I don’t remember exactly what I was saying. Maybe I was describing, elaborately and casually, exactly where the story came from, what real-life elements I had used.
My wise teacher looked at me with a kind of startled dismay.
“Joan!” She spoke sternly, quickly.
“Wear your heart on your sleeve,” she said.
“But not your writing.”
It was an injunction I’ve never forgotten. It didn’t hurt me at the time, so much as stop me short. I had to think about why she was telling me this.
In subsequent years, I’ve understood. I was nullifying the story by yammering on about it. I was making the story itself unnecessary. Gushing pup that I was, I didn’t know that.
But it’s for that reason I passionately wish that more writers would—you’ll forgive this—please shut up, in social media and elsewhere, about the intimate details of their processes.
What can it serve anyone, never mind fellow writers, to hear the blow-by-blow? “I conquered a difficult plot point today” or “Got my thousand words and now I’m opening a beer (going for a run, taking a bath, feeding the dog).
These statements do not inspire or enlighten. Writing is not a race.
The product—the book, the story, the essay too—is a dream. If you show the world, daily, every stitch and knot and lump during the weaving of that dream, what magic can the dream hold when it finally emerges?
It isn’t a dream anymore. It’s something else. It’s a public project.
Don Delillo once famously noted (I am paraphrasing): “What’s the point of art if you explain it all away?”
He also said (quoting): “If you reveal everything, bare every feeling, ask for understanding, you lose something crucial to your sense of yourself. You need to know things that others don’t know. It’s what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself.”
I would add: “ . . . and that lets you make compelling work.”
It’s an old caveat, but true: when you talk too much about work in progress, you drain it of its juju, its secret heart, all its mysterious, untried potential. It takes just a bit of discipline to fermer la bouche.
The rewards come in your private rapport with the work itself.
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.