Why writing? Haven’t got a clue, really. I wasn’t raised in a bookish household, my parents being immigrants from Poland who came over to Canada after the war. The closest we got to books was my parents collecting one volume at a time of a cheap encyclopedia sold at our local grocery store!
All I know is that at some point in my early thirties, I began to scribble down some bad poetry, no doubt about a girlfriend lost or found, or more likely, a would be girlfriend, and discovered in the process of baring my soul that I had some facility with language.
It was in my thirties that I also realized that my parents, who had survived the Holocaust, had never shared with me their wartime experiences in depth. Too painful a time for them to recollect, and they didn’t want to burden their children with the sad reality of how far down the road to cruelty humanity could travel. But one day I insisted that they sit down with me, and let me interview them about their time in the camps, my mother in Auschwitz, my stepfather in Maidonek. I wanted to understand what really happened, not in general, but more in terms of the details. What was a typical day like in the camps? What happened when they were liberated? What were the Germans really like? Were they all archetypes of evil?
I put a tape into the recorder and we talked for a good hour and a half. It was out of that conversation, both poignant and surprising, that I determined to write a short story that would include some of the elements of their experience. It was called SOMETHING THEY HADN’T BARGAINED FOR. A crappy title, for sure. But after I kept getting feedback suggesting that the story felt like a movie in its telling, I decided to try my hand at screenwriting, and penned a full length film script entitled GARDEN OF FIRE, that I then shopped around to no avail.
But the point is that something in me strongly suggested that I try my hand at different types of writing, that I shouldn’t get locked into one mode or style or genre. So in the following years I tried my hand at children’s poetry, storybooks, songwriting, more adult poetry (inspired by the poetry of E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot and others), play-writing, short stories, and finally an attempt at a novel. I had read Orwell’s 1984 many years prior, and applied the ‘what if’ technique, i.e., what if it was forty years later? Where would Winston Smith be then? What kind of world would it be? etc.. So here am I, a neophyte in the world of novel writing, attempting to pen the sequel to 1984. Well, I wrote about 60 pages and then ran out of steam.
But there was a good lesson to be learned in that experience, which is that writing a novel is not an act of wordsmithery as much as it is an exercise in willpower. I learned that one has to power one’s way through the writing of a novel, unlike other shorter forms of writing.
It wasn’t until around 2008, at the age of 57 that I began to write my first novel (which was based on a poem that I had written earlier, and which in turn had been based on the lyrics of Tom Waits – a kind of lineage of literary moments – leading me to the understanding that writing is not a solo affair, but always a kind of collaboration, with the writers that have come before, and with the world in which we live, love and suffer).
Having powered my way through to a completed first novel, the second novel came more easily. I now knew that I had the staying power to complete long form literature. I’ve written three novels so far, and intend to write another this year.
So what is it about writing that is so important to my life? It’s not that I’d die if I were prevented from doing it. I don’t have highfalutin’ ideas that I feel compelled to share with the world. I could just as easily have become an actor, or a singer/songwriter, or a psychologist, for that matter. I tend to do well at whatever I put my hands to. No, it’s not a life and death kind of thing to be engaged with words. It’s more that I am at heart a playful being, and I love to explore all aspects of creativity. It just turns out that the playground of the written/spoken word is loads of fun to be in, and sometimes the ideas that jump onto the monkey bars are more than literary pipsqueaks, and once in a blue moon turn out to be (unintentionally) profound and lovely.
I’ve also come to realize that our role as writers is in part to loosen the constraints that inevitably build up around the constructions of language, to desanctify its strictures, burn its scriptures, and engage in a more playful relationship to it, to keep it alive and vital. This is why I often take the opportunity to either make up new words, or use old words in unusual ways, not to confound, but to loosen the reins of form, and alter synapses in the process, both my own and my readers’.
So, where are we now? We are in our sixty-fifth year, with five books published, two CDs, and numerous poems and stories included in anthologies. I’m definitely a late starter to this game called writing, but I intend for the foreseeable future to keep having fun with it, and attack those monkey bars with everything I’ve got.
by Harry Posner