Hey there! Welcome back to the Book I Read podcast/blog with Michael Jarmer Writer Guy, a podcast where I talk about books mostly, books I’ve read exclusively, reading in general, writing, listening, teaching and learning. It is December; the holiday season upon us. Last time we spoke it was October when it still felt a bit like summer, unseasonably warm, forest fires raging in the Pacific Northwest; things seemed a bit topsy turvy. Finally, the rains came, and they’ve continued pretty vigorously through much of November—which is just fine. Feels like a normal end of fall here in Oregon, wet and cold. We even had a little touch of snow. It seems we have been spared, at least for a little while longer, the worst of the horrible winter storms currently sweeping the country. At any rate, I am glad to be back with you here on The Book I Read podcast in this most festive of seasons.
I have a confession to make, and conversely, a brag. Here’s the confession: I didn’t read any books in November! Not a thing, hardly. I read scraps here and there, dipped into a bit of Hamlet, read a few poems, but mostly, not anything from cover to cover. Do you know why? Here’s the braggy part. I was writing like a fiend. I participated this November, for the first time in my writerly existence, in the ritual we know as National Novel Writing Month, wherein, participants from all around the globey-globe attempt 50,000 words of fiction over 30 days. And I won! And by winning, I mean simply that I was able to chart 50,000 words. I have a working draft of a new novel. That’s a pretty exciting thing to say—at any rate—but it feels pretty spectacular to realize that I did that in a single month. In no other time in my life have I written that much that fast. It has taken me up to ten years to finish a novel. Being a full-time teacher and writing 50,000 words in a month are activities that are, you know, mutually exclusive. I’ve managed for a decade or more to write 30 poems in April, but 50,000 words in November was a non-starter. Until now. I have shared in previous episodes of the podcast this new fact about my life. In the event you may have missed it, I will repeat the good news: I have retired from a-32-year career in public education. I now have this thing they call leisure time in abundance. I cannot get over the gratitude I feel about this—I feel extremely lucky, to an almost obscene degree. So 50,000 words. That’s what I did in November and that’s why I didn’t read. But here in December, after a generous week off from any strenuous intellectual activity, it’s time to return to the good work of reading things and talking about the things I read.
Let’s hit the books, shall we? Or book, this time. I want to talk today about a new book of essays by Joan Frank. The book is called Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading. I love this title for a couple of reasons. First—Late Work. As a retired high school English teacher this phrase has a special connotation for me—it represents the never-ending teacher dilemma regarding what to do about student “late work,” (Mr. Jarmer, do you accept late work?) AND, the other never-ending teacher dilemma regarding what to do about our own late work, (Mr. Jarmer why has it taken you a month to grade our papers?) It’s kind of a trigger phrase for me, as is the word trigger, a trigger—but while Joan Frank attaches a completely different meaning to this phrase “Late Work”, it’s still pretty significantly germane—She’s talking about Late Work—as in the work one does late in life—still another version of “why couldn’t you have completed this “on-time,” you know, like, “when you were younger?” But the term also and mostly evokes the way people describe that work any artist completes in their final stages, you know, not during their death throes—but in the last couple or few decades of their life, after a long earlier life of creative output. Joan Frank might be a little older than I am—maybe not—but I think we have this in common—we are no longer young people. So, anything we do might be considered “late work.” The other reason I love this title has to do with the last part of the subtitle there: What I Was Reading. The Book I Read. Get it? Makes me think of Joan Frank as kind of a soul sister. I have read Joan Frank’s essays on writing before, and her travel essays, and some of her fiction, and I have always been somewhat bowled over with admiration. So, already a fan, I wanted to tackle this most recent piece, Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading, put out by the good folks at University of New Mexico Press.
This is a collection of essays which hangs together pretty snugly around the theme or motif of late work—but which nevertheless has an impressive range of subject matter: here’s a quick list: writerly ambition, friendship, writer’s craft, the dangers of fiction that proselytizes or the essay that self-aggrandizes, what it’s like when reader’s don’t like your stuff, letter writing, making it airquotes making it as a writer of literary fiction, COVID 19 survival, self-doubt, and finally where we find the will to keep on keeping on. Man, I think I almost got all of ‘em. I’d like to take a closer look at some of these topics, but first I’ll just preface it all by saying that I found each of these essays utterly engaging, thought-provoking, challenging, and maybe most importantly, relatable—to such a degree that I found myself in these pages over and over again—in part because I found much of what she had to say true, spot-on for me personally, not just because of the age thing, but because the ideas or the experiences echoed my own. And it didn’t hurt my response at all that her writing is beautiful, sophisticated, but personal—conversational and fun—her voice just resonates everywhere on every page—in the way that, in the best essays, we readers feel like the author is just sitting right down at the table with us—there’s an intimacy there that is inescapable—and warm.
In her brief introduction to the book, she quickly lays out her definition of what is meant by the term “Late Work” and provides the essential questions that drive the essays included here, the glue that keeps it all together. Inspired by the words of an aging Cynthia Ozick character, or the words of the critic Lionel Shriver regarding this character, basically Joan Frank, as a late worker, has these three questions: how can I go on? To what end? To what purpose? These are the questions artists may ask as they enter their Late Work phases (or any phase for that matter)—but they strike me too as questions that any thinking person would ask of themselves in the last decades of life. Any thinking person—or anyone who is trying to live creatively, whether they are artists or not. How can I go on? To what end? To what purpose?
She writes of “ambition” in her first essay, “What Would John Williams Do?”—a meditation on the subject spurred on by a terribly uncomfortable conversation with a fellow writer at a conference—he’s disturbingly “successful,” in that, he’s making lots of money as a writer—and he offers the cringeworthy advice that Frank should endeavor to write more commercially, to write books in which a lot of stuff happens. She’s able finally to extricate herself from this conversation, but it gets the wheels turning for her about “ambition.” What is ambition for a writer? Is it a good thing or an evil one—more aptly, beyond good and evil, she decides: it is an essential one—no creative person sets out to make art without ambition of some kind—the question then, is, what kind of ambition is your ambition? What does it mean for you? What does it mean for Joan Frank? The impulse or compulsion to “decide for the work repeatedly,” she says, “—to rekindle, enact, embody.” And to remember why she’s doing that. And, as a writer of literary fiction, it’s not likely that writing stories in which a lot of stuff happens in order to make big money is on her ambition to-do list.
In the essay “The Late Work Bylaws,” Joan Frank ruminates, surprisingly, not quite on the work of writing or composing, but on who’s along for the ride, the company we keep, the friendships that we cultivate or allow to drop away, the people who accompany us on our late work journey—and our perceptions or feelings or attachments concerning these people. Forgive everybody, she tells us, and forgive yourself. “Hella hard,” she says, which made me giggle with delight, as, I too, in my somewhat advancing age, am still learning the language of the youths. “Hella” is one of my favorites. She doesn’t come out and say this directly, by I infer that she’s suggesting here that those of us who can bury hatchets, hold no grudges, foster no grievances, and nurture our friendships are enlarged by the spirit of generosity that is required for acts of creation, for making art.
In this particular case I could not help but think about my own friends, my own companions on the late work journey—and my close friends are really few in number, especially the ones I live close to or see on a regular basis—but there is that community of mine that makes up the graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson—that is the deepest creative community of friends I have ever had or will ever have, I suspect. A more generous and trusting group of friends, especially with the care of one’s art, is hard to imagine.
Most of the essays in the collection focus on this theme of “late work” in one way or another, but some of these essays, maybe just a few of them come to mind, will focus a bit more precisely on issues of craft—the nuts and bolts of good writing, and a couple of pieces, conversely, that describe an aspect or two of the bad and the ugly.
In the first, “Lifeness Itself: Divining the Details,” Joan Frank gives us a meditation on a writer’s use of specific, vivid, detail—what young readers are just gonna call description, what Janet Burroway calls “significant detail, or detail that matter.” Joan Frank brings the discussion of this attention to specificity to a deeper level, I think, as she says,
“Good details work in two ways: First, they embody the whole work’s essence, like seeds or bio-samples. Second, they emit energy that pushes the narrative along like oxygenated blood.” –“They pulsate with spiritual density.” “Details must be felt,” she writes, and they must also be musical and rhythmic—which I can totally get behind.
Why are we captivated, she asks, by the details of one writer and bored by the details of the next? If these details, as she suggests above, don’t embody, don’t germinate, don’t push the narrative along, are not musical, are not sort of physically felt, we are lost in them. “If we readers find ourselves asking of a work, why are you telling me this, the writing’s in trouble.”
And she offers up two essays, “I Say It’s Spinach,” and “Naked Emperors” as windows into the bad and the ugly. In the first essay she calls to task fiction writers with an agenda, whose work editorializes, preaches, or proselytizes, because to infomercialize or campaign in a work of fiction debases “story.” Political writing is essential, she concedes, but not in art—not in fiction, where story, in the work of a writer who knows what they’re doing, is enough to communicate big ideas: Here’s Joan’s take: “story, with its imperfection and eccentricity, assimilates inside us almost physically as well as psychically: slowly informing body and mind; continuing to dwell in us in ways that tracts—however eloquent—seldom can.”
And in the second of these essays, “Naked Emperors” a well-known and renowned writer appears to be writing an essay about helping a friend through a serious illness that becomes more about the writer’s heroic efforts while minimizing the humanity of the ill friend, an essay that seems to be about self-aggrandizement and virtue-signaling–a criticism, Joan Frank admits, that not many of the essay’s readers even voiced–so the piece concludes with this fascinating and challenging analysis of the way in which good thoughtful readers can sometimes be hoodwinked by the shenanigans of a famous or beloved author. It makes me wonder and question what my response to this essay, had I read it, would have been. Would I have had these insights? I know I have loved books and heard really smart people tear them apart–and in those moments I have doubted my abilities to read critically. Jane Smiley’s essay on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes to mind! “Say It Ain’t So, Huck.” Look it up. It’s a beauty.
I find I am running the risk of saying a little something about almost every essay in this book. I can’t help myself. It’s a short book, and everything in it for me packs some kind of wallop. Let me try a few quick highlights:
In the essay “Your Baby’s Ugly,” she recounts painful experiences when readers were unhappy with her work. And, about the trouble encountered by readers, she advises that the writer “cannot feel obliged to solve it. Humans are too various. Above all, she must never, never, never let it puncture or stall or tarnish or poison or even shade her ownership of, faith in, and energy for her work.” Again, hella hard. But brilliant advice–no better. And what an incredible sentence.
In the essay “You’ve Made It,” Joan Frank butts up against the oxymoron of being a successful writer of literary fiction. You’ve published a dozen or more books with small presses. You’re not making a living at writing. You’re doing your own promotion. You don’t have an agent. You’re not famous. Many tik-tok personalities have more followers. So, no, you haven’t “made it” in the conventional sense. So why are you still doing it? Frank admits, no one cares, no one is holding a gun to our head. She writes, “we have to re-choose and re-choose: repeatedly, constantly. To borrow the infamous lines from Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find, we need to be shot to death every minute of our lives.”
“Make It Go Away,” contains reflections on living through the pandemic—what worries, what aggravates, what keeps one going or sane, but also calling into question that silly response from non-writers about how creative types might experience the lock-down—you must simply be in heaven. Uh, no.
And then here’s an essay not so much about aging as a writer, but aging generally, aging period. It’s a piece called “Another Art” and the first words out of my mouth when I finished it were “holy crap”—it takes all of the dopey tropes about how fast time flies and kind of turns them on their head, spins them around—or, that’s not it—the essay rather just says this thing in a way I’ve never heard or read it said before, the reality that settles in once you realize you’re on the other side of the hill. A jaw-droppingly effective essay.
“The Lonely Voice in Its Bathrobe: A Life of Letters” is one of my favorite essays in the book, in which Joan Frank explores her absolute and undying love of letter writing and letter reading, the mostly lost art of letter writing and letter reading. I just love her exploration here of the profundity of letters–but the thing that kept happening as I read this piece is that a kind of echo chamber of connection kept forming in my brain–and a kind of mourning of the loss of this art in my own life. Can I just talk about myself for a little bit?
I have written letters. My god, have I written letters.
As a teenager, perhaps the first inkling I had about the potential power of the written word was the love letter. I’m pretty sure I spent any spare time in typing class writing love letters to the girl who would become my wife some five or six years later–and is still my wife today.
As a young, fired-up teacher—ruminating over some catastrophe in the schoolhouse, I wrote a series of manifestos (I called them that)—open letters to my colleagues and bosses expressing outrage over some inequity or inane policy–advocating mostly for those who were not advocating or could not advocate for themselves–students.
In the MFA program at Warren Wilson, being a low-residency program, (the first of its kind, I think, in the United States), the conversations about emerging writers’ work took place through letters, letters back and forth between students and teachers. I had never before in my life felt so seen and heard by teachers or mentors.
One of my chief and current creative projects these days has been the culling through of letters I wrote to my brother some twenty years ago—I’m trying to make a book—oddly enough, not in the form of a letter–Joan Frank’s essay here is making me rethink this particular choice.
And the grief of letters not written or returned: a former student of mine once asked on social media for folks to chime in if they would like to receive a handwritten letter from him. I said, sign me up. This student followed through with a beautifully handwritten letter of several pages front and back, a letter which I treasured and have kept for years, a letter to which I did not respond. I’m still agonizing over this.
One of the last things I wrote about teaching before I retired was a poem: “A Love Letter to My School.” A poem I had the absolute pleasure and honor to read to my colleagues on one of the very last days of my career.
So I thank Joan Frank for her essay, “The Lonely Voice in Its Bathrobe: A Life of Letters,” for reminding me of the power of this particular and dying genre.
Let’s wrap this up, shall we, this longer than expected response to Joan Frank’s new essay collection.
It gets dark in some of the last few essays, “Ready Or Not,” the story of a book that took 15 years to place with a publisher, “What Are We Afraid Of,” a kind of terrifying catalogue of all that stymies the creative writer, and “It Seemed Important at the Time: The New Doubt”—an essay about a kind of creeping lack of motivation coupled by a questioning of the worth or vitality of our pitiful struggle to make art as we age, –all three of these essays describe undeniable and potentially debilitating obstacles—and yet, in each case, and in particular the closing essay of the collection, we are set a right and comforted by Joan Frank’s kind, compassionate wisdom. One of the thoughts I’m having here at the end, after having talked about so many of these essays, is that most of the realities Joan Frank is asking us to grapple with are bleak realities–to put it mildly. And yet, reading these essays I felt more often enlivened than depressed, energized rather than defeated, hopeful rather than despairing. How did she do that?! She’s a great writer–she writes with great humor and wisdom and kindness. She’s a great teacher–a writer whose breadth of knowledge about literature has one running to the bookstore for all those books she discusses we’ve never read–and she has this phenomenal skill at facing off against the ugliness while still motivating us to keep doing the thing: Because You Have To, right? There’s no choice. And you end up falling in love with that reality. Like so many writers who have become for her part of “The Action Figures Collection,” she has become for us a kind of literary action figure alongside of which we do battle.
The last essay of the collection, “Coda: Someone is Reading,” nearly brought me to tears with its comforting reminder that “despite the great welter of any artist’s despair about what their work may ever mean, –someone is reading (listening, watching). That is, someone somewhere is taking in that work. /Those specific someones may not number many. And their tastes may not be ours. But they are real, and taking to heart what they hear, see, and read. It’s entering them. It’s news for them. At some level it will be absorbed into them and carried along like DNA ever after; sometimes, also, passed on. (“You’ve got to read this, listen to this, watch this.”) . . . Someone is reading.”
Suddenly, that check for $.75 from iUniverse, or the $2.78 from cdbaby, or the $43.00 I’ve made over the last two whole years with this podcast, suddenly those figures meant quite a lot to me. I was over the moon with happiness to realize that someone was reading or listening to my stuff–and I know that my stuff has had an impact on those handfuls of someones–because they have told me–and I am grateful.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my 12th episode, the fourth episode of Season 2, of a podcast/blog series I’m making about books I am reading in a series called The Book I Read. Hope you enjoyed it.
Stay tuned for episode 13. Please come back to give it a listen.
Until then, if you want to learn more about me and the stuff I write and the music I made, please visit michaeljarmer.com or herecomeseverybody.com to read and listen. Look for me on anchor.fm to subscribe and support for as little as .99 per month, or as much as you want. You can contribute to the sustainability of this little endeavor. You can find my novel Monster Talk at Powells.com, amazon.com, you know, almost anywhere you can buy books on line, but support your local bookstore, would you please. If they don’t have my book, they can order it for you. Hey, and get a copy of any of Joan Frank’s books from bookshop.org or from other online or brick and mortar bookstores.
Thank you so much for tuning in or reading. So long. Be kind. See you next time. Cheers. Happy Holidays. I’d say happy new year, but I predict you’ll hear from me again by the end of December. Have a great winter solstice, will you please?