For some years many years ago, I made a tidy industry of writing journalistic essays for Sunday magazines and east coast slicks. The pieces were (by the form’s necessity) first-person, breezy, and seldom more than a thousand words long.
This practice, in the sense of repetition as well as study, did me good in a number of ways. I learned to recognize opportunities to work up an incident or observation, to write within a tight word-count, meet deadlines, and be cheerful (even if I had to fake it) about accepting editors’ changes.
Then I dropped, by a mysterious combination of instinct and magnetism, down the rabbit-hole of making fiction.
By the time that happened, I’d begun to grasp (without yet admitting it) that the short, journalistic form—in the way I practiced it, anyway—was missing something terribly important.
It was not as truthful as it warranted itself to be: neither to me nor to my readers.
Those cheeky, thoughtful, ultra-clever Sunday magazine page pieces read easily, chattily. They drew local praise and an occasional fan letter. Sometimes they annoyed or offended people, who wrote me annoyed or offended letters—but that struck me as evidence that the little essays had a certain notable energy.
I collected the pieces into a book, my very first. After it came out, one critical reviewer declared that the pieces “go down easily as frozen yogurt.”
I was devastated by this assessment, though I also felt confused by its actual meaning. I assumed the reviewer meant that the work was a series of forgettable confections. Frozen yogurt is tasty and pleasant, but light on nutrients. It has taken me over twenty years to be able to see—and to confess publicly here—that the reviewer was right.
The problem was, and is, cleverness.
Most writers start out clever, get honored for it in school, and feel quite proud of their minds’ abilities to dart and somersault, tying tasty ideas together and reconnecting them elsewhere with a flourish, like airborne acrobats.
The writer of fiction—or of serious, literary nonfiction—must step away from that automatic urge to be clever. She must instead show what is true—however painful, homely, or unsolvable—as clearly and accurately as artistically possible. This takes a lifetime, and is never done. And its results change the artist inwardly, in a way that is light years different from what cleverness did.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.