I have gathered a collection of some of the greatest books on writing by some of the best scribes in the field. Ernest Hemmingway’s On Writing (in sum: use fewer words). Strunk & White. Stephen King’s On Writing, which is shockingly good and devastatingly honest (describing his children holding up “blood spattered coke spoons” at his intervention just floored me). And of course, Why I Write, by George Orwell, which I re-read once a year a) because I love Orwell with a fervent passion and b) because it’s utterly spectacular. And short. As I age and my time becomes ever more limited, authors with the good manners to keep their works to a manageable size rise ever higher in my estimation. (Mantel… 900 pages? I don’t have the space in my life for you. Sorry. Be more considerate next time.)
There is only one work on the meaning and purpose of writing which I can recite by heart. I keep it nailed to my wall, and glance at it weekly.
It is a letter to me from Roald Dahl, replying to my fan mail, sent in 1990.
Roald Dahl died on the 23rd of November 1990 – less than two months after he sent this to me. Apparently he spent his dying days replying to his mountains of fan mail, because the impact that he had made on his readers truly did matter to him.
That is a lesson I never want to forget.