When I was promoted to the rank of professor, the library at the university where I was then employed asked me to send them the name of a book that had been useful to me in my career. I chose VS Naipaul’s Finding the Center. The library then purchased a copy, which was duly displayed in one of its rooms, with a statement I had written about the book:
This was one of the first literary autobiographies that I read. Its very first sentence established in my mind the idea of writing as an opening in time or a beginning; it conveyed to me, with its movement and rhythm, a history of repeated striving, and of things coming together, at last, in the achievement of the printed word: “It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book.”
This first sentence—about a first sentence—created an echo in my head. It has lasted through the twenty years of my writing life. The ambition and the anxiety of the beginner is there at the beginning of each book. Every time I start to write, I am reminded of Naipaul’s book.
But that wasn’t the whole truth, neither about Naipaul, nor about beginnings. The sentence I had quoted had mattered to me, yes, and so had the book, but what had really helped was Naipaul’s telling an interviewer that in an effort to write clearly, he had turned himself into a beginner: “It took a lot of work to do it. In the beginning I had to forget everything I had written by the age of 22. I abandoned everything and began to write like a child at school. Almost writing ‘the cat sat on the mat’. I almost began like that.”