Unearthing the Past

by | Nov 17, 2023

I think I first met Peggy Walt in the 1990’s when she was the Director of Cultural Affairs for the Nova Scotia Arts Council. She also worked for the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra and the Atlantic Publishers’ Marketing Assoc., eventually forming her own company, Cultural Affairs Consulting and Promotion. Reconnecting in Pugwash in the last couple of years, where she has been restoring her grandparent’s 1930’s home, just reinforces how often worlds can collide in our small province. I love that after all these years, Peggy has decided to make a big leap and return to her first love: writing.

When Peggy turned sixty, she made the decision to go back to school. She had always regretted not getting her masters degree and the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction program at King’s University intrigued her. When her friend and faculty member, Dean Jobb, encouraged her to apply, she started to consider it more seriously.

The Creative Non-Fiction program has reaped many accolades since its inception in 2016. It is led by a stellar group of directors and mentors, all published authors, award-winning journalists and seasoned educators. Almost 50 graduates have published or are under contract to publish nonfiction books and more than 100 alumni have been nominated or won numerous non-fiction book awards.  https://ukings.ca/area-of-study/master-of-fine-arts-in-creative-nonfiction/

This course of study is notable for its flexibility and accessibility. The MFA is a two year limited-residency program, with one nine-day summer residency and an online one-week winter residency each year. Students pursue independent writing and research in the interim, in collaboration with a project mentor. They are free to live anywhere in these interim periods.

Peggy loved the sound of the curriculum but wondered if she could afford it financially. Through the years in her work with various arts organizations, she had raised money and found funding from grants and foundations. Why couldn’t she do this for herself? In the end she approached the Atlantic Jewish Council and the NS Talent Trust for support.

When Peggy enrolled in 2020, Covid restrictions had altered the landscape of education. Course meetings and lectures were done on-line, including the traditional trips to Toronto and New York to meet publishers, editors and agents. The positive was that mentors and participants could be anywhere in the world. The biggest challenge was finding times to meet allowing for the various time zones. Peggy’s first mentors were based in British Columbia and Israel. She did not meet her fellow classmates face to face until they graduated in 2022.

Despite the hard work, Peggy has no regrets. She loved the experience and challenged herself to be innovative with assignments. Having said that, she was not immune to self doubt. Most of the participants had more extensive writing experiences. Many were published writers in other genres and most had taken other writing courses. Imposter syndrome raised its ugly head. She had no formal track record as a writer other than grant writing and press releases. She had always written for herself but not consistently. She had to keep reminding herself that she had managed to get into this respected program and that she deserved to be there. Working in small group meetings with a mentor went a long way to build her confidence and trust in the process.

The masters program requires you to have an idea of what you would like to work on. Peggy had been researching her husband Shimon’s family history for a number of years and felt she had enough material to develop a manuscript. Right from the beginning her classmates urged her to rethink her premise and write the story from her own point of view, as a woman who had converted to judaism. The focus became more about finding family and finding herself. By the time Peggy was pitching her idea to mentors and industry professionals, this change in viewpoint proved to be a wise choice, garnering her positive feedback for its unique perspective and encouraging her to continue.

Once an intense course like this over, it is easy to feel adrift. Since graduating, Peggy has been careful to build in supports for her writing practice and has made plans that help her maintain energy and propel her forward. Students of the program are encouraged to be involved in the writing community, to build a network for the future. There is an alumni FaceBook page where writers can share successes and challenges and cheer each other on. She has met up with fellow masters students on a regular basis to share progress and instil accountability. And the research continues. She and Shimon travelled to Estonia, Lithuania and Israel to dig deeper into his family history. Interviewing relatives and finding locations of family homes were highlights on this emotional journey. Looking for continued professional input, she contracted one of her mentors to give her feedback on the next three chapters of the manuscript. She has also applied to the Writers’ Federation of NS Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program, https://writers.ns.ca/programs/alistair-macleod-mentorship-program/, which pairs professionally published writers with emerging writers.

Peggy is well aware of the challenges and responsibility of writing a family memoir. She is sensitive when including material that might affect those that are still living but she also wants to honour the struggles of Shimon’s ancestors, and what happened to them during the Holocaust. It is a balancing act. She wants to unearth the truth and do justice to the telling. Peggy is still struggling to decide what to include from her extensive research and what to leave out. What strengthens the story and what strays too far from the original intent. A good example of this is the recent warfare in Israel and Gaza and its impact on her relatives. She is also debating how much of her own family history to include. 

When asked about her influences, Peggy says she admires the writing of both her MFA mentors – Ayelet Tsabari in her memoir and Jane Silcott’s beautiful essays. She also admires the way Ami McKay mixes history with the present in her memoir, Before My Time. 

“When I told Jane I was awestruck by Joan Didion’s work and wanted to throw my manuscript off a cliff, she calmly replied, ‘Forget Joan Didion. She doesn’t have your story to tell.’

The Jewish writers who inspired her to write about the past include Daniel Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million), Edmund de Waal (The Hare with Amber Eyes and Letters to Camondo ) and Amos Os.

“They parcel out the story so beautifully, and make me want to keep reading.”

What does the future hold? Peggy hopes her book, Mine to Tell: Looking for a Jewish Family,  will be published and translated into other languages. Next she plans to research her mother’s side of the family, including her grandmother, aunt and uncle who came to the Maritimes from London as British Home Children and child labourers. She would love to transition from less grant writing/arts administration to more freelance writing. She dreams of staring out at the Pugwash River as she works on her next manuscript…

For more about Peggy: https://peggywalt.ca/about/

Peggy and her Grampie, Herb Smith, at the Pugwash house.

Shimon’s grandmother, Ida, standing in the back. The rest of her family were murdered in the Holocaust (sister Nechama, brothers Shmuel and Meir, parents Pesia and Rabbi Itzik Rutel).