Thirty Days of Stories: Day Thirteen

Title: Charades

Author: Lorrie Moore

Appears in: Birds of America [1998]

Premise: The cracks in sibling relationships become evident during a holiday game of charades. Read it here.

Thoughts: Earlier in these proceedings I made mention that a lot of your favourite writers want to be Amy Hempel. True Story: whoever doesn’t want to be Amy Hempel wants to be Lorrie Moore.

Moore exploded on the literary stage [and into my heart] with her first short story collection Self-Help, which used the second-person voice so well amateurs have been ripping it off ever since [How to Become a Writer,  with its opening suggestion of “First, try to be something, anything, else” is probably one of the most passed around short stories in recent memory].  She hasn’t been terribly prolific since then, three short story collections and a pair of novels, but every word she’s put to page is incredible.

The two things I took from this story, which uses a sort of third person free-indirect narration told through the point of view of Therese, the oldest sibling in the family, had to do with word choice, shitty first drafts and surprising your reader.

There’s a moment where Therese, a circuit court judge, is thinking about her younger sister’s decision to go to law school: “…she had assumed Ann’s decision to be a lawyer is a kind of sororal affirmation…”  Look at that word: sororal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used before, anywhere.  I doubt Moore used it in an early draft of the work [pure conjecture].  She probably had ‘sisterly,’ and in the act of rewriting, decided that ‘sororal’ sounded better, set the tone of the sentence on a different level, suggested something about Therese and her level of education, how she views the world. Because who uses sororal?!  Every word is a choice, and when you’re blasting your idea down onto the paper, maybe the wording isn’t as flowery as you might like.  That’s fine, you can go back to the draft with a fine toothed comb in a week or so.  That’s how you change ‘sisterly’ to ‘sororal.’

I was talking yesterday about letting your characters surprise you, and how I wasn’t sure I knew how to do that.  Lo and behold, I read this story later that afternoon and Moore’s Therese manages to surprise me from out of nowhere with an offhanded comment about a public defender she’s been having a perfunctory affair with, despite loving her husband dearly.  It’s mentioned so nonchalantly in the narration, yet makes perfect sense for the character [I’ll include it as my favourite line from this story].

This all feeds into the idea of the value of rewriting, which is also something I’m either too good at or not good enough; when I’m not ignoring a half-finished story I can’t bear to look at again, I’m performing what Evan Connell called, ‘going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting the commas back in the same places.’  But you never get to ‘sororal,’ you never get to be surprised by your characters, if you can’t focus on what you’re doing when you go back to the draft.

Lesson: Write shitty first drafts. Don’t be scared of them. For more on this, read Anne Lamont’s brilliant essay of the same name.

Favourite Line: “He is ardent and capable and claims almost every night in his husbandly way to find Therese the sexiest woman he’s ever known. Therese likes that. She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor’s office, but it is a limited thing — like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable. It is nothing, except that is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, Jesus Christ, she needs that.”

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