Because You Have To: A Writing Life
University of Notre Dame Press 2012
Reviewed by Bob Wake
Joan Frank poses a stark riddle in Because You Have To: A Writing Life, her disarming and candid collection of literary essays. She asks, “What do you call a state of mind which anticipates its own recurring annihilation?” For many of us, whether writers or not, this is a chillingly accurate description of compromised serenity. “In usual fact,” Frank states, “few of us have the money to buy necessary pockets of stillness.”
The struggle to write becomes the struggle to wrest clear-headedness from the anxious bread-and-butter strivings and obligations that demand our attention throughout the day. As the author of three novels (most recently, Make It Stay), two short story collections, and an earlier volume of essays, Joan Frank is one of the clearest-headed writers working. Because You Have To shows us how she gets the work done. The roadblocks, sometimes self-imposed, are legion and Frank fearlessly exposes them:
I have long wished to dissect envy, in a naïve yearning to be rid of it. Writers like to peer at the forbidden, to tease out components of the monstrous; why not spotlight envy, turning it like mildew toward the noon sun to banish it? Heaven knows envy’s democratic enough; old and young, published and unpublished do their time on one or the other end of the strained congratulatory remarks, the sharp reconfigurations of the face. A writing teacher I admire once mused to a class: “Writers are some of the least charitable people there are.”
Acerbic insights are a hallmark of Frank’s fiction. Her essays are no less uncompromising. She shares with us her writer’s life of exhaustive day jobs and economic hardship. In an epochal election year when the widening chasm of class disparity haunts so many of us, her essay “Never Enough” has the righteous fire of an Occupy manifesto. Comprising 173 numbered paragraphs mixing autobiography and her own hard-boiled aphorisms on the themes of money and inequality in America, “Never Enough”—to put a price on it—is worth the cost of the book:
10. I disdained wealth, distrusted wealthy people. They seemed to prove my private theory: big money—though it gets things done—really, really fucks you up. Wealthy people wore a manner: the gleam of distaste in the eye, the lean-meat-and-white-wine body. I found them pitiful. I felt sorry for all they did not comprehend, for all the life they were missing.
There is also good-humored encouragement to be found in these essays. “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Rejection Business,” for example, offers Frank’s hilarious deconstruction of a form letter rejection. More to the point, she advises us not to fear the world turning its back on us: “Rejection, then, is like the wake of a boat: proof of motion. No action from the writer means no reaction from the world. To risk rejection is to risk reaction and, as such, a courageous step.”
Threaded throughout Because You Have To are warm and sometimes conflicted reminiscences of her father, a humanities professor, whose death came too early from a heart attack at age 54. (“He was searching desperately, recklessly. As if liquor and sex were large, clumsy keys he kept fumbling with, trying to fit them into a stubborn lock.”) Her own marriage to a college English professor comes under similar laser-like scrutiny, although it appears her husband was granted vetting privileges over occasionally unflattering anecdotes and recounted arguments. (“He has read these words and raised no objection.”)
Frank unabashedly shares her vulnerabilities with us. A scene of the author trying to read uninterrupted at the kitchen table is pointed and funny but also captures the awful tension between solitude and companionship that makes marriage (and, Frank is suggesting, the art of writing) a precarious balancing act:
I am trying to read a short Sunday newspaper piece at the kitchen table. My husband also reads across the table, but he stops his reading to comment to me. I make acknowledging noises and smile and refocus on my page, hoping he will be drawn into the section before him. He speaks again. I make the same noises and resume the same sentence I am reading. We have so little time together I cannot bring myself to utter, “Sweetheart, please, I need to finish this.” Because if I had my way I would always need to finish something, always need to be alone. If I achieved that—and the option to live alone again is always available, after all—I could not bear it. I love my husband, my family. Therein, the paradox.
Authors and books are name-checked and quoted frequently in these 23 essays as if part of the air Joan Frank breathes. Her enthusiasms are infectious and readers may find themselves wanting to revisit or visit for the first time some of the writers that inspire her: Martin Amis, Charles Baxter, Sven Birkerts, Robert Bly, Raymond Chandler, Thaisa Frank, Bonnie Friedman, Gail Godwin, Shirley Hazzard, Anne Lamott, William Maxwell, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Anne Porter, and Jane Smiley, to name a few.
“I wrote these essays in the grip of them, as serial obsessions,” Frank writes in the Preface to Because You Have To. A serial obsession to read these essays and share them with friends is sure to grip lovers of literature and seekers of time well spent.