Michael Frank on the Hard Work of Waiting and Making it to the Other Side
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story from Macmillan Podcasts. When I wrote about the two-person book club my mother and I formed when she was dying of pancreatic cancer, I mentioned some of her reading habits. One of them was that my mother always read the ends of books first: She couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen. When it was published, I soon learned that there are three kinds of people in the world: People who read the ends of books first, people who don’t, and people who don’t and are absolutely horrified that anyone would.
I do not read the ends of books first—I make myself wait. Though I’m not one of those who are horrified. I think you should read however you like. But I recently came across a study that vindicates my mother and her tribe of book-ending-readers—it turns out that people like my mother enjoy reading more because they can savor every page; they aren’t racing to the end. And recently I got to talking about waiting, and about pausing as we careen through life, with today’s guest.
Michael Frank: I’m Michael Frank and I’m the author of The Mighty Franks, a memoir, and What is Missing?, a novel.
WS: Michael Frank is a prolific essayist and short story writer, too. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. He recently wrote an essay for Time Magazine on what he learned about waiting from the years he and his wife spent in what he calls the land of infertility. He was a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times Book Review for nearly a decade.
MF: I was born into a family in Los Angeles, in Laurel Canyon, where my parents and my aunt and uncle were siblings. So, brother and sister married sister and brother. The older couple, my aunt and uncle—Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.—were fairly well known Hollywood screenwriters. Worldly, cultivated, glamorous, gifted. Multiply gifted in the case of my aunt, who longed for one thing in their lives, which was to have a child and they never did. And so they “borrowed” me in quotation marks from my parents—psychologically, you could say, sometimes actually physically. But in ways that ended up having enormous repercussions for me in my life.
WS: Michael became a vessel for his aunt and uncle’s creative ambitions.
MF: And the two of them basically look to every young person in the family and said, you will be a novelist. It was a decree. You will become the thing that I have not become was the subtext. The expectations were high, the standards were high, the hierarchy was fixed, the reading list was set. There were do’s and don’ts. You read Proust, but never de Beauvoir. You read Faulkner, but never Hemingway. You admired Virginia Woolf, of course. Katherine Mansfield, without a doubt. Dorothy Parker, never. And it was not an easy thing to grow up in an ambiance with so much opinion, literary, aesthetic, architectural, psychological, cinematic, theatrical—being doled out over every meal and during every conversation.
WS: Were you an anxious kid?
MF: That would be an understatement, I think, Will. Yes, I was highly anxious. I was of course a misfit because between the sketchbook under one arm and Jane Austen under the other. You can only imagine the schoolyard of the 1970s. The conformist mentality that prevailed. I was not really very sporty. I was odd looking, odd behaving. I spoke in full sentences; full, semi-coherent (I hope), fairly intelligent, therefore highly obnoxious sentences. I didn’t listen to a lot of music. I didn’t eventually smoke pot. I was basically in my room, as my wife says, reading Virginia Woolf for the first 40 years of my life.
WS: When you say odd looking, what parts of your physical appearance were you not happy with?
MF: That’s such a funny question. Oh, I had this—I don’t like this term, but I wrote it. I used it in The Mighty Franks—I had a ‘Jew fro’, a mop of enormous, curly, dry, unruly hair that the director Marty Ritt, when I went on location to see my aunt and uncle filming their movies as I often did, called a ‘fright wig’. And I think that the hair was somehow expressing something internal in the fact that I didn’t tame it, that I didn’t want to cut it. Of course no one was cutting their hair then, anyway. But that I didn’t think about it except to let it just continue to expand in the world. Probably as I wished my personality could.
WS: When Michael looks back on his childhood, he recalls other traits as well.
MF: In addition to the hair, I have my eyes. I think that my eyes and my ears were what ended up saving me, I understand now, from feeling totally trapped in this really in its way kind of Gothic atmosphere because I was a big eavesdropper, a big note taker. I made secret drawings. I once made a drawing of my aunt and my grandmother having an argument about a screenplay as it happened. And when my aunt saw it, she accidentally threw it out with the breakfast tray that she was serving my grandmother. And it was my desperate need to understand what made these people, what made this world into which I found myself born—you might even say trapped—in a way that I’m sure made me a writer. I did have the sense growing up that I was born into a book that I hadn’t written or you could say in a movie that I wasn’t, of which I wasn’t the director. It’s a very strange sensation to feel so many, such a strong narrative voice imposed on your childhood that isn’t your own.
WS: He remembers one particularly vivid incident when he first began to make his voice heard.
MF: We spent our summers in the Pacific Northwest in a small coastal town just north of Astoria, Oregon because my family on that side had grown up in Portland and my great grandparents summered on this, this peninsula, this rough, wind swept, stormy dangerous beach. The opposite of a Southern California beach. And in this, these periods of the summer, we lived in even closer quarters with my aunt and uncle. My parents and my aunt and uncle rented these two cottages that had a common wall and were the mirror images of each other. My aunt took over, saying that it was a help to my mother. She would do all the cooking, the planning, the organizing, and she would, she was a great cook and she made festivity wherever she went. There was a great deal about her that was very positive.I spent about six or seven years trying to write my family’s story as a novel and I poured everything I had into that book.
And she made these amazing dinners. But one night she made this amazing dinner with a mountain of dishes, as usual, on the night that there was going to be this big fireworks display July 4th at the beach. And I very tentatively wondered aloud whether we might use paper plates this particular evening because of course there were no dishwashers in these little cabins, and she simply went ballistic. No one had ever questioned the way she did things to that degree. And she exploded. She raged, she lit cigarettes, which she only did when she was in a story conference pitching a story to a producer or a director. And that was a major turning point. My middle brother with his very dry sense of irony called it ‘The Paper Plate Incident’. And things were never quite the same after that, although it took many more incidents with their own names to unfold afterward before we were set free from this particular fairy tale.
WS: When we come back from the break, Michael learns to let life happen at its own pace as he discovers a classic work of modern Buddhist teachings at a time when he needs it the most.
WS: Michael went to college at UCLA and Cornell. He spent his 20s and 30s as a freelance journalist before joining the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He would return to his youth, though, as he tried to write his first book—which would only much later become the memoir called The Mighty Franks.
MF: I spent about six or seven years trying to write my family’s story as a novel and I poured everything I had into that book. I wrote a thousand pages easily. I rewrote it, I cut it, I gave it to my agent at the time. It went out into the world. It was the thing I wanted more than anything in life, was to be the author of a novel based on my family that was going to set me free from my family’s story. And almost to a reader, the reaction was, “Well, this is very nice, but this figure of the aunt is just not credible. No one liked this exists in real life. Be gone with you, young Michael.” And it was an absolutely devastating experience: the degree of that rejection, the entirety of that rejection of that book. With a great deal of distance, I can see now that the book probably had other problems. I was not sufficiently removed or objective yet. I had not had enough life under me yet to be able to tell that story with the kind of perspective and maturity that it needed to be told. But I pretty much fell apart at the rejection of that book.
WS: In this moment, he was handed a book that would lead him down a new path.
MF: I was first introduced to Pema . . .
WS: That’s Pema Chödrön, an Ameircan Tibetan Buddhist monk who writes on meditation and spirituality.
MF: . . .by my friend Maureen Harkin, who is a professor of 18th century English literature at Reed College—curiously a very rational person who was then trying to remake her mind with Buddhism. And she put this book in my hands and said, “You know, I think this might be of some use to you, Michael…”—comma. Michael—exclamation point—is probably how that was punctuated.
WS: She’d handed him Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart.
MF: I opened this book and began to read it and I began to understand very slowly and with great difficulty that our mind can be reshaped. We don’t have to always repeat the same patterns of thinking, reacting, and overreacting that we grow up with. One of her precepts is that it’s very important for us to drop the story. Now this is a very curious thing for a writer to be drawn to. And in fact, part of the paradoxical attraction of Pema and her writing for me is this idea that there is another way to do things. Another one, a key one, is simply to pause. To pause before you react. I’m not an unverbal person. I am not an unreactive person and I’m not an unfeeling person. But it doesn’t mean simply because you react, you feel, or you have the language that you really need to act on, speak aloud or give yourself over to that moment of emotion. If you pause, many good things will happen.I think waiting is like an opportunity for the biggest projections that we have—for us to project all of our worries and fears into that empty chasm.
WS: The principles might seem simple, but remembering to practice them is not easy.
MF: I really don’t like to wait. I don’t know anyone who really likes to wait, except for maybe the Pemas of the world. I have found waiting to be one of the most agonizing experiences out there. Not waiting to buy your coffee in the morning or waiting to get on the train uptown, but waiting for news, waiting for something you want and yearn for. Waiting for a problem to resolve, often medical. Waiting for someone to react to your work—really not fun. The editors of the world who are busy dudes and gals, I think unless they’re writers, don’t really know what that’s like when you’ve handed something in and the hours go ticking by, second by second.
I think waiting is like an opportunity for the biggest projections that we have—for us to project all of our worries and fears into that empty chasm of waiting more than we do elsewhere in life and waiting is very much at the center of this book that I’ve written called What is Missing? The female protagonist, Costanza Ansaldo, is a woman turning 40 who, after a period of believing that she never wanted to have a child wakes up one day, not abruptly one day, but evolves into an understanding that she does after all deeply want to be a mother and the book tells the story among other stories of her quest for this missing baby. There are many missing elements in the book: missing people, who either died in the Holocaust, or in the case of her father who died by suicide, or in the case of the male protagonist’s wife left him in a divorce. But more centrally missing from her life is this longed for and yearned for child, which she feels she needs in order to be complete.
WS: It was a sense of yearning that Michael was all too familiar with.
MF: I didn’t wake up one day and think, “Oh, I’ll write a book about infertility, why not?” My wife and I, among some of our other life adventures, had a great deal of trouble conceiving our child. And we knew and lived firsthand what it is to long for a baby. And we had three miscarriages. We had several rounds of IVF, and at each step in all of those adventures in what I call the land of infertility, you find yourself in the actual or metaphorical waiting room, which is one of the toughest spaces to be in for me. And as we were going through this experience, I returned to a habit I had as a child. And as a young, as an adolescent and a young man, I observed. It was the only thing I could think to do, to calm my mind, to feel that I could actively do something with this experience.
I took notes, I eavesdropped not on my aunt and uncle or my grandmothers, but on these women, these men, these couples who are going through very much the same experience that we were going through, but who never spoke to one another, which I found so bizarre. These silent waiting rooms with everyone in them wanting the same thing. When do we ever have that? Maybe when you go to an audition as an actor, but you’re competing there right in in this waiting room, you can’t compete with those other couples. It’s you against biology. It’s you against chemistry. It’s you against your body. It’s you against the fates. It’s you against the unknown. And I thought if we get through this—and it was definitely an ‘if’—I’m going to write something about it, I absolutely have to. And so in the same way that if I got through my childhood so to speak, I knew I would have to write about it. I knew that if we got through this experience of infertility and infertility treatment and all this waiting, I would write a story about it.
WS: And were you able to summon some of what you learned from Pema?
MF: I used to carry the book with me right into the waiting room, right into the belly of the beast. I would have it open in the inner offices when you were waiting for the doctors to take their time with the other patients. And of course you could empathize with that other room because you wouldn’t want to be rushed through all of your questions. And of course we did, between the two lists, we probably—my wife and I—had 5,000 pages worth of notes by a certain point. So we had many questions. Again, trying to control the uncontrollable, very unfamiliar through language, through inquiry, through research. I would open Pema, I would read Pema to her, she would read Pema to herself, we would read Pema together, we would breathe. We would try all of those techniques and look, quite honestly, they don’t work all the time in the moment, you know, they’re not a fail safe drug or medicine. But it was something to try. It was something to help level off the anxiety, which is really high in those contexts.
WS: He began to find techniques that worked for him.
MF: You can read four lines and be taken out of your insane storytelling that is going on this crazy, not this crazy tangle, this thicket of feeling and emotion and language that seizes control of your interiority by someone saying, “Just slow down. Just breathe. Just remember that this moment is moving along.” You know she sends this wonderful image somewhere about how you can stand in a doorway and see the neuroses coming down the road. See the provocations coming down the road. You can see them and that’s appropriate because it’s not about negating what is, but do you need to invite them in for tea or a glass of scotch or a bowl of pasta? No. Do you need to go to bed with them? No. You can just wave at them and see them go by. I probably invoke that image 1400 times an hour.
WS: He and his wife did eventually conceive. What Is Missing? Is a novel may have particular resonance for others going through this ordeal. But it speaks to anyone who has ever wanted something they weren’t sure they were going to be able to have.
MF: Waiting is lonely and it’s personal. You can be waiting together with your spouse, your partner, and you don’t have to be waiting for a baby. I think one of the things, some of my readers, early readers of this book have said is that, “Well, I never wanted a child,” or, “Oh, my children just popped out naturally. But, I really understand what you are capturing there because it’s so fundamental, the isolation and the loneliness of waiting.”
WS: He still thinks back to how the teachings in When Things Fall Apart might have also helped his aunt and uncle.
MF: When I first started reading Pema, I used to think if only my aunt and my uncle could read this book. If only they could take in this book, which is quite different from reading it—because, trust me, it’s probably the book I’ve given to more people as presents; just recently to a friend of mine who’s going through a really nasty breakup—if only if only. There is an eternally hopeful child in me that likes to think that, introduced in the right way, at the right moment in the right tone of voice, this book might have helped someone like my aunt. But at the same time there is a more experienced man who knows that even Pema could not have gotten through to the formidable personality that was my aunt.
WS: What mattered most, though, was the effect that Pema Chodron’s words had on Michael and how it helped him understand his childhood, himself, and his choices.
MF: My uncle was on his deathbed and I flew to Los Angeles and saw, it was like Oz, really the curtain being thrown back and there were just these two terrified old people behind all of that smoke and magic, behind all of that sparkle, that vibrancy, that energy. I had to become the adult to those children. I had to help them through a very difficult moment in their own lives. It still shakes me even to think about it now. I’m on the plane back to New York. After my uncle died, I opened a notebook and began The Mighty Franks, not even knowing what I was doing, pouring out of me. The response to those days, the months, the years, the decades, the lifetimes that seemed to proceed them.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Kristy Westgard. Thanks to Michael Frank. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on Lit Hub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at email@example.com.