After my first essay was published, about my search to find the Nazi SS officer who saved my mother, a writer, wife of a former TripAdvisor colleague, contacted me.
“You can’t be shy. You need to promote yourself,” Jenny wrote.
Jenny and I had connected months earlier, after she’d landed a publishing contract for a novel she’d been working on for years . I was interested in learning about her long journey, and what helped shape her page-turning-book. We met at Jenny's ‘writing cafe,’ a coffee-shop with large tables where she'd regularly set up her laptop and coffee mug and type away for hours.
While I sipped tea, Jenny told me I needed to surround myself with other writers. She told me I’d need support. By the time I arrived home, she'd sent me a Facebook invitation, to a closed writing group. I joined a Creative Nonfiction group, a Memoirists group and more.
At first, I feared telling others about my essay––silly given my career building and promoting consumer brands. Although I was attending writing classes at Grubstreet and Harvard Extension, learning how to structure and craft prose, I identified as a marketer, not a writer. Jenny––not me––posted my essay in one writers group.
“Powerful!” “Visceral!” People commented.
Suddenly I felt like a member of a writers group. No. I was a writer.
For a long time, I lurked, hitting ‘like’, or commenting “congratulations!” when others announced book deals and essay publications. I often did this when feeling lonely, on long days when I couldn’t leave my desk, immersing myself in the past in order to write about it; watching film footage of children starving on Warsaw’s streets, reading old letters, looking at black and white photographs so I could describe clothing and streetscapes.
Recently, I got stuck. I was reworking a section of my manuscript set in 1930's Warsaw and Krakow. Given the Nazis destroyed more than eighty-five percent of Warsaw, dropping bombs, torching buildings, killing in all more than five million Jewish and Catholic Poles, accounts of pre-war life are sparse.
I posted in a specialized group': "Does anyone have article & book recommendations describing inter-war life in Warsaw & Krakow for assimilated Jews?” (Jews who were not necessarily religious, like my family, most speaking Polish as they went about their business, not Yiddish) .
Members posted links and offered suggestions. I ordered recommended books. I spent more than an hour on the phone with one writer, who like me, had traveled to Poland, but, unlike me, had chosen to write a novel, a fictionalized account influenced by her grandfather’s experiences. (Read her exceptional nonfiction essay here>>.) Then I watched a film-trailer of The Lonely Child, the story of a song written in the Vilna Ghetto, about a hidden child, like my mother. (Click here to see list of film characters.) The melody haunted me for days. I connected with Alix Wall, the woman behind the song project. The child in the song was her mother. She chose to tell her mother’s survival story in film, not a book. I understand why.
THE LONELY CHILD | 1st Promo from Marc Smolowitz on Vimeo.
Film and music can evoke the past by reaching into places words cannot––at least that’s the way it is for me. (Perhaps that’s why I binge watched The Crown.) Words help me describe events, places, conversations, enabling my readers to come to their own conclusions. But film and music, like this piece, rip me right open.
A song passes down through generations. Everyone who hears and sings this song will relate to it through their own life experiences. Many will learn about Alix's mother––how she survived tyrannical hate.
Nearly two years after Jenny first invited me to the Facebook group, I now understand the importance of a writing community. But when I listen to writers who've taken up to ten years to research and publish compelling stories, I'm alarmed. I hope my book will be completed soon. But if it isn’t, I know my online pals will cheer me to the finish line, and over.