Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review: Because You Have To: A Writing Life

By Jami Deise

November is National Novel Writing Month, during which participating writers are supposed to start and finish a 50,000 word novel. I’m participating – although I’m nowhere near on track for the 50,000 words – and so are several writers, both published and yet-to-be-published, that I’ve met on the Internet. So it’s fitting that during November I read for review Joan Frank’s Because You Have To: A Writing Life.

I’d never heard of Joan Frank before I was offered the opportunity to read her book. According to the blurb on the back cover, Frank writes literary fiction in both short story and novel length. She has published two story collections and three novels in addition to Because You Have To....

Because You Have To... is a tough read. Not because the writing is rough or uneven – on the contrary, Frank is a polished, emotive writer – but because she lays bare to the lie that all it takes is one success for a life to be successful. Instead, Frank vividly illustrates through stories from her own life that a breakthrough has a limited shelf life, that it does not guarantee a career, or even change one’s life.

The book is broken into sections of essays, and while some touch on the craft of writing, most are about how hard it is to write when the headwinds are blowing so hard. Frank takes a series of mindless 9-to-5 jobs so she can “write on the margins,” stealing time at lunch, on the bus, during a lull at the office to scribble down her daily pages. She struggles to publish her first story collection, and when she finally does, nothing changes. She writes her next stories in much the same fashion, and then a novel, which she also struggles to publish. And nothing changes.

For writers, the ultimate brass ring is publication by a major New York house, which leads to placement on the New York Times bestseller list. The smaller, but still acceptable rings are publication from any house, and sales decent enough to lock in a contract for the next few works. Never in these fantasies do we imagine that publication of one book doesn’t easily lead to the next.
As a writer myself, it was excruciating to read how hard Frank worked and continues to work. She wrote through a difficult childhood and while barely supporting herself. Married to another writer, she and her husband still hope that the month runs out before the money does.

Although Frank does devote essays to specific writing topics, including rejection, protecting ideas, and social networking, her own personal roadblocks make up the bulk of the collection. I finished the book wondering whether it was worth it. Certainly, there’s nothing in any of Frank’s essays – even her most disheartening – that suggest she ever seriously considering chucking the writing life for something more financially stable.

However, it made me wonder whether it was worth it for me. Frank has already published five works; I’ve published nothing, despite 12 years of writing in various media. Has it been worth it? Is it worth it to finally publish, only to find oneself in the same spot with the next piece of writing? Why do I keep trying in the face of so much rejection?

The answer, of course, is right there in the title. Frank knew exactly what she was doing when she called these essays Because You Have To...

Thanks to University of Notre Dame Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Joan Frank:


Unknown said...

Great review Jamie. Wow - I'm scraed to read it:)!

Joan Frank said...

Dear Jamie, and Dear RoadWarriorMomma:

First, I must thank Jamie for her deeply thoughtful, considered review. I was aware of the risk of dismaying people approaching (or peering in at) the writing life, but part of the energy and satisfaction of writing these pieces came from the release (and relief) of "calling the Emperor naked;" that is, of telling the unvarnished, sometimes deeply troubling truth, at least as I've experienced it, about The Life.

Jamie, your reading was sensitive, measured, and considered. I do hope, RoadWarriorMomma, that you won't be afraid to dip in. Believe it or not, there are many funny moments leavening the collection, and also a couple of pieces that are just plain pleasure: one describing the lifelong love of certain quiet, beautiful books; another amused by the eternal subjectivity of literary taste (one person's meat and drink is another's poison). Still another simply lists the joys of writing: the thrill of writing to find out what's going to happen next, the pride and pleasure in realizing you're still proud of prior work, and the most profound joy: that of "getting it right." (None of these joys, the essay notes, had to do with publishing.)

Again I thank you for reviewing BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO, and hope you'll consider recommending the little collection to writers and students and the just-plain-curious. Please find me anytime; my website is www.joanfrank.org. Warmly, Joan Frank

Anonymous said...

Wow. This title instantly drew me in to read the review ... and by the end it had me seriously reconsidering the writing life, and I haven't even read the book yet. But the title is right. We write because we have to, no matter the odds and despite the fear. And oddly enough, I want to read this book even more now because I think that reading about another writer going through the same stuff we all go through (albeit, she's been published 5-times more than me :p) is somewhat comforting. We're not alone in this journey. Thanks for the frank and honest review. I'm going to purchase this book right now!