When I travel, I like to bring along a favorite book to reread. I’ve been rereading from the list of The Most Important Novels in My Life (some short story collections made the list), and one of the questions I consider is whether the book stands the test of time.
Almost forty years after first reading Lorrie Moore’s debut book of short stories, “Self-Help,” I realize time isn’t a test, or if it is a test, the questions we get asked are never the ones we expected to be on it. So there’s no way to prepare.
Moore is my contemporary and one of my generation’s most accomplished and beloved literary short story writers. Her writing had a huge influence on me when I was just starting out. I was in awe of her innovative use of language, her unique voice, and her sense of humor and pathos that shaped her sentences into ironic smiles.
What is Seized is a devastating story about a young twenty-something losing her mother, which I happened to read as a young twenty-something who’d just lost my own mother. A number of the stories read like how-to manuals, thus the book’s title “Self-Help.” How to Be an Other Woman reflected my own experience on how to be an other man. How to Become a Writer was hilarious and could have been written by me—if I’d been that good of a writer.
Good writers, bad writers: we all copy, imitate, and steal from each other. I incorporated some of Moore’s style into my own, which led to my first published story, “The Painter’s Son.”
So, thank you Lorrie Moore for the writing lessons. Consider: all of this (and much more) immensely wealthy writing appears on a single page of the story, simply-titled How, about a woman falling out of love with her man:
The test of time? Wrong question. This was a first book by a young writer, and while full of promise it also lacks depth and expertise in spots, and like any collection of stories, some of the stories are winners and others are simply participants. But this book was integral to me when I was a beginning writer and will always belong on my list.