"Writing a memoir and publishing a memoir are two different things. You have to save consideration for others [whom you're writing about] before the end--not while you're writing."
The award-winning writer, editor and book reviewer was February's featured speaker at the Writers Forum, where she brought her own Q & A based on prior questions audiences have asked "or should have asked."
Addressing the writing process, she assured it's okay at first not to know what you're writing about, as the topic will reveal itself. She suggested starting with a scene, a physical description of the concrete world. Then 'what did you see?' leads to what was said, how you felt, etc.
"A first draft is like having a conversation with yourself. Don't censor or over-think it," she warned.
Lefkowitz has published essays in The Sun, Tin House and Utne Reader, as well as articles in a variety of commercial magazines. But she claims writing a book was an entirely different process than creating the self-contained structure of a short piece she was accustomed to.
In fact, she hadn't initially set out to write a book at all -- a process that took ten years to complete. Initially, encouraged by her writing group to tell stories about her own life, she started constructing personal essays one at a time. "I had no idea it would lead to more," she says.
With four personal essays eventually published in The Sun (she now teaches their writing workshops at Esalen along with poet Ellen Bass and others), she developed enough essays for a book. But when she was rejected by 25 publishers she realized her series of topical essays without a narrative arc or plot didn't necessarily "add up to something." Faced with the dilemma of how to deconstruct their thematic structure and re-piece them together--"cutting into that and putting it in chronological order"--Lefkowitz put the project away for a year before she felt ready to tackle it again.
"If I'd thought this book was just a about me, I wouldn't have written it," she says, adding that many readers have responded to one of its central themes--deprivation. According to her website:
"At the age of seven, Frances Lefkowitz began to realize other people had things that she did not and might never have. This was the moment when the world divided in two, between the Haves and the Have Nots. It was also the moment that launched her on a lifelong examination of what it really means to have and have not–not just financially, but emotionally and culturally as well."After reading a lovely excerpt that captured scenes of a San Francisco childhood in vivid detail, she answered her own question of how to do it: "Meditate on a place and time. I go back into the character of who I was then and let these details emerge."
Lefkowitz says it's okay to be unsure of exact detail. (It's unlikely you'll remember dialogue verbatim or the exact design of a dress shirt from when you were five.) For example, in one scene she wrote of specific pants her mother wore: "If you're almost certain -- if you know mom had those pants and would have worn them, it's okay." In other words, write what feels true to the best of your ability.
Usually one not to remember anything a person wore, I did happen to note she stood in a striped sweater dress with scarf, stockings and a wonderful pair of shiny brown patent leather heeled Mary Jane-style shoes -- not to be confused with the pair featured on her blog paper in my shoe.
As a freelance writer whose work has been edited hundreds of times to fit a magazine's style, Lefkowitz encourages writers to be less sensitive to critique: "The more you write, maybe the less attached you'll be to every word, and take a more neutral stance to the work."
Before then, she says, you've got to just open up that creative channel and let the writing flow.
Frances Lefkowitz recommends reading the following (the last two are some of my favorite reads):
- anything by Mary Karr, poet and author of The Liars' Club, Cherry and Lit (for poetic language and vivid scenes)
- Boys of My Youth by Jo Anne Beard (less chronological in structure, each chapter reads like an essay)
- Hungry For the World by Kim Barnes
- Please Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
- An Angel at My Table, part of an extraordinary memoir trilogy (and excellent film adaptation) by Janet Frame, acclaimed New Zealand poet and fiction author