I was given the wonderful opportunity to interview Dr. Carol Lipszyc, an associate professor who teaches ELA courses and creative writing here at SUNY Plattsburgh. Dr. Lipszyc is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. She has recently published a book titled The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, in which she recreates the stories of Jewish children who survived the Holocaust. This book is currently available for purchase online at Amazon.com.
Question #1: What inspired you to be a teacher?
Answer: “I’ve been teaching for a couple of decades. I was a failed professional musician, so I decided to try teaching English as a second language. That’s how I started. I took my training at the University of Toronto where I found that I loved teaching language and all facets of language. From there, I moved onto teaching English Language Arts. I taught adults. I taught high school students, and now I’m teaching here at SUNY Plattsburgh. Teaching has helped me connect better with meeting other people’s needs aside from my own.”
Question #2: There are many different subjects for a professor to teach, why did you choose to teach English?
Answer: “I actually have my doctorate in Education, but my focus has always been on teaching writing in particular. I would not have done anything else. I’m very arts-based, so for me, I don’t think there was any choice. It’s my strength, and I really believe in heightening students’ awareness and appreciation of the written word.”
Question #3: If a student walked up to you and asked for advice on what it takes to become a professional writer, what advice would you give?
Answer: “I’ve never been able to make a living as a writer, so I am probably not the best person to give advice on professional writing. I am not able to speak of what it would be like to make a living as a journalist or a freelancer. I started out as a singer and then a songwriter. I moved from writing songs to writing poetry and then from writing poetry to prose. Generally speaking, writers have to teach as well as write to earn a steady livelihood. There is, moreover, a deeply rooted connection between teaching and writing. I have explored that in my scholarship.”
Question #4: It has been said that recent generations of students are losing interest in reading and writing. What are your thoughts on that?
Answer: “Yeah, I definitely have a couple of thoughts on this topic. I think what’s happening with contemporary students is less engagement exclusively with traditional print text, so our whole definition of reading has to change. We’re working with a generation of students who has grown up with multi-media texts, so the first thing I had to reconcile myself to is thinking: what is reading now? From my experience, I started reading classic novels at thirteen (what we think of as literary canon). So that world of reading opened up for me at a very early age. And I’m thankful for that because you can’t write well unless you read. Let’s bring it back to the current challenges – so much reading and writing is shorter in social media and so when students have to write more extensive pieces, their ideas are not necessarily linked and cohesive. Of course students are individuals and have different dispositions and affinities… As to the question – can anyone develop as a writer? Absolutely. I find that in my introduction to writing poetry class, I can provide models and work one-on-one with students and they can integrate peer feedback, and they can develop. Will I turn someone into a poet who doesn’t think metaphorically or have an aptitude for creating imagery? Maybe not so well. But students do develop in their skill and appreciation if they are respectful of the connections between reading and writing. It isn’t just, ‘I want to write, but I am not interested in reading anybody else’s work.’ No. You can’t write well without reading. And when we start writing, we imitate sometimes to learn.”
Question #5: What does reading and writing mean to you?
Answer: “Oh boy. I don’t know where to begin. I see reading and writing as deeply connected as I see teaching. I actually find that sometimes when I feel stale, I have nothing to say and can’t write, but if I read for a while and get engaged in a poem or in a narrative and the story, I’ll start writing again. Reading good writing opens up the world of writing for me.”
Question #6: When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer?
Answer: “I didn’t have that sense of myself until I started writing decent songs. Then, I thought, ‘Okay these are well-crafted songs but that doesn’t mean I can sell them.’ The first time I wrote a good poem, I got a very fresh and precise metaphor. It was then that I realized I had the capacity and imagination to write.”
Question #7: You recently published a book titled The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories. If you had to summarize the entire book in just a few words, what would those words be?
Answer: “Theme of Identity, the impact of trauma, and the agency in children as they wrestled with that trauma – these are themes that emerged. Looking back on it now, I’ve realized that what really connected me to the children and their stories was that despite their struggles during the Holocaust, many of these characters made a decision to escape, or even to find bread together to feed themselves. I didn’t realize it until afterwards, but that agency drove me to write, to choose the stories I did.”
Question #8: Is there a specific target audience for this book?
Answer: “This book is for an adult audience, but I’ve been told that it could also reach a younger adult audience like high school seniors. The book is about the experiences of younger people during the Holocaust.”
Question #9: During your reading of The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, you mentioned being the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and how you grew up in a community with other survivors. Did this have any influence on you to become a writer and to write this book?
Answer: “Unquestionably. This book was a major life project. To be honest, I didn’t know much about how to write prose when I started. I taught myself how to write with the help of some readers as well. You can teach yourself how to write if you truly immerse yourself in the writing. As I was writing this book, there were times when I had to research the particulars (from the survivors) to create the world around the survivors, and times when I created my own characters, and times when I fleshed out the narratives. By the way, there is a whole new generation of younger writers who are writing about their grandparents and trying to uncover their history. It’s not so much about resurrecting the past as it is trying to dig up your own past to better understand it and how it has shaped you in the present. I grew up with parents who are both survivors, and there was a desire in me to understand them. I wrote a story about my father and his experiences during the war –and by me reconstructing him as a thirteen year old, I found I gained more respect for him. I could better understand him. It’s all about that understanding – approximating it… Learning about the Holocaust from this project has been a dark education – I had already been shaped by my upbringing and yet I can easily say to you that I can’t approach the subject in the same way a survivor could. They were there. There is a visceral quality to their writing. But, I possess a certain understanding because I grew up in its shadows.”
Question #10: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview? Anything you feel others should know?
Answer: “As a writer you have to be attuned to the world around you, and you have to be honest with yourself. I was able to develop as a writer because I was able to look at what I was doing, and look at other writers who I really admired, and learn. There was a time when I looked at another writer and thought, ‘Wow, I could never do that.’ And then, in time somehow, I was able to develop. I did develop. I’m honest with myself. I integrate feedback well. I take what I can and I put aside feedback that isn’t helpful to me. You can’t delude yourself as a writer. You have to be able to take the feedback. When I was a younger woman, I used to overwrite a lot. People tried to tell me about it, and I kind of heard them, but I wasn’t able to effect the change. In time, I started to hear things and see things better. One time I turned to a friend of mine and I said, ‘Why did I write that?’ and she said, ‘Well, if you had heard it, you wouldn’t have written it.’ That’s what I’m getting at. You have to give yourself time and distance, really listen to your writing critically, listen to the line musically, the choice of words, their relationship to the whole, and work with writers and readers you trust to help you develop. That is what’s important.”
This blog post was created by Christina Rock. Christina is a senior at Plattsburgh State University, and would like to thank Dr. Carol Lipszyc for the wonderful interview.