I often wonder at what point I’d give up hope of ever being published, if there would come a time when I’d stop trying. I think of Archer Mayor when he told me he wrote seven manuscripts before his first book was published. Or Amanda Eyre Ward who told us at a Grub Street South workshop that all of her writer friends who persevered were eventually published, years and years later in some cases. And now I have Harry Bernstein to bolster me, the ultimate beacon of hope for us writers.
Perhaps you read Motoko Rich’s profile of Mr. Bernstein in last Saturday’s New York Times. No? Then you may not know Mr. Bernstein had his first short story published when he was just 24. About four years ago, after being rejected by several American publishers, he sent his memoir “The Invisible Wall” to the slush pile of Random House UK where it was plucked from obscurity by Editor Kate Elton. Who knew editors still bothered to wade through the slush! Since its release on March 20, his book has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and that adoring profile by the inestimable Motoko (and gracious, she answered my charming note with one of her own, ergo inestimable).
All incredible achievements, a multi-layered happy story, yes, but there are lots of happy stories. What sets Mr. Bernstein’s apart from the others? Harry Bernstein finished his book when he was 93. That’s right, 93.
Throughout his life, Mr. Bernstein wrote with the intention of getting his work published. He wrote short stories and novels; some efforts were rejected, others were met with indifferent acceptance. But the man never stopped trying. He never gave up, never gave in.
How is that? What compels us to write, to reach and reach even when there’s nothing in sight to grasp hold of? I suppose the more interesting question is why. When I walk into a bookstore and imagine my own book there, I realize it would be one among many, nothing particularly special tucked on a shelf of thousands. I was talking to a woman this week about her own book and her reasons for writing it. We agreed we each had a goal for publishing a book that didn’t include enormous advances or glowing reviews – yes, we’d be delighted with both, of course – but what we really yearned for was that letter from a reader telling us how our writing touched them. A single charming note. Sentimental nonsense, I’m full of it, but a desire to be heard, to be felt, to be relevant is what each of us yearns for in life.
Mr. Bernstein is now 96 and has nearly completed a second memoir, written on an IBM electric typewriter. He has fortitude, alright, and heart. And soon he’ll have something else: A charming note from a reader - a hopeful writer -- whose life he touched by writing a book.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007