Reading Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love plunged me back into vivid memories of my teens and twenties, for the first time in a long time. I think we all have these ready narratives about ourselves, and by the time you’re in your (mid? late??) thirties you have your twenties down to a series of funny and symbolic anecdotes that sum up the general experience as you want to remember it. This book brought flooding back all the bits that were left on the cutting room floor. The breakups and uncertainty and self-loathing, the cringing self-consciousness and empty nights wondering what we’d become.
I never felt in a rush, as Dolly did, to be an adult. Lord knows there are still moments when I find myself confidently shifting gears in our manual car, or completing a tax return, and think proudly ‘I’m almost a real adult!’. To be clear: I am 37.
Like Dolly, I went to boarding school, but unlike Dolly there was not a bar for students. Nor were there boys. The combination of access to both those things as a fifteen or sixteen-year-old blows my mind now; I can’t imagine how I would have coped at that age. She is right, though, that after those years of institutional living it is still a thrill to realise you have the autonomy to stay up as late as you like, eat whatever you like, do whatever you like. (Until you have a child, and then your decisions, like your body, are beholden to someone even more insistent than a pack of nuns.)
My teens particularly were a long rush of longing and Dolly is spot-on in her observation about how you come to rely on fantasy and imagination in lieu of any actual boys. When you are faced with real teenage human boys after years of mental erotic fan fiction it is quite a come-down, though actual kissing was almost never a disappointment, and I conducted exhaustive research in the area.
I feel like I owe a blanket apology slash ‘you’re welcome’ to the large group of boys we knocked about with in our first years out of school, almost all of whom I kissed at some stage, and who served as my delayed training wheels of socialisation with the opposite sex. In retrospect it was all relatively chaste, although these make-out sessions were usually mortifyingly public. I kissed boys in pub beer gardens, on dance floors, on street corners, in pools and backyards and other people’s rooms, and the backseats of moving cars.
Those were years of letting go of what I’d spent a lifetime expecting in terms of romance. But there was something still viscerally thrilling about colliding with flesh-and-blood boys rather than the ones of my imagination. Laughter and running and shared cigarettes and slopped beers and the faux casual touch of an arm around your waist or shoulder that was anything but an accident. Everything was nakedly horny but intentions were never explicitly spoken; there was only heady tension bubbling under a joking conversation until suddenly, inevitably, you were finally kissing instead.
From my earliest memories I felt a pure certainty that my life was leading toward two things. I would have a great love, and I would be a writer, and once both these simple things were achieved life would really begin. From St George to Toowoomba, to Brisbane, to Sydney, to New York, and zigzagging back again, it was always those two things I was searching for. Thinking I understood what they were, then realising I had no idea. Slowly understanding they weren’t checkboxes to unlock a new level of real life, but that an entire life could pass without grasping either one.
I suppose I’ve been thinking about this time because of the conversations I’ve had with people recently who want to know my background as a writer. I’ve been trying to figure out how I went from the absolute, unquestioning certainty of my childhood, teens and early twenties that I would be a writer, to the rather desolate stretch of my thirties when I didn’t create much of anything.
In those early days I was writing furiously – diaries, reviews, interviews, stories, uni work, the occasional late night bout of poetry. And even in my New York days I was blogging, writing recipes and confessionals. But before starting my book I hadn’t really written fiction, outside of a few stories for competitions and uni electives, for years.
That’s how I remember it, but then I keep finding little stories and snippets and short films I wrote in New York. And they’re not completely terrible. I suppose there was a mental hurdle around passing the age limit for the Vogel prize, hitting thirty and thinking ‘you haven’t written a book or anything of consequence by now, it’s never going to happen’.
Of course, good things can still happen after you turn 30. For me personally, some of the very best things have happened after 30. And maybe I finally felt free and secure to turn my mind to my dearest childhood dream because I found my great love story, and with it the everyday sweetness and support, that finally put an end to the fizzing restlessness of waiting, wondering and hoping if I’d ever find it.
Writing a book doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s precisely the incremental progress of seeing a novel take shape that has brought me some of the greatest happiness of my life. (Becoming a parent at the same time is no coincidence to the joy graph sky-rocketing). Writing a book is really fucking hard, too, but now I’m at the fun part where I get to look back on it and rewrite history just a little. And perhaps that’s why I ended my acknowledgements in the book on this note:
Like Stevie, I learned that just because you’ve aged out of being a prodigy, it doesn’t mean you can’t create something. Maybe all those years of not writing helped make me a better writer, somehow. But if you’re reading this, beating yourself up for not meeting your goal: it’s never too late to start.