Writing Cooee

People often ask whether writers write according to a plan, whether they know at the beginning how the characters will develop, how the story will unspool. In the case of Cooee, the answer is a theoretical yes. When I started to write, I had a pretty clear notion of the plot, and the characters were relatively clear in my mind. I knew where I was going. Sort of.

In writing as in life, however, things are rarely simple, and I hadn’t bargained for the extent to which my central character took hold of the book and of me. By the time I was halfway through the book I felt as if I was wrestling Isabel, and I wasn’t winning. She was turning into a loose cannon, sliding all over the deck, altering the disposition of objects and people, controlling the path of the narrative. There were things I needed her to do that she didn’t want to do. There were ways I needed her to behave that she refused to agree to. When I sat down in the morning to write about Isabel I had to brace myself. Often, when I thought I had her nailed, she would slither out triumphantly and poke out her tongue at me. It was exhausting.

I’d always envisaged Isabel as a strong woman – resilient and intelligent and determined – with weaknesses – a tendency to avoid personal responsibility, an unwillingness to confront aspects of her own personality, a habit of self-delusion. But I’d thought of her also as vulnerable and bewildered. That’s why the book’s called Cooee – because that’s what life feels like for Isabel. She’s often lost; she’s often calling out for help; her cries are seldom answered. She’s a clever, articulate woman, but she’s a terrible communicator.

So I think what happened was that as Isabel asserted herself for me, as she dominated more and more, I found it harder to represent her essential lostness; and that’s partly perhaps because people like Isabel don’t want us to see how lost they are. They want us to see only their confident and brilliant side.

So Cooee was in fact carefully planned, but around halfway through it started to kick and buck: both plot and characters asserted themselves and insisted on changes. It’s hard for a writer to know what to do in these circumstances. Do you try to follow your original plan (since there was a time when it seemed to make sense)? Or do you decide that flexibility is important and follow the lead you’re being given? I wobbled between the two paths. I think Cooee finished up with a comforting resemblance to the initial plan, but there were certainly divergences.

But it’s always the way. My difficulties with subduing Isabel were only one part of the eternal difficulty of writing what you have in mind to write. It never turns out precisely (or sometimes even roughly) the way you planned, and, the more you write, the further the distance from the original vision. Inevitably, what you write falls short of what you planned to write – sometimes, so far short that you can’t bear to keep going, and yet another effort is buried in a bottom drawer. And Isabel would have been furious to be buried in a bottom drawer!

About the author

Vivienne Kelly

Vivienne Kelly was born and educated in Melbourne, where she now lives.
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