I’ve been running this website since March 2009, and this is my 300th blog. I guess that’s an anniversary of sorts, and it got me thinking about my early years as a writer.
I made several false starts during my twenties, mostly because I just didn’t have any life experience, and so I had nothing to say. I only really found my topic with travel. That was a way in, an exotic frame for me to explore my own life and write about my inner world.
Central America was a turning point for me. I knew I could transform that journey into a book, and so I committed seriously to writing in 2001, right before I moved to Japan. By “committed seriously” I mean “make this fucking work or starve”.
It was during those two years on the far western outskirts of Tokyo that I wrote the first draft of what would become Vagabond Dreams. My teachers were nearly all dead writers, and my school was the public library.
When the book was finished, I quit my job, bought a one-way ticket to Mongolia, and went in search of further adventures. But that’s a different story, and it doesn’t concern us here.
I hadn’t been back to that old neighbourhood in 15 years. But was in Tokyo earlier this year, and one afternoon I caught the Chuo line from Shinjuku station and rode it all the way out to Tachikawa to take a walk down Memory Lane — well, a walk through Sunagawacho 4 Chome, to be exact.
It seems appropriate to share those memories with you today in my 300th post.
The first stop on my journey had to be the Tachikawa Public Library, because that was a major landmark in my development as a writer.
The entrance wasn’t quite where I remembered it, but the stairs looked the same, and my feet led me up to the small foreign book section almost of their own volition. Back in my day the English area was just two bookcases, but now it’s expanded to seven. There were a lot of new additions too, but I spotted several of the volumes I borrowed over a decade ago: A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf, Cannery Row by Steinbeck, Bonjour Tristesse by Sagan, Lord Jim by Conrad, Winesberg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Japanese classics by Yukio Mishima, Shusaku Endo, Soseki Natsume, Osamu Dazai, and of course The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.
I’d read so much nonfiction during my university years that I felt like entire new worlds of literature were opening up before me. I was assimilating styles, ideas, cool quotes and the sheer joy of language faster than my conscious mind could process.
I approached the main desk and asked to speak to the librarian.
“I used to live here 16 years ago,” I said. “I really benefitted from this library, and I’d like to give something back.” I held out a copy of my book, which I had carried all the way from Malta. “I wrote this while I was living here, and I would love to donate a copy.”
I envisioned my book taking its place on those very same library shelves in the English section, where some other striving soul might find it, just as I had discovered so many writers whose words touched me.
She looked at it, but didn’t reach out to take it.
“Is it about Tachikawa?” she asked.
“Well, no… It’s about Central America,” I replied. “I just wrote it while I was living here… It was a really important period of my life, and your library played a role in that.”
“I see. Well, we don’t take donations,” she said. “We don’t have any room.” I was too surprised to say anything. After a brief pause, she continued, “I guess you can leave it if you want. But it won’t be catalogued and it won’t appear on the shelf.”
And with that, I shrugged off my hurt feelings and quietly put my life’s work back in my bag and we left.
It was with a lingering sense of disappointment that we followed the elevated walkway to the Tama Monorail. You see, I didn’t actually live right in Tachikawa back then. The monorail was my main link to the station and semi-civilization, but I lived several stops and a short bike ride away.
Tachikawa had grown and changed in my absence. There’s now a huge shopping mall along the monorail line where there used to be factories and vacant lots. But the community gym I frequented was still there, and I had sudden flashbacks of the time an old lady slipped and was fired off the treadmill like a missile.
Near my old stop at Sunagawa Nanaban, I discovered that the big Peacock grocery store had driven my favourite Marusho out of business. Sure, the vegetables at Marusho were usually mouldy, but it was cheap, and I bought my sandwich materials there each week to practice the Milo Method.
[Note to Future Explorers: This method, devised by my colleague Milo Reznikoff, involved eating the exact same sandwich every evening in order to save money to travel. The rest of the time I lived off miso soup and rice, or sometimes curry, cooked on the little single burner stove in my apartment.]
It was a rather long walk from the monorail station to my old neighbourhood. I always had a bike back then — an old lady bike with a basket and big wheels — but it was faster than its geriatric appearance would lead one to believe. Going on foot was tedious by comparison.
The Mini Stop near my old place of employment had changed too. It seemed to have turned sideways and relocated across the road, and the original building now houses a competing chain. I remember cruising into that convenience store every night on my way home from work. One of my English students used to work there, and the staff broke out in uncomfortable giggles each time I came in to buy my daily tub of 100 yen ice cream.
The old school building where I worked is still there, but the Passport English Academy moved closer to Tachikawa station long ago, and this distinctive yellow building on stilts is now some sort of ladies clothing store. I wonder if the land is still owned by the farmer next door, the man who once gave me an enormous cabbage the size of a human head?
My old apartment was just short walk away, and that is what I most wanted to see.
By some miracle, the run down building I used to live in has survived to this day. I saw the area under the stairs where I used to park my bicycle, and the tiny balcony over the road where I hung out my laundry. But the surroundings had changed so much as to be barely recognizable.
The cabbage field next door is now a plot of trees. There’s a huge new baseball diamond down the street, near a giant lost-and-found bicycle yard. And there are a lot of new houses where small farms used to be, too.
My place was next to a rather busy street, and the house used to shake when large trucks passed by. I grew so accustomed to this shaking that I was often unaware of small earthquakes, at least until I devised the Coffee Cup Earthquake Test. If the liquid in my mug continued to oscillate long after the truck had passed, then we were most probably experiencing a tremor.
By chance we met the older man who lives there now. He was clearly puzzled by why a foreigner would venture all the way out there to take photos of this nondescript building, and so we struck up a conversation. He’d been living in my old apartment for the past 6 years, and he told me about how the neighbourhood changed.
That tiny apartment — a single room where I could just about reach out and touch both walls — was where I wrote the first draft of my book Vagabond Dreams late at night.
I had a quiet life on the outskirts of Tokyo. I worked from 3pm until 9pm at the school, often getting some writing done on my breaks or when a student didn’t show up. And then I went home, had a cup of tea and read 50 pages. After that, it was time to write. I wrote until I hit my page count for the day, and if it was flowing then I would write more.
It’d be 2 or 3am by then, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I’d make up my futon on the floor and listen to the music of The Church and Steve Kilbey on headphones. I listened closely to the lyrics, and to how the singer articulated each word, and I soaked up the rhythm and tone. Key images for my book would float up from my subconscious when my conscious mind was occupied with this task, and I’d grab a pen and notebook and scribble them down.
As I listened, I dreamed about a time when I wasn’t a 29 year old English teacher. A time when someone might read my words and be moved by them, just as I’d been moved by the words of so many others I’d read before. I dreamed of freedom and success, of a future when my friends would be proud of my accomplishments, and of a day when I wouldn’t live in a space where I could just about reach out and touch both walls. When I wouldn’t be poor anymore.
I’m pleased to report that things have changed a lot since then. A few of you have even read the book I wrote in that tiny apartment.
But I still have so many more books to write.