Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Critique by a Moore

Back on 2005, I attended an artists' colony, the Vermont Studio Center, for a month. They have their regular residents like me, most of whom pay all or 2/3 of their way; and featured residents who are paid by the colony to critique the regulars' work and give talks and hold conferences. As I described in two earlier posts, I was there while Lorrie Moore was there. This post is a self-indulgent description of what happened in my one-on-one critiquing session with Moore. I had sent this only to family when it happened, but now, with readership of my blog at a low ebb, partly because of my lack of posting lately, I figure it's okay to toot my horn a little. I'm putting up these three posts about Moore on the occasion of her release of her newest novel, A Gate at the Stairs.

Visiting writers here meet with us residents in the living room of what they call Mason House, the domain for the writers, though it is not where most of us live or work. The living room is filled with bookshelves and books I have not read, surroundings I found rather daunting until I happened to spot the Philip K. Dick title in the ranks. Still, it was a Dick I have not read.

I went into the foyer and heard the prior person’s conference still in progress, so I went back out to the porch and waited like the piano students on our front porch when I was a kid, and my mom was teaching lessons in our living room.

The writer before me came out, and I went in. Lorrie Moore was sitting at the end of the long conference table gleaming with reflected light from the window behind her. The papers in front of her I recognized as the copy of "Back to the Old Ladies" I had sent in late May. I had not even sat down when she said, “This is a real story, and you are a real writer.”

I said, “Well thank you!” I sat.

“The only thing is . . .” she said. She said the beginning was confusing. Where was Roxanne? In her hotel room or in the desert? I should clear that up. And when did the narrator meet Roxanne’s mother? The same night he danced with her the first time?

“You may have to be flatfooted with the facts. Don’t be afraid to state them plainly,” Moore said.

Then came a harder issue.

“The narrator is in love with Roxanne,” she said. “There has to be more to her to warrant his attentions. More than just her dance moves and her tush, which are beautifully described. She needs to say a little more . . .”

This will be hard to deal with. I have no idea what Roxanne has to say other than what she's already said in the story.

“Do you do this?” she said. “This dance stuff? I was reading, and these details were so alive, I said ‘Wow, he must really do this. . .’”

I said I do.

“This is almost there,” she said. “Almost ready for publication.”

It is revision number 10! How far do I have to go? But alright.

She asked me what I do. Am I in school? So I told her the quick spiel: Audio for video . . . have done substitute teaching, do teach at a community college . . . Durham . . . physics . . . stubborn . . . Duke . . . Batman . . . screenplays . . . short stories . . . present day. (“Batman has a special place in my heart,” I told her. “Really?” she said, smiling.)

“Well, you really understand the form,” she said. “And who are you reading?”

I said that for the past year, I have been reading a lot of, well, um, her. “You,” I said.

She looked away. She had also not really relished someone’s bringing up her collection “Self-Help” as a “must read” for writers, during the group craft talk she gave last Friday. In response, she had said, “No, not Self-Help.”

I named Bernard Malamud as someone whose stories I’m reading now. And Larry Brown, whom I always have to mention, to see what sort of reaction I get.

“Oh, poor guy, he just died too!” she said.

Yes, around Thanksgiving last year.

“He wasn’t old?” she said. No. I said he probably had high blood pressure though. She said she had met him and found him to be a really nice guy. I said I had met him too, and also found him really nice.

I asked if she had read Brown’s stuff, and she said, only a little. I said I liked these fairly straightforward writers like Malamud, Brown, Chekhov. They state things fairly plainly. I said I had tried to write a poetic story this past year, and it had not come together yet, and was also not very well written. Brown was really encouraging to me because, when I would be hung up trying to say something in an impressive way, I would tell myself, “Just tell the damn story,” which I think is what Brown pretty much did too.

She nodded.

She suggested I read Updike’s collected stories, but not the novels, and Alice Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women.”

I said, “I don’t know what to say about these people who have collections of, like, 200 stories. I’m lucky if I can write one per year, and at that, it still may not come out right.”

She said Updike has not had anything else to do all his life. She said he keeps writing about his childhood and certain recurring subjects. But the good thing about that, for him, is that he is able to perfect stories about his subjects. “I might be reading, say, the fourth story about this, but I say, ‘this one is perfect.’”

She said quality is more important that quantity. She didn’t seem worried about my slow pace.

She asked what I’m working on now, and I said I was doing a totally new story, plus there was always the one from this past year which I might be salvageable, who knows.

We were together only 20 minutes or so, and our conversation seemed to be coming to a close. She put her incognito celebrity sunglasses on and we stood.

She asked what I had studied in college.

“Wow, physics,” she said. “I don’t meet many physics majors who are writers. A few, but not that many.”

I said, I think we are concerned with mysticism and how the world works. These are similar traits in writing and physics.

Heading out the door into the sunny, crystal clear day, she said her father had studied chemistry and dropped out in grad school. “He had to get a job and went into corporate America,” she said. “He told me once that he had gone into chemistry because his sister had married a chemist, and his grandmother (or mother? Or Moore’s grandmother? I forget) had loved this son-in-law so much, and kept talking about how he was a chemist. So her father had gone into chemistry himself “to win his mother’s(?) love,” Moore said, making a sweeping gesture.

She was heading up the hill. I asked her if she would sign books at the reading, and she said, “Sure, sure.” I told her, thanks for the writing she was doing. “You’re really funny,” I said. She gave a dismissive wave and turned away. “And really dark,” I said. “As you know.” She glanced back one more time, and was gone.


svetx said...

This part is not for publication, but "Elrond, I love you."

Oh, I do relish that last line, "And really dark, as you know." I am grateful to get to read your detailed account of that mysterious encounter.

You are a real writer. I know these things, and I don't just go around liking every short story I read.

Your Svets

svetx said...

Mysticism? Really? The way you describe her, LM really does sound like a character in one of her own stories. Has anyone ever told YOU that you write like Lorrie Moore? If not, I am. Okay, I'm all caught up on my Elrond now, and I should go catch up on my Frog Hospital too.

Your Svetsy