I am often asked why I became a writer. Simply put, I did not choose to become a writer. I have always been one. From my earliest memories, my best friends were a piece of paper and a pencil. Reading was as natural to me as breathing, and by the age of four I could read short pieces from the newspaper to my parents. I was not precocious, I was merely showing an affinity for the written word that had begun, I believe, before I could walk. Writing is quite literally in my blood. My cousin, Joy Cowley, has been a published author for many years, beginning with a novel called Nest in a Falling Tree that won a New Zealand competition for her and a place with an American publisher, and was made into a movie with a screenplay by Roald Dahl. She has now turned her attention to children’s books and often tours schools and libraries in the States. My father wrote poetry for years. So did my sister until she turned to philosophy. She is now a professor. I cannot therefore claim to be an author on my own merit. Creating with words is definitely in my genes.
I was not a neat child. My printing, and later my handwriting, was messy and somehow I always managed to smudge my work no matter how clean my hands were. I could not use my pencil to draw well or do geometry assignments. It would only perform for me when I was stringing one word after another and making a poem or a story.
I was a very shy little girl, disliking strangers and sharing my experiences and feelings only with my notebooks. I had not much interest in people. They were a nuisance – noisy, inquisitive and demanding. But my first real poem, written and laboriously rewritten when I was ten, was to my mother on her birthday.
Early on I became addicted to the way my thoughts flowed onto paper with a clarity and precision my tongue could not then, and still cannot, achieve. The pleasure of creation was a secret indulgence. I showed no one my efforts, content to explore my inner world in private. For twenty years I wrote in that fashion, as comfort, as need, never imagining that the part of myself that was most joyful and compelling might be put to some use.
I do not know what might have become of my gift if I had not been born into a family that, though very poor during my childhood, put great value on books as necessities of life. My two younger sisters and I had few toys. We ran wild in the woods for our entertainment. But I told them stories, and my father read to us every night from Lang’s Olive Fairy Book or Tolkien’s trilogy, the Bible or C.S. Lewis’s children’s books. I did not care to understand what was being read to me. I loved the music of the words themselves, and they conjured worlds for me that I’m sure had nothing to do with the authors’ narratives. I was a word junkie. I still am. One of my most vivid memories is hearing, at the age of eight, the words ‘the Gulf of Aqaba’ for the first time. I had no idea what they meant, but I spent an entire day hugging them to myself, repeating them over and over with a thrill of sheer delight.
When I was sent to boarding school in Canada, I was in for an experience I still prefer to forget. However, I was fortunate in having a literature teacher who introduced me to Dylan Thomas and other poets whose work I again did not always understand but from whom words poured like waterfalls. I continued to write poetry, but without much discipline. Then, after completing my eleventh grade, I entered university. I was sixteen, really too young to appreciate the privilege, and I detested it. I studied, not very enthusiastically, mathematics, history, music theory and harmony, and English and French literature.
In English literature classes my horizon was expanded again, to the poets like T.S. Eliot, whose words did not cascade like water. Their work was tight, spare, economical in its construction. My own style began to change as I experimented, trying for the first time to write poetry with more objectivity and less self indulgence. But it was not until my family was back briefly in New Zealand that I met a literature professor who made me wrestle with my work.
At teachers’ college in Dunedin, in the midst of courses on child psychology and the use of audiovisual aids in the classroom, was an expatriate South African literature professor who always gave the option of some creative work when he handed out assignments for his course. I seized the opportunity he so understandingly offered, and my output became large and steady. For him I wrote more poetry, short stories, plays. I even began an abortive novel that died after three chapters of laborious longhand. Students in those days had not discovered the typewriter; indeed, our papers were still being marked on neatness as well as content. Needless to say I continually lost marks in that area. But my professor didn’t care about neatness. He cared about me and my work. For the first time I had the courage to expose my most secret and precious pastime.
He was in many ways a hard man. He was never satisfied. He doled out praise like a carrot dangling on a stick in front of my nose, but I sensed his genuine concern for my development and I wrote as I had never written before. I learned discipline. I learned to cut and discard, to rewrite until the original pleasure had gone and there was only the determination to finish a job I often wished I’d never started. I learned that poetry is not the exercise in idle self-pleasing I had always enjoyed. It is a fight to find the essence itself of communication through written language, to distil and distil until each word has the impact of a blow upon the reader. The goal is of course elusive. It is that carrot, endlessly out of reach.
I often meet people who have writing talent, who dream of a career in writing, but who shrink from the drudgery of the work. When I listen to them I bless my professor for forcing me to shape my own dream with the stern hammer of discipline.