I was a kid divided into sections. Forty percent invisible, forty percent punching bag, ten percent teacher’s pet, and ten percent that girl who reads. I used to create makeshift bookmarks out of folded A4 paper. I would read with a pen nearby and when I’d find a word I didn’t know, I’d write it down. At the end of a good book, one I’d really sunk my teeth into, the bookmark would be crowded with ink. I did this throughout most of high school. I don’t remember when or why it started. And I don’t remember when or why it stopped. But it did. I never looked up any words. I had intended to, that was the point: to learn words. The fact that different letters arranged in a slightly different order could be the difference between a wild animal and a sudden burst of light felt like some great secret. One that reading books would help me unlock. And so, I’d adventure within stories, hoping to find the key.
My aunt held a small notebook with a teal cover. Inside were descriptions and sentences and observations. Collections of words and ideas. Real and invented. She flipped the notebook open to a random page.
‘The tear gathered at the corner of his eye.’
My stomach plummeted.
‘It wobbled and then left a trail of wetness down his glistening cheek to stop at his lips to pool in the corner.’
She laughed. The kind of laugh one might make if a puppy tried to jump onto a couch and failed.
The room was full of my family—Mother, Father, brothers. We were staying in a chalet at the Bunya Mountains over the school holidays. I’d spent my time writing in my new notebook.
Everyone seemed confused. For a moment, no one knew but my aunt and me.
I had felt proud of those words. Agonised over them. Tried to capture the moment just right.
My aunt dropped the notebook in my lap. Then everyone knew. She laughed again as I held the notebook to my chest, against the growing tightness there.
My mother said my aunt’s name in admonishment, shook her head, and walked away.
I didn’t write again for months.
In my final year of my Bachelor of Psychology—between classes, research, thesis writing, and copious hours deciphering data and statistics—I graduated with 80,000 words of a rough novel. It had nothing to do with my degree. I mean, I also wrote my thesis: 9,000 words on societal attitudes towards the use of corporal punishment on children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Yet, this novel draft, this 80,000 words about a teenage boy who lost his sister and formed a friendship with the girl next door to his grandparent’s place, was my proudest achievement.
No one has ever read it. I haven’t touched it in years. But still, I’m proud.
‘That’s not a word.’
A friend at university said this in front of her friends. People I barely knew, but I’d already discovered it wasn’t safe to read the type of books I liked when they were around.
It was a word, though. Despite what she said.
My friend got perfect grades, so I usually defaulted to her opinion. But I’d googled the word earlier, after reading it in a book, having learned not to wait until the end to look it up. I knew I was right. I’d even felt a little thrill out of putting it into practice.
I pulled up the Merriam-Webster definition on my phone and showed my friend. I don’t even remember the word now; I just know it started with ‘O’.
My skin tingled with anticipation. I expected something like, ‘Oh, it is a word! I’ve never heard it before. That’s cool’.
My friend looked at the screen and rolled her eyes. She announced, ‘Fine, well you can be right about this one thing, and I’ll be right about everything else.’
I closed the web page and sunk into the chair. Waiting for the snickers from around the group to settle, for someone to change the topic.
In school, I once walked by three kids cornering another. I didn’t know his name, the cornered one. He had blonde hair and freckles and he looked a little scared. Those three kids only ever threw around mean words, and besides, they were out in the open. Other students were nearby, and a teacher would likely turn a corner any second. That’s what I told myself as I hurried past.
I was heading to the garden behind the music hall. Tucked between the brick hall wall and the library, it was hidden from view. No one went in there. I’d sit and eat my lunch. Maybe read. Maybe draw. If it was Thursday, I would sit and panic.
That day was a Thursday. I sat and took deep breaths. Contemplated hiding until sports period was over. Then sneaking out among the hordes of escaping kids. It was only wagging school if you left the premises, right? My stomach twisted and turned. I’d sometimes even plead or pray. I wasn’t religious, so I wasn’t talking to God exactly. Just filling my head and the air with wishing words. This time I won’t miss the ball. I won’t trip in front of everyone. I will serve the ball over the net and right into an unguarded space between players and people will high-five me and say ‘good job’. If I said the words fast enough and hard enough, maybe this Thursday would be different.
The bell rang. I emerged from my secret garden and hurried past where those three kids were still tormenting the other. This time, my true reaction darted across my mind.
At least it isn’t me.
Years after high school, after graduating from Psychology, losing friends and after finally deciding to pursue creative writing at university, I went to an art show. It was a show of lights at the Botanical Gardens, with projectors and music, neon lights and fairy lights.
I’d gone with a few other people. Once we’d explored and soaked in as much of the displays as we could, we began walking home. It was beanie weather, and the cold found weak spots beneath my layers. It stabbed at my ankles, neck, and wrists. My nose was numb and likely red. I sniffled every few seconds and worried that I should have worn a mask. But it wasn’t mandated. Wasn’t even lightly suggested. It wasn’t so cold that puffs of air chased the words from my mouth to coalesce in misty clouds before my face, but it was cold enough. I felt invigorated.
I walked beside a new friend. A friend of a friend, before tonight. She was my boyfriend’s best friend’s wife. I’d met her twice before and liked her instantly.
Our partners walked in front of us, deep in the comfort of familiar conversation.
We, this new friend and I, ended up talking about toilets. I said I needed to pee, and the next minute we were discovering a shared anxiousness regarding needing to know where amenities were when we left the house.
‘I told him early on,’ I said, referring to my boyfriend. ‘We were actually coming to visit you guys for the first time. I was so nervous I felt sick. He kept saying, “we’ll go for a hike along the beach and then get some lunch”.’
‘Oh no. Too much,’ she joked.
‘I ended up explaining why I was nervous. He went quiet and looked back at his phone. I felt silly. Assumed he was brushing me off. Then he showed me his phone. He’d pulled up a map where he’d found and outlined all the public toilets on the trail, on the beach, and near the restaurant. He went through this plan of where and when we could make stops if I needed to.’
‘That’s so sweet. But gosh! I can’t believe you told him that so early on. I don’t think I could have. You’re so brave.’
Somewhere in between forgetting what that O word was, and meeting my boyfriend, I looked up the definition of the word courage. I think I was trying to find some words to help my friend who has anxiety. She went out every day into a world that terrified her, into situations she agonised over, and she called herself weak. A coward. When to me, she was the opposite. She made me want to be courageous too.
A lot of things came crashing down before I could. I lost people I’d thought meant everything to me. I discovered the career I’d been working towards was not where my passion lived. I packed up my life and went back to university. To do it all again.
At first, I just told people I dabbled in writing. It was a hobby: something just for me. Then I let someone read something I’d written. Then two people. Then four. Then I started calling myself a writer. Saying the words out loud.
People often assumed being a writer meant you were a published author. That you had books in libraries and bookstores, with a little picture of you on the back page, and your name in embossed font.
When they’d say that, I would tell them no. A writer is simply someone who writes.
Nicole Jacobsen is a Brisbane artist, writer, poet, and aspiring editor who regularly finds herself re-befuddled by the difference between who and whom. Her background in Psychology emerges through character studies, obsessive bouts of self-reflection, and recurrent themes of mental health in her work.
Steph Blinco is a third-year Bachelor of Fine Arts student. As a local Brisbane emerging artist, her practice makes statements about everyday life through collaged imagery. Intertwining psychedelic patterns to create collisions of colour and era, Steph draws influences from autobiographical contexts, ranging from her childhood to her experiences now as a young adult. You can find her on Instagram @stephblincoart.