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His Hand Is Steady, And the Words Run On

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I MUST have been eight or nine when my father gave me a small diary, and I began my first tentative forays as a writer - or wordsmith, as I have sometimes described my calling.

Many of those early diary entries were lists - books read, gramophone records collected, films seen and enjoyed - but even this indulgence was a discipline of sorts and was to stand me in good stead in later years. It made me neat and meticulous and helped me form the habit of keeping notes and filing away facts: not, perhaps, essential attributes for a writer, but useful ones.

Young writers with talent are often handicapped by untidy working habits. A friend of mine wrote quite brilliantly but always managed to lose his manuscripts; he now breeds Angora rabbits.

During World War II my father was serving in the Royal Air Force and had to put me in a boarding school in the hill-station of Simla, then the summer capital of British India.

I discovered Dickens in the school library, and, captivated by David Copperfield, decided I was going to be a writer like David, who was really Charles Dickens.

At the age of 12, I did, in fact, write a short novel, an account of school life - eulogies of my friends, mostly - but it was confiscated by a teacher, who thought I was wasting my time; he may well have been right!

Those schoolboy efforts were, however, not really wasted. I found I could write in a busy classroom, noisy dormitory, or corner of a playing field; that is, when I really wanted to. As William Saroyan once said, "All you need is paper," and there was no shortage of that - empty paper bags, wrappers, pages torn from exercise books, the backs of calendars and school circulars. The wartime paper shortage did not defeat me.

Writing under such conditions, sometimes with a pillow fight raging around me, was good training too. Later in life I found I was able to write in the crowded compartment of a moving train, or in a room full of children.

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