It's easier to be motivated to learn as an adult

13th February 2004 at 00:00
... I took A-level Ancient Greek at 33 because I was jealous of friends who knew other languages

I occasionally describe my boarding school as an open prison with good cultural facilities. It was efficient if nothing else. They could have got a horse through A-levels. They didn't need great teachers. An authoritarian system of report cards, punishments and 24-hour supervision meant you needed a superhuman independence of mind to avoid doing the work you were set. I was beaten once but enjoyed the work, even if the teaching was rarely inspiring.

I wasn't very happy at school, but very few people are, I suspect. I learned how to make other people laugh and how to play the system. I held the post of house captain - often an excuse for wielding draconian power - for two terms without administering any punishments; it was anarchy, but it was well-behaved and good-tempered anarchy.

I loved reading science books as a child, especially The Origins of the Universe by Albert H Hinkelbein, which I was given for a prize at junior school. I still oscillate between science and literature in my reading and I am a great consumer of popular science. I also started drawing early, making my first doodles on the back of my father's architectural plans. I read very little fiction before the age of 12 when I discovered modern literature (I remember reading The Lord of the Rings one week and Camus's The Outsider the next). Having taken my first batch of A-levels early, I stayed at school for another year to take further maths and English. The former was fun but the latter was the beginning of a lifetime's vocation.

People assume that I must have been a maths prodigy because Christopher (the narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) loves maths, but if you're good at maths it "clicks", and sometimes it clicks early. French and history never click in the same way. I'll have a maths phase every month or so, which means that every time I sit down I work on a puzzle. I also paint a lot when I need a break from writing, which is like thinking without using words; it cleans out your head.

Oxford is a place for the self-motivated. Eighty per cent of my energy was taken up with working out who I was and what I was going to do with my life. I was given the space to drift for two years. Few kids can do that today in the pressurised, product-driven culture that this government has tried to force on to education, but it's a vital part of learning even if you can't put it in your CV. I remember reading Germaine Greer, Kate Millett and the Spare Rib Reader during my first year at university and discovering a view of the world very contrary to the one I had been given at school. It can be very exciting to discover that everything you've been taught might be wrong.

It's easier to be motivated to learn as an adult. I took A-level Ancient Greek at 33 because I was jealous of friends who knew other languages. I did both Latin and Greek at school but I'd forgotten every word. I didn't bother with an evening class: I got the textbooks, texts and syllabus, worked out a schedule for myself and got on with it.

I've known for a long time that writing is what I'm on the planet for, and as a tutor on Arvon creative writing courses I enjoy teaching people who are discovering this for the first time. But I'm not sure that creative writing is a subject well served by formal education. I've received much excellent advice over the years but have not followed it until I've found it out for myself in practice.

I'm now surrounded with wonderful people as agents and publishers, but mostly, my life as a writer has been spent working on my own, finding my own quirky path. The most important quality for a writer to have is sheer bloody-minded determination, the ability to sit in a room for a year or two and follow your own lights. Sadly, no one can teach you that.

Author and Whitbread prizewinner Mark Haddon was talking to Geraldine Brennan


1962 Born Northampton

1980-83 Reads English at Oxford. Followed by posts with Community Service Volunteers and disability groups and work as a freelance illustrator

1984-85 MSc at Edinburgh University

1987 Gilbert's Gobstopper, first of 18 books for children, published by Hamish Hamilton

2003 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time published by David Fickling Books and Jonathan Cape (jointly for children and adults). Wins Booktrust Teenage Prize, Guardian Children's Fiction Award and Whitbread Novel Award

January 2004 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time wins South Bank Show book prize and Whitbread Book of the Year award

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