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I’m writing these words by hand. By the time you read them, a stylish typeface will have replaced the inky hooks and loops I’m making in my notebook. I’m scratching sentences across the page, forming ribboning tails and curling ligatures because this is the way I write best. Nearly all my words are written by hand. This is how I write my truth.
For years, I failed to finish – and in several cases properly start – things I was writing because a computer was the wrong medium. Writers are craftspeople. We use tools to make our work. A potter cannot easily fashion a round teapot without a wheel. A painter cannot paint a delicate watercolour with too fat a brush. Choosing the right tools is important.
My tools are a notebook and pen. Nothing too fancy that would intimidate me – just a small exercise book and a blue biro; easy and cheap to come by. Empty, a notebook is almost worthless. Full, it becomes treasure. Over weeks, as seasons turn, I watch the paper staining with the patina of my words, pressed together between the pages like dried flowers.
You can take a notebook places a computer cannot go. A notebook is small – you can slip it in your pocket; a notebook is secret – you can hold it close. A notebook does not run out of battery or overheat. I wrote All The Little Places entirely by hand, in a notebook on the train. I wrote standing on the platform, squeezed against the sliding doors, sitting in the luggage rack. Writing by hand allowed me to write.
Writing by hand shapes my words. They flow liquidly from the end of my arm - from the hot centre of me, from the source of me. Sometimes I cannot write fast enough - my fingers scamper left to right, struggling to catch the words pouring from inside. I am often ink-stained, and where my pen rests on my finger, my body has grown a small soft callus. Writing by hand has marked me, too.
I’ve been walking a lot. Around my neighbourhood, mostly. My feet know the way down the pitted tarmac road and through the gate into the park, where the land undulates beneath them. My ankles flex on the incline – a steep slope and a scramble under the trees. Instinctively, I push uphill, pounding my legs into the earth like pistons. I can hear myself, breathing.
Exercise is good for you – the voice of my school PE teacher echoes in my blood-filled head. At the time, I thought she meant that swinging from monkey bars and jogging across the sweat-stinking sportshall was good for my growing body. Now, I know something else. All this walking, you see, is good for thinking too – there’s something about movement that creates lucidity.
Usually, it takes twenty minutes of left, right, left, before the path becomes clear and I can see the horizon. I push away thick brambles that snag on my jacket and exhale tangled thoughts until I feel my mind opening, then the words come – sometimes an idea, sometimes a phrase, sometimes whole sentences. The rhythm of my footsteps sounds like a heartbeat, like a poem.
The scenery in my head is very different to the textures of the park that my eyes see. I think about places that are a million footsteps from the soil I am walking on - places from another time, imagined places I would like to visit, places that are far away.
I like walking up mountains and I have trekked through some beautiful and fascinating landscapes. I remember one early mountain morning, tracing my fingers over the map before I set out. The answers I sought were trapped between the contour lines that wound round the eastern shore of a turquoise lake, waiting for me. To find them, I had to walk.
One of the things I like best about walking up mountains is the achievement of reaching a summit using just my own two feet – no engine or electrics; the energy comes from me. At the bottom, I take a long, hard look at my goal, and steel myself. It takes hours before I reach the top, and it’s hard work. Here is a metaphor for writing. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, and have faith in your own grunting effort. I’m going for a walk.
When I’m not writing, I like to spend time by the river. I go because I’m looking for treasure – I’m a mudlark, which means someone who searches the foreshore for the flotsam of lives, the pieces of history that rattle around on the riverbank. I find small fragments of glazed tile - green, white, yellow and brown. Marbles, winking up at me from the silt, a vulcanised rubber stopper, the teeth of a horse - some still in the jawbone. Delftware and willow in glorious blue, length after length of clay pipe. The river decides what it wants to offer me, and I am always grateful.
Yesterday, the river gave me a different kind of treasure: a lesson. I have been thinking about writing a particular thing for years, and working on it for months now – something long, and large. The magnitude of it has overwhelmed me, and most days I have been afraid I will not be able to find all the words. I can feel the weight of it, holding my clarity under the waves, drowning any ability I might have to write it all.
Sometimes I feel the same way when I am searching by the river - I worry I will not have time to look at the whole foreshore, because it is so big and there is so much treasure to discover. On these days, I find almost nothing – my mind races as I scan hurriedly between flinty pebbles and pieces of brick, and I am lucky if I find solace, let alone artefacts.
Yesterday, I decided to see what would happen if I looked in just one small area, no bigger than two square metres. There is work to be done here, I told myself, crouching down and scraping my trowel gently through the grit. My eyes adjusted to smaller details – pins prickled to the surface, copper nails fell into my hand. I listened to the foreshore fizzing and bubbling as the tide leached back into the river.
As I stood up, watching the wind ruffle a goose and ripple waves on the water, I heard the river telling me what to do. Be patient, it said, look carefully. So that’s what I’m doing now, and it seems to be working. I’m slow, but it’s something - my work feels measured, deliberate. I’m finding the words, one at a time, as they show themselves to me, and storing them away in my treasure bag. Thank you, river.
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