Learning to write

THAT MAGNIFICENT OLD monkey-apple tree shading the butcher's shop lodged in my mind through a strange trick of memory. There I was in that slow, tranced state of childhood, staring up into its layers of shining green, deep in thought, the dry cleaners hissing and banging behind me. Years later, that exact moment came back to me with all the force of a hallucination while I was writing a passage for my first novel. The writing fell into something so good and clear, with such an exhilarating rush, it was as if I had already thought it out all those years before at that moment of gazing at the tree as a child. The experience was so vivid it was like time travel; for that second I went to live again in my childish body, think with my childish mind, experience again that intense moment. My thoughts as a child were the carriage and connection between child and adult self across the gulf of years.

Maybe I was already laying the foundations for my writing life from an early age, long before I knew what it really meant. I learnt to trust those rare flashes, especially when I was writing. Even now when I read certain writers, the flashback happens strongly and clearly. Reading Saul Bellow, for instance, regularly elicits a flash recall of me standing in the middle of the Mathesons' vegetable garden looking down at the curly leaves of lettuce in the rich brown volcanic soil. Yeats is centred around Margaret's garden, with its scoria rocks edging the sunken lawn, the pipes and drain at the side of the concrete path, a butterfly stuck on a pin left to die there by her brother. I must have been thinking a lot when I was at their place; maybe there was more clarity away from home, or was it just that I liked the garden with its high cool hedge, green dampness, the stone steps running down from the footpath, rocky outcrops of bubbly-looking volcanic scoria?

Norman Mailer, of all writers, brought back a flash of the Mathesons' house, and once when I was reading about Socrates it was a flash of their front porch. I don't really understand how this happens or even why, but whatever revelations I had in those surroundings seemed to have become hard-wired, fused with the place. It is as if when we are children we sing the landscape, our thoughts, emotions and surroundings an indissoluble whole. Just after my eleventh birthday, I wrote presciently: ‘I can't write down much but I can think them. Maybe I'm saving all my thoughts up 'till I'm old enough to write a book. Who knows?'

The fact was that the sense of myself as a writer – the power of writing – had been there as long as I could remember. Writing was my memory and identity, the language of my secret self. I have very few clear memories of the time before I started to write. It was a way of looking at the world that I honed in myself as a child. Just a few weeks afterwards, the first entry I wrote was: ‘After school I wrote two stories and a poem. I felt like writing. My biggest dream is to be an author.'


A FEW MONTHS later, I wrote: 'In Katherine Mansfield's diary she writes that she doesn't get enough out of her stories. I understand completely as it has happened to me. Let me explain. If you have a good story in your head you want to write it down straightaway (sic). Well you mightn't feel like writing but you think; I might forget it if I don't. So you write it down and it's not good. You can never write it again. If anyone reads this and says it is ridiculously eggaterated (sic) they are wrong. I am genuine and honest when I say that writing is the most important thing of my life.

‘To continue with yesterday. I didn't quite give the idea. (a) the idea is probably very good or unusual etc. You go over the details glossing over, improving it. You get your pen and paper and immediately begin to write. All those wonderful details, the whole idea is written down but the thought the foundations of the thing that made you want to write the story is lost. So therefore you don't get enough out of it. A writer must try and put all she has into it if it's a good story it must be – you must make the most of it. There, I'm talking like an old and experienced writer. God! I feel strangely experienced.'

I read voraciously, wrote stories and analysed them in my diary. I was always thinking intently and secretively. Just turned eleven, I wrote: ‘I haven't been writing much these last few days because I'm a little sick of everything. In this entry I'm going to summerize (sic) my feelings I've been having – whether I'm making too much of small things I want to find truly. This writing burb of mine is hard to explain – I shouldn't worry about it now – but I do. I can't help it. I must get to the bottom of everything. I want to write or rather to improve my writing all the time. My writing is just ordinary, I think, but I always jot down things and then get lost in the story. I can't help it. Maybe I'll just keep on writing forever writing and hoping. That's what I'll do.'

I wrote my first ‘novel' (ten pages, which was very long for me) when I was ten called Such is Life. It was about a small orphan girl, a heavily disguised ten-year-old who is adopted by her very conventional uptight uncle and aunt. It is all about the fear of losing my identity. At one point she has a dream that her ‘Mummy had come to her and put her arms around her and she had looked so pretty. She had said, "Don't give in. Be your own little self". What strange words. Nina still remembered and puzzled over them.'

The heroine discovers her aunt and uncle are religious. ‘She had heard of that before. They probably went to church every Sunday! We never went to church, thought Nina, but Mummy often says God and Jesus so she must be a bit religious.'

At the very end, Nina is seen through the eyes of some cousins. ‘Just then the door opened and a young girl came in. She had permed hair and a pink nylon frock and a hideous strap shoes. They stared at her as she came towards them. ‘Hello. Are you my cousins? It's so nice seeing you. I must hurry though because Aunt May and Uncle Adam are waiting outside. I'm going to the church dance. You know, I have so many late nights. Aunt May says it will ruin my health. I said, "it's giddy youth". She tittered nervously.'

Once she goes out, the two drunken cousins, eyebrows raised (presumably at the hideous strap shoes as well as the loss of her mind), toast each other and one of them says ‘such is life'.


THESE CHILDISH STORIES are full of relationships and problems of idendity, obsessively reworking friends, lovers, families, often with dramatically angst-ridden endings. I wrote masses of these kinds of stories before I was fourteen, as well as keeping a diary. There are only a few exotic adventure stories. Most of them were to do with a child's observations of the people around her. I was trying my hand, experimenting all the time, and each story reflected whoever I was reading. There are crude traces of the styles of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, J.D. Salinger and Anne Frank, among others, but slowly and surely I was developing my own voice. Although I wrote a lot of essays and stories for school, my ‘real' writing was done in secret.

Once I showed my parents my nature diary and they called me into their bedroom the next morning. I came in embarrassed at the faint smell of their bodies in bed, their smiling faces looking at me, already deeply regretting that I'd shown it to them. They told me the diary was a good idea but to watch my handwriting because it was deteriorating. They meant well but from then on I was obsessive about keeping my writing to myself. Occasionally one of my sisters would read my diary, causing huge ructions. The worst time (funny in retrospect) was Jackie starting to quote passages from it to the whole family when we were travelling somewhere in the car. I couldn't shut her up. Later on I burnt most of my 1959 and 1960s diaries. All the same, it was a good instinct to work at pieces until I was finished before showing them to anyone. This became a lifelong habit.

I sent A Good Clean Boy, a lightly satirical story in unmistakable Salinger vein, to Landfall when I was thirteen, without of course discussing it with anyone.

‘Cracker Jack,' I wrote, ‘Guess? I sent a story into Landfall, a quarterly with a very high standard of literature and I received this letter:

"Dear Miss Hall, (my nom de plume)

"I enjoyed reading your story. Thank you and wonder if you have any other stories, long or short, that you could let me see?

"Yours sincerely, Charles Brasch."

‘I hadn't told him my age or anything, but I'm so thrilled. I'm absolutely THRILLED!!!!!' Then, ‘Now I'm absolutely worried STIFF!!! I've decided I'll send two stories, the fishing one and a long sophisticated one! I'm trying to get inspiration, I've started no less than five stories in three days and they are HOPELESS. What in Heaven's name will I bloody well do? Help me, help!!!!'


IT'S PROBABLY SIGNIFICANT that I didn't write in my diary for months after that – it may have traumatised me for life. Years later, when my father told Charles Brasch the story, he said he would definitely have published it had he known my age.

As for many precocious young readers of the late '50s, for me The Catcher in the Rye was a revelation about the coolness of alienation and the phoniness of the world. It was our most secret voice, seductive and wonderful, and I devoured all Salinger's books. I wrote a book review for school in which I recklessly tried to compare Franny and Zooey with Pride and Prejudice. It was the first time I'd read a writer who was familiar with people who were so like my own family. It was only many years later that I understood why John Lennon's killer had a copy in his pocket as he shot him or what a poisonous anti-woman rave Franny and Zooey is, as Zooey slowly cuts the ground from under Franny's feet with every word, denying her a reality and an identity with that subtle male technique with which most women become pretty familiar at some time in their lives.

I wrote a series of dialogues between two characters, Carlo and Dansa, which I think was modelled on Bernard Shaw. They took opposite positions on free love, pacifism and religion, and argued them out for pages each. It was an attempt on my part to clarify my own ideas. My feminism came from observation, but that was a cry from the heart as well. I wrote essays on nuclear disarmament, capital punishment and the perils of advertising, as well as devoting pages of my diary to political ideas and events like the American missile crisis, when we all thought it was possible we might die. My first effort at political spin doctoring for a good cause was a hilariously feeble and patently unconvincing letter to a teenagers' advice column in a magazine. I was sure it was subtle enough to secure the block Sunday School vote for our Ban the Bomb march:

‘Dear Dee,

‘These Easter holidays my mother wanted to send me to my Bible class camp, but I heard of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march which begins in Featherston on Good Friday and finishes in Wellington. As I am very interested in what CND think I would like to go. However although I could go with some adult friends of my parents Mother is still worried about what people will think. Do you think I should go?

‘Yours faithfully

‘Worried (Sharlene Hibberd)'


WE ARE ALL obsessed about looking respectable to persuade the masses to our cause, and were pretty unhappy about poor Owen Gager wearing a duffel coat on our first Ban the Bomb march down the main street in Auckland.

The very first thing I ever published was a letter to the paper about the success of the march, though my last stern paragraph was deleted by the editor. I kept waiting for the sky to fall, thrilled and aghast at my own daring, until I realised that no one had even so much as mentioned it. It was my first experience of censorship, as well as the deafening silence that often greets publication.

These early fumbling attempts set the pattern for a lifetime of writing, with its heady combination of anxiety, pleasure, obsession and total immersion. It was a way of making sense of the world, and I was hooked from the beginning.

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