‘Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps, for Mr. Dickens, at the time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully.’
– Stardust, Neil Gaiman
I was wistful. And full of whimsy. I noted it in my notebook, between a sketchy summary of my dwindling finances and a little map of Hanga Roa’s main drag. ‘I am alone with my whimsy.’ I can’t recall if I was perched on the golden sand of Anakena beach near the stoic squat Ahu Ature or bundled up against the biting wind as the waves beat the shore beside Ahu Te Pito Kura, but either way it was definitely picturesque and adjective-y. And whimsical. There were other statements too, bold and startling in my casual round cursive, written easily the way one signs their name on an office farewell card or jots an item on a shopping list. ‘I am a wandering ball of emotions: determined, petrified, defiant and brave.’ ‘I feel I am destined to wander this earth running from my fears and responsibilities’. ‘I will never be a real writer…’ It is perhaps pertinent to point out, though I did not realise it at the time, that this notebook – purchased from a small store in Santiago and lined with perfect mathematic grids – bore the words ‘Block Colón’ in jaunty graphic design across the front. It was entirely fitting. I was alone on Rapa Nui, terrible company for myself, and keeping the notebook of an anxious, ill-content writer shackled to an underwhelming, incomplete manuscript. One at pain with the world and herself. Emotionally backed up, to be sure.
This is the story of me and Neil Gaiman. And a nervous Spaniard called Carlos who lied to get a job in the middle of the Pacific. And Kevin Costner. But mostly it is about me. I had been travelling the world for several months, travelling it in a way that only an emerging writer can. Morose beneath the Eiffel tower, contemplative by the Cypriot cove from which Aphrodite sprang, mournful and moody at Neruda’s rugged coastal home, and all the while describing in my series of notebooks the many ways I would fail at my dreams. ‘This is a journey of self-reflection’ I scribbled at one point, underlining the word so harshly my pen tore through the page. Now, four years later, I’m not quite sure if this was an observation or commiseration, but I’d written a non-rhyming poem not long after so I obviously took heed. I had been travelling solo for long enough that I had, as is often the case, driven myself quite mad, finding meaning and happenstance in every occurrence.
The first thing I saw when I arrived at the hostel was a row of books, scraggly and uneven. Like most hostels, the pseudo-library was riffled and rejuvenated as travellers passed through, creating a kind of global literary exchange system. Right in the middle, staring straight at me, was a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Waiting for me, I was sure, in the way I was now sure that even the most mundane of things was an otherworldly sign speaking directly to me. I had adored Neil Gaiman since a teenager, and Stardust was one of the few books I’d yet to read. When the hostel manager turned away, I grabbed it from the shelf, clutching it to my chest in a way usually reserved for things that have a heartbeat. It was well-loved and dog-eared, the covers worn soft from use. The manager turned back, his face wrought with confusion.
‘I’ve only been here from Spain a week,’ he apologised, poking through a drawer for the keys.
But we’ll return to him shortly.
When I finally cast my backpack onto the bed in the large dorm, I was stricken with anguish. Here I was in one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world, surrounded by the relics of an ancient civilisation shrouded in mystery and enigma, but I also really just wanted to curl up and read. A ludicrous quandary, no doubt, but one my weary traveller’s mind and feet grappled with. So like all good emerging writers, I found a compromise. Neil travelled with me all over the island. He sat in my backpack, soaking up the sun, as I wandered down the main drag chomping on empanadas. He peered over my shoulder into the dusty glass cases as I pored through the artefacts in the curious little museo. He felt the wind ruffle his pages as I traversed the island by bike, all the while waiting patiently for me to rest beneath a palm tree or in the curve of a rock to rehydrate and drink up his words.
Amidst this, my notebook grew into a patchwork of writing. Snatches of scenes that would one day form the core of my first published novel, ideas for articles to pitch on my return, a piece about being terrible at high school PE that would end up – unpaid – on a lifestyle site before the week’s end. And dancing about it all, my anxieties as a writer yet to emerge, voiced through lists of ways to reinvent myself and pages littered with stream of consciousness doggerel that is indecipherable to me now. Apparently a better haircut would fix things. And more block colours in my wardrobe. More fibre. A writing schedule. A typical page included a snatch of Rapa Nui history, a self-aphorism and note of something wonderful I’d just read in the book. ‘28% of Rapa Nui’s fish aren’t found ANYWHERE else in the world…Kari kari show tonight at 8pm… Writers WRITE, idiot… Neil uses lots of commas but it works because he is a STORYTELLER…’ I muttered and scribbled, hiding away in cafes and corners for hours. Some of these mutterings I put into the mouths of my protagonists. Some I whispered to myself, dramatically murmured into the froth of my coffee as if I was a character in a long-running soap opera. Others yet, were delivered sotto voiced to Neil, because you must remember at this point that I was quite alone and quite mad.
Back at the hostel it turned out there were issues processing my payment. The manager, Carlos, fumbled through piles of paperwork then pawed ineffectually at the computer.
‘I’m sorry, I’m still getting used to how things work. When I applied for the job I said I’d worked in hostels in Mexico and Costa Rica.’
He looked reluctantly at the messy confused desk before him.
‘I lied. I’ve never worked in a hostel.’
Relief seemed to surge from his shoulders and float off into the brisk island air.
‘My dream is to open a hostel in Africa. In Togo. But I need the money first.’
‘Why Togo??’ I asked.
‘It looks so beautiful.’
‘Have you been there?’
Carlos shrugged, his eyes suddenly bright.
‘No, but I’ve seen pictures on the Internet.’
‘Does Togo get a lot of tourism?’ I asked.
He shrugged once more.
‘I really don’t know.’
Carlos looked about, aware of himself once more. He frowned at the computer, the details of my payment hidden mysteriously somewhere within. Then he sighed utterly, as if suddenly realising he had crafted a sham resume to secure a job on an isolated island more than 12,000 kilometres from his intended destination. Later, after I’d googled ‘Togo’ and read a bit more of Stardust, I sat at the hostel computer and wrote ideas for the novel. As I typed, an email appeared in my inbox. It was from a website I’d submitted something to the week earlier, perfunctorily rejecting the piece. I looked over my notebook, disdainful and shrewd. Rot and nonsense. I would never be a writer.
That night I attended the thrice-weekly showings of the Kevin Costner produced movie Rapa-Nui. By most accounts (and certainly by box office standards), the film was fairly poorly received. There was much, it was said, that the movie got wrong, and it seemed doubly cursed by the fact Kevin’s name was attached to it. In that darkened room, the movie flickering before us, my ears were more attuned to the snickers and guffaws issuing from my fellow travellers. And I felt outraged, then, deep-seeded and raw. How dare these people criticise Kevin and his creative attempts? Wasn’t it enough that he was trying? Isn’t that what the creative beast is all about? In that moment, I felt an artistic affinity to Kevin Costner that has undoubtedly never been felt before. To Carlos, too, and his harebrained scheme. We weren’t so different, them and I, our dreams and creativity stifled by the unyielding churn of the haters of the capitalist profit-making machine. Three great minds, stifled by The Man, in all his different guises… It is important to point out that at this point I had been largely alone for the best part of two months. I had plunged and peaked through both extremes of temperature, and drunk a lot tap water in a lot of different countries. My notebook by now contained a lot of sentences I don’t quite understand today. And while much of it was inane self-pitying rambling, from within this dust heap I would later retrieve slithers and swatches of ideas and phrasing that would work its way into the mouths and minds of my characters. The commonalities, longings and fears that unite and drive us as people. The harmonies of humanity that we recognise and respond to. The terror we all have that unless our contributions are ascribed fiscal values, they aren’t real contributions after all.
If there’s a moral to this story, I don’t quite know what it is, but I think of this experience often when I meet other writers who can’t quite call themselves writers. Who live with a daily panic that lines each inhalation and exhalation that they are not enough; are not good enough, not clever enough, not anywhere close enough to being published. Have not earned enough money to call themselves what they really are. For whom this anxiety stalks them like slendermen, lurking in the corner of rooms, just beyond vision.
On my last day on Rapa Nui I rented a bike and rode thirty kilometres to Ahu Tongariki, the largest huddle of moais on the island. I watched them quietly, awed by how insignificant we all are in the grand scheme of things. Of how all this anxiety – this despair and self-berating – would one day wither into nothing and be so ultimately inconsequential. Later, at the airport, I finished Stardust as I waited for my flight to board. I would stop in Tahiti for two nights, hopping my way across the international dateline back to Melbourne. In Papeete I would sit by the seaside for two days, staring into the quiet Pacific and write fully formed a large tracts that would appear in my novel as my protagonist Alison contemplates the influence of travel on us as people. How every single second is precious because it can never be repeated. And it would be later, once my novel was published, that I would realise how closely I had attributed my ability to call myself a writer to the income in my bank account. And I would laugh at this, because every published writer knows that this in no way equates to dollar signs. And I wished I had called myself a writer earlier and sheathed all those unnecessary anxieties, because that’s what I had been doing for all those years, wasn’t it? Writing. Indeed, flicking through this particular notebook so much of my novel is there. In single sentences or scrawled inclinations, but also whole sections written almost as they would appear in print. Wedged between my fears, my hopes and some truly terrible doggerel. There I was, emerging without even realising it. Neil, Kevin, Carlos and me. Mad on Rapa Nui, and all the better for it.
Claire Varley is a writer and community development worker. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue Fiction Edition 2016, Kill Your Darlings and assorted collections. Her debut novel The Bit In Between was published in 2015 and she is completing a second novel set for 2017. @clairepvarley www.clairevarley.com