photo by Jane Bell Goldstein
Interview with Diane Frank
by Michèle Praeger
Diane Frank has published six books of poems, two novels, and most recently an anthology entitled River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty-First Century. She is Chief Editor of Blue Light Press and plays cello in the Golden Gate Symphony. She also teaches creative writing—poetry, fiction, memoir, flash fiction, flash memoir and Language of the Soul.
Go to Diane Frank's work in this issue: Magnificat
Michèle: You are a versatile person! In your résumé you say that you teach Language of the Soul, a cross-genre workshop that uses poetry, fiction and memoir to communicate with the writer’s “inner wisdom.” What do you mean by “language of the soul”?
Diane: I see poetry and any form of writing as a way to communicate with your soul. During the writing process, if you keep yourself open and let the writing speak to you and reveal itself, unexpected things come into the poem, memoir or novel chapter. It’s a great way to access your intuition and deeper parts of your being that wish to speak to you. There’s always some trigger, event or idea that propels you into the writing, but the purpose changes dramatically while you are writing it. This is what I call “the left turn,” which is often where the magic and the intuitive wisdom come in.
One of the things I love about writing is that it’s an artistic and spiritual technique of examining your life as you are living it—with body, emotions, mind, heart and soul. Poetry, fiction and memoir written this way reveal the story of your soul. At the same time, art always involves a transformation. That’s where craft and everything you have learned and discovered about writing comes in. When I teach in the OLLI Program, I always share techniques from poetry and fiction to use in any genre. What makes any piece of writing exciting, along with what it has to say, is the language. The best writers in any genre use powerful and beautifully crafted language.
We all have a core story. It’s expressed in various ways at different points of time. William Carlos Williams says we write one poem all our life. The way you live your life is the story of your soul. The way you write is the language of your soul.
Michèle: Do you see a link between writing, music and our inner wisdom?
Diane: One of the beautiful things about poetry is that it enhances the music of any language. Every word has meaning, sound and rhythm, and I love the way the cadence of language is so essential to writing poems. Since I play the cello and am deeply involved with music, I’ve written many poems about music and playing the cello. Often, when I usher for the San Francisco Symphony, I write poems on the program during the concert. Images and sometimes stories come to me as I hear the music. One of my private pleasures is playing Bach late at night with no one listening and writing poetry in the early hours of the morning, perhaps after a dream with an image that sings to me.
Michèle: You teach creative writing to older adults and also to children. What shared characteristics and differences do you note about teaching people with years of life experience and to children who are just starting theirs?
Diane: The shared characteristic is that older adults and children have something to say that greatly interests me. In the OLLI Program, most of my students are older than me and have more life experience. Along with inspiring them and helping them to learn ways of writing that are more powerful and expressive, I learn interesting things from their life stories, whether expressed in memoir, fiction or poetry. I love working with children because they are excited about poetry and will try anything. I come in with interesting ideas, and they take them and run. Their poetry is amazing and I often read their poems to my older students. Yesterday, one of my students at The Brandeis School of San Francisco brought one of her friends to the Poetry Club and told her, “This is the coolest club in the school!” It’s like a secret society where they have fun writing and say anything they want. They love the freedom and write several poems every week.
Michèle: In addition to poetry, flash fiction and memoir, for four years, you have been monitoring a successful workshop, Writers on Writing. Would you mind elucidating the notion of “writers on writing”?
Diane: Many people, while reading a book, wish they could have the opportunity to speak with the author. There may be questions they wish to ask or ideas they want to share while they are reading. “Hey, what made you feel so strongly about this?” “What exactly did your mother say to you that night?” “Did you really . . . .?” Writers on Writing is a literary salon, where published authors read from their books, talk about their creative process and answer questions—whatever you wish to ask. A new author is featured each week, and I’m careful to mix genres. Some of our authors write memoir; others write poetry, flash fiction or novels. We’ve even had the author of a self-help book about relationships, which was a fascinating experience. After the Q&A, authors offer a writing exercise based on their books, with time to share writing at the end of the session.
Michèle: To play devil’s advocate for a moment: Do you really think writing can be taught? I find that listening to writers read from their own work, and comment on it (as they do in Writers on Writing) makes me a better reader and writer than any formal class would. Do you have any comments to make about this?
Diane: Inspiration comes from a deep place inside, but yes, writing can be taught. I have seen it over and over. As an example, the poet Michelle Demers wrote her first poem in a graduate workshop I taught in Iowa, has worked with me for many years, and is now getting ready to publish her second book. Writing workshops provide the opportunity and the inspiration to write. Many people don’t write unless they’re in a workshop, and many people who have wanted to write for years actually do it when they’re in a writing group. I love being witness to that first poem, story or memoir. And although inspiration comes from inside, the seed ideas I provide can serve as a catalyst to jump-start a writer’s inspiration.
When I teach, I share a lot of writing techniques so that a writer can express his or her vision and experience it in a powerful and compelling way. A few basic tools and techniques can change everything and put anyone’s writing on a higher level. I’ve spoken with writers over the years who take pride in never having studied poetry; some take pride in never reading anyone’s writing but their own. Over and over, I find these people making the same elementary mistakes for twenty years—things they’d stop doing in a week with a mentor. A good workshop will provide praise for what you’re doing well and offer helpful suggestions where you can be more clear or expressive. It’s one of the best ways to improve your writing.
Regarding your experience that listening to writers read from their own works and comment on it (as they do in Writers on Writing) makes you a better reader and writer than any formal class would . . . . It’s a good way to learn. Hearing accomplished writers gives you the gift of understanding the way they write, along with what they have to say. I believe that every writer has a gift for you, and this is another way to receive the gift. It puts more word paint on your pallet and shows you new ways of using language. You can then assimilate the gift into your own writing style.
Michèle: Thank you, Diane.
Go to Diane Frank's work in this issue: Magnificat