This impulse needs to be murdered in its bed.
One of the reasons for getting into The Life, quite bluntly, is the privilege and freedom and responsibility of the telling of truth. Not the sanitized edition. Not the high school yearbook version. Not the Facebook quip.
Though you’d think it understood from the outset that literary writing, both nonfiction and fiction, is the place where all politeness gets shed, too many developing writers hesitate. They want to be considered good people. They want to be seen fondly by family and friends.
That’s understandable, since we’re social animals. But it’s fatal to art.
In writing that matters, we must leave niceness out in the cloakroom.
I’m not advocating a Tarantino-style chainsaw massacre, which is—strangely—another direction developing writers sometimes feel compelled to choose.
But to elect to be in this game is to agree to say the hard thing, as clearly and artfully as you can. That’s all that counts.
(Annie Lamott said something wonderful about offending family and friends: if they’d wanted you to write nice things about them, they should have treated you better.)
You can deal with the fallout later. Sing and dance; point to shiny things elsewhere. All that matters is the work’s truth. That is all you owe.
I often rely on the fact that very few of the people I feared to offend, actually read. And if they wind up feeling offended, I’ll figure something out in response to that—or not. But the work is what trumps. Does this make me monstrous?
Then it does.
Remember Graham Greene’s famous injunction, that writers must keep a chip of ice in their hearts? No one loves being reminded of this. And there are probably more important things to be doing in this world than art. But if it’s art you’re doing, there it is.
Writers, particularly American writers, particularly American writers who happen to be female, need to practice channeling their inner monster. Let the monster speak. Let him have his say. This can mean a reversal of every energy we’ve been conditioned to honor.
Let him speak.
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.