This is the story of several coincidences, or how I wrote or didn’t write my second book, and my hope is that by the end, as in all good stories, we might see literature anew.
From June 2017 to May 2019 I worked for Sydney Trains as a train guard, and on my breaks I liked to walk to my favourite restaurants and write or try to write or at least try to sketch the outlines of those stories from the migraine that existed in my head. The work, like most work, was enjoyable and insufferable – but, mostly, I was able to pretend that I was doing something important, something that mattered, or at least something that mattered to me. At Lidcombe, I would walk to that café that sold the five-dollar crab apple sandwiches and try to write about wanting to read but being unable to read; at Campbeltown, I would eat manoosh, or walk to that new cafe with the four-dollar cheese cake, or, when I had time, eat pho at that Vietnamese restaurant while trying to describe what a ten-month migraine does to a person, and the events that surrounded the afternoon I nearly jumped in front of a train. Occasionally, though, the work became impossible, and I would sit in defeat calling myself a failure until I remembered that I was being paid by the railway, and that the migraine, mostly, was over and that, usually, I could read.
One evening, on my break at Blacktown, I walked to El Jannah and ordered a quarter chicken and chips. It was a Tuesday around 10.30pm, and, unable to write, I sat at the last table on the footpath and read from Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. The story was called ‘Chance Traveller’, and Murakami was about to recall a few strange coincidences of his own when I heard an Irish voice and looked up and saw John or a man who I thought was John and his wife walking down the street. John was – is – a writer; in 2015, my first, and his second, book had come out more or less at the same time, although primarily, if memory serves, we knew each other through partying, those fantastic parties Sydney used to have before Covid-19 and before the lockdowns, before we each had our own breakdowns, and John returned to Ireland to work on his family farm. There, he had written The Cow Book – a bestseller in Ireland, and a stunning exploration of his own failings and the reparations he had made in his own life; we had not seen each other in four years, and, as I would soon find out, he had returned to Australia, briefly, on a book tour.
John! What the hell are you doing here? I asked, or wanted to ask, although in reality, at least during those first moments, I said nothing; I felt self-conscious, stunned: beyond the greasy chips and dead bird, it seemed unimaginable that this man, this writer, who had proven the possibility of rewriting his own story, would appear, miraculously, out of thin air, and in that moment I recall the unbearable weight and stench of my train uniform, the way it consumed, choked – as if, suddenly, the writer in me were fighting for his life, trying, again, to break free. Eventually, though, I yelled out, John! and he turned, and smiled; he introduced me to his wife. For a while, we spoke: about the book tour, about running, about the world and all the strange and implausible events that had to occur for us to be together, again. Then, towards the end, he said, And what about you? How’s your writing going? By then, I had already made the decision to quit the railway and move to Spain, and I lied and told him that the writing was going well, that I was writing a book about the railway, but also about the migraine, and he said, That’s brilliant, mate. And do you have an agent? Naa, I said, or tried to say, smiling, almost, because the thought that anyone would want to represent me seemed absurd, and because all I had were these scattered paragraphs written on the backs of train diagrams in pen and pencil that amounted to less than five thousand words. Well, when you have a manuscript why don’t you go ahead and send it to me, he said, and we’ll see what we can do.
It wasn’t a few months later, shortly before I quit the railway and moved to Barcelona, that I went to the library in Double Bay and found a book on dreams. I had been having these dreams that were, on reflection, probably nightmares – where trains derailed and doors remain closed and faces appeared to be laughing, although, on closer inspection, were always crying and twisted with pain. The book was called Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey by Alice Robb, and when I returned home I placed it on top of my growing, desperate, pile of self-help books next to my bed and forgot it.
But the following day I opened the dreams book and found a bookmark between the pages. On one side of the bookmark read BIBLIOTECA DE CATALUNYA and on the other: BARCELONA. I remember exhaling, looking around, returning to the bookmark, then staring at the flight itinerary to Barcelona I had pinned to my wall. We get it! Sam said, later, when I showed him the bookmark and the dreams book. You’re going to Barcelona! though, in the end, even he was smiling that bizarre, conspiratorial smile we used to smile as children, back when we used to believe in mystery and wonder, before we grew up and turned our back on the little people inside us and turned the miraculous away. By then we were at the Eveleigh Hotel, on our third or fourth margarita. I don’t remember what we spoke about, but I do remember we had those ridiculous shaved heads that made Sam look like a criminal and me look like an egg; we need a refresh! Sam had said, and so we abandoned our hair, but in truth I had wanted to hurt. I was recently single; my actions had caused pain to someone I cared for deeply, and every time I looked in the mirror I saw an ugliness I assured myself I deserved.
Eventually, we stumbled home, but that night, before bed, I remember turning the bookmark over, then over again in my hands, wondering, absurdly, if it meant something, as if I were a character in a detective novel looking for signs, hoping, praying, desperately that something, somewhere, meant something.
Then, one afternoon, I discovered I would not receive my visa. There had been a mistake, entirely my own. I had arrived at the Spanish consulate, manila folder under my arm containing police reports, university scores, bank statements, passport and, absurdly, letters of recommendation, and in my best Spanish, I repeated the phrase I had been repeating all morning: Hola. Yo necisito una visa. But the man simply replied that, No, they did not dispense visas, that I had to apply online. Later, I learned that the online appointments were booked for the next three months, and that afternoon, in a state of shock then self-loathing then fear, I called my sister and told her that everything was fucked. Who cares! she said. Go for three months, then go somewhere else! But that was the thing I wanted to avoid: the coming and the going, the travelling. I’d been working, travelling on the train for two years and I wanted to put down roots, to stop, rest, pause. I wanted, I realise, now, impossibility: to write a book where, for once, storytelling might mirror reality, and to make this new city that could never be my city my home.
In May 2019, I moved to Barcelona, to Raval, to that neighbourhood I was told was a child by day, an adult by night and dead between two and four in the morning. You’re in Raval, Robbie would say, eyes raised, with an expression that meant we were no longer children, or that we were no longer in Sydney, let alone Brisbane, and privately I would swallow those words with a mixture of excitement and fear understanding, suddenly, that I no longer knew where or who or what I was.
Throughout that first week, I remember waking early to do push-ups, showering cold, then listening to Rosalia’s Malamente and Con Altura, the music that always seemed to play from the internal courtyard that faced my room. I remember visiting Robbie’s workplace, trying to speak Spanish, wishing I spoke more Spanish, filling exercise books with English Spanish translations, conjugations, then berating myself when I forgot the Spanish immediately. I remember writing or trying to write, though being unable to, walking around those streets that smelled of weed and trash and piss, and those moments my heart beat so rapidly it was all I could do to breathe. Once or twice, I remember walking aimlessly around that bookstore La Central and staring at those books by Roberto Bolaño, Valeria Luiselli and Julio Cortázar, reading, briefly, those introductory paragraphs, before calling my sister and trying to pretend I was not in tears. I don’t know what I’m doing, I said, or tried to say, because I did not have the words to describe that suddenly it felt insane to be 31, to have quit the railway, to have no plan beyond the vague and fantastic notion of writing a book, or perhaps not insane, but clichéd, pathetic, indulgent, terrifying – because who the fuck was I, I said, to think that I might write something that mattered, to think that I could just pack up and leave and make this new city my own.
In the beginning, Robbie insisted on meeting at Barceloneta Beach every morning at 7am. Routine! Robbie would say. That’s where it’s at, and so each morning, at least during those first few weeks, no matter what time we went to bed, I would run the four or so kilometres to the beach and we would meet and swim and do pull ups.
How’s the writing going? Robbie would ask, sometimes, on the way home, and I would smile and tell him, Not bad, though as the days wore on I would imagine that pathetic, half-sketched character who was not me but who closely resembled me lying on his half-sketched bed holding his half-sketched head and that voice in my head would call me useless, a failure and, while, mostly, on the surface, I would remain enthusiastic, jovial, quietly, underneath, I had begun to occupy a space close to mental paralysis because I did not know how to tell Robbie that I did not know how to build the world that Oliver required – although, after a while, I would simply say that the writing wasn’t going, or that I did not know. Give yourself time, Robbie said, and just relax! But deep down I couldn’t relax because without the trains and without writing I knew, or I told myself, that I wasn’t anyone or anything at all.
Mostly, though, I buried or tried to bury those thoughts, and in the afternoons instead of writing or trying to write I would visit my housemate, Mayte, at her shop, or Robbie and Maddie at their work for lunch, or I would simply walk the streets then return home to lie on my bed or read until the time came to meet Robbie and Juan and Miguel and Marti and Fer and Fanny at Deu Dits, this bouldering gym on the other side of town. It was not the newest gym, nor was it the largest, but it had heart, soul, and we would climb for two or three hours, then do pull ups and stretch, and each day I felt myself improving, becoming stronger – then one day Robbie said, No more English. No more English, I repeated, nodding, terrified, suddenly, by the prospect of failure, of appearing stupid, of committing forcible mistake after forcible mistake, but after a period of resistance and embarrassment, of stuttering and searching, the bouldering gym became a place of Spanish or broken Spanish and, occasionally, fragmented Catalan, of laughter and inquiry, of learning and play. Vamos bicho! I learned to say, a phrase that means: let’s go, bug – one of those Spanish rock climbing phrase that made, and still makes, me want to give up speaking English forever.
It’s funny – as my Spanish improved, my desire to communicate in English diminished. I enjoyed Spanish sentences, their directness, but more than that I enjoyed the reprieve from my thoughts that anyone can access with only a little commitment to learning another language while refusing to speak their own. Instead of thinking while I spoke – doubting, questioning, celebrating – I found myself simply expressing, or if not expressing then reciting those memorised phrases that kept most conversations afloat, and this holiday from my internal monologue had a profoundly liberating effect on who I was or who I thought I was because like other transformative, although sometimes fleeting, occasionally regrettable experiences in my life – writing, running, performing, climbing, drugs, sex – it made me feel intensely present. Sometimes an idea will visit you, and though you think you have received it, interacted with it, danced with it, you have not, Elizabeth Gilbert says, or I think she says, now, and occasionally, if you are lucky, if the idea feels loved, safe it will even give you a second chance so that its true purpose might be revealed. I wonder, perhaps, if that is happening now, whether this chapter, this essay, is less about language and more about thoughts, that, in the end, I enjoyed talking or trying to talk in Spanish because it allowed me to learn that crucial, wonderful lesson I do not recall learning in school: that we are absolutely, incredibly, not our thoughts.
But the writing wasn’t going well, and after climbing, after beers and pizza at that restaurant around the corner, after Robbie and I would ride home, yelling, laughing, racing, trying to time those green lights along Carrer d’Ali Bei so that we never had to stop, after we said goodbye I would stay up until two or three or four in the morning, staring at my Word document, listening to those embarrassing, nostalgic songs I would never play to anyone, writing or trying to write, to re-enter the headspace of the migraine, to breathe life into a character very much like myself or the memory or story version of myself, trying to design or recreate a world that I could not see clearly, obscured and warped, occasionally erased, by pain, but trying, anyway, desperately, to guide this character through those sentences, to save him, because, suddenly, again, I had become a god who had trapped a fictional version of himself in horrible world, and while I had survived, had even rid myself of the migraine, I did not know whether I was strong enough, skilled enough, courageous enough to deliver this character from that invented hell, and that guilt, that inability to perform, to save him, buried me.
Very occasionally, I would think that what I had written was powerful, that I had accurately translated those pictures and scenes from my mind to the page, but mostly I remember feeling so sickened by what I had produced that my neck would seize and the shovel inside my head would once more smash my frontal lobe and I would lie on the floor with my neck supported like I had done all those years ago, and suddenly I would wonder who was trapping who, whether, the fictional me was, instead, trapping the so-called real me, and silently, I would call myself pathetic, and weep.
I am going to live or try to live in Spanish, and write in English, I recall writing, once, on some literature residency or grant application that, obviously, was never approved, but in the end, I suppose, the result was the same, and over time I even developed a routine and found several cafes that would allow me to sit in a mixture of self-loathing and occasional surprise with my notebook and laptop in front of me while I drank Vichy Catalan, or green tea, or more commonly beer, and while I was not technically writing, I was moving around paragraphs, occasionally adding and subtracting, and I felt useful, or almost useful, or more importantly, surrounded by people, less alone. In the end, though, the only cafe I went to was on the corner of Carrer dels Tallers and Carrer de les Ramelleres, where I abandoned that migraine book and began writing those fictional stories that I would never show anyone, and at the end of each day I would throw those papers, gleefully, dramatically, in the bin. But what is the point of writing if all you do is destroy it? Maddie asked, one evening, at Bar Brutal. I don’t know, I said, honestly, although perhaps, in hindsight, I do know: because what interests me, now, about this rather banal memory, this almost masochistic display of destruction, is not that I would abandon story, but that I would abandon outcome, that I would focus on process, that instead of improving my stories I was learning or relearning to love the mechanical, the physical, what that eminent Australian architect Richard Leplastrier calls: the relentless pursuit of pure purpose – that the point of a story might have less or nothing to do with story, but more or everything to do with the pen, and the way, occasionally, it might suspend thought when racing through a sentence, a paragraph, like this one, before stopping, briefly, at each full stop.
Course, at the time, I wasn’t thinking about any of that; I was simply pretending, I told myself, to a be a writer with the vague hope that one day that fiction might become true.
One afternoon, after a day of writing sentences only to delete them, I closed that blank document and went for a run. I ran harder than usual; I was angry, or I was scared, and I sprinted, almost comically, until I could no longer breathe. At some point, I called Sam and told him that I missed him, Sydney, our friends. I thought I would make friends instantly, I said, suddenly aware how pathetic I sounded. And I have made friends, but – and then I told him I missed being hugged, kissed, touched. I confessed, as if it were something to be ashamed of, that I had not been touched, properly touched, by anyone since I arrived. Maybe this is a period of not being touched, Sam said, and then, in that higher octave, in that octave where I could see his smile, Maybe this a period of learning to touch yourself.
It’s comical, almost, now, to pause, to return and acknowledge those jokes told by friends that, in the end, were never jokes at all – because, of course, there is that wonderful and terrible metaphor that writing, and especially the writing of ourselves or the translated versions of ourselves, is masturbation, that it is indulgent, frowned upon – that if we absolutely must it should be done quickly, in private, then locked away or hidden, like in a journal, and never spoken about again. But masturbation, as it turns out, and despite the rhetoric learned from parents or media or church or school, is not evil but a form of self-love where, away from screens, we might connect to our breath and settle into a state of flow where we lose sight of goals and distractions and simply reward ourselves for being who we are. To write, then, or to practice writing well, is to unlearn certain perfectionist, goal-orientated behaviours we learned from adolescence, and to be with ourselves for lengthy periods of time, strictly, in discipline, in compassion, in exploration, in kindness.
But, at the time, it was not funny, and I remember smiling, or almost smiling, trying to smile. Besides, Sam said. Of course you can’t make close friends straight away. Those take time, but Papi – give yourself a break! You’re in Barcelona! Soak it up! Treat yourself to some tapas and sangria! Sangria’s not the problem, I said, my voice cracking, then hating myself for it. I just – I can’t – I don’t know how to write.
I’ve quit writing, I told my sister one afternoon, and to her credit she accepted that lie with grace and compassion, and even congratulated me for it. And, for a while, even, that lie became truth, and instead of writing I walked around museums and galleries, or I hiked up Tibidabo, or I simply rode my bicycle through various neighbourhoods listening to music. Once, I caught the train to Tarragona because I thought, or I thought I had read, that Bolaño had lived in Tarragona, but he had lived in Barcelona, and then Blanes, and so, instead, I stared at that second century Roman amphitheatre; I drank vermouth; I walked along the beach and sat on the beach and watched people play in the water.
It’s just hard, I told Maddie, another night while staring at my hands at Negroni. What’s hard? she asked. I don’t know, I said, immediately feeling pathetic – and then, for the next hour, I rambled on about wanting, but not having a mentor, or a boss, or security, or a clear path, although, in the end, all I communicated was that I was scared, that I had a problem believing in myself. You know, Maddie said, as we were leaving, if you can’t write about the migraine, why don’t you write about that? About what? About believing in yourself.
Another night I returned home from climbing and Mayte was having a girl’s night; everyone was drunk and laughing and I wanted to be drunk and laughing too. For a while, I stood there waiting to be invited, but I wasn’t invited. So I said, Have a good night! and returned to my room. Then, absurdly, I burst into tears. But these weren’t normal tears. These were heaving, inconsolable tears. Irrational – absolutely, but that’s how it was. I think, deep down, I knew that I had always distracted myself from writing about the migraine through friends and drugs and alcohol, and suddenly, in that room, I knew there was no one to blame for my inability to produce but myself.
At some point, there was a knock on the door. I remember my stomach, the way it knotted, suddenly, with fear: they had heard me wailing, I was sure of it, and I began wiping my eyes, trying to erase that private world that I did not want anyone to see. But in the end it was just Mayte’s friend, the one I had a vague crush on, wondering whether I had any weed. Oh yeah, I said, staring at the floor, but then she said, Hey, are you okay? and before I knew it, I was crying again. I felt ashamed, embarrassed – I still do – I did not know how to articulate my problems to myself, let alone a stranger, and I wished, rather melodramatically, to disappear. But then, after I gave her the weed, she asked if I wanted to join them, and even though I declined, finally, I smiled because the image of myself trying to explain to a group of girls that I had been crying because I could not write seemed absurd, and because, suddenly, I remembered that quote by Scott McClanahan that I still think about more than all the others, that quote I would trade all the words I have ever written to have written: I knew he believed in something that none of us ever do anymore. He believed in the nastiest word in the world. He believed in KINDNESS. Please tell me you remember kindness. Please tell me you remember kindness and joy, you cool motherfuckers.
Life, I suppose, unlike a story, or a certain kind of story, is not plotted, and scenes, even those memorable ones, are forgotten, although occasionally they resurface, and after another day of not writing at that café on the corner of Carrer dels Tallers and Carrer de les Ramelleres, I returned home and buried my face beneath my pillow. I wanted to scream but I could not scream; I did not want anyone to know or hear and I did not want to put anyone out. So I punched myself in the bladder. Then I did it again. Then I wrapped my hands around my throat and choked myself until I couldn’t breathe. For a while, I lay in the heat. At some point, I slept, and when I woke from that horrible dream I decided to read. I was rereading Bolaño’s Last Evenings On Earth, that text I had fallen in love with all those years ago, and that, inside, on the front cover, I had written: this holds the key to something, but I couldn’t find it; my bag was too full, so I turned it upside down. There, amongst old notes, books and pens was the bookmark from my dreams book, and for a while I stared at those words: BIBLIOTECA DE CATALUNYA wondering, suddenly, where that library was. So I typed the name of the library into Google Maps and a short, blue path appeared. I walked from my bedroom to the living room and stared over the balcony. The library from my dreams book was right across the road.
I remember, that afternoon, walking slowly towards the library, under that archway that Danny would later be robbed of his gold chain, then staring, in suspicion, in hope, at its façade, and that building that had once been the former Hospital de la Santa Creu but was now a home for books, and allowing myself, briefly, the metaphor that even the most rigid structures could change. But when I tried to enter I was unable to; I did not have a library card, and could not get one, so instead I sat outside the library and read ‘The Last Evenings On Earth’, that story that gave the book its title, a story so sparse, so beautiful, that, even now, when I read it, I still become hopelessly, dizzyingly, lost. But, halfway through, I grew tired; the heat was unbearable, and my head began to burn, but I couldn’t go home, not yet, not after the punching, the choking, so instead I returned to the café on Carrer dels Tallers and Carrer de les Ramelleres and ordered a beer and thought about all the stupid and fucked up decisions I’d ever made. I thought how I’d been a train guard once but was a train guard no more and how I would never have that security again. I thought how I’d hurt the person I’d cared for the most and I deserved to be alone and I deserved pain. I couldn’t write and I would never be able to write and that invisible me deserved to be trapped in that horrific labyrinth from which the visible me could only watch, while offering no way out.
How do we talk about those miracles that haunt, that take us outside ourselves and allow us, however briefly, to believe in the world again? At some point, drinking another beer, staring idly at ‘The Last Evenings On Earth’ I began to wonder where Bolaño had lived in Barcelona, and where he wrote. Eventually, I found an article in El Pais that said Bolaño had lived in Raval: en el numero 45 de la Calle Tallers, and then, in another article titled ‘The Wild Side of Barcelona Literature’the author claimed Bolaño had frequented the bar on the corner of Ramalleres, 27, and in something between shock and incredulity and awe, I showed the barman the article and the directions and asked where they were and he smiled and pointed around us and said, Aqui. For a moment, I couldn’t move, could only stare; then he took my arm and outside, around a corner I had never bothered to look, he pointed to a plaque that read: En aquesta casa va viure l’elscriptor i poeta Roberto Bolaño, and finally, I exhaled – for a moment, through the window, I stared at those tables, and, briefly, in secret, allowed myself a fragment, an alternate narrative where I dared to imagine Bolaño and I sharing the same seat, writing or trying to write, inside.
That afternoon, after I got home, I told Mayte about the bookmark in my dreams book and the library across the road. I told her how every day I wrote at the same café, and out of all the cafes in Barcelona it was the same café that Bolaño had written at, and that he had lived in the apartment above. I told her I didn’t believe in much in this world, but I did believe in stories – even those broken, fragmented ones. I told her storytelling was time travel, and then I looked away and allowed myself, once more, that dream where Bolaño’s ghost and I sat next to one another and the world felt less alone. And then, finally, I asked her if she thought it meant something. I wanted to tell her but didn’t tell her about the paralysis I felt in front of the page, the screen; I wanted to tell her but didn’t tell her about that hatred, deep hatred, I felt when I couldn’t produce. I wanted, in the end, hope – to know whether she thought I was crazy, whether, in the absence of so-called real support or mentors it might be possible to raise those literary heroes from the dead.
Of course, Mayte said, her eyes wide, and then, with her hand on my arm, Don’t you see? It means everything.
Listen: this story could be told a million different ways; it could even be a happy story, the story where a character moves to Barcelona for three months and flirts with Spanish before continuing his travels elsewhere, but this isn’t that story, this is that private story, that hidden story, that story we falsify and distort, hoping, praying, it will never be seen.
Here are some quick, happy stories: I remember on that first, or second, outdoor climbing trip staring up at the cliff face while Juan patted his dog, Boston, and Robbie and Marti spoke: about the climb, or about their lives, or about the future of graphic design or literature or magazines, although, in truth, I do not remember what they spoke about, only the way they way they spoke – with such directness and sincerity and humour and conviction, and I felt, perhaps, for the first time, that these were men I could learn from, that, one day, I might even talk to others and myself like that, and I knew if I ever wrote about Spain, I would write about that moment, and the way, lead-climbing outdoors for the first time, they yelled encouragement as I attempted, though failed, to clip my rope through the next draw, and as my arms and legs shook, as I yelled, Tension, or, I’m going to fall, Juan yelled, Te tengo, that uncommon phrase that means, I have you, and I fell two or three metres before stopping, suspended, in golden light, above the forest or almost forest floor.
And I remember the day after arriving to Barcelona piling into a rental car with Robbie and Marti and Clemente and driving to the Pyrenees and hiking, gloriously, on snow shoes, for hours until we arrived at the refugio that we had, by luck, entirely to ourselves, and as the sun went down I remember feeling so jetlagged and tired but also, positively, absolutely, alive and later, by candle light, we ate dried meats and cheese and perhaps, though I cannot recall, even some wine, and eventually, after talking for several hours, Robbie said, Tell them some stories, and I played Seekae and Nils Frahm and Thomas Gray & Liam Ebbs – those musicians I am writing and even listening to now – while I told those stories about the migraine I had performed in Sydney only several days earlier, and Clemente put his hand on my shoulder and told me, a stranger, That really touched me, and Robbie said, Yeah boy, smiling, and before bed, unable or barely unable to keep my eyes open, Clemente said that he wanted to take a photo.
Ottessa Moshfegh in a recent interview with Apartmento: My relationship to creativity is that I always want to feel creative and I always want to be having fun with it, but I’m not always able to do that. So I hang in there for what feels like really hard work, because it is, and I earn myself 10 minutes of ecstatic creativity after maybe eight hours, and then in hindsight it’s all been fun, but it hasn’t always been easy.
I love this quote – because it’s true, and because it exemplifies the importance of ritual, process, and brings to mind that wonderful and clichéd metaphor of a climber not staring at the peak of a mountain but at their shoes, trusting in their footsteps, sentences, paragraphs, fragments – because of course this essay was supposed to be different. In the beginning, I had planned to write something about creativity, or my growing understanding of creativity, or about certain problems I faced while writing or trying to write, or about certain authors and people I learned from, or about what it meant to no longer have a migraine and to be able to write, or about how I quit the railway and left Australia and spent my life savings, absurdly, trying to write a book – and I had even written or tried to write myself letters full of anti-perfectionist reminders and Julia Cameron and Elizabeth Gilbert quotes and advice from those future conversations with Sam when, still working on that book and paralysed by fear, he told me that he had experienced those same terrifying seeds of doubt while working on his second album, but that all I had to do was get out of my head and return to my heart – you need to turn off the thinking, he said, and you need to return to a place of trust and love, and then he told me that we were going to create a mantra. He said, Every time your head says you can’t do something, you’re going to repeat: I am doubling down on myself, and then he told me he wanted me to write it out. He said I was to put that phrase next to my computer and every time I stopped working because of fear I would turn those words into a roar – because here’s what you have to remember, he said, finally: all the skills you have learned while practising your craft have got you to this point, and those skills, if you trust and believe in them, will continue to not only hold you, but your work will expand and grow and end up in places more interesting and unexpected than you could have ever dreamed – and I had even planned to send that letter, really send it with an address to myself in the past in the hopes that it might turn into a prayer or a sign or many signs, because I wanted, finally, to love myself, to give myself or the story version of myself, at least in literature, an assurance that everything would be okay, that Tim O’Brien had been right: that storytelling was alchemy and time travel was real, but in the end, this essay, this story, had other ideas.
One afternoon, in a state of unbridled optimism, I organised a reading in Madrid, and the following week I packed my bag and rode my bike towards the train station at Barcelona-Sants. I remember a light breeze, listening to Princess Nokia and pedalling between large groups of people, finally able to relax, as if I were on a holiday, which, even though I rejected that term, I suppose, I was. I remember, on the train, reading Alejandro Zambra’s Not To Read, and stumbling across his essay on Natalia Ginzburg whose Family Lexicon I had read in Sydney, and had left me unable to think about much else for weeks. At times he was very unhappy, Ginzburg wrote about her friend the poet Cesar Pavese, but for a long time we thought that he would be cured of this unhappiness when he decided to become an adult; his unhappiness seemed like that of a boy – the absent-minded, voluptuous melancholy of a boy who has not yet got his feet on the ground and who lives in the sterile, solitary world of his dreams. I recall, absurdly, turning that sentence over, then over in my head, staring at countryside, wondering, melodramatically, whether Ginzburg had written those words for lost boys like me.
In the end, Robbie and Mariana came to Madrid; six people attended the reading, and afterwards, Robbie said, I really liked it. I thanked him, although in truth I felt embarrassed – these were private, sketched or mostly sketched stories about the migraine I had written prior to Barcelona; I had performed them to people before, and they had responded with laughter and tears, and I wanted, more than anything, to move Robbie too. I looked up to him, and I wanted him to feel what I felt and to see what I saw; I wanted, if only briefly, for him to hurt, to smile, to understand, even a little, because, maybe, then, ludicrously, I would feel like what I was doing mattered, that what I was doing was not as wild and stupid as the voices told me, and perhaps, if only for a second, I would feel that I mattered too. This, of course, is preposterous, and later, in therapy, a psychologist would simply correct me and say: you seek validation from others while never giving it to yourself.
Later that night, at the Mexican bar, we had a fight. The particulars do not matter. The fight, like all fights, had little to do with one another, and more to do with ourselves.
And so I embarked on an unbearable two-week trip through Cordoba, Seville, Granada and Malaga. I was to leave Spain soon, and thought travel might fill the void left by literature, but in the end it was a disaster. Mostly all I remember was that horrific flamenco show in a cave where the performers were hung over, or still drunk, and American families kept yelling, Cerveza! and Bueno; the Russian mother and her thirty-year-old son who stayed up all night drinking vodka whispering, laughing, then whispering and yelling at one another from opposing beds; that girl who was crying inconsolably from her top bunk in the middle of the room. Robbie had lent me Johnno by David Malouf, and later I returned to the room because I wanted to read it at dinner, but when I turned to leave she apologised, and told me she was stressed. I’m so stressed! she said, and then she explained she was trying to write her masters thesis from this shitty, fucking dorm room. Fuck this dorm room, and fuck this heat! But, in the end, we went to dinner and she explained she was from Valencia, and that her life was in shambles. No really, she said. My boyfriend and I broke up several months ago; I’m finishing my thesis in a hostel dorm room; I’m smoking too many cigarettes, but at least I’m able to express my emotions. In any case, I’m over Spanish men. They’re romantic, but they’re all babies looking for a mother. And you, she said. What are you here for? Holiday? No, I told her, but then, before I realised, I was babbling about love or loss or loneliness, or about how people in Australia, or at least the people I knew, got fucked up and fucked, to which she said: of course you feel lonely – you’re in a place you know nothing about. Besides, all you foreigners think Spain is one big orgy. But we are deeply conservative: mostly, all the partying and fucking is done by all you guiris – que dices! Que va! I said, and for a while we laughed. But then she said, You didn’t answer my question. Why are you here? I’m not sure, I said, finally. I guess I’m trying to write something, but I don’t know how. The answer sounded as pathetic and cliché as it reads now, but she considered my answer, then said, Well, if you’re a writer, and you can’t write, maybe you should visit the house owned by the late poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
Ever since I was left somewhat alone, without gods, I have been a ferocious believer in the power of small coincidences, says the writer Valeria Luiselli, and the following day, on the way to Lorca’s house, I kept, silently, repeating his name. I kept recalling, repeating his name the way a person too important and beyond the scope of this story had, months earlier, before Spain, when we were in love or almost in love, before I fucked up and everything went to hell. I kept hearing her voice, her poetry, seeing the night she had said: Lorca visits me in my dreams, and when we arrived my breath cut short and I held it because I still had not forgiven myself, and I wanted to hurt. That afternoon, accompanied by a friend from the hostel, I walked around that poet’s house, and staring at that painting on the wall by Salvador Dalí I saw the night she had told me Dalí and Lorca used to be lovers, and from that memory burst other memories, and by the time we arrived at his desk I knew that if something didn’t change soon I would disappear. My friend, to her credit, must have known something was wrong, but instead of inquiring, she just nudged me and said, Pretty good desk. I bet even I could write a masterpiece here. What sort of masterpiece would you write? I’m not sure, she said, or I think she said, or I imagine she said, now. Probably something like Back To The Future, but with more romance – one of those stupid, literary stories where the characters attempt to fix their problems by travelling back in time.
This story should end here: with the protagonist apologising, once more, or better: with the protagonist, finally, forgiving himself, or best: with the protagonist picking up a few of those self-help books and learning to say I love you so that he might really hear it and learn to say it back – but now it seems clear that this story was never about the protagonist, that, in the end, he was no more than a secondary character in a larger narrative about second chances: a courier or vessel, briefly, for certain ideas before they returned, rightfully, home.
Shortly before leaving the poet’s house we visited the gift shop and I purchased Lorca’s Romance Gitonga: a present for Mayte to say thank you for allowing me to live in her home. Along with Robbie, she had made my transition to Barcelona incalculably easier, and I wanted to give her something that let her know I appreciated what she had done. But several days later, when I returned to Barcelona and gave her the book, she let out a deep, resounding, Nooooooooooo. Oliver, she said. Are you fucking kidding me? Then she told me an ex-boyfriend had gifted her a copy of that book, but after a fight she had thrown it out the window in a fit of rage. I never saw that book again, she said, although I thought about it often. I thought about it so much because I wanted it to come back but I knew I could never buy it. I always wanted to read that book, to know it, to apologise, and now you have brought that book home.
But now it was my turn to go silent – because several days earlier I had written a note on the front page, a note I would like you to read now:
This book is for you. I searched long and hard through Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, but it was, on my final day, that I found this book and it seemed to be screaming for you. We were at the poet’s house on a tour – perhaps it was the colour of the cover – who knows – but I knew it was for you. Sometimes, you just know.
Here’s the truth: I do not believe that the world is fated, but sometimes a series of events will transpire in such a way that it is hard not to believe in a God, or the universe, or something large and invisible suddenly revealing itself, as if to say that the purpose of the essay and life were the same: that our only objective is to firmly, and with great attention, to continue; to kindly, sincerely, try.
Perhaps it’s best to end like this: Sometimes, or often, it’s only in hindsight that we recognise certain paragraphs are meant for certain texts. There are essays, such as this one, where paragraphs written years ago are finally able to fit into a space, to come beautifully, gleefully, home. So, perhaps, now I write not for outcome or meaning or purpose, but for them: for those long, lost paragraphs that are waiting, finally, to come home.