What I Need You to Know: A Conversation with Frances Lefkowitz
In this new monthly column, writer and Catapult instructor Jessica Wilbanks sits down with a diverse range of contemporary writers to take a close look at the craft choices they made while writing a single short story, essay, or poem.
Jessica: I’ve been teaching “Survivor” in my creative writing classes, and it’s a great example of how one can turn a stray anecdote into a powerful story with the potential to resonate with so many readers. I often use this piece as an example of how writers can reach into the future in order to communicate the full impact of a past event.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came to write the piece?
Frances: I’ve received more feedback on “Survivor” than on anything else I’ve written. I certainly never thought I was going to write about a pet. It’s the corniest topic! But then I had this conversation with my little brother. He’s a father now, and he has girls who are about the age I was in the piece. He brought that story up in conversation one day, saying “Can you believe Frances had to take her own cat to be euthanized?” The fact that he was still thinking about it made me realize that maybe it was worth writing down.
In her book The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick argues the choice of a narrative persona is the single most important element of any personal story. The persona in this piece—the child who walls herself off from her own desires—and, in the final paragraph, the adult who still says no when she means yes, is just so vivid. And yet I also told my students that I’m sure this isn’t the whole picture of the narrator’s life. Instead, we’re seeing the persona who best serves this particular story.
Thank you for realizing the narrator in the essay isn’t 100% of who I am. When I published my memoir, I met someone at an event who said, “You’re Frances? You look so normal!” And I thought, why shouldn’t I be?
When you write a personal essay or a memoir, it needs to have a central theme. That theme is absolutely true, but it’s still only a slice of your life. For example, my memoir is called To Have Not. The book began as an essay collection, and I had to develop a cohesive narrative arc to turn it into more of a memoir. After a long time, I recognized that the persona who brought these disparate pieces together was someone who sees herself as a “have not.” She doesn’t have money, and doesn’t think she deserves a boyfriend, marriage, a good job…that’s the connecting thread that ties it all together. I focused on that persona, not the part of me that can also be playful and fun. It was the same thing in this piece.
Can you talk a bit about your writing process?
The essay came pretty much whole cloth, because it’s so short. I did change the first line, and I added the last paragraph.
In its published form, the essay opens with this line: “The only part of this story that I remember clearly is the end, but I’m going to tell it anyway.” That line came in revision, after I shared the piece with my writing group. Initially, it had started with the second line—“This is the story of my final day with my childhood cat”—and as a result it was much more tentative. I used a lot of “maybes,” because I was fuzzy on the exact details for the first part of the story. My writing group pushed me to take the bull by the horns and make that blanket statement about what I remembered up front.
That first line does so much work. It also establishes this direct, no-nonsense tone that’s a good counterbalance to the more sentimental subject matter. It reminds me of something Charles D’Ambrosio said once, about how personal essays should begin as if you’re sitting on the bus next to a stranger, and all of sudden they turn to you and say something that immediately captivates you.
Yes, that first line is telling the reader, “Stay with me, there’s an interesting ending.” You’re giving the reader a little carrot.
In some of the workshops I teach, I have my students insert a line in revision that begins with “What I need you to know is…” or “You have to remember that…” Doing so helps the writer hone in on the key thing the reader needs to know to be able to understand the story. I guess I was following my own advice, in a way, when I wrote the final paragraph.
My students were intrigued that you gave yourself permission to write about something you couldn’t entirely remember. How did you navigate that?
Nobody can remember exact dialogue from things that happened years ago. But stories aren’t good unless you have scenes, and scenes have dialogue in them. You’re in a Catch 22 situation. Something’s got to give—either you are writing a bad story, or writing one that stretches the truth a little bit.
Different writers and different publications have various standards for this—and The Sun is particularly committed to technical accuracy. In my own work, I never lie about the essence of things. When people fudge events to make them more dramatic—that’s totally off limits. That’s breaking the contract with the reader. But sometimes you have to take your best guess about more minor details, grounded in plausibility.
One example of this is a scene in my memoir where we’re been evicted, and we’ve moving out of our house. My mom is packing, and I mention that she’s wearing feather earrings. I don’t know if she was wearing those earrings on that particular day. But I do know that she had feather earrings during that period, and she wore them all the time.
In this piece, I didn’t remember the exact trip to the veterinarian, but I had taken that streetcar ride a thousand times. So I imagined myself back there. First I get on, then there’s that shiny metal pole…
Details like that make the scenes in this piece so vivid: the borrowed lot you lived in, overrun with poison oak and desiccated walnut trees, or the the cat’s black-and-white tuxedo. I love imagistic writing, but in your work all of these details feel completely connected to your theme.
One of the hardest things for newer writers is knowing which details are salient. Workshop teachers are always saying more details, more details, but then the writer will come up with a list of lengthy physical descriptors of people that reads like a police report. I tell them that the more you write, the more you will understand which details are salient. In the beginning, I encourage people to overwrite. They can always prune down and cut back later on.
Jessica Wilbanks is the author of When I Spoke in Tongues. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Longreads, Ninth Letter, and The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII: Best of the Small Presses 2014 Edition. She lives in Houston, where she’s working on a novel and teaching writing workshops.