He presses his hand flat against the table and pushes down on it, making a show of effort. Slowly, his hand begins to move in tiny jerks across the table. “This,” he says through clenched teeth, his voice strained, “is what writing should be like.” And that’s what it became.
I can remember the night before handing in my first story for Frank’s workshop, sitting in my chair, going over what was obviously a mess, a story that had not yet found its center and indeed might not have had one. Big problems. Midnight, twelve hours until I was supposed to hand in. But what was I concerned about? Fixing the story somehow? Moving sections around, trying different endings? Nope. Maybe I should have been, maybe not. The point is: I wasn’t. I was concerned with the individual words on the page. This sentence and then that one. Was it clear how the boy was sitting on the branch? Did “as if rooted there” mean what I wanted it to mean? Was there a possible alternate reading for the first sentence in this paragraph? The second one?
What was it? Fear? I suppose so, but that is too general a term. Fear of failure, fear of being exposed, fear of proving once and for all that you are unworthy, lacking some essential quality: all of these are part and parcel of writing, of trying to put anything of oneself out into the world. On that Wednesday night I certainly was afraid of all of these things, but that fear was not new. The intensity of it, maybe – Frank is capable of being brutally honest, after all – but not the thing itself.
What I was feeling, I now realize, was excitement. Excitement because I knew here at last was the place I had been seeking all along: a seat at a table where I would be treated as a writer.
Of course mythology entered into it. I’d asked to be in Frank’s workshop because he was known as a hard case, old school, a man who would rip your story in half – literally – if he judged it worthy of that kind of response. During workshop, Frank would talk about other writers – Norman Mailer, John Updike, Raymond Carver – as if he’d just returned from a late lunch with them down at a private Iowa City club for badasses.
But it wasn’t just mythology, and it wasn’t just persona. Frank treats the page as a specimen, an object out in the world, not an appendage of the author but an entity entirely its own. One repercussion of this is, inevitably, a lack of concern for the author’s feelings about his or her work (a lack of concern that I found exhilarating). Another is the realization that the work really does exist on its own, and that once you put it out into the world it will have to fend for itself. This, then, was the real pressure. Not whether or not you received your classmates’ approval, or Frank’s approval, or some publisher’s approval, but whether or not you had received your own approval. You had to care about your work more than anyone else in the world, you had to know it inside and out, had to pore over it until every comma was intentional, every simile exact, every adjective necessary. I learned to seek that kind of approval from myself because Frank expected it from me.
This is what great teachers do. They do not just instruct in the particulars of plot, or narrative strategies or uses of points of view. They ask you the questions they ask themselves, the questions they do not have the answers to, and in doing so they pull you up out of apprenticeship and dependence and place you next to them. I count myself lucky to be one of the hundreds of writers whom Frank has lifted up.
Frank ripped me a new one, but I totally had it coming. He read parts of my story out loud to the class in a high-pitched whine and used French to indicate his total disgust. I was wrecked. He seemed to take such glee in ruining me. And it's not like I could say he didn't know what he was talking about: the guy had like twenty years of proven horse sense. So later, after I had time to think about it, and baby-step my way back to the keyboard, I just admitted to myself that he was totally right and what he was saying should have been obvious all along. It just doesn't feel the same to write anymore. It's harder and more complicated, but I feel much more capable because of what he showed me.
I was in Frank Conroy's workshop this semester, his last. When it was finally my turn to submit a story, I anticipated the workshop with the same mix of excitement and dread you might bring to your first rollercoaster ride, or your first acid trip. This would be a rite of passage, one of those tales I told and retold until everyone I knew was sick of hearing about it: The Time Frank Conroy Told Me How I Got It All Wrong.
Now, I have a different story to tell for the rest of my life. In this one, Frank gets sick and has to stop teaching, and I never get to hear what he thought of that story. Sometimes I imagine it was my writing that caused his turn for the worse – that what I'd put down on the page was such an affront to literature that he quite literally couldn't take it. This time, holding the story at arm's length or tossing it across the table just wasn't enough. Instead he'd stay home, give up.
Of course that's ridiculous, and I know it's not true. Frank never gave up on any of our stories. He never stopped expecting us to do our best work, and he never hid his disappointment when our attempts came up short. Sometimes he hurt people's feelings. Sometimes he yelled, or pounded a fist on the table. Sometimes people got angry. The owner of the Foxhead should probably have given him a commission for all the drinks sold on Tuesday nights to workshoppers seeking balm for their wounds. But Frank wasn't hard on us because he hated us, or wanted to hurt our feelings. Frank was hard on us because he knew the world would be even harder. Because writing is difficult work. Because he knew that gussying up his criticism in layers of pretty bullshit wouldn't be doing us any great favor.
So thanks, Frank, for the tough love. Your honesty and generosity were truly an inspiration.
Thinking about Frank Conroy, I'm reminded of a remark John Kennedy made to a distinguished group of artists and thinkers whom he had invited to a dinner party at the White House. There had never been such a collection of talents at the White House, he said, since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone. Frank is world-class in many capacities: as novelist, memoirist, essayist, critic, teacher, director, musician, and shaper of American literature. I suspect there's an actor in there too, as we won't soon forget his portrayal of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, or his imitation of the sounds of The Rolling Stones warming up. To have written what he has, taught as he has, and played with people like Mingus and Ronnie Scott, is inspiring. His workshop encouraged me to become braver about editing, and helped me on many levels, and his work stands as a huge and very enjoyable lesson in itself. But perhaps the rarest gift Frank gave me was the example of someone who sets the pace in several areas at once. He is a caravan of one. I'm grateful to have had the privilege to have worked with him.
Thank you, Frank.
Meaning, sense, clarity. It's a poem, as far as I understand what a poem is. At first you hear it and you're like, yeah, sure, I mean: obviously. Who wants to write anything that's opaque, incoherent and meaningless? I already know that, Mr. Conroy, so anything else to tell? But then a few months go by and the bit of obvious advice is still sitting there for some reason, not cast out with the rest of the used-up writing nuggets. So you consider it again. And look, somehow it's gotten less obvious – more meaningful -- by God, it's gotten clearer now; it makes more sense! And over months and years it goes on clarifying itself, but complicating, too, redefining for every new challenge -- it is the perennial problem, the eternal goal, not just some truism for rookies. If you are missing even one of these trinity - -your piece is BAD. BAD, damn you. There's just no way around it, so stop arguing. What you wrote is an airplane missing a landing gear. It's a two-legged dog. It's a body with no mind, no heart, or no soul. But if it has all three . . . . Among the manifold beauties of the phrase is that it applies equally to writing and to thinking, which makes you ponder the thin but definite line between them. Of course, Frank knew all this -- a great teaching mind chooses its teaching mantra carefully. He distilled it for us: the problem, the process, the solution, all in a three-word poem.
When my first story was up for workshop, Frank told me, in his sort of rascally, indignant way, that I was drunk on the English language. “Pour yourself another glass of champagne!” he crowed, tossing my story down on the table with a dramatic flourish. I don’t think I remember much else from that afternoon, just the unutterable humiliation of hearing my worst, most indulgent and convoluted sentences read aloud. Over the course of the hour, I sank lower and lower in my seat, shuddering as Frank lilted his way through a bevy of saccharine, overwrought phrases (crammed with words I once considered superlative—vespertine! crenellation!—words which now sounded unbelievably sloppy and inelegant). I was dismayed, inconsolable. Not because he was so cutting, but because he was so right. How could I have been so transparent? So publicly intoxicated? Here I was, at the most sophisticated school of writing in America, and I’d been exposed as nothing more than a blithering literary lush! I lay prostrate in bed for about a week afterwards, refusing to stir for even a round of beers at the Foxhead. Then, one morning, I snapped out of it. I threw off the covers, sat down at my desk, and started writing. The well of melancholia and self-pity had dried up, and in its place was nothing more than a fervent, consuming desire to work. I never wanted so much to be a better writer.
So, Frank, I raise my glass to you. Thanks for everything.
Between Frank being sick and me being afraid of him, I never took his workshop. But I did have a dream about him once. This was in my first semester at Iowa. I was shuffling around the Dey House on my knees. Some important news was posted somewhere, on some bulletin board, and I was searching for it. Perhaps it was buried under other announcements; or maybe it was too high up for me to read. Whatever the case, I couldn't find what I was looking for. This made me extremely anxious.
And then Frank came in. He was as big and jolly as a giant. He towered over me and I was terrified. But he crouched down next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, "If I were you, son, I'd be cutting the deck every way I could."
Only Frank could muster such influence to teach me something in a dream. I woke up the next morning and began a story. I've never had more than a passing conversation with Frank in waking life, and I'm not sure he has any idea who I am. But his example and legend have taught me volumes and for this he has my gratitude and admiration.
I have my share of memories of Frank as a teacher,
but his role as director of the program had, in a less immediately visible
way, at least as great an impact on me. What I appreciated most about Frank
as director was that for the most part he left me alone. Some workshoppers
were churning out books, but I was developing in ways that had, as they
say in workshop,
My last semester at Iowa I decided to take workshop with Frank again. The previous year I’d reluctantly signed up for Frank’s class, fallen in love with the old man, and then because of his illness, missed out on half the semester. I was psyched to be back with him, and this time, with his spirits and energies renewed, his game was on. There were so many great moments, but I remember once Frank was talking about Salinger: he was overrated, Frank argued, he was a writer only able to write one kind of character: a hyper-aware de-sexed man-child. That day, and many days, I wished I could have recorded the proceedings. There was something so passionate, but wistful too, about the way Frank spoke. So, we were all listening rapt, and someone asked if he’d ever met Salinger before JD went into hiding. Frank smiled. It turns out that once, decades ago, Salinger and Frank were invited to the same dinner party, and Salinger backed out at the last moment. Or something like that. He smiled as he told the story, and when someone joked that being snubbed still stung so many years later, Frank laughed with such vigor and life and happiness that I still have that image before me now. We had a lot of fun in that class, which is perhaps the one thing people hadn’t said when they warned me about Frank’s workshop.
I never had Frank for workshop, but I have felt his influence through students and workshop instructors who have. One of the first things I heard in my first workshop here was Frank's notion of “meaning, sense, and clarity”—that a story has to make sense on the page before you can really worry about anything else. I have often received feedback from students who have had Frank using the backpack metaphor; that is, writing a story is like going for a hike up a hill with a backpack—you don't want to put anything in the backpack that you don't need. I think about this all the time in terms of my work. Why do I mention all these brand names? Does the reader need them at the top of the hill? Why do I introduce this character by name? Should he/she be in the story backpack? It's such a simple metaphor, which is why it's a powerful teaching tool—it's so easy to call up and use while writing.
Last term, I heard at the Foxhead one night about a workshop in which Frank circled all the passive construction in a manuscript—the use of "was"—for example. Since then, I can't write a sentence using the word "was" without hearing Frank in my head, Frank saying, come on, you can do better; don't be lazy; make it active. This is all the more incredible to me because I've never had him in class, and I only met him once!
I'm not sure if I've internalized the messages exactly as Frank would have relayed them, or even if I have taken the “right” points away. All I know is that these and other “heard through the grapevine” Frankisms have been instrumental for me in my writing. Frank seems to come up more than anyone else at the Foxhead, and around Workshop tables. It seems to me that if you tried to add up the influence he has had on writers like me over the years—writers who have never even had him in class, but have benefited from his wisdom, experience, and advice—it would be, well, frankly, immeasurable.
I had Frank as an instructor for a three-week summer workshop prior to my arrival at the Writer's Workshop and this experience is mainly what I think of in terms of his influence on my writing.
I had spent four years as an undergraduate taking writing workshops where criticism consisted almost entirely of, "This is great language, I've never read something like this before. I'm not really sure I understand it but maybe that's okay." Obviously this kind of feedback is useless and frustrating—I didn't see what was so hard to understand. After a failed attempt at giving up writing in general I came to Iowa City and met Frank.
I remember distinctly a very young girl being workshopped before me; she wore black and sat almost folded in on herself. I remember her writing as being the dense and lovely sort: metaphor and rhythm and no discernible plot. The style felt familiar to me and Frank approached her work, I thought, in a mostly positive and encouraging way. He talked about young writers gaining the ability climb out of their own heads and onto the page and that made sense to me.
After a break my turn was up. I did not know enough about the Writers' Workshop or about Frank's tough reputation to be nervous. In other words, I was blindsided. He used cuss words. He shoved the manuscript across the table and off the edge of the other side. I almost wet my pants. People were rather stunned and although I am not prone to public crying displays I was on the verge. To be honest I remember very little of what was said in that room. Afterwards, as people were filing silently out he pulled me aside and said he would like to speak to me in his office. I am sure a similar thing has happened to his students over time and I am sure I am not alone when I say the prospect of facing him across a desk at that moment terrified me.
His first words were something like, "There is a reason I did what I did in there." And there was. He said that no writer can skate through a career on talent alone. He said that pretty language does not a writer make and just because I had received some praise in the past did not mean my work deserved to go anywhere. Looking back I know this was what I had been needing to hear for years. Over those three weeks he taught me about work. He taught me about three to four hours a day of the bleeding through your eye sockets kind of work, and further, he taught me how. Or began to, anyway, I'm still figuring the rest out.
Frank has scared the Hell out of me several times since then. I've seen him scare the Hell out of many people and I am grateful for it. His influence over the Writers' Workshop has, obviously, been immense. His influence over the writers who have come through Iowa City and over their work has arguably been even greater. But I might be lapsing into "abject naturalism" here, or "purple prose." I should know better by now. Thanks, Frank, the stories still struggling to break out of me appreciate it.
The first class Frank drew that arc between readers and writers. I've stolen it and now I draw it for my students in the first class of every semester. Lately when I asked if they'd ever heard of this, a student raised her hand and said Paula Morris taught this too last year.
Of course. Of course.
Here are the things I've pilfered from Frank:
You can only go so long before someone has to go somewhere.Here's my favorite Frank experience from the workshop in Fall '02:
Frank brought in a copy of the Charles D'Ambrosio story in that week's New Yorker. He wanted to give us an example of a story that wasn't "too long." (Becky Trissler's story, workshopped the previous week, was 8000 words.)
"Look," said Frank. "See how much it does in only eight pages."
We pointed out that the D'Ambrosio story wasn't exactly eight pages: it was eight New Yorker pages, in small type spread over several columns. Frank insisted that it was "whatever eight times 350 is".
Everyone continued to voice their skepticism.
"I worked at the New Yorker," Frank reminded us. Becky, who used to be a journalist, performed a speedy word count on the D'Ambrosio: it was over 8000 words long.
"All I'm saying," said Frank, before he changed the subject, "is that it's eight pages."
Did you know that Frank bought the Dey House when it was about to be leveled for the land and had it moved to the lot on Clinton Street?
When I heard that, I started to understand what it means to make a place like this one. It means you walk the house over and then invite everybody home.
It occurs to me that Frank's story is about stories. Better to let him tell it himself, then:
"You have to be in awe of the world that you create."
"The point of the story is to reveal, not conceal."
"Circle the things that cannot be explained in language that is clear."
"There is so much writing that could be good, but isn't, because it doesn't take responsibility for itself."
"How do you decide what is that next thing to happen? Meditate. Try to figure out the possible implicationsand try not to contradict the lines you've chosen."
"Good fiction is a conspiracy between reader and writer."
"Write with respect for the reader."
Outside of class, I remember two conversations I had with you very clearly. The first: another professor had forgotten to write me a recommendation I desperately needed. At the last minute, I decided to ask you. You immediately said yes.
I said, "I know I haven't even been up in your class yet—so if you want to see some additional work or something—and I know this is zero notice—"
"It doesn't matter," you said. "You're in the Workshop — that's enough."
You didn't even think twice about it. You wrote me a powerful one-sentence recommendation that made clear your support for me. I was in the Workshop and so you backed me without question.
The second incident: a few students in the Workshop had applied for an international fellowship—the Fulbright. An administrator elsewhere in the University had unsubmitted one of the applications on a technicality—without informing the student, who had submitted the application early and should have had plenty of time to fix the error.
Infuriated, you pulled strings to make sure the student's application was resubmitted—you had once been a Fulbright judge. Then, you took the rest of us aside and asked us if we had had any problems. Assured that we had not, you told us that if anything happened to jeopardize our applications, we should let you know immediately, and you would take care of it. We left the classroom amazed and grateful for the depth of your interest in our futures. You were on our side. And you were the Workshop Godfather.
I felt that unconditional support behind me all semester—even, or perhaps especially, when your in-class critique was at its harshest. Every time I sat down in front of my computer, I felt the silent force of your confidence in us. The heel of your hand pushing across the surface of a table, applying pressure. Writing is hard, you told us. It's a task that is a little less daunting when you know that you have Frank Conroy behind you. Thank you for all you taught me, and for creating that atmosphere at the Workshop.
Many years ago, I was a brand new lawyer, living in Manhattan. My boyfriend at the time was also a lawyer. We were both reluctant ones, having each chosen the profession not because we were called, but because it seemed like a good one for children of first generation, working class Irish Americans.
What was like a calling to me, and to him, was reading. Unfortunately, there was no money in it. So, I read on the subway, as I waited for hearings, and at any other moments that I could steal from my workaday life. My boyfriend always kept a book in his desk drawer at work that he’d take out and read when he could, hiding it in a larger law book in case his boss walked in.
I was reading then mostly biographies. One day, the boyfriend handed me a book. You have to read this, he said, it’s the best memoir of the twentieth century.” It was Stop-Time. His copy was old, dog-eared; he’d read it three times.
And so I read it, too. I still remember reading certain scenes in it for the first time; they resonated within me so deeply that I was able to understand better my own life as a child.
I realize now, in retrospect, as I piece together parts of the past, that reading Stop Time also changed me as a reader. I developed a higher standard for the books I chose to read after, demanding more of them. It wasn’t just the story that was important to me anymore, it was the telling.
That boyfriend and I broke up. Life went on. I continued to read and began to write. But my workaday life as a lawyer was not conducive to writing, either. I took writing workshops, for one or two weeks a year. My life made the most sense to me during those times. After two summer sessions in a row with Elizabeth McCracken, in Provincetown, she encouraged me to apply to the Workshop.
When you read from Stop Time recently at Prairie Lights, you said that it could have been published as a novel, and of course it could have been. But, because it was published as a memoir, it better illustrated how you changed what might have been the pre-determined (or at least expected) arc of your life by naked ability and sheer will. Your life as a child, elevated to that of myth. As a great memoir it said this: I lived; I fought; I rose above. I not only lived to tell of it, but to write about it.
When I received my acceptance letter to the Workshop, I remembered that moment when Stop Time was placed into my hand. I didn’t know then that it would be the first step in a journey that has led me here.
When I taught creative writing during my second year at the Workshop, I found myself repeating a surprising amount of what I learned from Frank (and trying to pass if off as my own whenever I could get away with it. Undergrads are easy enough to fool.) I continue to spout "Frankisms" in the fiction workshops for adults that I currently teach. From meaning/sense/clarity to admonitions against abject naturalism and unclear stories that leave readers building "castles in the air," Frank's teachings are incredibly useful and clear, particularly for beginning writers. I don't think I quite realized how much I learned from him until I found myself teaching what he'd taught me to other writers.
When I visited Iowa for the first time, I went into Connie's office to talk to her. She said, "Oh, I'll bring you in to meet Frank in a minute." Of course, within a minute, she had forgotten, and I never met the man. At the time, I was relieved because I was so terrified, but now, it's sort of heartbraking. The strangest part is to think of what a profound influence he had on me, if only in accepting me to the workshop. In that alone, I guess he changed my life. I wish Connie hadn't answered the phone (and done a million other things) in that one minute.
My first notes from last semester’s workshop are about the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg and the importance of sacrificing one's story to the workshop. With your glasses magnifying your eyes and twelve writers sitting around a hypothetical fire of fiction talk, it wasn't too difficult to associate a certain someone with the Almighty of the Workshop. And so we sacrificed our lambs for a semester and learned about the rigors of doing a dance with the reader ("but not an Apache dance!") set to tracks that, hopefully, create worlds -- wisdom derived from a lifetime of reading and writing: "we don't want situations or ideas, we want WORLDS!!!" And I'll always remember how I'd thought I was obsessive when I counted how many times a certain student had used "was" on the first page of her story (22), and how it turned out that you, someone with far more responsibilities and far less time, had nevertheless counted how many times "was" or "were" appeared throughout (327?). You transmitted a lesson that day about how distracting it can be to repeatedly use the verb "to be," sure, but the larger lesson was about "obsession." The student was somewhat embarrassed by the counting, yet surely will always have Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in her writing mind whenever she jots a variation of the verb "to be." Same with me, for that lesson and dozens more. But what will really remain is the pressure on the text knowing it’ll be under those critical eyes, counterbalanced by the understanding of the #1 jazz fact: it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. I have had many amazing teachers, but few whose presence will hover above my work like Eckleberg's eyes. And what's more, who would have ever thought that Eckleberg himself had once made music with Mingus -- what better model for a burly, semi-intimidating, driving, absolutely positive, unforgettable force?
If you'd like to contribute a letter to Frank,
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/frankconroy.html]
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