Willing by Lorrie Moore, 1990
The magic trick:
Writing a story about a very specific (and foreign to most readers) character – a frustrated Hollywood actress – and making her relatable
This is maybe the most representative Lorrie Moore story you could find.
Self-centered but likable protagonist? Check.
Collapsing relationship or ill-advised relationship about to collapse? Check.
Punchlines so funny that the scenes seem to have been written solely to set up the joke? Check.
Overarching sadness behind all the jokes? Check.
“Willing” has it all.
So, amid all those tricks, I especially like this story for its unique protagonist. She is a Hollywood actress, or as we’re told, “a minor movie star, once nominated for a major award.” We don’t find her as her best self. In the story, she has retreated from L.A. to a Days Inn in Chicago. This would seem a very specific character, and it’s a risk of sorts to try to write about a fictional celebrity when your story’s stock and trade is everyday midlife crisis problems.
But Moore pulls it off.
She makes the character incredibly relatable. By pulling her away from Hollywood and into Chicago, we normalize her. Her friends wonder why she’s behaving this way. They expect the more glamorous, talented, and successful person. But we don’t. The reader gets to know her as a lonely, frustrated, confused thirty-something trying to sort out what to do next.
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as exceedingly relatable.
And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
On Fridays, she visited her parents in Elmhurst. It was still hard for her father to look her in the eyes. He was seventy now. Ten years ago, he had gone to the first movie she had ever been in, saw her remove her clothes and dive into a pool. The movie was rated PG, but he never went to another one. Her mother went to all of them and searched later for encouraging things to say. Even something small. She refused to lie. “I liked the way you said the line about leaving home, your eyes wide and your hands fussing with your dress buttons,” she wrote. “That red dress was so becoming. You should wear bright colors!”
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