A diary for social change. A young girl’s terrible experience of war.

by Jerry Waxler

Zlata Filopovic was an ordinary 10 year-old girl, living in Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city in Eastern Europe. Her family was well educated, and had warm friendships with neighbors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In 1992, in the name of ethnic purity, armed men encamped in the mountains overlooking the city and began a protracted campaign of terror. Artillery shells destroyed homes, businesses, and schools. Zlata’s apartment building lost electricity and gas so the family had to burn furniture to stay warm. When their water was cut off, her father risked sniper fire to fetch supplies from a distribution center. She stopped going to school, stopped playing outside. The family abandoned the rooms that faced the mountains. Month by month her life descended farther into chaos.

And day by day, she wrote in her diary short, innocent, and sweet entries to record the events, the things she lost, her friendships, and longings. Diaries are usually too introspective and too fragmented to add up to a readable book. Somehow Zlata Filopovic’s diary transcended these limits. Perhaps the readability of her entries arose naturally from the war itself. Dramatic tension erupted when, frightened by explosions, her family scrambled to the basement, not knowing how long they would be there or what would be left of their world when they emerged.

French journalists discovered that Zlata was recording her daily observations and passed the information along to publishers. Billing Zlata Filopovic as a “modern Anne Frank,” the book “Zlata’s Diary” sold out of its first run of 50,000 in France.

When she started writing, all she wanted was a way to record her private thoughts. Once published, the book became an instrument of social awareness, publicizing the plight of the Sarajevo people. The French authorities arranged her escape to Paris where she became an international spokesperson for the war’s assault upon innocence.

Erin Gruwell, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, instructed her class to read “Zlata’s Diary.” To Gruwell’s students, the racial hatred that had ruined Zlata’s childhood sounded eerily similar to their own gang infested neighborhoods. Literature intersected with life when Zlata accepted an invitation to visit Los Angeles to speak to the students. Her story exploded their neighborhood boundaries and instantly catapulted them into a sense of participation in a larger world. They in turn wrote about the meeting in their own diaries.

Their inspiring entries relating the war in Sarajevo to the undeclared war on the streets of Los Angeles eventually became published in another book, “The Freedom Writers Diaries.” The book was made into a movie, thus making the unlikely link between a little girl suffering a war in Eastern Europe and the millions of American kids and teachers who have been inspired by the Freedom Writers Diaries.

Zlata’s book expanded my world, too, offering an intimate, multi-cultural portrayal of a child trying to grow up amidst hardship, prejudice, and violence. The lesson that Zlata taught in her diary entries was that war stinks. There’s another lesson, as well. Through writing, one person, alone in her room, can reach the world.

Writing Prompt

What main “lesson to the world” do you think readers might draw from your life experience? Will it be a cautionary tale, a lesson of survival, or an appeal for harmony and empathy?

Most stories contain many messages. For example, in addition to a prayer for peace, Zlata’s story also portrays the wisdom of youth, the love of a mutually respectful family and community, companionship of a pet, and how people survive under extreme conditions. Extend your imagination and write about other images and ideas your readers might experience through your eyes.


Amazon page for Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo by Zlata Filipovic

Click here for my essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

Carol O’Dell kept a diary, while caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. Writing in the diary helped her stay sane, and afterwards, she used the immediacy of the writing to help her write her excellent book about the experience, “Mothering Mother.”   Read mhy essay and interview on Mothering Mother:

Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life

Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

The Freedom Writers Diary is a collection of diary entries written by inner-city high school kids in Los Angeles. When I first heard about it, I thought the book would be too scattered and too youthful to have anything to do with memoir writing. After I started reading, I discovered these authors were doing essentially the same thing any memoir writer does; telling stories about their lives, and sharing them with the world.

I was stunned by the intensity of their circumstances. In the classroom, the kids separated themselves into racially defined groups – Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, and Whites.  Out on the street, many were members of rival gangs, killing and being killed for the color of their skin. Most of them had been shot at, and almost all had lost at least one friend to gang violence. The cultural tension portrayed a more complicated view of the American Melting Pot than I ever knew, and highlighted the terrible tendency of human beings to group together with their “own kind” and to exclude and misunderstand “the other.”

This particular classroom was designated for the throwaway kids, the ones who would never make it. Their home life was racked by poverty and drugs, and broken families. Some had been evicted and a few had even been homeless. When Erin Gruwell, a new teacher fresh out of college, walked into her English class, two things seemed obvious to everyone but her. First, these kids would continue their murderous hatred for each other, and second, none of them would graduate high school.

Through her innovative use of literature and journal writing, the young teacher defied both of these predictions, offering her students opportunities to escape their apparent fate. They raised their test scores, crossed racial lines to form deep friendships, finished high school and went on to college.

Uses of Journaling

To try to overcome their initial hostility to her and to each other, Erin Gruwell asked them to write about their personal lives. She had no idea she was turning on a spigot that released a flood of revelation and sharing. Through the writing, members of the class opened up to each other, breaking out of rigidly defined racial identities.

The journey to tolerance was helped by Gruwell’s use of world literature, especially the recollections of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of another diarist, Anne Frank. After reading Anne Frank’s diary, the students realized they were not the only ones persecuted. The Holocaust’s impact on the kids was so strong, Gruwell wanted to teach them more. She took them to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and she introduced them to several Holocaust Survivors. By visiting these horrors of recent history, they began to open their eyes to the futility and horror of racial hatred.

Shakespeare helped, too. The kids thought it was stupid that the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet would kill each other merely for being born with the wrong name. Then Gruwell pointed out the similarities to their own situation. They made the connection and learned another lesson about prejudice.

After four years of sharing their stories with each other, working together to raise money for educational projects, and becoming avid students of the literature of tolerance and survival, these kids traded in their hatred for harmony. Over and over they use the word “family” to describe their feelings for their fellow classmates.

The Power of Sharing Private Experience

Now that their diary entries have been published, the rest of the world can share their moral journey, too. Like the shape-shifters in magical myths, they tear off the masks of gang bangers, of druggies and anti-social kids who will never amount to anything, and reveal real people, with real dreams for family and a safe society. Their experience makes me dream of the possibilities.

After they graduated, the book ended but the kids kept pushing their agenda. Using the public awareness generated by the book, Gruwell and the Freedom Writers formed a non-profit organization, the Freedom Writers Foundation, to bring the message of hope to other schools.

Their public relations campaign shifted into high gear when the Freedom Writers experience was produced as a movie starring Hilary Swank. The production moved me as deeply as the book did, and will extend the reach of their message even farther, proving this amazing lesson about memoir writing. By telling the story of our own lives, we reach beyond ourselves, sharing experiences that potentially help other people grow, turning private lives into a public act of social change.

Writing Prompts
Write a situation in which you felt empathy for someone who was on the other side of some wall, contained behind the boundaries of your pre-judgment. Write what it felt like before the connection was established, and then what it felt like as the wall started to crumble and you saw the real person beyond it.

Consider some interaction you have had with a person from the “wrong” race or religion. Tell a story about your interaction. Stretch your imagination and try to tell the same story from their point of view.

Write about a period in your life when you felt stuck behind a façade, in which others saw you differently than you saw yourself. Write a story about taking off that mask.

Write a story about a book that made a difference in your life.

Write a story about a teacher who made a difference in your life.

The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic, with Erin Gruwell

Freedom Writers Foundation

Read my essay “The Terrible Logic of Uncivilized Boys” about Mark Salzman’s creative writing class inside a juvenile detention center for gang members in Los Angeles,

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn more about my self=help book about overcoming the psychological obstacles to writing, click here.