When I was about eleven, I started catching the bus home from school by myself. Near where my bus stopped on Grenfell Street, in the Adelaide CBD, was a shop called Granny May’s. It was always full of kids in uniform, mostly girls, their schoolbags piled at the door. I remember being drawn to it, unable to walk past without stopping and looking, unable to stop and look without entering.
Granny May’s was a novelty stationery store.
Let’s start with the smell. This was the eighties: the era of scratch and sniff. Strawberry, banana and coconut, oh my. Anything sweet to tropical, combined with an undertone of plastic and rubber.
As well as stickers, they sold notebooks. Not just sheets of paper smacked between two bits of cardboard in a utilitarian paper sandwich, the sort you’d use for classes at school. Their notebooks were fragrant (please god!), each page contained illustrations – butterflies, flowers, fairies, kittens. They had tiny locks on the front and came with even tinier keys. It was in notebooks like these that you would record your secrets, drawing a love-heart in place of the dot over the letter “i”.
I also recall glitter glue, self-inking stamps, matching letter-writing paper and envelopes, all manner of pens, pencils, and rubbers, and special tins for keeping them all in. There were plastic bins filled with multi-coloured paperclips, shaped like birds or fish or stars or love hearts.
I was mostly a browser, I think. I didn’t have much money to spend, and what I did, I’d blow on hot chips doused with vinegar before I made it as far as Granny Mays. And I was never one for shoplifting. So my time wandering those aisles has left me with an indelible memory of desire.
There’s something about paper and pens that has always drawn me, even without the retrospectively shudder-inducing scents or other cutesy features. Give me a good row of fine-tipped markers to consider, a stack of lined A4 notepads, and something stirs within me.
It is connected, I think, this love of stationery to the primeval joy of marking a surface.
My son is eighteen months old and has just begun to draw. There is something so decisive about the way he picks up a pencil, fumbling it to face the right way, then presses the tip to the paper (or table, or carpet, or wall), and scrawls. The mark announces his presence in the world. We say it as such: to make a mark. It represents his will, and his ability to execute it.
And so, those empty stacks of pages, those virgin pens that I ogle, represent possibility and potential, I guess.
But I don’t actually use them much, anymore.
I often read fervent pleas for writers to work with pen and paper, with advocates suggesting that there is some kind of freeing magic to the touch of ink on wood-fibre that cannot be achieved by fingers on keys and words on a screen.
I did a writing course, a while ago, where one of the requirements was that our first draft was always scrawled by hand as fast as possible. I did it. It was okay. My hand hurt a bit. And I discovered, I scrawl much faster with a keyboard than with a pen. I feel as free. Sometimes I digress more, but I edit better, and more quickly.
As much as I love paper and pens, (hey I named my blog after them!), I do not ascribe any particular creative juju to them. I have been bound to my keyboard for too many years now. The screen is like an extension of my brain, my heart, my dreams. For better or worse, that’s how I work.
Which leaves me with a problem.
I have beautiful leather-bound notebooks sitting empty in my drawer. I have fountain pens, lovely to grip, juicy with ink. I have a need, which could become urgent at any moment, to buy more. To breath in the smell of unwritten words.
I have an Officeworks just up the road.