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Harry Bernstein, Every Writer's Hero

Harry Bernstein. A name to remember. A writer who had plenty of 'enticement' to give up but who never gave into them. He has a mind-bending story. He wrote 40 books and destroyed most of the manuscripts as they were rejected, as all of them were. 40 books! Which means more than 40 rejections, you can bet. When he was 93 his beautiful wife Ruby died. They'd been married for 67 years and the pain was so intense that Harry wrote a memoire to help him cope with his grief.

He took three years to write finish the book which he called The Invisible Wall. It’s about his bleak early childhood years, growing up in the Cheshire/Lancashire mill town of Stockport in the early 1900s.

Harry’s parents had fled persecution in the Pale of Settlement (created in Russia by Catherine the Great in 1791), seeking a refuge in England. They settled in the dead-end East Street in a very poor part of town, Daw Bank, where Jews lived on one side and Christians on the other. Harry was born in 1910. He had six siblings, an alcoholic, abusive brute of a father and a long-suffering mother who took the abuse and tried to take care of her children. She would grovel under fruit stands looking for food. Harry remembers often being hungry and tortured by delicious smells of food being baked.

He also often had to run from kids who wanted to beat him up. Neighbours stood on their verandahs and yelled abuse at the Jews, ranting about them killing Christ. But the bigotry was mutual. Harry’s parents would spit when they passed the Catholic church. That mutual bigotry, the stench and humiliation of poverty formed the world Harry grew up in.

The 1914 war forged something of a bond between Christians and Jews but after the armistice the bigotry took hold again.

The Invisible Wall is also about a classic Romeo and Juliet love story. When his older sister fell in love with a Christian boy Harry’s mother sat shiva  for her, declaring her dead. And neither the poverty nor the abuse crushed Harry’s spirit. When he was 11 years old he started a newspaper The Gossip. There was one copy and it circulated among the community.

Harry’s memoire is raw, gritty, passionate and poetic. He submitted it to  a whole lot of New York publishing houses who all rejected it. But this time he didn’t destroy the manuscript. He persevered, sending it to the London branch of Random House. Even then it sat on the shelves along with other unsolicited manuscripts for a year until editor Kate Elton read it and couldn’t put it down. She later remarked on how well it was written and that it hardly needed any editing. It was published in 2007.

Harry wasn’t done. He wrote three more books about other aspects of his life, The Dream, The Golden Willow, and What Happened to Rose. The last was published posthumously; Harry died in 2011 at the age of 101. While he was writing he said that these years were the most productive of his life. Is there a Nobel prize for perseverance and gutzpah? Should be.

There are so many awful ideas and beliefs about what should happen and when it should happen and when you should give up because it hasn't happened. The older you get the thicker and faster they come at you.

“It’s too late” comes in a million different variations, all of them seductive. But there’s a small word that cauterizes them, exposes them for what they are—empty, meaningless fear-driven speculation about a future that may or may not happen. One that’s happened for many but maybe only because they believed it would.  There’s no magic to it. If you don’t believe, you don’t act.

The word is “yet”. It hasn’t happened yet. If you hold onto that, it breaks the paralysis and makes you want to act, to engage. Funny how one word can be so hard to remember but three words and all their variations can be so hard to forget.

It’s mind-boggling that the ideas that have such a grip are terrible, horrible, depressing and destructive. And have nothing undeniably truthful about them. Or practical. Yet the PR that comes with them is that believing in the worst scenario you can imagine will somehow protect you.

Faith, courage and persistence are much more rewarding to live by and have a whole lot more potential for the good things to be realized. People who hold onto their own ideas about their life and keep on working at what moves them until the day they die are my everyday heroes. I only need to learn about one to be reminded that it’s OK to have faith; it’s a good thing, a great thing. It’s good to never let go of dreams and to keep on trying. Even in the worst case, if nothing ever transpires, at least I’ll have lived my life with some light in it and I’ll have had an adventure, striving. I’ll have had great joy and great disappointments.

Better than a milk toast life of constant slavery to ideas that have nothing good about them. If I achieve nothing of any note despite trying I’ll have an angry conversation with God when I pass over but that’s OK. Better than no conversation because my spirit dwindled to nothing long before I died and there’s nothing for God to converse with.

OK so that’s a little harsh; there’s always something for God to converse with. But we can lose sight of it, which is an awful shame.

Harry Bernstein, thanks for holding onto yourself, for using your own mind all your life and especially at a time when it can be hardest. And for showing the world what perseverance can do. Standing ovation stuff.

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Jennifer Stewart has a blog Jennifer Stewart, on US politics, and another Documenting Action, on clean energy. She always has been and still is a great supporter of former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party.  

A member of the Writers' Guild of South Africa, Jennifer is a freelance writer/editor, screenwriter, script editor and novelist. 

Jennifer reads the New York Times every day, likes strong coffee, dark chocolate, and kind, insightful people. She believes that evil prevails when good men [and women] do nothing, and that Good Trouble is vital.

If Jennifer was American she would be a committed Democrat. She is one in spirit. She paints and sketches, plays piano and guitar and sings jazz standards.

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