For any Bernard Betel Centre member who has ever explored their creative side in the form of writing, you are likely familiar with Sylvia’s Creative Writing course at the centre. She has been teaching this course at the Bernard Betel Centre for over 30 years! We asked Sylvia for the opportunity to learn more about her and what brought her to creative writing.
Tell us about your upbringing?
I was born in Germany to Holocaust survivors. We lived in Israel for a few years, then emigrated to Toronto where my mother’s family lived. I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about her experiences in the labour camp. They were not children’s stories and had an effect on my worldview.
How did you get into creative writing?
I have been writing for most of my life and have had four novels, a novella, and many short stories published. The novels all have Holocaust themes and some include fictionalized accounts of stories my mother told me. I wrote the first three novels as a mystery series, hoping they would be more accessible to people who had little knowledge of the Holocaust. One of these books won an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. The other two were nominated for major awards.
How did you first get involved with the Bernard Betel Centre?
Years ago, I led a weekly writer’s workshop at the Forest Hill Library. There was no instruction, just writers reading out their material and getting feedback from each other. I was the one who pushed things along, maybe out of impatience. It was at this workshop that I learned what worked and didn’t work in a story. One of the members was Cecile Jackson, a Holocaust survivor writing her memoirs. She was very talented and we became good friends. She was also attending a creative writing class at the Betel Centre. One day she came to me and said that the instructor at the Betel was leaving and they were looking to replace her. Was I interested? I told her I had never taught writing before and she countered, saying that the feedback I gave at the library workshop would work well in a class. I tried it out (with trepidation in the beginning) and ended up loving it.
What do you love most about teaching creative writing at the Bernard Betel Centre?
I love teaching at Betel because of the students in the classes. They are a lot of fun and we have a good time every week. I have learned so much listening to their stories over the years. Each person is like a library, filled with their experiences, ideas and emotions. When a person writes, their lives end up on the page, bringing us closer to them. In the early days, many of the students in my class were Holocaust survivors. The stories they read out were mesmerizing. At least three of those students went on to publish their memoirs. Many people in the class write fiction and poetry. It’s always thought-provoking to hear a new story or a poem and try to gage where it came from. I encourage students to bring copies of what they will be reading so the other people can follow along and give them better feedback. It’s gratifying when students get their stories and poetry published after working on the piece in class.
If you would like to register for the Creative Writing course on Tuesdays at 1pm, please call 416-225-2112, ext. 0 or visit the Bernard Betel Centre during our hours of operation to sign up in person. If you would like to try out the course before deciding to register or you would like more information about the course, please contact Sharon Chodirker at 416-225-2112, ext. 124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Sylvia and her work, you can visit her website at www.sylviawarsh.com.