5 Writing Tips from Lorrie Moore

The literary superstar visited ALOUD to read from her new book, “Bark,” and offer tips on her craft

Lorrie Moore is the rare literary superstar who has raked in critical praise while building a fanbase of devoted readers. If you need proof, count the fans who flocked to see her last night at ALOUD. All the seats for the reading and conversation at the Central Library were reserved more than a month ago but that didn’t stop dozens of people from waited in the stand-by line, hoping to get into the packed auditorium. Fans of Moore’s writing ought to know about patience. Bark: Stories, which came out in February, is her first collection of original short stories in 16 years—though she did publish a novel, A Gate at the Stairs, in 2009. It was worth the wait.

Last night, Moore started off by reading Foe, a story about a writer struggling with attending a fundraiser full of rich patrons. In typical Moore fashion, the story combines the protagonist’s internal struggles with larger social and political events: An awkward dinner conversation is framed by concerns about the presidency and 9/11.

The stories in Bark pull readers in two directions. They deal with depressing topics like loneliness, death, and a gnawing sense of failure, but even as Moore is addressing these issues she has a mordant wit that makes you laugh.

Her first collection of short stories, Self Help, was published while she was still in her 20s (it’s a great place to start if you’ve never read Moore). In it she gives tongue-in-cheek advice on everything from being the other woman to being a writer. In this same vein, last night she shared several tips on her craft.

A podcast from the event will be available on the ALOUD website.

1. How to figure out what to write about
If you’re going to be a contemporary storyteller, you’re going to want to sort of pay attention to how these things intersect and what were on particular people’s minds or on fictional characters minds. Or what is on your own mind. It’s one of the big mistakes I see my undergraduates doing: They will write about things that are not on their mind. It’s like, they’re off-center, they don’t really care about them, it’s just some vague idea of it. You really have to write from the center. When you write from the center you’ll find a lot of things you care about that may not superficially have things in common. But you put them down there in the story and they will talk to each other.

2. How to write the ending of a short story
There are ways of taking pivotal central moments that are actually earlier on chronologically and sticking them at the end. The end of a story is really everything. It gives the whole meaning to the story. So the end of the story may not be the chronological one. It may be something that the author has to pull from earlier on and end with.

3. Why the ending of a short story is more important than the ending of a novel
The ending of a novel sort of concludes the energies and looks forward and somehow you have a sense of what’s going to happen to these people, because everything important has already occurred. But the ending of a short story spins and looks back over the short story and so it’s more retrospective in a way. Which is why it’s interesting to take pivotal moments from the center, place them at the end, and the irony of that being the ending, or the conclusion of the story actually had sort of appeared at the beginning unannounced to the characters, is interesting.

4. How to decide whether or not to pursue an MFA in writing
It’s just a café where you come to gather and you talk about literature and writing and compare notes. If you’ve got another café where you can do that, you can do it there. You should never go into debt for it.

If you have a rich aunt or something that doesn’t have anything to do with the money, get her to pay for it. But taking out loans for an MFA… no. There are many good programs that are either inexpensive or long distance, low residency, or they fund you completely. Wisconsin funds you completely, Vanderbilt funds you completely, Cornell funds you completely, Texas funds you completely, Michigan funds you completely. That’s how I’d do it. Student loans I find alarming because they’re so enormous now. 

5. Why readers need to be at least 30 to truly appreciate writers like Alice Munro and Chekov
You have to be able to sort of turn and look back at life, you have to have a sense of water under the bridge.