‘Writer Success Stories’ Archives

Traces of What Was: a memoir by Steve Rotschild

Inspired by a line from novelist Lydia Millet — “We live in what we leave behind” — Steve Rotschild began writing his memoir, Traces of What Was, at the age of 70.

It was 2003, and he had realized he was the only one who knew the full story of what had happened to their family, “who were among the 70,000 Jews of Vilna during the dark days” of the Second World War.

“I had carried the story with me for a long time,” he tells me in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to get it off my chest and to tell my children and grandchildren, so the stories wouldn’t get lost.”

“Young people,” he adds, “can’t imagine these things.”

Rotschild, who now lives in Toronto, was born in 1933 in Vilna, Lithuania. He immigrated to Israel with his mother and stepfather in 1949, and from there to Canada. In 1956, in Montreal, he married Lillian Blumenfeld; they later moved to Toronto, where they raised their two daughters.

But this brief biography doesn’t reveal what his memoir does.

In Traces of What Was, “Ten-year-old Steve Rotschild learns to hide, to be silent, to be still — and to wait. He knows the sound of the Nazis’ army boots and knows to hold his breath until their footsteps recede. Rotschild takes us on a captivating journey through his wartime childhood in Vilna, eloquently juxtaposing his past, furtive walks outside the ghetto with his long, liberating walks through Toronto fifty years after the war. Vividly evoking his experiences, this story of survival and a mother’s tenacious love leaves the reader indelibly marked by Traces of What Was,” writes his publisher.

Launched in a ceremony at the Markham Flato Theatre, Traces of What Was is published by the Azrieli Foundation, a Canadian philanthropic organization that supports a range of initiatives, including Holocaust commemoration and education. The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program “is guided by the conviction that each survivor of the Holocaust has a remarkable story to tell, and that such stories play an important role in education about tolerance and diversity.”

The program’s fascinating website offers a multimedia look at the memoirs in the series and their authors, featuring excerpts, maps, photos, video interviews, and historical context. There are also educational resources for teachers.

Before he began writing, Rotschild read many stories of the war that were tragic, but he was determined his memoir would be different. His favourite writers include Canadians Gregory Clarke and Rohinton Mistry, whose works he read for inspiration. He eventually decided on a structure for his book that juxtaposes thoughtful and evocatively described strolls in various seasons through his Toronto neighbourhood, representing for him moments of freedom and relative happiness, with reflections on wartime. His teenage granddaughter Michal helped with the wordprocessing and editing to pull the manuscript together.

“I needed to tell the story,” says Rotschild, who has since suffered a stroke resulting in some paralysis.

One of the most difficult scenes to set down on paper, he says, happened when he was young, during the war and on the morning after an explosion. He saw feet wearing little white shoes sticking out of the rubble of a building and thought they were those of a doll — until the body of a girl was pulled from the wreckage.

Following that passage, in a rare aside to the reader, he writes: “I hesitated a long time before writing this down. It is something I haven’t described to anyone for sixty years, the most upsetting image from among the other horrible images I carry with me from the war years.”

“I’m not very sentimental — I’ve seen a lot of death,” he says. “But some of the scenes [I remember] were terrible, especially scenes of children.”

Yet Rotschild’s writing is also filled with humour, keen observation, rich description, and an appreciation of life’s beautiful moments. “The war was raging somewhere,” he writes of his last visit to his grandparents’ home, thirty-two kilometres from Vilna,

“but in the small village of Popishok, life went on as before. The girl and her two brothers came again, and we played hide-and-seek. They counted to one hundred, and I ran through the orchard, along a grey wooden fence and into the large barn belonging to the children’s family. It was a huge, dim place with several stalls but no animals, some farm implements and wooden barrels. Against the far wall a ladder leaned up to a loft where a few bales of hay lay. The rungs were too far apart for my short legs, but I managed to scramble up and hide behind a bale, sitting against the wall clutching my knees. Soon I heard them come in. They searched the stalls and inside the barrels and then left. It was very quiet; I heard the buzzing of bees outside, then another sound, of someone climbing the ladder. I didn’t move. Then she was beside me on her knees, her hands on the floor boards, a wide grin on her face, laughter in her dark eyes. She leaned closer and kissed me on the cheek, her black hair brushing my face, and then she was gone – the sound of her bare feet on the wooden floor of the barn and out the door, the pleasant sensation of her soft lips on my cheek and the strange cucumber smell of her hair all a precious gift….

“The next day it was back to the city and the war. I never saw my grandparents and aunt Faigeh again, nor the children I played with for those few memorable days.”

Steve Rotschild (right) with his grandson Cory Austin at the launch of Traces of What Was (Photo: Eric Benchimol)

Ultimately, the miles and memories — some heartbreaking, others uplifting — that Rotschild travels in his contemplative walks bring writer and reader to a place of peace and hope.

He urges other survivors to write their own stories. “If we leave behind written accounts of ourselves,” he says, “[the dead] can still talk to the living on down through  the years.”

Traces of What Was can be purchased at Second Story Press.

Memoirs in the Holocaust Survivor Memoir Program series are published in English and French and distributed free of charge to educational institutions across Canada. They are available in bookstores or online. E-book versions will be available in the near future.

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Off the Shelf: Greg Walker on recognizing “the sacred meeting place of memory and reality”

 

West Coast Trail (Photo credit: Parks Canada)

 

My fingers dug into the smooth trunk of the beast as I searched in vain for a handgrip. I pointed my feet and dug my knees in hard, but there was no movement forward. My bare thighs quivered and locked up, victims of fear and cold. The spray from crashing waves sent icy fingers over my legs, pulling me toward the boiling stew of kelp below. Over the ocean’s roar, I heard a hiker’s desperate yell: “Keep moving! Keep MO-VING!” [read the full Facts & Arguments essay here]

Those are the dramatic opening lines from Greg Walker’s personal essay on taking risks and finding balance in life, recently published in the Globe and Mail Facts & Arguments section. A past student in both my Memories into Story courses through University of Toronto, he’s now at work on a series of essays that will form his Final Project for the Creative Writing Certificate.

I asked Greg to talk about how this essay came to be and about his writing journey so far. I hope you’ll find his words as inspiring as I do.

Off the Shelf

I’m flipping through the memories that sit in rows on the dusty shelves of my mind. They’re arranged in different boxes, like Dad’s old vinyl records in my garage. And like the albums, I never get tired of replaying the well-worn favorites. But it’s the rare surprise of rediscovering a near-forgotten one that I savour the most.

They start with the first day of school. Then waking up in the hospital after getting my tonsils out. There’s learning to ride a bike. Coke from a little glass bottle on a hot summer day. The AM radio in Mom’s kitchen pumping out 70s songs before they were classics. Terry Fox hopping down the main street of my hometown on his artificial leg.

When I was nine or ten, I got a little diary for Christmas. It was bound with green faux leather, the word “Diary” etched in golden script on the spine. A tiny built-in lock kept the precious contents from prying eyes. As I made my dutiful entries, I fantasized about it being found one day and becoming a bestselling book. Like many childhood dreams, the weight of the required discipline eventually sank it out of my thoughts.

                                              §

One middle-aged day, I signed up for an introductory writing course at a local university. My employer was paying because it was “job enhancing.”

One and done, I thought. “Mid-life crisis,” others whispered.

But the literary water found the dormant seed that had drifted to the bottom of my consciousness. I signed up for more courses. Then a memoir course. And another.

My first published story started as one of those dusty recollections in my mind’s eye. I traced the string of memory back to an event that had triggered a dramatic change in my life: crossing an ocean surge channel while hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island.

The first step in writing the story was the “downdraft.” Documenting the raw details. “Telling the story to yourself” is how Stephen King puts it in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That first draft was a rambling, disjointed tale.

The next step used the practical lessons from the writing courses. Open with a strong hook. Use believable dialogue. Watch for continuity and avoid bad flashbacks. Use action. Move the characters around. Make it relevant to others. Mix in something historical.

Next came the grinding torture of self-editing.

Word search for ly to find all the adverbs. Rewrite.

Read the story out loud. Rewrite.

Read it like a writer. Rewrite.

Enter punctuation purgatory. Rewrite.

The story was still rough after a few days and more than a dozen versions. But the course deadline loomed.

I uploaded the story for the dreaded peer review. When three or more students suggested a change, I swallowed my pride and took it. If only one or two picked at something, I filed it under consideration.

After adding the final edits from my instructor, I submitted the story to a national contest. It was the worst thing I could have done. Not because it didn’t make the short list, but because the contest rules held the story captive for six months after the submission date. I couldn’t send it anywhere else.

My other mistake was to show it to my father. Never one to shower praise, he didn’t deviate this time.

“Hmm, pretty good little story,” he said, speed reading through before going back to Google Maps.

The story took its place on the shelf with my other dusty memories.

After finishing the second memoir course, I took time off from writing. But I continued to follow this website and blog. It’s my own personal Narnia, the secret place where memories grow wings and fly.

Clicking through the posts one day, I saw a section on the recent publishing successes of other past students. Their stories were exceptional, and they sparked something within me.

It was time.

I dug out my “West Coast story,” already a bony skeleton at 1,250 words. To submit it to the national paper, it had to be 900 words or less. So I cut and hacked until I despaired there was nothing left that made it mine.

But it worked.

I heard back the next day and accepted the contractual requirements. They commissioned an illustration and told me the date it would run. A few days later, the editor suggested some changes for a final polish.

Did the ruthless editing make it more palatable? I’m not sure.

But somewhere among the hundreds of posts and readings of my courses I made a discovery. Memoir done well is like a perfect photo of a mountain reflected in a shimmering lake. You’re never sure if you’ve got the photo upside down or not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the sacred meeting place of memory and reality, where the past sparks inspiration for the future. I’m thankful that the spark was entrusted to me.

The next chapter’s up to you.

♦     ♦     ♦

Greg Walker with niece Avery

GREG WALKER was born and raised in Thornhill, Ontario, and aspired to a career in fine art and photography. After briefly attending OCAD University in Toronto, he took a year off to work and reflect before settling at the University of Guelph. While there, he completed a bachelor’s degree with a dual focus on Biochemistry and Art History. A career with a major international food company has allowed him to travel widely while remaining rooted in the Toronto area.

After reflecting on a season of life’s suffering, during which his wife lost two of her three sisters to cancer, he felt compelled to reawaken his earlier dream of creative writing. While pursuing the University of Toronto Certificate in Creative Writing, he landed in the Memories into Story I and II courses, which he credits with releasing his true writer’s voice. He is now completing the requirements for the final course towards the Certificate.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

“Identity is a difficult thing when you’re in between spaces”: Writer Sonja Boon on defining oneself

“I am the girl in the back. The quiet brown one in a sea of white. There’s another brown girl next door in the brown teacher’s class. Maybe she’s more yellow than brown. But she’s not white. And we are a unit, the two of us, outsiders sharing three letters of our four-letter last names. Three quarters. Seventy-five percent. Almost interchangeable. The teacher is a leathery brown, chocolate. That is, if we’re talking about colours. Look at us bobbing in the white ocean. The teacher shares two letters with us. Vowels. Brown vowels for brown bodies. O. O. O. Ooo. We shape our lips into matching sounds and almost drown….” [read the full story, “But Where Are You Really From?”, at The Ethnic Aisle]

Congratulations to Sonja Boon of Newfoundland, whose moving and thought-provoking essay, exploring the chasm between how we are seen and named and how we define ourselves, was published recently in The Ethnic Aisle‘s Canada Issue. She’s been busy with her writing: just this week she launched her book Telling the Flesh. More on that in her bio at the end of the post. Here, she discusses the genesis of her Ethnic Aisle story and how it, and her thinking about it, evolved:

 

Sonja Boon

Sonja Boon

I wrote this piece in December 2013. I’d just finished my first creative writing course — a short story course. I discovered early on that I was terrible at short stories, but all the writing exercises were fantastic. Shortly before the end of the class, I broke through. What exactly happened, I’m still not sure, but there was a rawness and openness — a release of some sort – in my writing that hadn’t been there for the other eight weeks of the course. The final short story was still pretty bad, but all sorts of stuff started percolating, brewing, festering, ripening in the background.

The heart of this short memoir came out almost fully formed, a big blurp. It was rough, yes. And it had too much in it. It lacked focus. But the core was true, and it was at a completely different level from my attempts at short story. I decided to massage it to submit to the CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction competition. I felt like a good goal to work toward: a clear word count, a deadline, and a genre. I revised. I edited. I checked and rechecked the word count. I gritted my teeth. And then I submitted it. It was the first piece of non-scholarly writing that I’d submitted for external consideration since my cringe-inducing, fraught teenage poetry.

It wasn’t until I shared this story — then still unpublished — with a class of English majors at the university where I work that I really realized what it was about. It took their words, and their thinking, to make the meaning clear.

The original title was “Brown Girl.” It’s a theme that’s been kicking around inside me for decades, because that’s who I was: the brown girl. As a brown girl I was never definable, open to definition. People were always curious what my background was, but they never got it right. And so I became a chameleon, adept at roaming in a category that is so broad — brown — as to be virtually meaningless. For others, I have been Vietnamese, East Indian, Maltese, Chinese, Aboriginal, or just even plain “exotic.” I have been asked for my treaty number. I have been asked for my heritage so that an employer could apply for special minority group funding. I have been confronted with paperwork that asked me to define my racial heritage and found that a challenge to complete.

Identity is a difficult thing when you’re in between spaces, and as I looked back at the piece after sharing it with English majors, I realized that if I had to “define” myself, it would be in that ambiguous space between all the names that others have tried out on me.

The challenge, in this piece, was to decide which episodes to include and which to leave behind. That, I suppose, is the art of memoir itself: figuring out what matters and what doesn’t; figuring out the best way to fit all the pieces together; figuring out which pieces might actually belong to another puzzle entirely, no matter how neatly they seem to fit at the outset.

I heard back from the CBC Creative Non-Fiction Contest in June 2014. A letter in the mail: “It gives me great pleasure to inform you that your short story ‘Brown Girl’ is one of the 35 works long-listed for this year’s CBC Creative Non-Fiction Prize.”

I still get shivers when I look at that letter. I still remember the shock, the awe, the wonder, the disbelief. I still remember the warmth rising inside me, spilling out of me, and all of the exclamation marks dancing around inside. I had never, in a million years, expected this.

It was a sign. And so I registered for Allyson’s Memories into Story I, and then, because I got completely hooked on the genre and on Allyson’s teaching style, I registered for Memories into Story II. It was even better. Now, to my surprise, I find myself working towards completing the whole Certificate in Creative Writing. I’m still writing. I’m still exploring. I’m still learning.

In the Summer of 2015, I submitted “Brown Girl” to The Ethnic Aisle’s  Canada issue call. They accepted it! A bit more revision. A bit more editing. And it became “But Where Are You Really From?”

 

SONJA BOON is an associate professor in the Department of Gender Studies, Memorial University. She has research interests in life writing and autoethnography, feminist theory, and embodiment. Her new book, Telling the Flesh: Life Writing, Citizenship, and the Body in the Letters to Samuel Auguste Tissotappeared in September 2015. In it, she looks at a collection of eighteenth-century letters to explore the stories that we tell about our bodies, and the stories that our bodies tell about us, and how all of those stories might be related to broader social and political concerns. Her short memoir “Accounting for Genealogy,” written and revised (over fourteen drafts!) during Memories into Story II in the Winter of 2015, was shortlisted for Room magazine’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest in Spring 2015. She has just started a new research blog at saltwaterstories.net. In a previous life, Sonja was a professional early musician.

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Surviving with Grace: Judy Bullis reflects on writing & publishing a personal essay

“I rise with the sun. Being late is not an option. I have come into my farming life too late to change old habits; rising early remains a challenge.

The dogs’ tails bang against the wall enthusiastically, unconditionally welcoming me into their morning. A momentary distraction.

Today is my daughter’s first trip to the chemotherapy clinic, and I am her chauffeur; okay, bodyguard. Intravenous immunoglobulin, a miraculous concoction of antibodies from donor plasma, will be delivered into her veins….” [read the full Facts & Arguments essay on the Globe and Mail website]

 

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Women’s Voices Are Crucial: Thoughts from Plum Johnson, author of the award-winning memoir They Left Us Everything

 

Plum Johnson with fellow UofT SCS student Jayne Townsend

Plum Johnson with fellow Memories into Story II student Jayne Townsend at a post-course gathering.

 

In March of this year, Plum Johnson won the coveted RBC Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction for her bestselling memoir, They Left Us Everything.

Plum was a participant in my advanced memoir course Memories into Story II (UofT SCS; online) at the time Penguin Canada published her book in 2014.  Of course her instructor (that’s me) and classmates were extremely proud of her then, and prouder still when she took home the RBC Taylor Prize. It’s been fun to follow her success. Plum quickly gained  popularity as a speaker at literary events and a guest of book clubs across the country (she often visits via Skype).

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

“Each Step Through the Ice Is a Wish”: an essay by Pamela Dillon (published in the Globe and Mail, Facts & Arguments)

 

 

“These are my co-ordinates: 43°28’1.19”S 170°11’29.5”E.

I stand at the landing zone atop the rough ice field of the Franz Josef Glacier, on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. I have journeyed by plane, in a bus, a car, two trains and finally by helicopter; 18,777 kilometres and 23 hours to reach this precise spot.

I am about to embark on the most dangerous challenge of my life….” [read the entire essay]

 

Congratulations to Pamela Dillon, whose beautiful personal essay “Each Step Through the Ice Is a Wish” appeared yesterday in the Globe and Mail‘s Facts & Arguments section. Pamela has been a student in my online memoir course Memories into Story I, offered through University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

 

Pamela shares a little about the genesis of the essay and her writing process here:

I was inspired to write the Facts & Arguments essay when a good friend and fellow writing salon member sent me an email about F & A’s 25th Anniversary Week. The theme was Moment of Truth. I immediately thought of my Franz Joseph climb.

The memory of that climb and the glacier cave was a transformative experience; I knew I could write something compelling about it. Within a week of sending the story off to the Globe, I received a message that it was being considered for Anniversary Week.  I was advised that even if it did not make publication that week, they wanted to publish it at a later date.

Writing the piece wasn’t difficult. I have always found it easy to write to an image or a theme.  The word count, however, was a challenge. As always, editing the piece down to the essential story was tricky.

As I write it’s a process of falling in love with the images and the story that is being crafted. But as with all love stories, reality eventually sets in: there are rules to follow, compromises to make, and in the case of some great sentences (even whole paragraphs) sacrifices to be made. It’s taken me years to learn: good writing requires an equal amount of good editing.

I always write in longhand first. It’s usually a long stream of consciousness. After the first draft, anything requiring research is noted and the key theme is circled; then I begin the real work of writing. I counted at least ten revisions on this piece after the first draft. This is often frustrating but so worthwhile.

When I think I may have “the final draft,” I print it out and read it aloud. At that point I realize I do not have a final draft and revise again, sometimes three or four times. Finally, I print it one more time, read it aloud, and then circle any errors or weird syntax, then go back to the computer file to craft a final version. If I’ve done it right, I print a pristine copy, which is like a gift to myself.

Then I have a glass of wine or chocolate.

Being published is like receiving a case of ultra-white copy paper and new pens delivered to your door. It’s the memory of your grade seven English teacher tapping you on the shoulder and praising your poem, or the tears in the eyes of your friend when she read the sentiments you wrote in her birthday card. It’s being able to answer with confidence the question “What do you do?” It’s a kiss from the muse, a long distance phone call from a lost love, an entry ticket to the tribal dance, and the recognition that your obsession has a place and your words have a home and that even though you’re not sure what it all means, you’re happy—

 

Pamela Dillon on Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

PAMELA DILLON is a writer and poet. A student of creative writing at University of Toronto, she is currently at work on a collection of short stories for her final project (Certificate in Creative Writing), a novel, and a few creative non-fiction travel pieces. Pamela’s short story “We Come and We Go” and her novel excerpt “As Good As Any Other” won top ten placements in the 2013 and 2015 Penguin Random House of Canada Student Award for Fiction, through UofT School of Continuing Studies. Pamela has been published on the CBC Books – Canada Writes website, in the literary journal Tin Roof Press, in the William Henry Drummond / Spring Pulse Poetry Anthology, and most recently, in the Globe and Mail‘s Facts & Arguments section.

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015