Writing Lessons

Keep Wonder Alive

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By Simon Winchester

June 23, 2014


 

The letter was postmarked Criccieth, North Wales, September 12, 1966. It had taken three weeks to get to my lonely corner of East Africa, and it was brought to me, somewhat crumpled and murrum-stained, by my Ugandan camp-servant.

I was at the time living and working—quite alone, except for a dozen or so locally hired workers, my camp-servant being one—as a geologist. My home was a large tented compound in the bush outside the small market-village of Kyenjojo, in the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains. If ever I were later to suffer delusions of post-Imperial grandeur, then this—a British redoubt in the heart of Africa’s gorilla country—was where the ills were hatched.

But I was by no means a success at my work, performing tasks quite evidently not my calling. My job had been to find, for the Canadian miners who had seen fit to employ me, indications of copper in the local soils. But in six months I had contrived to uncover nothing even vaguely cupric. Not a microgram. Not a hint.

Hence my hopes for this long-awaited letter. It was a letter that I had long imagined would never arrive—for why, after all, would an esteemed figure of British literature bother to write back to a 20-something deep in the African jungle, a callow youth who had so pathetically and cringingly sent an inquiry asking: Is it possible that I could ever become a writer?

But now, on this crisp autumn day, James Morris—Everest-climber, Venice-biographer, writer even back then of classic books on Spain, Oxford, America—had indeed replied. From Criccieth. He had thought about my question for a week; and then he had typed his reply on a single sheet of dove-gray writing paper, his home address embossed in vermilion.

His letter was brief, encouraging, enthusiastic. A writing career was entirely possible, he reassured me. I should pursue it, in single-minded fashion, from the very moment I received his letter. I would never regret it. Though fortune would probably long elude me, the work would be fun and the task noble.

And from that crumpled sheet of paper, still in a desk drawer, one line of advice above all has remained most firmly in my mind. If you ever do become a writer, James Morris wrote, you will visit many places, encounter many strangers, experience countless things. Through it all, however, keep true to one single mantra, he said: never, ever, lose your sense of wonder.

There have been many amazements in the decades since. And yet perhaps I reserve the most grateful expression of my still-surviving sense of wonderment for a simple fact of the world’s postal services, now falling into abandonment: that a letter from Criccieth in North Wales had managed to get all the way into the hills of far western Uganda, and to me in my lonely tent. That is wonderment indeed, and it utterly changed my life.

Simon Winchester is writing a book about the modern Pacific Ocean. James—now Jan—Morris remains one of his closest friends.

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