The ‘how to be a writer’ genre of DIY books is vast and ever-growing. Classics like Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, revered by generations of MFA students, jostle for space with dime a dozen advice manuals, promising tricks of the trade and overnight best-selling success. But Ruskin Bond may be one of the first writers to pitch such a book to young readers. His latest release, How To Be A Writer, is a slim volume, charmingly illustrated by Shamika Chavez and Chaaya Prabhat, and filled with practical advice to young people keen to embark early on the literary path.
It’s fitting that Bond is the dispenser of such wisdom. His first book came out before he was barely out of his teens and he has since published at least one book every year with unfailing regularity for the last seven decades. “My mother wanted me to join the army when I finished school,” the 86-year-old says with a guffaw on the phone from his home in the Uttarakhand hills. “But I had a very different idea.”
In 1951, The Illustrated Weekly of India published Bond’s first story—“I still remember the thrill of seeing my name in print for the first time!”—and set him on the track to being a writer. But it was a far cry from instant success. In those days, publishers of English books were hard to find in India, as were many books in the shops. “There weren’t the kind of visual media we have now to project the writer’s personality,” Bond says. The rewards, too, were modest and innocent. When he got paid for his first story, his friends demanded a “party”. So off they went to celebrate with samosas and fizzy drinks. Now, of course, the rise of literary festivals and launch events in the last decade has shifted the attention on to the persona of the writer. “All sorts of people have become famous—even some who don’t deserve to be!” Another guffaw.
The new book is enlivened by Bond’s signature wit and capacity for finding joy in the small things. Not only does he help young writers get started, he explains to them ways of sustaining a writing regime, bolstered with reading lists and real-life examples. There are whimsical, but entertaining, detours into the books of Charles Dickens and W. Somerset Maugham, two writers Bond adores, and their craft. The nuts and bolts of plot, character, style and voice are all explained in detail, as are the intangible aspects of a writer’s life—the solitary nature of the pursuit, the uncertainty of an income, and the perils of being stuck in a writer’s block.
Bond says he is frequently accosted by children who want to become a writer. But is it ever going t be a viable “career” option actively promoted by parents, teachers and guardians? Tina Narang, Bond’s publisher at HarperCollins India, says, “There are many children and young adults who are aspiring to write. We receive many manuscripts from children and parents of children who believe strongly in their child’s work or talent.” With the advent of liberal arts education in India, as well as creative writing programmes mushrooming online, writing as a professional choice may not be as unthinkable as it once was.
“For me, it was the thing I could do best, though I did have to work at odd jobs from time to time to make a living,” Bond says. “Of course, I left those jobs as soon as I had made enough to tide over.” Fame and success, especially for creative professionals, don’t follow a rule or fixed formula. “So many people have the ambition but not the skills to write,” Bond says. “You must be sure that you can make it as a writer and, in any case, always keep another profession in mind. You are not likely to become famous overnight.”