February 18, 2010

Plotting and Quoting

I like to write about someone in their life, the everyday, the quotidian to be pretentious. This means I think a lot about whether or not what I write is interesting enough. I also like to quote from other writers. Showing off? Maybe, depending on whether or not the quote arises from the story/character or I have put it in because and know and like it.

I’d like to quote Gertrude Stein all the time and mostly don’t because it’s self-indulgent to put “there’s no there, there” in every story I write. Another favourite from GS is “little by little we never met again.”

I am writing my fourth novel from the point of view of one protagonist, focusing on her “ordinary” life, which is similar to the approach of the previous three. Themes? How to live a worthwhile life, identity, relationships. This sounds, and sometimes feels, banal, as in why bother? Yet I do bother, I work at writing as well as I can, so I obviously think it’s worthwhile.

To illustrate what I have just said here’s the opening of the novel I am working on at the moment. It’s still a draft. Title? No, not yet. The working title, as they say, is Ann.

Chapter 1

She left. Just like that; announced her intention after lunch and was gone before dinner. Not that Ann wanted any.

“Yes, there is someone else,” she said. “Julie. Sutton.”

Shit. Julie was Ann’s friend. Emphasis on was.

“How long?” That was the wrong question but it was the one in Ann’s head.

“Six weeks.” She wouldn’t look at Ann. “Look, there’s nothing to talk about,” she said, “it just happened and I didn’t know how to tell you. You’ll get over it.” That’s when Ann got mad and shouted and cried for a long time, until her ex-partner — get used to it, Ann — picked up her bag — a small bag for fourteen years — and walked out, saying over her shoulder, “You can stay here for now. We’ll work out the rest later.”

“CAN!” Ann was yelling again. “I thought we were happy! Happy! Silly me!” Her only answer was a quietly closing door.

Ex's laptop was gone, of course. Bella the dog, Ex’s dog, remained.

“She’s abandoned us Bella, for pastures new. Don’t take it personally, but you’re going too. I will find someone to take you to her, and you and she will have a beautiful reunion. Until then, I’ll do my best, but we both know I am not a good dog mother.”

Ann experiences being left as banal. She thinks of an Edna St Vincent Millay poem.

Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike

She finds a mutual friend to deliver Bella and takes advantage of her decade of lecturing a third-year paper on Romantic Literature to re-run last year's lectures and tutorials without revisions. Upheavals in the university, as funding cuts lead to restructurings lead to redundancies, pass her by as she struggles with rediscovering how to live on her own. Ex wants to talk about selling the house.

“You could buy me out,” she suggests cheerfully to Ann. “You earn plenty.”

Not that plenty! Ex will want full market value. Mind you, it's a buyer's market, and would make good financial sense, but Ann is not going to be obliging. Nor is she going to be talked to by Julie Sutton. Ever.

Love has gone and left me and I don't know what to do.

On a dismal Sunday morning, in the house on her own,

And life goes on for ever like the gnawing of a mouse

Ann wanders through the rooms, feeling each one as a cloak, enveloping her. It's winter-cold, a brutal southerly wind whipping branches of the karaka tree against the side of the house. Her hand slides over the red formica of the kitchen table, built into an awkward space, its bench seating giving it the look of retro cafe in downtown Wellington. Ann never liked it much, Ex showed it off. The rest of the kitchen, their first renovation, was slick and modern, including an expensive toaster, for Ann, for whom multi-grain bread, toasted until crunchy at its edges, is a food group. She knows exactly which setting works best for each of her three favourite breads, the ones you can only buy uncut. She slices them herself, with an old, wide, bread-knife, freezes the slit loaf and eases off two slices at a time for breakfast or lunch or dinner; some of these days it's all three.

Whole grain bread and peanut butter together make a perfect protein. She forgets where she read this. A lettuce leaf or two, a tomato, a chunk of aging cucumber from the bottom of the fridge and she can convince herself she's having a balanced meal, never mind the two glasses of wine. Only once has she emptied the whole bottle, on her own, in an evening. Only once, truly.

They had cooked together a lot at first, then, increasingly, they took turns. A senior lecturer and a senior public servant had busy lives, worked long hours.

The dining room centre-piece is a long rimu table with eight matching chairs. They had fought over this table, one wanting it, the other not. Ann can't remember who was on which side. She likes it now, can see it with friends all around, eating, talking, drinking, laughing. The best of times. And meetings. Neighbourhood watch, until too many people moved and their replacements didn't opt in. Ex had tried very hard to keep that going. Occasional end-of-year afternoon teas with Ann's third-year students, never very many, most of them too involved with their own lives. Their book group — no, that met in the living room. Other meetings, she can't think what, but she thinks of this room, dominated by the table, as full of people.

Aah, the living room. Comfort. Big sofas, two. Big arm chairs, two. They'd got into habits, Ann on a sofa, feet up, Ex in one of the arm chairs using a squab as a footstool, watching their favourite television shows. Ann followed 24, which Ex hated. Ex was fixated on Lost, which Ann couldn't be bothered with. They both liked ER, and Outrageous Fortune. Now, Ann would sit on her sofa for an evening channel surfing and have forgotten everything she saw by the time she went to bed.

The bedroom. Theirs once. Hers now. Ann couldn't think about that. The office. A spare room, really, they both worked at home on their laptops, anywhere. Sometimes one of them would spread out papers all over the dining room table. They’d had a kind of two-day limit on that. Now that Ann could leave anything for as long as she wanted, she never used the big table for work. The cubbyhole in the kitchen suited her better; she didn't feel as lonely there.

There's this little street and this little house.

Except the house isn't little. There are two more rooms downstairs, a double garage — probably the only double garage in Wadestown, Ex used to say. But little describes Ann to herself today. Diminished. Bereft. “Oh, fuck it! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” She says — shouts — to the house. “Fuck OFF.”

“I have,” says the voice of Ex from somewhere in the back of Ann's mind.

“I mean FUCK OFF HOUSE!” Her mouth is still poised for words, loud words. The thought is somewhere else.

“She can buy me out. Or they. Ouch. Yes, they. She/they can buy me out and I can …” That's an idea with nowhere to go, Ann thinks, but she feels lighter. Ex can decide what to do with this and that. She, Ann, will float free. She spends the rest of Sunday making a list of what she wants to keep from the house and is surprised at how short it is. Monday and Tuesday evenings she makes another list, of chattels, things that they bought together, that she can get bought out of, too.

On Thursday she goes to see Jennifer Ryan, lawyer, who explains the legal situation, which Ann, unusually, doesn't bother to follow. She's still got that floating feeling, as though she was in a Chagall painting. Ann leaves the chattels list with Jennifer. She and Ex kept well organised accounts, so she has the date of purchase and the price they paid for every item.

“How are you?” asks Ex, sitting opposite her in Gotham Cafe, Chews Lane. Her voice is gentle, her eyes are soft.

“Not your business these days.” Ann likes her own reply. “You — and her if you like — can buy me out. Of the house. You always liked it more than me.” That's not true, but Ann doesn't care.

There's no reply, for a long time. Ex looks at the table. When she raises her face Ann can't read her expression. Maybe this is what Ex wanted. That doesn’t matter to Ann, it's what she herself wants now, and she's not going to go cheaply. She thinks of those divorce stories on television where one person tries to do the other down. That's not what she wants, she wants to be fair, but fair to herself as well.

“Well! That's caught me on the hop. I thought you’d want to stay there.”

“You buy me out or the house goes on the market. Soon. By the end of August.”

“I'd have to agree to it going on the market, you couldn't just sell it. We do own it jointly, after all."

“I know that. I'm thinking you'll do what I want because you're guilty about dumping me. And guilty about being a coward and not telling me about you and — her.” Ann is pleased with herself for saying that.

“I'm not sure that Julie and I have much of a future.” Again, Ex can't look at her.

Ann throws back her head and laughs. And laughs. People look. Ex wipes away tears.

“Too late,” says Ann, “I’ve taken your advice and gotten over you and,” she pseudo-sings, “I’m mo-oving on,” then reverts to being crisp. “Let me know about buying the house. Here's my lawyer's card.” She tucks the card under the saucer of Ex's coffee cup.

Ex looks at Ann and says, “I miss Shirley and Keith.” She's still teary and Ann is still refusing to take notice and just looks back and waits, enjoying feeling cool and angry and detached. “I thought I might ring them,” Ex says eventually.

“They're my parents, not my children, you don’t need my permission to contact them. Ring, don't ring, it's your call.” Ann thinks she is enjoying this far too much.

“I thought they might be, you know, angry with me or something.” Ex is practically pleading to know what kind of reception she would get.

“We haven't actually been talking about you,” says Ann as she stands up. Which is nearly true, if you don't count her mother's, “How could she?” or her father's, “I always wondered if she could be trusted.”

Ann doesn't look back as she walks off. She feels tall again, as though she is taking up the right amount of space.


  1. I like this, great start! (Great start to the novel, I mean.)

    I like the short sentences, bits of sentences: their physical presence, as well as their meaning give a really good sense of mood, state of mind.

    And I REALLY like not naming the ex, whether or not that continues later in the novel, it's nicely done, kind of obvious but also kind of subtle.

    And about writing about the everyday? - I'm just reading Carol Shields' "Unless", which can be described as that. And, her central character is a women writer, thinking & writing about the everyday ...

  2. Hey, Alison, thanks for the comments.
    I've read Unless, think I'll read it again in view of what you said.