Diaries, Journals & Memoirs
In her memoir, To Have Not, Frances Lefkowitz chronicled her experience of growing up impoverished in 1970s San Francisco. Here, she shares some insight on how journaling helped her come to terms with her past and prepared her to write her story.
“You seem so... fine,” a woman tells me after my bookstore reading, a stunned look on her face. The girl she’d read about in my memoir got into a car with a stranger at age 8, dropped acid at 12, and got evicted with her family twice before she was 13—and she had all the anger, despair, and attitude to prove it. Now here I was, all grown up, and doing fine.
When people who’ve read my memoir meet me in person, they often get that stunned look. And then, in the Q&A after the reading, they ask, “Was writing your memoir therapeutic?”
My answer, and it seems to surprise, is “No.” If I were still in the throes of that anger, despair, and attitude, I could never have written my memoir.
Not that we ever outrun our past, but we can, with time, love, and other therapies, move on. As one of those girls who carried a journal everywhere—because one never knows when a thought or feeling is going to overwhelm—writing was one of my therapies. My mother gave me my first blank book, a small black sketchbook for my twelfth birthday, and it became the repository for all—well, some—of my rage, yearning, etc. My mother had discovered for herself the benefits of writing in a book that only she would read, and she was also probably tired of being on the receiving end of all my rage, yearning, etc. It was 1975 in free-love San Francisco, our family was falling apart, and we were living on welfare and food stamps in a cockroach-infested apartment, and taking free dance classes at the parks department in an effort to convince ourselves that it wouldn’t always be like this. My mother and I had no trouble filling our journals.
But writing to heal, in a book that only I will read, is one kind of writing. And writing literature, composing a story from my life for a book that other people will read, is a different kind, with a distinct process and purpose, as well as audience. In my case, I had to do the first kind of writing before I could do the second kind. “It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments,” said Anaïs Nin, the most famous journal-keeper of all. Indeed, all writing is a practice in articulation, in putting observations and emotions into words. But by the time I began writing memoir, I had enough distance from the younger me that it felt like I was writing about a fictional character. I thought of her—and still do—in third person, someone I knew well, and could understand, but also question and call out and place into context.
This gap between author and character, this balance between empathy and distance, is crucial to turning a life into literature. We need to be able to tap into the experience of the damage, and also tap back out of it so we can consider the shape of the story, what fits and what doesn’t fit, and what makes it potent for other people. So, no; writing my memoir was not therapeutic, but the writing I did to be able to write my memoir certainly was.