Thaisa Frank: Yellow Pencils

I’ve known Thaisa Frank since about the time my first novel was published, and always enjoy talking with her about the very different approaches we take to writing. I’m delighted to share the news that her third story collection, Enchantment, is just out from Counterpoint. “[D]electable stories with touches of the surreal as well as many plot twists and surprises” Booklist says of it. And Skip Horvack, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, says, “Like many great story collections, ‘Enchantment’ … teaches the reader how to read it as they move through its pages and it soon becomes apparent that Frank is writing what she knows about–that in her varied, imaginative and often metaphorical means of capturing emotional truth she has created an honest, affecting and mesmerizing book, one that shines powerfully and unforettably with that wonderful sense of enchantment of which Nabokov speaks.” Don’t miss her latest novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, too! – Meg

The Argentinean writer Jean Luis Borges wrote a short story called The Book of Sand in which pages could never be found more than once. The Book of Sand never had a companion dictionary; but if it did, the definition of writer–the way the definition works for me, that is–would surely be in it, because it’s always shifting.  When I finish a story and am satisfied, or see the first proofs of a book, or even  (although I’m not supposed to care) read a good review, I’m sure that I’m a writer. But eventually there are weeks of false starts and bad passages and the idea that I have anything to do with the word writer recedes.

What never leaves, though, is an attitude of curiosity. So when I think about how I got my start as a writer, I have to begin when I was as young as four and liked nothing better than to sit at my little table facing a ribbon of streets and alleys.

“What are you doing?” my mother would ask suspiciously.

“Nothing,” I always answered.

I was completely honest: I was, in fact, doing nothing. What I didn’t realize was that doing nothing involved an attitude that’s essential to writing. I was content with half-watching, half-daydreaming and being willing to be entranced by what was unexpected as well as what was ordinary: The woman across the alley who kept chickens sometimes stroked them when she fed them.  A man on the boulevard always read the paper as he walked yet didn’t bump into anything–except once, when he collided with a woman wheeling a stroller.

A few years later I occasionally wrote about what I noticed. When I was seven at a picnic eating watermelon, a younger kid said, enviously: “When you eat watermelon, it goes around your mouth.” “Yours does, too,” I said. “No it doesn’t,” he answered.  This seemed like an important moment–something was left over from the experience itself and had to be put into words.  So after the picnic, I sat at my desk (the little table replaced) and wrote something like: Danny doesn’t know that when he eats watermelon it fits around his mouth just the way it fits around mine.

Part of writing, then–the acts of pausing, observing, and keeping records–started when I was young.  But at three crucial points I understood that they were part of something larger, something to take seriously.  Here they are:

The first is when I am eight years old. I am sitting on my bed, writing a story about a boy who finds baby birds and brings them home in his bicycle basket. It’s an unremarkable story and yet–on my bed, a pad on my knees–I feel connected to a large, miraculous world, far beyond my family.  It’s a sense of connection that has never ended.

The second is when I’m about thirteen and  (once more) sitting on my bed reading As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. I don’t know whether Faulkner is dead or alive. (He is not alive in fact.)   Nor do I know that he drank or had affairs.  All I know is that a stranger has reached me through a story and feel some crazy obligation to do the same thing–preferably to a miserable thirteen-year-old. This happens again when I read Kafka.

The third point occurs twelve years later. In the interim I have won prizes, published, and eventually stopped writing because there are unappealing parts of life–and of myself–that I want to ignore. Instead, I’m studying philosophy of science and planning to teach in graduate school.  The world has become an incantation of formulas and questions that can only be answered by science.

One day, however–a day when I’m walking on the upper West Side, wondering whether I’m really interested in these incantations–I go into a stationery store and buy a florescent yellow pencil with a tinge of green– my least favorite color. I walk out of the store, put the yellow pencil behind my ear, and realize I’m committed to being a writer: Years of avoiding writing haven’t quenched my passion for linking language with experience, nor have they stopped the delicious moments of pausing, doing nothing, and letting the world blow in.

If I hadn’t avoided what was unpleasant for so long, it wouldn’t make sense that buying a yellow mechanical pencil signaled an act of commitment. But given who I was, it was a commitment to what I considered distasteful, unbeautiful and far beyond my comfort zone–all the things that had been in the way of taking writing seriously.  When I wrote my first story at eight the world rose up to meet me.  Twelve years later, I had to be willing to meet the world.

There were–and continue to be–many occasions in which I believe and disbelieve the fact that I’m a writer. They include struggles with voice  (do I have one? how can I keep it fresh?) and publication (will it ever happen at all? will it ever happen again?).  But the most important points on the path were moments when I understood I felt a crazy obligation to combine the delicious passiveness of doing nothing with the far more assertive act of writing. As is true of everyone, most of my journey in Borges’ Book of Sand can never be found again, never recorded the same way twice.  But a few moments remain constant: Doing nothing at my little table. Thinking about Danny eating watermelon. Writing my first story.  Reading writers who reached me. And a fluorescent yellow pencil on a walk down Broadway. – Thaisa

1st BOOKS is hosted by MEG WAITE CLAYTON

New York Times-bestselling author of five novels, including the forthcoming The Race for Paris (August 11) and The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel). Essays for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Writer's Digest, Runner's World, and public radio.

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July 2016
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