6mm lines

by Stephanie on May 13, 2008

All my love affairs end in November. I don’t know whether it’s due to the alignment of the stars or the end of the school year or the fact that I’m a masochist who wants to give myself the most excruciating birthday possible, but memo: future lovers. November is high-risk territory.

One particular November, I broke up with a boy in the beach car park at Rickett’s Point. He’d already bought my birthday present but hadn’t had a chance to give it to me, so at the conclusion of my spiel he reached over to the back seat and handed me a small package. It was a notebook: royal purple, covered in hearts, and on the front of it there was a little gold-embossed quote about following your dreams.

It was obviously intended to be a bit special, and when I was eight years old I probably would have loved it, but at eighteen my writer’s quirks were rapidly becoming habits and absolutely everything about this notebook was wrong. It had coloured paper (more like card than paper), wide lines, a designated space at the top of every page for the date and the trite little quote repeated at the bottom. I can’t stand to waste paper – even if it’s horrible – and it took me ages to throw the thing out. I used it for shopping lists and scrap until moving out of home forced me to part with absolutely everything I didn’t need.

We were never a good match. I am a feminist agnostic with a major in Philosophy and English; I write stories about abused girls with illegitimate babies, gay men getting mugged in alleys, drug-taking, sex, loneliness, despair and euphoria – he is married at 24 and studying to be a minister. I heard on the grapevine he writes a Bible name, chapter and verse on the back of his hand before he plays basketball to stop himself getting angry. It always used to rain when I was out with him – every day except for the one we split – and that spring birthed some crazy storms. Sometimes I think the storms were the earth’s way of showing its displeasure. (He would probably say it was God telling him to drop the heathen. It was obviously never meant to be.)

The birthday present, however, stuck in my mind. Perhaps it comes with the territory – being picky about the words you use makes you picky about the surface upon which you place them, because as much as the words themselves are the most important part and don’t judge a book by its cover, quality stationery is all about respect. It was also my final year at school, and at Presentation Night not long afterwards, the principal presented me with a plaque, Stasiland by Anna Funder and a beautiful unruled A5 Moleskine notebook. I would probably have preferred 6mm ruled, but I decided then that my school really had understood what it was all about, just as the former boyfriend so obviously hadn’t.

One afternoon not very long ago, while shopping for books in Brunswick, I had the unexpected foresight to purchase a packet of three pocket-sized Moleskine cahiers. I dithered before buying them – I wondered when I’d get to writing in them. Back in high school, when I believed I was qualified to write what one might (loosely, very loosely) term ‘poetry’, I would swallow notebooks whole; numbering every page, filling them in as short a time as a couple of months, depending on how many free periods and unrequited loves I had. These days I choose my words more carefully. Notebooks are forever only half-full and I have more of them than I could possibly need. But for once my purchases weren’t mere indulgence: one has found a home in the pocket of my satchel and one sits permanently on the bedside table with my alarm clock and a fine blue pen. Too many nights I’ve been wrapped in the lazy haze of almost-sleep when something splutters in the corner of my mind – a spark, a little brighter than the rest – and too many times I’ve thought, “If I repeat this to myself, I’ll remember it in the morning and I won’t have to move right now.” But it doesn’t work like that. I need words on paper or the spark flickers out and the thought slides quietly away.

My crazy MA supervisor once said (although she was probably plagiarising) that if you can harness those moments between awake and asleep – the space between the conscious and the unconscious – that is where the real stories come from. I wonder what I could have found over the years if every time I’d seen that spark I’d climbed out of sleep far enough to blearily scribble half a sentence. For the last few months I’ve tried to get up early and write – to sit in the sun and find inspiration in the patterns of living ‘normally’. But there’s something about the quiet of post-midnight – a solitude you only get when everyone around you is asleep – that really unshackles my mind and gives it space to run.

When I am in love with someone, my writing takes second place. I spend my nights lying awake in a cocoon of tangled limbs instead of the cool blue light of my computer screen or an armchair with a blanket and a pen. It’s okay for a little while but not for the long term. I am not sure how to fix it. Why should writing and love be constantly in opposition? The boys with bad taste in notebooks are easy; not so those who actually matter.

Sometimes I wonder if underneath it all I already know the ending. In Coetzee’s Foe, Susan Barton asks, “Without desire how is it possible to make a story?” On page 9 of my bedside notebook in the loopy scrawl of 3am some weeks ago, it says:

I’m going to be a bag lady one day
with a trolley full of junk.

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