The Beginning: A short story by Alison Pick

The Beginning: A short story by Alison Pick

After it was over she decided to write it all down. He, the Established Writer, had assured her that was what writers did: disguise their own pathetic lives as fiction. At that point, of course, it was only theoretical. He hadn’t imagined she might write about him. She vowed to tell it honestly, to give him a fair representation. “He had the hairiest bum I’ve ever seen,” she wrote – and then deleted the sentence because it wasn’t quite true. “I’ve never had my heart broken so badly,” she wrote – but even that was a gross exaggeration. She poured herself another cup of coffee and stared at the blank screen, white as an eyeball rolled back in the head. 

It was harder than she’d thought. There were so many things to write. He was 15 years older – that was undeniably true. And it was from his house that she’d telephoned and received the news that her grandfather was dead. She was visited sporadically by an uncanny clairvoyance, so she wasn’t surprised when her father said: “No, Papa didn’t make it through the night.” She’d envisioned this scene drawing them closer somehow, but after she hung up the Established Writer – E.W. for short – didn’t try to hug her. Instead, he went into his study and began typing furiously. Was he writing about her? She left him to his machinations and walked down to the lake where she sat for 20 minutes watching the sailboats, the sun low on the horizon like the flaming ball of fire that it is. Metaphor: what’s the use? Then she trudged slowly back up to his house. They didn’t talk about it for the rest of the visit, except once, over beer, when she stopped mid-sentence and asked “Is my grandfather really dead?”

The idea seemed suddenly ludicrous, and she almost started giggling, the kind of giggle where, had someone joined in, they would have continued laughing until their stomachs ached and they gasped for breath, pleading intermittently, “Stop. No, I’m serious, stop!” and then exploding again into peals of raw laughter. But he didn’t join her. Instead, he said seriously, “Yes. He is.” And she, mouth twitching slightly, rearranged her facial features into a more appropriate configuration and continued on with whatever it was she’d been saying before. 
As is often the case, the relationship seemed blessed with potential at the beginning. They committed immediately to furthering their vocabularies together (they agreed that while he was the better writer overall, she had a superior command of the language). To this end, they exchanged words and vowed to use them in conversation four times over the course of the following day. 

“Hey E.W.,” she’d say, “are you enjoying my blandishments?” And he’d reply: “No, E.W., I’m finding them a little soporific.” It was understood that when he called her E.W. it stood for Emerging, as opposed to Established, Writer. They even joked about having a child together, who would also be called E.W., for Esoteric, or perhaps Experimental, Writer. They laughed and remarked on how much they had in common. They both had purple toothbrushes. They both loved lasagna. Most importantly, they were both writers – and wasn’t writing all that mattered? 

One day the Emerging Writer realised that if she was going to call herself a writer she’d better write something. A poem? A short story? No reason to start small! She’d begin with a novel. The first thing she considered was to whom it would be dedicated. She practiced various combinations: For my family. For Dad, Mom, Douglas, John. For my parents and my brothers. She practiced the acknowledgments page repeatedly – specifically, she practiced thanking the Established Writer. I am truly indebted to…? With love and thanks to…? Yes, with love and thanks. Once she had that straight, she thought about titles, bearing in mind the needs of reviewers, and finally, several months later, she began actually to write. She was intimidated at first, but soon found there to be an inexhaustible supply of words available, and an unlimited number of ways to combine those words. When she wrote down a sequence she didn’t like, she simply balled up the paper and began again. 

Eventually, on advice from the Established Writer, she applied for a grant. It was perfect: The Conquest Program for Emerging Writers. The Established Writer wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation (omitting all the details of their sex life). She checked the mail every day for six months. Her rejection, when it arrived, congratulated her on a near miss. 700 writers had applied for the grant, and 70 had been awarded cash. She’d been ranked 71st. A sign from the cosmos: she should have walked away right then. But we all know what they say about hindsight.

After, when she sat down to write about him (a short story, the novel already abandoned), she couldn’t make sense of what had gone wrong. She missed him. Desperately. She also missed his expertise. The Emerging Writer made a list of her questions, as if by inscribing them in her diary he might somehow telepathically beam her the answers. They were questions like: Are you more likely to get grant money if you ask for a humble amount? and Do you need to inform the editors when you send the same submission to 20 different magazines?  

Also, she wanted to tell him about the graveyard where they’d buried her grandfather, next to a stone that read “Ralph Guenterson: Writer”. This was the sort of thing the Established Writer would appreciate. As she wrote, she considered the important elements of a story. First, she thought, there needed to be a plot, something to keep the reader interested. Since she was young, and sex was the most interesting thing she could think of, she put in sex. She wrote the word “penis” a few times, grinding it liberally like fresh pepper above the text. She wrote the word “orgasm” – surely that would be enough to keep the pages turning. When it came to the question of character she was torn. Her instinct was to write about herself – what could be more engaging? Something nagged at her, though. She didn’t want to disclose too much. And so she slid the characters out of herself: like a shard of glass or a splinter, they came with some coaxing, sometimes a needle blackened by flame. They weren’t her exactly, but they weren’t not her either. She liked to think they were versions of who she might have been. Or people she hoped not to become. 

The Emerging Writer tried, with little success, to make her story funny. The Established Writer, who had assured her it had taken him years to become Established, would have told her to be patient. He would have told her to practice. More annoying still, he would have told her to edit. The Emerging Writer had no time for editing. If you couldn’t do something perfectly the first time, what was the point in doing it at all? 

She was tempted to give up. It was almost impossible for her to write without him, seeing as he’d been there, coddling her along, from the beginning. It was difficult to feel entirely confident about anything that hadn’t passed under his careful eye. Still, she persisted each day, unfolding the laptop like a great pair of jaws, staring down its throat to its sickly bulging tonsils. Sometimes one look at the sharp teeth was all she needed to close it and call up her best friend for coffee. Or, failing that, beer. Or marijuana.

Most days, though, the Emerging Writer managed to get a thing or two down: sentences, sometimes paragraphs. On an exceptionally good day, pages. She bought a manual, How to Become a Writer in 60 Days, less personal than the Established Writer but also infinitely less troublesome. “He was not particularly good looking,” she wrote, but the manual said to show instead of tell. She deleted the sentence and wrote two new ones in its place: “His back was littered with trashy acne scars,” and, “He had the belly of a woman four months pregnant.” 

The manual also advised against the simultaneous exchange of literary criticism and bodily fluids. Here, she put an exclamation mark in the margin. It wasn’t worth it! The last time, for example, after she’d given him head, he’d nuzzled her crotch for a maximum of two seconds. Through her pajama bottoms, no less. The Emerging Writer thought this constituted bad manners. It bothered her so much that she considered writing it down, but then realised that if she was going to tell the truth she’d need also to write that about his reluctance to sleep with her in the first place, the awful details about Girlfriend, and she didn’t want to go there. It was too terribly embarrassing, the way he’d rolled away and said, “I can’t, I’m sorry, I feel terrible,” and she’d pulled him back on top of her. After, she’d tried to explain that it was fear that made her do it. Fear of rejection – his or someone else’s, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps of the literary community at large.

As she wrote, the Emerging Writer wondered about libel. Perhaps he would sue her – which would undoubtedly be good for both of their careers. Not wanting to risk it, though, she followed the manual’s advice and changed enough details so that he could not be identified. She made his hair brown, then blonde, and then decided to make him bald, which he was in real life, thinking it would work as reverse psychology. Besides, she wanted to include a description of his head, round and shiny like an 8 ball that she was poised to sink. 

With her pool cue in one hand and a printed draft of her story in the other, the Emerging Writer ran down her mental check-list, crossing out at random. Subtlety? Needless. Setting? Forget it. The Established Writer, had he been there, would have suggested that her story have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When this thought popped into her head she dismissed it immediately. The Established Writer was old – hadn’t she already doted on his hair loss? She, on the other hand, was young, and female, and decidedly postmodern. She had no use for the tradition of a story that built and built and built, culminating finally in climax. (After all, he hadn’t given her that, had he?) No, her story would wander all over like pleasant foreplay. Perhaps she’d include some dialogue that didn’t make any sense. Better still, she wouldn’t use quotation marks. She’d use dashes – now she was rolling! 

After some struggle, the Emerging Writer managed to get six double-spaced pages into the computer. When she finished, she realised that despite her original intentions, she’d written exclusively her own point of view. The Established Writer’s perspective was entirely different, and the reader wouldn’t have access to it. At first, she felt badly about this. The more she thought about it, though, the better she felt. It was her story after all. If he had something else to say, he could say it himself. She opened up the laptop one more time, to write the last sentence, one she’d been thinking about at great length. The Established Writer had informed her that it was always best to end with something punchy, something that people would remember. She couldn’t come up with anything that fitted this description, so she decided to finish with some plain old punctuation. “Screw him,” she wrote. Period.  

 

Far to Go by Alison Pick is out now, published by Headline, and was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

Illustration by Jess Wilson/Agency Rush.