This is the story of how I became a writer.
Here I am, in my first year at Wadestown Side School. The junior classes were in their own building, at the top of a very steep street.
Which one is me? Here's a few clues: I'm not in the very front or the very back row, and I have short, fair hair.
The Children’s Page
At that time, the Evening Post newspaper used to run a Saturday column called For the children. You could send in a story, poem or drawing and if it was published, you got a number of points.
My first story was printed in the Children's Page when I was six, and I got five points.
It went like this:
The dachshund who ran away
Once there was a dachshund who was afraid of storms. One day there was a bad storm, and the dachshund ran away and was not seen ever after.
His colour was brown. He was named Roddy. He looked sweet. His master was very sad to lose him because he was so lovely.
At that time we did have a dog who was a dachshund named Roddy, and lots of people asked if he had run away because they read the story in the paper.
Every Saturday night I would look in the paper to see if they had printed one of my stories or poems. I kept writing until I had 100 points.
When you earned 100 points, you got your photo in the paper and a book token. Then you could try to earn stars, marks and finally laurels.
Each time you reached 100, you got another book token, and if you were lucky, you could go and watch the newspapers rolling off the printing presses.
I wrote for the Post from when I was five until I was about thirteen.
My first book?
When I was ten, a friend and I decided we would write a book together. It was going to be about a journey in outer space. Barbara was much better at drawing than me, so she did the illustrations and I wrote the story. In the end it was 90 pages long.
I still have the book and sometimes I take it along on school visits. It reminds me that even when I was young, I always wanted to be a writer.
Has anyone read this?
I used to read a lot as well. When I was growing up there weren't a lot of NZ children's books published, so most of the ones I read were set in England or America. I remember the librarian leaning over the desk and telling me that I was too young to take out Harriet the spy, but I did take it out and I loved it.
When I was in Year Eight, our teacher read us a book called The phantom tollbooth. Before he started, he asked, "has anyone already read this book?" I put my hand up. The teacher sighed and said, "I should have known."
(If you haven't read The phantom tollbooth, try and find a copy. It's very funny.)
I wrote lots of letters. I wrote to Carol, my penfriend in Canada, for about six years. I also wrote to Glenda in South Africa, Fa in Niue, Lise in Norway, Mieko in Japan, Natalie in a different part of Canada and several others.
Young Writers Award
At high school, I entered the Bank of New Zealand Young Writers Award. My story, called Creation, was highly commended. The principal read it out in front of the whole school. Many years later, I have met former students who still remember the impact it had on them as they listened to it.
The Junior Section was judged by a New Zealand writer called Noel Hilliard. His judge's report was the first contact I ever had with a writer. It would be years before I ever met any writers in person. That's one reason why I like visiting schools, because I would love to have been able to meet writers when I was young.
Click to read my story Creation.
At New Plymouth Girls' High School, I was lucky to have a very special English teacher. Mrs Gaskin knew Shakespeare back to front, and still does. (In fact she was the first woman in New Zealand to win Mastermind in 1983, on the topic of Shakes-peare's plays.) She had a passion for English language and literature that she passed on to many of her pupils.
Recently I went to Ida Gaskin's 90th birthday party. She played a big role in my journey towards becoming a writer.
Around the world
After I'd finished school and been to university, I travelled round England and hitchhiked around Europe. Later I got married and we did more travelling together, in Asia and Europe.
Our longest trip was from London to Beijing overland – 6000 km by bus, ferry, train and other means of public transport, without catching a plane!
During this time, I worked as a librarian. I wrote a few stories and poems, but mostly I wrote pages of diaries, journals and letters.
When the first of our three daughters was born, I read her lots of nursery rhymes, stories and picture books.
One day I came across a newspaper article about the School Journal. I decided to try and write something for them.
The first stories I sent in weren't accepted, but the School Journal editors were very helpful and encouraging. With their support I kept on trying until my first story was accepted.
Since then, I've written more than 70 stories, poems, plays and articles for the School Journal. I've written lots of other things, including several children's novels, but the School Journal is still very special to me and I'm very proud of the material I've had published there.
How I feel about being a writer
Finally, here are some words from New Zealand writer Nigel Cox.
I have this quotation on the pinboard over my desk, because it's just how I feel.
"Fundamentally I am unbelievably grateful to be a writer... I wanted to be one and it seemed impossible but then gradually it became more possible and then I got better at it. It has been an immense source of satisfaction and pleasure to me."
(Interview with Damien Wilkins in Sport 34 (2006) reprinted in Phone home Berlin)