"I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas--I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in "The Portrait of a Lady" as well as the next person, "imagery" being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention--but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of "Paradise Lost," to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in "Paradise Lost," the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer."
Joan Didion, "Why I Write"
All the old notebooks are stuffed into a shoebox somewhere under my bed, along with the letters and the bits and pieces, the scraps of note paper ripped out carefully, quietly from the back pages of books and passed from hand to hand in class, the thoughts, the ideas, the impressions, the ideas of impressions, the stuff and the things, all of that. Maybe it's more than one shoe box, actually it's certainly a few different shoe boxes. They're all still there. The copy of Herodotus that I pasted with bits of confetti and chocolate wrappers and lipstick kisses and pressed lavender and things that mean something to sixteen year olds (I had just read The English Patient). I've still got the mini moleskines filled with my HSC study notes for Ancient History, the creased, worn-out edition of "Emma" that is filled with asterixes and exclamation points, the reams and reams and reams of white paper filled with stuff and things, ideas and impressions, thoughts, bits, pieces, me. The uni readers with impatiently scribbled, hastily composed exhortations on their covers ("MILK", "CALL VERONICA", "PLEASE DO YOUR BIBLIOGRAPHY" - well at least I was polite). Later it would all be on my computer - or here - one big notebook, one big shoebox filled with the stuff and the things that mean something to me. One way or another they're all still there, and here.
Sometimes I just don't know what to do with it all. Usually these days are the end point of conversations about the future, of hours lost on seek, of attempts to clean up the mess in my room ("Hannah-Rose you have too much stuff when are you going to get rid of some of it?"). It's anxiety borne out of my fear of the end of university, anxiety that in four years I haven't really learnt anything, not at all. Anxiety about what I'm going to do with the next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, for the rest of my life. Leafing through those papers, there are so, so many, but sometimes in the middle of the day when I should be doing other, more important things I do just that, I am struck by the details that stuck in my mind. Whispered conversations - for notes passed in class are always cast in the cadence of whispers, right? - about boys with golden hair, about the inconsistency of a lecturer's dress code (thongs with cable knit sweaters? even my sandal-and-coat preference has a problem with this), about nail polish colours. Lists of books that I wanted to read and others that I wanted never to live without, lists of groceries to be bought and enjoyed, recipes with amendments (mostly just added ginger and cinnamon, always), ideas and impressions, thoughts and stuff and things.
I remember the first time I read "Why I Write" by Joan Didion, the address she gave at Berkeley in her first year of tenure there, later published in The New York Times Magazine. I'm not the only one, as Caitlin Flanaghan noted, women seem to always carry with them - (vividly, so vividly) - the experience of reading Joan Didion. Well, for the story's sake I was 18 and so young, a girl, travelling by myself for the first time and spending days wandering New York waiting for my friend to finish school, upon which we would catch the subway to Union Square and eat Indian food before her afternoon ballet class. I can't remember where I picked it up from - it was probably at her place, because her parents are incredibly well read, and have bookshelves stocked with everything from Edith Wharton to Jonathan Safran Foer (it was her mother, after all, who pressed upon me a copy of I Capture the Castle, the book that probably has impacted more upon me than anything else, for obvious reasons). I read it. And I read it again. And then I read it for a third time, on the plane home, about to start university. I, too, defined myself in negatives. I wasn't going to be a doctor like my parents, I didn't have a boyfriend like my friends, I wasn't moving out of home, I didn't know what I wanted to be, even if I thought I knew what I wanted to do. It didn't quite make sense to me then, as it does now. But I revisited it almost yearly throughout university. And here I am again. I had a conversation with a friend yesterday, walking past Celine and Louis Vuitton and Chanel on the Avenue Montaigne about what we were going to do when we grew up, properly. She asked me why I wanted to be a writer. I gabbled out something about loving writing, about feeling comfortable doing it. But that's not really why I write. I feel comfortable eating, sleeping, sitting in my garden and reading but that's not why I do any of those things, or at least not the full reason. Really I should have said this to her; that I write because I always have, that it's the way I process and remember and catalogue and convey, because I have shoeboxes full of the stuff under my bed that I will never, never throw away, and because, like Joan - always like Joan - if I actually had the answer to that question I wouldn't have to.