Glen Fells, NewYork. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker and Best American Short Stories. Author of novels, Anagrams, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, and short story collections, Birds of America and Like Life. She is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. 

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