“Florence Wolfson Howitt, whose lifelong dream of recognition as a writer eluded her until she was in her 90s, when the diary she had kept as a teenager was found in a Dumpster and became the subject of a newspaper article and a widely publicized book, died on Tuesday at her home in Pompano Beach, Fla. She was 96.”
— New York Times, March 7, 2012
Ah, what an inspiring story! Especially for someone like me who, too, has had “a lifelong dream of recognition as a writer.” It looks like I have been doing it all wrong! I have been busy sending my stuff out to all kinds of publications, when what I should do is take the millions of words I have written that no one has seen and throw them in a Dumpster.
Or at least I could just start with my diary, although my story would be a little different from that of the late Ms. Howitt. Though, like her, I kept a diary for five years, she started hers at 14, and I started mine at age 10. By the age of 16 ½, when she was about halfway through her diary, she was writing beautiful lines like “Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven. I feel like a ripe apricot — I’m dizzy with the exotic,” whereas the best I could do, at the age of 15, when I was writing the last of my daily diary entries, was “Stayed in all day and lazed. Accomplished very little.”
Of course, there were entries that perhaps showed a bit more clearly the potential I had to become the great writer and overall achiever that I am today. For example, a year before that “lazed” entry, I wrote, “Stayed in almost all day. Played basketball at (P.S.) 46.”
One problem with my diary that was not the case for that of the young Florence Wolfson was that she, smartly, wrote her entries in pen. So more than 75 years later her writings were still quite legible. I, not so smartly, wrote my entries in pencil, so that a mere 55 years later many of them have faded and are hard to read.
And while we both had five-year diaries, leaving very little room for each day’s entry, I wrote about the weather every day, and, on school days, what the school subjects were that day. As a result, there was almost no room for anything personal, not that I didn’t try to squeeze something in. For example, here’s my entry for March 20, 1957: “Rain. Snow. School-PG, E, Fr., WH, Gym, Bio. Studied & watched TV.” To be honest, one might think that my life as a young teenager was pretty boring, since many of my entries look almost exactly the same. For example, here’s the entry for June 4: “Fair. (yes, I always noted the weather). School-PG, E, FR., WH, Gym, Bio. Did the usual today — HW.”
Florence Wolfson’s diary did show the excitement of a teenage girl’s life in Manhattan in the 1930s. After publishing the book about the diary and its author, journalist Lily Koppel wrote in a blog of how Florence described trips to museums and the theater: “Brief, breathless dispatches filled every page of the five-year chronicle, unfurling into a Manhattan fairy tale.” Florence also cultivated her own creativity and literary passions, including, by the age of 19, “hosting a literary salon in her parents’ apartment. Her friends, the young poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman, were members.”
Okay, okay, very exciting, but my diary showed what it was like to be a boy immersed in school and on his way to OCD (I mean, having to put in the weather every day, when no one was even talking about climate change?). And when there was no school, like on weekends and in the summer, my diary, too, shows some breathless dispatches, such as this one, from August 1956, when I was 13: “Fair. Played punchball. Took bike ride to Bloomingdale’s with Joe, Marv.”
But, as long as my diary stays here in my house, what are the chances it will be discovered and written about by a journalist? My only hope is to throw it into the recycling bin, and hope that some journalist rifling through the bin — and if you’ve ever been to our recycling center, you know the place is crawling with journalists — will find it and write a book about it. Because otherwise I get the distinct impression that after I’m gone, my diary, along with the millions of words I have written since, will be discarded by my family. Then if an enterprising journalist discovers it, it won’t matter to me. Sure, it wasn’t until her 90s that Florence Wolfson Howitt attained the fame she aspired to as a teenager, but at least that gave her a few good years.
On the other hand, all that attention probably swelled her head and made her friends down in Florida jealous and annoyed with her. Being discovered after your death is really the safest way, the truly ideal situation for anyone with grandiose ambitions.