My Journey to Being a Writer

Learning how to read was the best gift of my life. My parents complained that when I was reading, someone could stand next to me and speak, and I wouldn’t hear them, so absorbed would I be in the book.

I read with a torch under the bedcovers or sat on the windowsill at night when I should have been asleep. I wrote poetry while I waited for fairies to dance in the garden.

When I announced I wanted to be a writer, my parents scoffed: “No one writes; that’s not a career.” They ignored the wealth of words in libraries and the media. I then said I wanted to be a vet, so my mother took me to the local vet, who told me that it wasn’t a job for a girl. What sealed it, was that part of the studies would be in Afrikaans at Onderstepoort. I grew up in Zambia in my early years, so my Afrikaans was always swak. I understand it, but my spoken Afrikaans is not good.

Becoming a journalist was an act of the gods. I met Kevin Murray, who worked at The Star, and he encouraged me to apply for the Argus Cadet Course. I did and was interviewed by Deputy Star editor John Pitt. I asked Kevin about him beforehand and learned he’d just returned from Antarctica. I was desperately shy and anxious about my lack of credentials, so I asked him about Antarctica at the start of the interview. And discovered that journalists love to talk about their adventures. His tales of Antarctica took up the entire interview. He laughed at the end and said: “I think you’ll make a good journalist.”

I was the 13th on a course that should have had only 12; I was by far the youngest and without a degree. Journalism became my passion. It gave this shy child a voice and helped me give the voiceless a say.

When I moved to the United States, I knew none but my colleagues at Harvard University. I was in a job with a female boss who was the worst bully I’ve ever encountered. Plus, New Englanders aren’t the friendliest folk, so I decided to try to teach a writing course at the local adult education centre to meet people. To my surprise, my students were psychologists, academics from Harvard and Boston universities, venture capitalists and others. They loved the course so much that after the six weeks were up, they insisted I continue teaching them. The group had also bonded well. An astrophysicist provided a free venue at Harvard, and each week, I met my students who paid me more than I earned at the adult education centre. They also became my friends.

They told others about me, and so my business as a writing coach and developmental editor developed. My students write about everything from research papers to memoirs, historical non-fiction to inspiration for caregivers, travels to fiction. My students are on five continents and they have educated me more than my Master’s degree and the many creative writing courses I’ve taken from Stanford to Yale, Harvard, the universities of Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Iowa, as well as Oxford.

Charlene and books

These are books I recommend to my students. I hope you find one that will help your writing journey:

King, Stephen. On writing: a memoir of the craft. New York: Scribner, 2000.

Writing Tools (10th Anniversary Edition): 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark.

Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the dead: a writer on writing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

 Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2008 (a small book, but in my view, the best on writing memoir).

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of NonFiction.

Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer, who is head of the world’s largest publishing firm, Penguin Random House, is also a developmental editor (as am I).

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction (recommended by Oxford University in their creative writing degree courses)

Wood, David, How Fiction Works (also recommended by Oxford)

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. Harper Perennial. 1988

Corbett, David. The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV. Penguin. 2013.

Boleslavsky, Richard. Acting: The First Six Lessons. New York.  Theatre Arts Books. (1969) (Yes, it’s about acting, but the lessons are important for writers)

Gornick, Vivian. The situation and the story: the art of personal narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Murfin, Ross and May, Supriyia M. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 3rd edition.

Eiben, Therese, and Mary Gannon. The practical writer: from inspiration to publication. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Coetzee, J.M and Arabella Kurtz. The good story: exchanges on truth, fiction and psychotherapy 

Garner, Brian. Better Business Writing, Harvard Business Review. Helpful writing tips for everyone.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak Memory.

Plotnik, Arthur. The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists.

Benjamin, Walter. The Storyteller. 1936. German philosopher and cultural critic in an essay about the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, in a thoughtful narration about the art of storytelling, as important today as it was as the Second World War drew close.


– The Chicago Manual of Style – the style guide every publisher follows, you must ensure your writing style conforms. Please do not waste your time or the publishers, writing in MLA, APA or anything else; they will throw your manuscript back at you – or fail to respond. This book is costly; rather, use Owl Purdue on the web for Chicago, MLA, APA and essential writing tips.


– Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir.

Brooks, Melanie. Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma. Beacon Press. Boston.

– Dillard, Annie. The writing life. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Fish, Stanley. How to Write A Sentence and How to Read One.

– Hills, L. Rust. Writing in general and the short story in particular: an informal textbook. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

– Kazin, Alfred. The open form: essays for our time. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.

– Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir.

Norris, Mary. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

McPhee, John, The 4th Draft

– Sutherland, John. A Little History of Literature.

Object Lessons: The Art of the Short Story: The Paris Review 


Charlene Smith is a multi award-winning journalist, author, book editor, and writing coach Authorized biographer of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela.

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