Wednesday, March 13, 2013



Destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, esp. caused by fire or nuclear war: "a nuclear holocaust".
The mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi regime during the period 1941–45.

I am not a fan of what is referred to as Holocaust literature. Not because I don’t think it needs to be read. It does, but by everyone else on earth, just not by me. I have already consumed my quota of books, lectures and films on the Holocaust. As a child in the 1950s, I remember sitting in my seat at school, equally riveted and horrified as I watched firsthand newsreel footage taken by Allied soldiers upon liberation of concentration camps. The images still haunt. 

An estimated 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust. Six million of these were Jews.
What more do I need to know about the horrors. Nothing. Or so I thought. 

Late summer, 2012, I received a notice from the Ryerson School of Continuing Education. In conjunction with the Azrieli Foundation, they had created the Sustaining Memories Project, and were looking for “Partners,” or writers, to work with Holocaust survivors who wanted, and needed help, to write their memoirs. To my surprise, I was interested. More than. I signed on the dotted line.

I grew up in the 1950s with Holocaust survivors in my midst. My grandparents had left Russia and Poland in the early 1900s to escape pogroms. Their neighbours, from the shtetls they had come from, weren’t all so fortunate. Those who had stayed and somehow survived the concentration camps thereafter, arrived in my hometown Detroit after the war,  many on my grandparents’ doorsteps. I was five years old when I asked my father why the lady I was looking at had blue numbers written on her arm. Not surprisingly, he had no answer a child could understand.

I have now completed my partnership with an 82 year-old survivor from Romania. Together, we wrote a memoir of  her life before, during and after deportation to a concentration camp. She was 10 years old when she and her family were herded into the cattle car that transported them to the river Dniester, then barged across the water into Ukraine where they remained for the next four years. She lost thirty-six members of her family during those years, including her grandparents. She was fourteen when the Soviets liberated them. 

I met with F., my holocaust survivor partner, for five meetings. I interviewed her, sometimes as long as two hours. I taped these interviews, transcribed them, then worked on creating a cohesive story from all that she told me. She did more work than me, however. It was her story, after all. A story, like the arm of the woman I remember as a child, indelibly printed.

It would be an understatement to say that it was painful listening to F. At times, I wanted to stop our interviews. I wanted to protect her. I couldn’t bear taking her back to such dark places, such dark times, to such evil. But we never stopped. We went there and we went beyond.

Fortunately, what will stay with me from my experience, now completed in a 150-page memoir, is not the dark places or times. My holocaust survivor is just that, a survivor. After release from the camps at age fourteen, F. put together a life of grace, integrity and purpose. Yes, she still suffers from anxiety attacks and haunting dreams. But the hatred and inhumane acts of others did not manage, somehow, to contaminate or destroy her.

I am grateful for the time I spent with F. and grateful that I could help her tell her story –   a story I think everyone in the whole world should know about - including me.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Manuscript Whisperer

Writers prefer not to admit it, but many, if not most have a manuscript of some sort sitting forlorn, but not forgotten, in a desk drawer or computer folder labelled “Finished Manuscript.”

We dedicated a chunk of our lives to write something that we have since tucked away upon completion, with plans to hone it to perfection at a later time. Or, after honing, we had sent the little darling out into the world with hopes of publication, only to have spirits dashed. After enough rejections, back to the desk drawer or folder did the manuscript go. It is at this point, we consider self-publishing.

I recently helped a woman write her memoir. “I think people cross our paths for a purpose, ” she told me, keenly aware, as I was, that we met only by chance. Both our lives have been enriched by the serendipity. 

I feel the same way about Beth McAuley, Toronto editor and owner of The Editing Company, (TEC) who also found her way to me, or was it I to her? Whichever, I am grateful. Beth has my become, nothing short very own Manuscript Whisperer.

With calm voice and steady hand, Beth has led me back to my manuscript, a memoir that has been languishing, forlorn but not forgotten, in my own computer folder under the title “Book, Finished.”

But it turns out that with Beth’s gentle guidance, I have come to see that “Book, Finished,” was anything but.

Writers are often considered a sensitive lot, and I am no exception. It has been difficult for me to come back to a manuscript that was met with rejection after I sent it out to agents several years back. Response was kind, but clear: great writing, good subject, not commercially viable. Good luck.

With each rejection, confidence in my ms plummeted.

It took me two years before I had the courage to venture forth again into the world of publishing. And when I did, Beth crossed my path, as it seems, for a purpose.

I let Beth read my manuscript, and somehow after her reading, she was able to provide just the right amount of encouragement and criticism (constructive, only), to buoy my deeply dulled spirits. Who wants to set themselves up for rejection (again).

But Beth, with her quiet but persuasive ways, was able to coax a modicum of enthusiasm out of me. With the solid direction she was willing to provide, I began to think, “It’s a crap shoot, but I’m going to try one more time for a publisher. I’ll give it my best shot.”  I was clear, though. I wanted to do only so much work, and Beth had to tell me what to do, every step of the way. One does get a little tired of being one’s own  cheerleader after awhile.

That was six months ago. The rewrites and editing are done. We’re now pulling together  submissions for publishers. The book is good, I have a story to tell, and that story should be read.

Besides the requisite hand-holding to get to this submission stage, Beth has created a new structure for my book, undertook laborious editing, and reworked my story to provide greater focus and arc. I did as I was told.

As a true Manuscript Whisperer should, Beth tamed the bad bits, brought out the good ones.

I know not what will happen next, and do not allow myself to look too far ahead.

I do know that I did exactly what I said I would in a moment of great optimism. I went for “it” one more time, and gave it my best shot. Without Beth, I couldn’t have done either.