Self-Help by Lorrie Moore: How to Read Like a Writer
I haven’t included a review of a collection short stories in Ignite Your Ink yet and felt it was time. Short stories are an excellent opportunity to experiment with form, point of view, characters, and other aspects of writing. In Self-Help, Lorrie Moore demonstrates how second person point of view can work, the importance of character and author voices, and how moments can be just as impactful as full scenes.
Walking in Another’s Shoes
Out of the nine short stories in Self-Help, six are written in second person point of view. The “you” voice works in these stories because Moore asks the reader to be the “you” character to experience another person’s life. She is not claiming this is what you (the reader) think; instead she implies this is what you would most likely think if you were this character in this situation. She asks the reader to allow her to show them what it is like to be someone else, to be the character she has created.
The way Moore introduces the reader to the use of second person point of view is key and well-crafted. Many of the short stories begin by dropping the “you” in the first few sentences to set the scene and draw the reader in. Then Moore slowly reveals the reader is the character. “How to Be an Other Woman” begins with:
Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips . . . (3).
Moore could have said “You meet in expensive beige raincoats” and “You stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window,” but this would have hit the reader in the face with the “you” perspective. By simply dropping the “you,” she allows the sentence to imply second person point of view without it jumping up and down, waving its arms in front of the reader. The choice to use as few pronouns as possible makes the second person more palpable because the reader feels less like they are being dictated to. Moore continues to use “you” sparingly throughout each short story to maintain this effect.
The other three stories in Self-Help are written in first person point of view and have a similar effect. They too are meant to draw the reader into another person’s thoughts and life. All of Moore’s stories in Self-Help accomplish this by diving into the character’s voice and inner thoughts and emotions. Cancer-stricken Elizabeth in “Go Like This” says:
I never question Elliott’s reluctance to have sex with me. It is not the same body to him, with his simple, boyish perceptions of the physical. It’s okay, I say, but I look at the curve of his bones, the freckled skin of his back, something wildly magical still, something precious (70).
Here the reader can feel the pain of sexual rejection Elizabeth feels when her husband is not aroused by her newly scarred, deformed body coupled with her longing for his still whole body. By diving into this unpleasant emotion and conflict, Moore deepens her characters and helps the reader understand what it might be like to be this woman.
Author and Character Voice
In order to use second and first person to get her readers to experience her characters’ lives, Moore had to have strong character voices. Each woman in Self-Help is distinguishable from all the other women just by the way she speaks. Moore accomplishes this through form, word choice, and diction. The person who would choose to tell her story in reverse chronological order is very different from the woman trying to show how far she’s fallen or how much she’s changed by starting at the beginning. The vocabulary of the child narrator in “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce” is smaller and simpler than the author who uses the term “eschew” in “Go Like This.” Through their distinct voice, each character becomes more real, exciting, and effective, so when a reader begins the next story, they feel like they are stepping into a new woman’s pair of shoes.
Despite the unique character voices, Moore’s authorial voice shines in each story as well. Her vocabulary, tone, syntax, and use of moments mixed with scenes mark each story as her own. If a reader were to happen across another story by Moore, they would likely recognize it as hers without having to be told it was written by Moore. Authorial voice is something writers hone over time and through practice. I believe one of the greatest complements an author can receive is when a reader says I knew this was yours without having to look at who wrote it.
Moments versus Scenes
Many of the stories in Self-Help are composed of moments instead of full scenes. Because the stories are more character-driven than plot-driven, this works. Each moment is designed to further develop the character. In “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),” the main character recounts moments from her life in reverse chronological order to explain her relationship with her mother:
1972. Nixon wins by a landslide.
Sometimes your mother calls you by her sister’s name. Say, “No, Mom, it’s me, Virginia.” Learn to repeat things. Learn that you have a way of knowing each other which somehow slips out and beyond the ways you have of not knowing each other at all.
Make apple crisp for the first time (89).
The story then moves on to the previous year’s moments. This is not a scene. It is a list of facts from the character’s life. However, the facts Moore chooses to include and the order in which she includes them deepens both the characters.
These vignettes are a technique often employed in literary fiction like Self-Help to develop characters. Sometimes a single line about a character can say more than a whole flash back recounting the event. The “you” character describing the bond between her and her mother after showing the mother doesn’t always recognize her is more poignant than if Moore had attempted to write an entire scene demonstrating this connection. Moments can be stronger than scenes when set up properly.
An Editor’s Thoughts on Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
I must admit I don’t often get excited about strictly character-driven literary fiction. When nothing happens (i.e. no plot), I become annoyed and wonder what the point of the story is. Moore does a great job weaving just enough plot into her short stories to keep readers like me interested while still allowing the characters to lead.
Self-Help Is an excellent example of how to effectively use second person point of view by inviting the reader to experience life as someone else instead of forcing them to become someone they aren’t. Moore accomplishes this by minimizing her use of pronouns, giving each character a distinct voice, and using moments in vignettes along with full scenes. Writers looking to use second person characters to Ignite Their Ink should read Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help.
How do you get your readers to walk in your character’s shoes? Let me know in the comments below and click the picture to the left if you haven't looked at the story collection yet. Subscribe to Ignite Your Ink for more posts that recommend books to read as a writer and a free list of 13 Writing Craft Books Every Writer Should Explore.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.