When I first began working with the Holocaust Survivors in the Memory Project I was unsure that I could bring something to the table. I wondered how it would be possible for me to teach these Survivors anything. During our very first meeting I asked our workshop participants what they wanted of me, from a writing workshop and from each other. Almost without exception, they responded that they wanted to find a clearer voice in which to tell their story. They wanted to gather the tools of the writing craft and produce work that was true to their vision. When I heard this I was relieved, because although these are daunting tasks, they are the goals of all writers. It seemed like familiar ground, a good place to start.
From that day on, I have used the premise that the best “teachers” of writing are writers. I base each class loosely on a piece of writing by a published writer of prose or poetry. We have read Holocaust Survivors Charlotte Delbo, Ida Fink, and Primo Levy, as well as poet Gerald Stern, novelist Eudora Welty and others. I began our very first class with an article by novelist and teacher Alice McDermott that begins, “I am wary of any advice to writers that smacks of ‘how to.’ ” I too am wary of this type of advice and use well written fiction and poetry as a guide rather than coming up with a laundry list of “do’s and don’ts” for writers. In addition to the works of published writers, workshop participants, as this name suggests, read and comment on each other’s work. During most classes, participants are also given a sort of prompt and asked to write on the spur of the moment. These exercises are almost always met with some type of anxiety, terror or reluctance, but usually yield beautiful and profound work.
From my very first day with the Holocaust Survivors when I strongly questioned my space at the table until now, I marvel that I am there as a teacher. I have learned more about myself as a writer, a leader and as a human than I could have ever imagined at the beginning of this project. I have seen the writing of the Survivors become clearer, more precise, more detailed, and more moving. At least once a session, I have been brought to tears by the valiant and beautiful efforts these Survivors make to tell honestly a truth which seems nearly beyond the human ability to communicate. They have tuned their voices, are bearing witness to their lives and I am honored to have any part in that process.