Monday, November 19, 2012

TLC Book Review - Because You Have To

Because You Have To by Joan Frank
University of Notre Dame Press, 2012

Format? Oversized paperback
Source? The publisher via TLC Book Tours
*FTC Disclosure - I received a complimentary copy of Because You Have To from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.  However, the opinions and comments in the review below are my own and offered without bias.

Why?  I'm a writing teacher...and have been an avid reader and writer my entire life.  Why would I NOT want to read this book? :)

Cover? An older model typewriter and a solitary chair situated within what looks like one of the "writer's shacks" of old...what all writers covet, but few actually experience...or possibly a tableau of Frank's father's own studio.

Title? Writers write for the same reason readers read...we just have to.  We don't know how to explain it...we just do it.  We just  need it, and it fulfills us.  Perfect title in my opinion.

What Now?  I knew from the Preface that this one was a keeper...onto the antique bookshelves it goes :)  I will also spend another hour or two adding books mentioned by Frank to my WishList.

Golden Lines

Author Antonya Nelson once said that after you become a writer it changes forever the way you read, that a certain loss of innocence is involved, which is true.  At the same time specific pleasures obtain, that might never have been grasped in prior innocence (x).

Writing is thinking on paper.  And many writers undertake the craft in the first place because it allows them to think their way through to some new understanding or new question or problem - watch it unfold, feel it lead them, in the lines and paragraphs taking form before their eyes (1).

In reading or writing we imagine with free-ranging motion, escaping present-time constructs - a process which nourishes and restores us in ways we don't yet fully understand, much like sleep (24).

To reprise Thaisa Frank, "Being a writer simply means that you have a passion for writing bound up with the way you think, feel, and live, and that you find ways - even if serendipitous, mad, or chaotic - to honor that passion (35-36).

In the end, writing that has life in it can't issue from someone else's formula, like dance steps painted on a plastic mat.  Anyone with an instinct for the shape and sound and movement of language must somewhere in her heart recognize this lonely truth, and agree to trust herself to go forward, absorbing the advice that fits along the way, tossing the rest.  This process is lifelong (70-71).

That program taught me to read widely, deeply, and very closely, in the study of craft.  It gave me a superb list of works and writers to investigate in depth.  It gave me instructors whose words had weight because they were themselves working writers (73).

In short, rejection reminds us over and over of the relativity of authority and the subjectivity of taste (82).

It's generally understood (silently for the most part) that the frustrations of commerce and marketing form a special, separate chamber of loneliness for authors.  This is far different from the generic solitude of making art, which most of us happily choose (98).

A hand in the game, a voice in the conversation.  To think and talk about reading and writing is delicious luxury.  When I shape a review, I feel that I am shaping an intimate message (as if over a cafe' table) about something whose survival matters desperately to both the listener and me - not just the book at hand, but the cause of literary art (152).

We can fight all day about what is and is not the "purest" literature (and we haven't yet considered the blatantly autobiographical novel or the intensely novelistic memoir).  But what or whom would anybody's bloody victory serve? (163)


Frank's book Because I Have To delves into the writing life of an author...not just the writing part...but all the messy "stuff" that's inevitable in any life plus all the "stuff" that most of us don't know about the writing life.  Frank writes about her own experiences but also how her personal perspective fits in with literary history, economics and shifts in the publishing world.  

What I Liked

Frank pulls in other writers' experiences with her own and that of her friends.  It's not just comforting to know that Frank experiences what many of us do, finding a way to express our literary loves, but even much more established authors feel the same way.  Even very well known, iconic writers (Bellow, Fitzgerald, Agee, etc.) had to "belly crawl along a ditch under bullet fire" in order to write.

The theme of Just Do It.  Find the time, even if it's only in small increments (as you dodge life's bullets).  Quit worrying about how much or how little you have.  That time spent worrying could be time writing.

The integration of reading and writing - I'm sure there are readers who aren't writers and writers who aren't readers...but that's hard for me to imagine.  Reading and writing are reciprocal processes which feed off one is exactly why we (should) integrate them in the classroom and use both across the curriculum.  I personally loved the way Frank naturally tried in aspects of reading with her writer's life :)

The lists of other works, both fiction and non-fiction that I have now added to my own reading list.  One very important aspect of a book for me is that it leads me somewhere else...Frank led me to a lot of interesting reading material that I never knew was out there :)

The section on reviewing and writers as reviewers - anyone who reviews has his/her own personal "language" when discussing why a book does or does not work for him/her.  And, I'm intrigued lately with books hyped in the media and various reviewers' responses to them.  Frank warns against getting caught up in the hype.  Again, Frank emphasizes that the reader's perspective matters...even though the reader's personal connection or lack of creates subjectivity, that's not necessarily a bad thing as long as the reviewer doesn't attack the author unjustly.

Frank's vocabulary and prose-like language, is loaded with metaphor, humor, and deep thought...a "richness" that surprised me...but then, this is a book about writing as art :)

Frank's student perspective about working through writing courses with teachers who were actually writers and readers -  I teach freshman composition instead of the MFA that Frank described, but I think the same applies.   I've noticed an evolution in my teaching as well as my own writing since I've been blogging...and especially once I started reviewing for a larger audience.  Yes, as an academic I do have a few publications on my vita, but we all know those aren't circulated within a real world audience and many times are so full of educational jargon that what could be said in a few paragraphs ends up in 16 pages (ahem, the dissertation process), and when all is said and done, really looks nothing like what you initially intended it to.
Frankly, it reminds me of what one student said after reading a portion of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in our class anthology that semester called "The Turtle."  After reading 3 pages of small print, the student simply said, "Dr. Smith, why the hell couldn't the author have just said the turtle crossed the road?"
If I'm going to teach writing, then I myself should be willing to write. I should be willing to put myself "out there" if that's what I expect my students to do.
Thanks for the reminder :)

What I Didn't Like
**For this review, these are simply things that I reacted to somewhat negatively...not that I didn't like them as part of this book.

The chapter on money - I don't write for money obviously :p and most likely never will.  I couldn't help but wonder if a popular published author's life sometimes becomes like the life of an educational administrator who leaves the classroom and forgets what's really important...the craft.  I don't write many negative reviews mostly bc I choose what I read carefully...but nothing can send me into a spasm quicker than spending my precious reading time on an established author's newest work and getting the strong feeling that I was simply sold a product.  I can think of 3 authors off the top of my head who've made me feel this way recently.  How frustrating it must be for the author Frank describes...the one who pours his/her heart and soul into a work, only to receive the "cordial" form rejection letter over and over again.  Sounds like trying to sell your soul to the devil to me.

The chapter on rejection - who gets to decide anyway?  Frank compares the process of getting published to a lottery...and that just makes me mad (not Frank's comparison, the actual idea of publishing as a lottery).  As a matter of fact, the more Frank talked about the publishing industry today, the angrier I became.  No wonder some of that crappy stuff gets put on the shelves, big author name, you waited at least a year for a next installment, $26.95 for the hardback, and you hate it.
Publishing practices discussed here also made me realize how some of the lesser known books I've read this year, published by smaller companies, have been some of the best.  

Overall Recommendation

One of her friends commented to Frank that she liked "cerebral" books...and I believe it, given her writing :)  This is not a "how-to" book, people, so don't expect it to be.  Frank's honesty, authentic voice, writing style and grasp of language may very well be for those readers who really like to think about/analyze (and maybe even look up a word or two) what we read. That description fits my reading preferences pretty well though.  I thoroughly enjoyed Because You Have To and highly recommend it to those who are readers and writers who like to mull over the nature of the craft.

The Author

Joan Frank's Website

Other Stops on the TLC Tour

Monday, November 5th: Becca’s Byline
Tuesday, November 6th: Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, November 7th: Stephany Writes
Monday, November 12th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Tuesday, November 13th: Kind of a Mess
Wednesday, November 14th: Book Chatter
Monday, November 19th: Peppermint PhD
Tuesday, November 20th: 50 Books Project
Monday, November 26th: BookNAround
Tuesday, November 27th: Let’s eat Grandpa!
Wednesday, November 28th: Luxury Reading
Thursday, November 29th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense


  1. This is a book that I would like to read, just to get the perspective of an author on the subject of his craft. I find the minds of authors so fascinating, and love to pick the brains of the ones I have met. I bet reading this book would be like having an intimate conversation with someone who is both accomplished and entertaining. Great review today!!

    1. Heather, you are absolutely right! This is sooo not a writing is just what you described it as "a perspective of an author on the subject of her craft." What I really liked was how she could discuss some of the more aggravating aspects of publishing her work with just enough snark and humor that it never felt like a "how to."

  2. Dear Peppermint Ph.D. and Zibilee, too: Peppermint, I want to thank you warmly for a wonderfully generous, thoughtful, encouraging review. It's thrilling to know the book reached you, and I dearly hope you'll consider recommending it to reading, writing, teaching and student-ing friends, as well, perhaps, as to seek out my books of fiction! Again, warmest thanks and good wishes, Joan Frank -

    1. Ms. Frank, thanks so much for stopping by! I'm honored! I've added your fiction as well as many of the other titles you mentioned to my WishList already :)

  3. Really enjoyed this review, Ph.D. Nice blog you've got here as well.

  4. Peppermint Ph.D., this sounds like a book that deserves a place on my shelf near my collection of writing books. I love cerebral books (and the subject matter, writing, is about thought, at least in part). :)

  5. Sounds like your TBR list grew quite a bit after reading this book! I hope you find time to read many of the books Frank referenced.

    Thanks for being on the tour.