If Nigel Featherstone could share one piece of advice with his 20-year-old self, he’d tell him to not be so afraid of love.
Quite frankly, I didn’t know if I was Arthur or Martha, intelligent or stupid, boy or a man, barely sane or as mad as a cut snake. I simply didn’t know.
Looking back from the grand heights of now being in my mid-40s, back then, as a 20-year-old, I was just a gangly, still pimply, dreamy post-youth who loved wearing Blundstone boots and listening to The Cure and The Smiths and playing my 12-string acoustic guitar. I attended college. I lived in a suburban grouphouse, which I didn’t like—my housemates that year were narrow-minded bigots from the bush. But I loved being in Canberra, Australia’s designed-from-the-sky-down national capital, which at the time had a population of only 220,000, most of whom were university students, or university students who’d become public servants. But I didn’t know anything about population figures or public servants; I didn’t really know anything about university students either. I only knew about melancholic pop music and the mystery I was to myself and the small group of friends around me.
Despite being born and bred on Sydney’s affluent North Shore, I really did love those Blundstone boots—they were the sort workers wear—and was fond of black jeans and dark-colored shirts with floral prints and black, misshapen woolen jumpers with holes in the sleeves. My browny-black fringe hung long and low; I seem to recall that I could easily get the end into my mouth and taste the stringy grit of the thing. It was, after all, the 1980s. I was tall, sometimes painfully thin, sometimes portly.
I studied landscape architecture, but really I’d always wanted to do something with music: be a rock star, or be a rhythm guitarist in a band (Robert Smith and Johnny Marr were my heroes, obviously). Or perhaps I could just become a studio technician so at least I’d be in the company of rock stars and rhythm guitarists; I remember how in my last year of high school I rang a private music studio training academy and asked them to send me a brochure. My mother, however, made it clear that a life in music would be tough, perhaps even an embarrassment (for her at least), so that dream ended in a series of long sulks over dinner.
At some point that final high school year, no doubt sensing that someone better come up with a decent idea before this situation dragged on too much longer, my older brother said that as I liked art and was good at geography, maybe I should look into landscape architecture. I’m convinced that he had no inside knowledge of the profession; perhaps he’d just heard mention of it and now it was an idea for my consideration. My mother, being a keen gardener, liked this proposal very much. So, not wanting to be a problem for anyone, I applied, got in, left home, and became a university student in Canberra who liked wearing Blundstone boots and listening to The Cure and The Smiths and playing 12-string guitar.
Strangely enough, I didn’t entirely suck at landscape architecture. In fact, I enjoyed it, got good grades, especially in design, which I loved because it was all about dreams and imagination and concepts and solving problems. It was also about place: its properties and personalities; its powers—what it can do to us and for us. I loved thinking about place, and still do. If there’s a dominant theme in the feedback I receive about my fiction it’s that the places I create are as vivid as the human characters, sometimes even more so. But, as that 20-year-old, I didn’t know that one day I’d produce a novel and two novellas and a whole bunch of short stories. I didn’t read anything other than the books on the required reading list, and certainly had no fiction on my shelves. I just studied, spent long hours designing in the faculty’s studio that was open 24/7. I listened to music, played my guitar when alone of housemates. I made some friends, one particular friend, who became my best friend (who, secretly, I adored beyond all reason).
Even through writing this piece—by hand, as in pen on paper—it’s hard to know who I used to be, not in any meaningful way. What did that guy think? What plans did he have for his life? What events and stories filled his dreams each night? What were his favorite words and sayings? What did he long for? What beliefs did he hold dear? What did it mean to be male? I don’t have answers to these questions.
What I do know, however, is this: I was frightened, so terribly frightened.
Not because I was living away from home—I loved this element of my life, very much—or because I feared the future. I was frightened of a wild passion for creativity, which sometimes felt like a fiery madness that might turn toxic if not handled properly. As a boy then a teenager, while other kids watched or played sport, I loved nothing more than sitting in front of the TV and spending hour after hour absorbed in documentaries about musicians and composers and dancers and painters and writers, any kind of fine art practice, it didn’t matter—all of it formed an enthralling world in which I wanted to live.
And I was frightened of love, especially the sexual kind of love. At that age, with hormones flooding my body, and away from the confines of a traditional middle class family back in Sydney, I could do anything, I could do everything. I could try this and that and ooh now I’m going to try this other thing, just for the heck of it, just because I can, because I’m free, I’m utterly unencumbered. Except I was encumbered: by fear of being hurt, of having my heart broken. A simple brush of someone’s hand on mine was the most dangerous thing I knew. A kiss? That was an explosion! Which I never allowed to happen. Not once.
If I could click my fingers and zoom back in time and do just one thing for that Blundstone-wearing, Cure/Smiths-loving, super-fringed, 12-string-guitar-slinging boy-man, I’d lead him away from the landscape architect faculty studio and go for a walk on campus.
And I’d make this happen:
As we walk I ask him how he is, what songs are his favorites, the names of his friends, is there anyone special? I listen, I do. After some minutes, however, I stop walking, put my hands on his shoulders, and directly to his pasty, pimply face, I ask him how he’s feeling.
But before he has a chance to gaze through his fringe down to his boots and disappear into the ether, I say, “Listen to me. Do not be afraid—of creativity, of intimacy, of love. Whenever you see a line that you think marks the difference between safe and unsafe, step over it and see what happens. Because I guarantee that on the other side of the line you will be more alive than ever. And that’s your mission: to be more alive than ever. Anything else is sacrilege. This is the only truth you will ever know.”
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella I’m Ready Now, published by Blemish Books. For more information, visit www.opentopublic.com.au.