When I was a bored teenager, my father tried to persuade me to pass the time by writing something. He delivered lyrical harangues extolling “the challenge of a blank sheet of paper.” At the time, his words meant nothing, because like most children I took up a pen only reluctantly, at school, under threat of sanctions.
Today, however, father’s invocation has an irresistible resonance, because not only do I earn my living by writing but I also love to do it. Each morning, switching on the computer and gazing into the screen, I feel a thrill of excitement at the prospect of filling it with words—and also confidence, rooted now in 45 years’ experience—that somebody, somewhere will be willing to read what I write.
But there was no instant bound from teenage lethargy to becoming a happy writer. In between lay, as for most of us in our trade, years of pounding the keys strictly for cash. I am the third generation of my family to write. One of my grandfathers was a playwright and essayist, the other a literary critic. My mother was a magazine editor and newspaper columnist, my father a prolific journalist, TV presenter, and occasional novelist.
The lesson I learned from them early is that it is necessary to ask an editor only three questions: how many words, by when, and for how much? A character in a 1912 hit play of my grandfather’s says to an author: “Bah! Your plays are just prostitution.” The author replies: “I’m not proud of them, but I’m proud of the fact that I can sell them.” I do not mean to imply that we have all been hacks, indifferent to the quality of our work—far from it—but that we have seen little point in putting pen to paper unless somebody might pay for the outcome.
During vacations from Oxford, I worked on the gossip column of the London Evening Standard. Back at the university, I was invited to contribute to its student newspaper. With unforgivable crassness, I told the editor that I could not bring myself to write for nothing when somebody else was willing to offer cash. When the Standard offered me a staff job soon afterwards, I immediately accepted, and to the fury of my family left Oxford without taking a degree.
There followed a long newspaper apprenticeship, much of it conducted in exciting parts of the world such as the United States, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East. Even if a young writer has ultimate ambitions as a novelist or historian, there is much to be said for starting in newspapers, because the trade offers peerless opportunities to write thousands of words a week, and have somebody tell you what is wrong with them.
A few years ago, a publisher suggested producing a book of my collected journalism. I looked back through my cuttings files and hastily declined. It was not that I was ashamed of the work, much of it produced in harsh circumstances at great speed, but it represented only the scribblings of a callow tyro. One critic observed that my first book, published when I was 23—a portrait of the United States in tumultuous 1968—“reflects the author’s youth and innocence.”
Many novelists produce extraordinary work in their 20s, but I was not one of them. It took me years of labor before I began to write with the assurance—misplaced or otherwise—I feel today, at the age of 65, with more than 20 books behind me. The money still matters. Save for occasional writing or speeches for charitable causes, I still drive a tough bargain for every word. But never for a moment do I forget how privileged I am to spend every day of my life doing that which I love: responding to “the challenge of a blank sheet of paper.”
Max Hastings is the author of Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945, due out from Knopf in November. He has served as a foreign correspondent and as the editor of Britain’s Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph and has received numerous British Press awards, including Journalist of the Year in 1982 and Editor of the Year in 1988. He lives outside London.