This continues our series by Mesdames who teach. This month we feature Mme. Sylvia Warsh, who writes about her experiences working with seniors. Sylvia is the author of the Dr. Rebecca Temple series. Her novel Find Me Again won an Edgar award. Her short story, The Emerald Skull, featured in Thirteen, (Carrick Publishing) was nominated for an Arthur.
How did you become a teacher?
I never intended to teach, and at the start, had to be persuaded. I had inadvertently become the facilitator at the Forest Hill Writers who met Saturday mornings at the Forest Hill Library in the 1970s, then moved to Barbara Frum Library for the ‘80s and ‘90s. This was a workshop group of a dozen or so who read their work aloud, and sometimes devolved into tangents and conversation that, though interesting, would divert us from the feedback we all wanted. I must have been the most impatient one, because at some point, I began asking people to move along and became the de facto facilitator.
A lovely older woman named Cecile Jackson, who was part of that group, told me that she also attended a creative writing class at a seniors’ centre and that their teacher was leaving. She asked me if I wanted to apply for the job. I told her I was a writer, not a teacher and I wouldn’t know what to do. She said I was already doing the same thing at our meetings and that I would be fine.
Tell us how your teaching career evolved.
The Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living turned out to be a lively place with a hands-on coordinator who was committed to keeping the creative writing class going. I had to become an employee of the Toronto District School Board and eventually join a union.
I spent a lot of time preparing lessons and finding anthologies from which the students could read good stories to see what they were aiming for. We would spend part of the three hour class time taking up their assignments and part studying a story. After a while, the Wagman Centre at Baycrest and the Overland seniors centre asked if I could take over their writing classes.
For my first 15 years of teaching, a fair number of Holocaust survivors came to my class, wanting to write their memoirs. These were remarkable people who had been through hell and wanted to be witnesses to what they had seen and experienced. Six of them went on to publish books. Demand has fallen since then, the down side of teaching seniors who are more prone to illness and mobility issues; three hours have become two. I have lost many students over the years, and I only teach at the Betel centre these days.
What is a typical class for your seniors?
Mostly, people come to the class in order to keep their minds active. Work out their little grey cells. I don’t lecture in class, but run it as a workshop. I give a short lesson on various points of writing: how flaws make a character real in a story, or how to jump right into the action at the beginning of a piece, or the pros and cons of different points of view. Then I assign an exercise for them to work on at home.
Most of the class is taken up with the students reading his/her assignment out loud, then discussion with feedback. If someone brings poetry, I ask them to bring copies for everyone so they can better understand and critique it. Some people will bring in longer prose and give me a copy which I mark up while they read.
I’m always on the hunt for interesting books on writing from which I can glean tips for future lessons and assignments. I have found over the years that though talent is innate, writing skills can be taught. People’s writing will improve if they are willing to work at it.
What have been your biggest rewards in teaching?
My greatest satisfaction comes when a student says they’ve learned a lot in my class. In the process of teaching various aspects of writing—having to break down lessons into sections on character, setting, point of view, dialogue, use of strong verbs, etc.—I have learned along with them. I used to write by the seat of my pants, but now I have a better idea of where the controls are.
Some of my students have been with me for 20 years. I have heard all about their families and their childhoods from their writing and I feel great affection for them. Many have met with tragedies, have lost siblings and babies when young, and in their elder years, spouses. Yet they carry on and entertain themselves (and me) with their writing. I’ve learned that each person is a unique library of experiences and knowledge that will never be reproduced. Each person has something important to say.