To Plot or not to Plot

Jessica Anderson: 1916-2010

  The author of one of my favourite books of all time, Jessica Anderson, died on 9th July 2010 at ninety-three years of age. Her funeral was held at the South Chapel in Malabar, and many literary notables were present including David Malouf, who gave the tribute. She went quietly, her passing being largely unnoticed, which was typical of the woman and of her life. She won the Miles Franklin Award for this novel, written at a time when there was a dearth of fiction by women writers in Australia. She wrote several more novels, one of which, The Impersonaters also won awards. Later on, she made a conscious decision that she would write no more fiction.

The book is written in the first person from the viewpoint of an elderly woman, and describes the character’s life in Queensland, then in London,  and on board the ship that took her there, as well as events unfolding when she returned to Australia. It is written with such spirit, that readers have assumed that the elderly woman was Jessica Anderson, who was, however, in her forties when she wrote the book.

Tirra Lirra has never been made into a film, partly because much of it is in flash-back mode, which means that the forward movement necessary for action and good cinematography is missing. As someone once said: “Nothing happens in the novel.” This is one of the stumbling blocks of my own first attempts at creating a novel. All, or most of the action, occurred in flash-back mode. Of course, one of the problems was that I was trying to write memoir (creative non-fiction), which is different from fiction and also distinguished from autobiography (essay-like presentation of a life). Memoir looks at an aspect or a part of a life, and employs narrative features, such as original or specific voice, and strong characterisation and dialogue, in order to present a vivid account, while still sticking to the basic facts.

The men in my life seem to have no trouble in imagining storylines; I have received help from my brother, whose storyline ideas for me were imaginative and full of surprises.  But he reiterated what I already knew myself, that I had to write fiction, not memoir, to escape from the bind of the ‘facts’ or the ‘truth’.  Fiction is more liberating. Whether writing in the first or third person, I can become “me but not me” or try to escape totally from the “I” of the narrator.  My brother, William writes:

The only requirement is that you tell us enormous lies… with a few minute elements of pure truth, like tiny truffle fragments in a pâté. That’s what novel-writing is all about. It’s nightingale pâté. Recipe: Mix equal quantities of horse meat and delicate nightingale flesh, with a small spoonful of aromatic herbs to accentuate the flavor. One horse, one nightingale.

He is talking of fiction here. Of course one must be careful not to lie by saying that it is memoir when it is fiction or fictionalised: there’s the rub! And memoir has become a genre on its own in recent times. I have also gained ideas from my partner, and even my psychoanalyst (just kidding!).  This leads me to postulate on the possiblity that plotting is a ‘male skill’, whereas female writers often tend to write more in segments and rearrange these into a workable plot afterwards. I realise that this is akin to saying that men are more rational and women are more emotional: a terrible stereotype! Another favourite writer is the American, Paul Auster, who manages to write interesting stories. He is that rare breed of writer who creates a good story, while at the same time being experimental. His memoir-based novel The Invention of Solitude throws some light on his obsession with male characters who are dying, old, blind, or linked to death and sickness, at the beginning of many of his novels. Books of his that I have read, or are about to read, include: Man in the Dark, The Brooklyn Follies, The New York Trilogy, Invisible, Oracle Night, The Book of Illusions, and The Music of Chance. His wife, Siri Hustvedt, is also a favourite writer of mine. Her novels that I have read are: The Sorrows of an American, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, and What I Loved.

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