Category Archives: Joan Frank

No Life but in Things

Because You Have To            Two lines from two famous poets come back to me whenever I think about the life of objects in writing.

One is the brilliant, beloved Richard Wilbur’s Love calls us to the things of this world, from the poem of the same title, a gorgeous meditation on the difficult (but desirable) balance between concerns of the physical and the spiritual in the human heart. The other, from the equally brilliant, beloved William Carlos Williams, is the phrase No ideas but in things, which was, as I understand it, a kind of rebuking manifesto to other poets of his time (quoting online analysis here), urging “simplicity of language” and the “precise placing of each visual element [as] an argument for clear sight in poetry, stripped of conventional symbolism.”

Those two lines re-awaken me, by dint of their beauty, simplicity, and joy, to the artistic fertility of objects, places, weather—all the physical incarnations of life on earth, including the inanimate—in writing. The way written things can embody what a writer strives to convey, relieves that writer of the deadening effort to spell it out conventionally; to tell instead of show.

This is why I exhort myself, in the raw hours of making new work, to pay ravenous attention to the physical world of my stories, to rove my  imagination’s eye around the street or room, and (like a Ouija board’s token) see where it alights—more accurately, what it alights upon. Curtains, walls, chairs, paintings, photos, trinkets, laundry, beds, food, flooring, light through windowglass—a wealth manifests before the mind’s eye’s slow-panning camera.

The writer’s job is to transcribe what she sees as fast and capably as she can.

Somehow in the very mundane-ness of those objects, qualities, and surroundings, dwells a kind of gold: what playwrights sometimes call the reflector, or (more simply and usually) concrete details. They help the story tell itself. Their effects carry the story into the reader’s body—because the reader’s body recognizes the things of this world, and gladly (in Sven Birkerts’ words) “bustles about” furnishing its vision of the story with those items. And once inside, like a Trojan horse emptying itself of secret soldiers, the inanimate thing releases its cargo of emotion: sadness, jubilation, bewilderment. A writer learns to trust her instinct to deeply (if selectively) involve the life of objects in her storytelling. Magically, she is made larger for it, right along with the reader.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust 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.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

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Take Three Titles and Call Me in the Morning

Because You Have To           Feeling lost and lonely? Need to laugh? Get hold of some Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, or Dave Barry. (Or Kingsley Amis, whose Lucky Jim surely remains one of the funniest novels  ever written.) Crave soothing? Read some E. B. White, or a book that tracks the painting of a portrait. (Man With a Blue Scarf, Martin Gayford.) Need a bracing draught of coziness-with-pitiless-psychological-acuity? Curl up with a pile of Jane Austen or Henry James—or for literary smack-pow insight, the essays of James Wood. Want the equivalent of a shot of absinthe? Wild Sargasso Sea. Seek American characters who’ll intrigue and compel, yet feel familiar? Grab some Elizabeth Strout, starting with Olive Kitteridge. Jonesing for a candy assortment, where you can skip around and pounce on all the dark truffles? Best American Short Stories. And please don’t forget the immeasurable power of childhood or young adult favorites for any malady— including that of the aimless need to reconnect with life, history, adventure: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Out of Africa; The Great Gatsby; Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte’s Web.

            (This list, of course, scrolls infinitely on. My own pulse quickens with literary lust, just thinking about certain titles I long to revisit for no other reason than that I love them foolishly.)

            My dearest friend and I fantasize about creating a newspaper column premised upon exactly this transaction: books as medicine; indeed, as some of the best, most effective medicine ever. The suffering citizen would write to us, describing her or his symptoms. And we wise people-of-the-book would advise that person, in a column functioning like a friendly forum—other citizens could scan it for helpful advice. (My friend teaches now, but she sold books professionally for some time, and still practices this prescriptive therapy.)

Artists and writers, naturally, are not only not exempt from the folds of the ailing: often we may be found slumped at their front lines, wearied and wounded from the good fight, pining for inspiration, for courage, for galvanizing vision and energy. Look no further, fellow pilgrim, than your local library’s or bookstore’s shelves—then follow your heart’s divining rod for the exactly the right antidote. What’s most splendid about this whole exchange is the vastness of the range of brilliant remedies. In fact I’m about to walk right now to my own local library, where three wonderful titles await me.

Nothing feels better.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust 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.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

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Fortune and Men’s Eyes

Because You Have ToSo I’m striding toward the grocery store the other day when, a few paces from its front entrance, smack on the public walkway, I come upon an elderly man seated on a folding chair snugged up to a card table.

The table bears a tall stack of books, and a few pens.

As I pass, he stage-murmurs to me just under his breath, the way (in coarse cartoons) sellers of illegal goods say “Psst!”—briefly flashing their visible stashes in the interior pockets of their opened coats:

“Want to buy a book I wrote?” murmured the man.

I glanced, and saw that the book appeared to be a children’s book. I will make up a title for it here (since the actual book is listed online): The Messy Mongoose.

Embarrassed and momentarily undone, I shook my head quickly and hurried past—as if this poor old fellow made a sight too shocking to bear.

Afterward, I felt terrible for hastening past. Even though I didn’t want the book, maybe I should have bought one just to ease the old man’s life, his conviction, his need.

At the same time, of course, I was abashed to the roots of my hair, thinking: isn’t this the bottom-line of it!

            Isn’t this, in effect, what authors do! Or maybe rather, isn’t this simply a radically basic form of what we find we must do—what we find ourselves, much of the time, in the midst of doing?

I remember reading at a local book festival years ago, after which I went to hear others read. I watched an older gentleman, who’d written a book of local history, preface his reading with the remark that he often felt, at these gatherings, like a contender at an “elderberry jam” contest at a state fair.

“Buy my jam,” he quipped, in the persona of one contestant. “No, buy mine,” he added, in the voice of an imagined, competitive other.

When I told my husband about encountering the old fellow selling his Messy Mongoose, he smiled wryly.

“Now there’s a story for you!”

He was urging me to make a short story, sparked by that vision.

But I had no heart to make a story from the poignant image of the earnest old man, selling and signing his own books—except to tell it here, softly, this way. It was and is, finally, too close to home.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust 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.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

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The “H” Word

Because You Have ToI made the foolish mistake of wondering aloud one evening, to a deeply and complicatedly gifted writing friend and mentor, whether her grown son was happy.

 

She looked up at me from her dinner with an expression like that of someone who’d just been waked from a long, profound sleep.

 

“What is—happy?” she asked, in genuine confusion.

 

Instantly I apologized, knowing I’d stepped in it.

 

You don’t talk to writers about Happy. You don’t assume anything in connection with writers (or maybe artists in any medium) about a simple term for an ideal that nobody knows how to describe, let alone inhabit.

 

But privately, of course, we pursue it—one way or another, whatever we conceive it to be. Even if we’re masochists (which it’s certainly arguable that most writers may be), we pursue the painful art-making because that’s what makes us happy. Right?

 

Well, um, pretty much. Yeah.

 

Because unless you have “a burning desire to do it” as opposed to merely “a wish to do it,” as the venerated author Paul Auster advises young people (in a recent, brief video for the online Poets & Writers), “Don’t be a writer.”

 

“It’s a terrible life,” he continues calmly. “There’s nothing in it but povery, obscurity, and solitude. But if you have a taste for those things . . . .”

 

Just saying.

 

Meantime, what makes me happy? Here’s the list. Exercise. Sleep. Eating and drinking. Music. Reading and always, always, writing. Riding a bicycle. Laughter, by whatever means I can induce laughter, with beloveds.

 

That’s about it. Not necessarily in the above order.

 

In fairness, I should preface with a few precious First World basics: living without pain, with enough to eat, in relative safety. Sleeping warm and dry.

 

I’m thinking of pasting the above list in some location where I can see it many times per day, whether I think I want to see it or not. Because too often I lose track of its essence: the startling given of miraculous life. We’re all so cavalier, so sophisticated, so sure of its infinite supply—until it starts to sputter. Then the bargaining begins, and the terror and the grief—what you might term the Death of Ivan Ilych stuff—unless (I’m guessing) we’ve strived all our years to keep ourselves as electrifyingly awake and aware of the miracle, as we may be capable of doing.

 

Writing and reading help. Thank the stars.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust 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.

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A Small, Good Windfall

Because You Have ToThree or four times a year I’ve wished I could unscrew my head, leave it at the dental office for an hour, go do the things I like to do and return to collect my head, unfazed and undiscomfited.

 

Alas. I trudged in last week, miserable, for my routine cleaning.

 

The hygienist this time, a young Mexican-American woman, was carefully pleasant as they always are, and again, as they all do—why, why do they do this?—began chatting away at me. Of course my only available responses were a series of sounds, dramatically inflected: ‘aaah-haaggh,’ ‘aggghh,’ and ‘ooghh.’

 

Somehow she’d caught wind of the fact that I wrote, and began to tell me, as she worked, that she’d just discovered reading.

 

Whaghh?

 

I’d heard correctly. This woman may have been in her late twenties. Her life until only recently had mainly consisted of the scramble to get through school, obtain her professional credentials, and land a decent job. (This is my language describing her process, not hers, which was shyer and more polite.) There hadn’t been time—nor any cultural reinforcement—for reading.

 

By reading I mean reading just to read: from wide-ranging curiosity, for no larger purpose than to enter and dwell in the world of the book.

 

It started for her when, one day, a friend recommended a silly, popular potboiler. My hygienist found, almost instantly, that she wanted more, and better. Potboilers led to more serious fare. Sometimes she took herself to movies after she’d read the novels on which they were based, to compare them. No one was guiding or instructing her.

 

I can honestly tell you that her joy, in having discovered this amazing, vast world, expressed itself like Helen Keller’s, at the moment when she’d at last divined the meaning of “water” spelled into her hand by Anne Sullivan.

 

My own misery evaporated. I scribbled (once freed) a list of books for her to investigate, classics that would transcend fashion and blow her mind. Out of Africa. The Great Gatsby. And because she’d read a Norwegian book that intrigued her, Out Stealing Horses. There were dozens more.

 

I walked out of that office with not only clean teeth but an excited heart, fired up by her wonder. Simply by pointing out for her certain beloved stepping stones into it, I found the same brilliant, multicolored Oz opening up all over again for me.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust 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.

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Man with a Blue Scarf

Because You Have ToSometimes a writer needs to be shocked into new, or different, wakefulness.

This can be accomplished, now and again, by studying artists working in other media.

The parallels often prove startling, and somehow the energy of the revelations hits us in a fresh way—if we’re lucky, informing the work we undertake thereafter.

Gone for a while are the tired vocabularies and earnest formulae of writerly striving: character, plot, structure, diction, verisimilitude, blah, blah. Instead: watch and listen as an iconic painter talks about his own, remarkably similar processes—and quest.

The tools, language and perspectives may have shifted. But the call, the drive, and the objective, resonate clearly. Eye-poppingly.

I’m speaking now of one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in years: Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud, by British art critic and curator Martin Gayford. It’s essentially the biography of a portrait-in-progress—painted by the famously scandalous and always brilliant Freud, who died in 2011 at the age of 88. Admired, deplored, driven, by no means an artist to be summarized simply, Freud was working (to my knowledge) until the last. Even to cursorily scan some of his work is to be dazzled.

Open this book anywhere. (Have ready a sheaf of bright-colored sticky-notes. You don’t want to mark these exquisite pages, which are punctuated regularly by superb reproductions of Freud’s works, and the works of others who influenced him.)

“I would wish my portraits,” says Freud, “to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter; being them. … As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.”

“In the studio,” notices Gayford, “there is an eternal present. Time stops. … There is no sense of hurry.”

Freud visits art galleries, he remarks, “as you would go to a doctor, to go round thinking, ‘Ah, that’s how that culd be mended. That’s the way to put that right!’ ” (This is often the way writers read, of course.)

And when a famous artist informed Freud that he could not “see the point” of Freud’s work, Freud was not bothered.

Italics here are mine:

It wasn’t as though I was producing a product for customers,” Freud told Gayford.

“It was something I was doing as the result of a decision.”

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust 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.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

 

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Hazzard and Greene on Capri

Because You Have ToIsn’t it odd how certain individuals appoint themselves explainers of another country’s culture to their own, native nation? They’ll go live in the Other Place, and then shoot back bulletins to their benighted countrymen and –women.

I think of Julian Barnes explaining France to England. Tim Parks explaining Italy to England (and by default, America). Bill Bryson explaining England to America. And there’s Rick Steves, of course, explaining Everywhere to America, in his cheerful, plainspoken Steves-ology.

Odder still is the fact that (in my view) many extremely gifted individuals cannot quite truly deliver the intangible essence of a place.

From my experience, you’ve just got to be there. In the place, I mean. Seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing. Not always, but often. Or so it strikes me.

You can read Parks complain about the new train station built at Naples, which on street level appears capacious and sleek and seemingly efficient—but which hides the below-ground wreckage of a falling-apart, ghoulish tram service to outlying towns, which is what all the regular Neopolitans (local people who are dirt poor) routinely use.

But you cannot really feel and understand the shock of this disparity until you’re standing in the shiny new above-ground station thinking, ‘Hey, Naples doesn’t seem so bad’—and then taking the escalator down to what looks and feels like hell.

One lovely and memorable exception to my above theory is the magnificent author Shirley Hazzard, all of whose work (novels, story collections, essays) brilliantly delivers a sense of place. In particular, her Greene on Capri is a masterful inside-look at a time and locale when writers could wander, dream and work with little difficulty in exquisite retreats like Sorrento, Positano, and the Isle of Capri—where Graham Greene lived for long periods and where Hazzard and her late husband, the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller, spent significant portions of their lives together.

They all met up when Hazzard overheard Greene quoting a Robert Browning poem to a friend at a café table; Greene could not, as he reached its closing, recall the final line. Hazzard, who’s memorized swaths of poetry in her lifetime, gently told him the line—“or so very little longer” —as she exited the café. And the complicated, troubled friendship began. (Greene was an embattled soul.)

Greene on Capri, like all Hazzard’s work, is measured and wise. Unlike many other such accounts, it takes you there.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust 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.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

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