A guest post for Short Story Month:
Finally! I’ve waited for this opportunity! (Please note the exclamation points.)
In the throes of my own book anxiety/promo, I have earnestly hoped that someone (anyone) would ask me to talk about Lorrie Moore’s influence on my writing. I’ve longed. I’ve prayed. I’ve thrown her name around. I’ve hinted, without any subtlety whatsoever, that there are legitimate similarities. While no one has laughed in my face, no one has exactly acquiesced either.
I don’t know what the problem is. I mean, we’re two peas in a pod. (Just please don’t tell Lorrie I said that. I’m afraid she’ll sue me. Or just hate me.)
Lorrie Moore taught me everything I know about the exclamation point and more. First, I’ll discuss the exclamation point. Then, I’ll discuss the more (the Moore!).
I don’t know exactly how it happened, but apparently some poor shlub who was overly zealous in the grammar and mechanics department—someone not too unlike me, except it was probably a guy—said out loud, and over and over, No exclamation points! Stop with the exclamation points!
Except it was probably more like this: No exclamation points. Stop with the exclamation points.
Despite the quietude, I guess everyone heard him. Except for Lorrie.
May I quote the entirety of the opening paragraph to “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” which can be found in Moore’s Birds of America (1998)? I’m going to make a hard admission here. This was the first thing I ever read by her, and so it’s pretty obvious: I was late to the game. Everyone already knew about her. I had just started my MFA program. I was reading whatever people told me to read, and I was doing it voraciously.
I came upon this story, this opening paragraph:
“A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither. The whole thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain. A start: the Mother finds a blood clot in the Baby’s diaper. What is the story? Who put this here? It is big and bright, with a broken khaki-colored vein in it. Over the weekend, the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim. But today he looks fine—so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow? Perhaps it belongs to someone else. Perhaps it is something menstrual, something belonging to the Mother or to the Babysitter, something the Baby has found in a wastebasket and for his own demented baby reasons stowed away here. (Babies: they’re crazy! What can you do?) In her mind, the Mother takes this away from his body and attaches it to someone else’s. There. Doesn’t that make more sense?”
I was—as clichéd as it is to say—hypnotized by this prose. Then, I sucked it in, absorbed it, and copied it. Copied it, okay? I. Copied. It.
The style, I mean. The panache.
You might not want to do that, but you might want to note some lessons here. Lessons à la Lorrie. (Incidentally, I just wrote in the second person point of view, which is something else unorthodox Lorrie does quite well.) Exclamation points—much like the f-word, I might add—serve a great purpose when used sparingly and carefully. In the above passage, an exclamation point is used pretty much to exploit the mood: denial. Elsewhere, Moore uses them to express humor, irony, and absurdity—rarely for the expression of exclamation. The point doesn’t add to the clamor. Rather, it is often a coping mechanism, a way for the protagonist to deal with a tragedy. Tragedy! What tragedy? Lesson #1.
Then, there’s that amazing image that still makes me shudder: The blood clot in the baby’s diaper is compared to a “tiny mouse heart packed in snow.” Lorrie, I’d give you large sums of money if I had large sums of money for that simile alone. You rock. This is the more/Moore part. (If you’re unfamiliar with Moore’s work, she’s infamous for her stellar wordplay.) I read this and fell over, because it’s gross and it’s beautiful. It’s so gross, it’s beautiful. I’m constantly bringing up the tiny mouse heart in creative writing classes and, if my students don’t love it, I fail them. This is writing that works; it works hard.
More more/moore. Am I losing you with the clever talk? One of my students once said something apt about a Moore story we read in class. She didn’t like it very much. I was in the process of getting out my red pen to give her the Big “F,” when she said that she felt like she was being pelted with ping-pong balls when she was reading Lorrie. The pelting: an assault. No one was going to die or anything, but it was pretty uncomfortable.
I guess I love that. Maybe I’m into sadomasochism. Not sure, but I doubt it. I also love Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger, so I don’t know how those guys would fit into the equation. What I do know is that Lorrie’s stories consistently—pretty much, always—blend comedy with tragedy, just like that unlikely blending of the gross with the beautiful. Using that word menstrual is gross. Thinking about demented baby reasons is funny. You read this, and you’re going through all kind of emotions at once.
Do you know what this story is about? A baby’s cancer scare. The mom’s experience of spending time in the pediatric oncology ward. If you’re a mom, and you’ve ever spent time in a pediatric hospital, you know it’s hell on earth. It sucks like nothing else sucks. Would you believe that Moore captures the fear, the terror, the hell-on-earthness of it, while making you laugh the whole time? I think Moore knows the truth about the tiny mouse heart packed in snow. It’s disgusting. It’s startling. It’s dramatic. It makes you wince and maybe your cheeks flare red because it’s funny too. A mouse heart! But it’s a blood clot in a baby’s diaper. And that just doesn’t make sense.
But Moore’s stories make sense. She is masterful. She knows funny. She knows sorrow. I admire the depth of the humanity explored in her work. I flatter myself every time I drop her name, but I continue to do so lavishly. If I say it enough, maybe it’ll be true. When I first read Lorrie Moore, I staggered from her unorthodox punctuation, her bravery in imagery. Who will admit to the beauty of the mouse heart?
And, just so you know, “How To Become A Writer” is also a gem, and I wouldn’t mind if someone had that inscribed on my grave. Or urn, since I want to be cremated. Wait. I don’t want an urn, either. Scatter my ashes. Someone just e-mail that story to my loved ones.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, THE FREAK CHRONICLES (Dzanc Books 2012) and LOVE SLAVE (Unbridled Books 2012). Additionally, she blogs at "Bosco's Going Down," and she's half of Snotty Literati. Visit her at www.jenniferspiegel.com.