Thursday, March 16, 2017

The surprising things we say

By Senior Editor Victoria Curran

I once told my neighbor to leave me alone. I wasn’t joking and I blurted it out with a lot of emotion and I barely knew the woman. She turned and went into her house and shut the door. Surprise: we haven’t really been close since. It was about six years ago and even if I lose my memory to dementia I’ll never forget that, as an adult, I once said “Leave me alone” over the fence to another adult! Who does that?

I walked back into my house in shock. Did I really just say that using my outside voice? Why did I say that? In my life, I am the hero not the villain, so how can I salvage sympathy after saying such a hurtful thing?



Of course, I knew why I was talking to her in the first place and why I had a lot of emotions churning in me. I’d moved in a year earlier—my first house, bought with my own stash and a hefty mortgage—and within a month, she’d erected one of those splash pools against our property fence with the motor sitting on a plastic pail, grinding away 24/7. My house didn’t have air-conditioning so I had to open the windows and live with a deep bass thrumming through my body all that first summer. I tried to come up with solutions (heroic and villainous): donation of two cinder blocks to replace the plastic pail, suggestion that she didn’t need to run the motor at night when the sun wasn’t creating algae (that’s when she first started to sense we weren’t kindred spirits, I think), looking up municipal bylaws to see that I was right: you can’t erect a pool against a property line, it needs to be four feet away…should I call the police (?!) (for the record: I didn’t), spending my new homeowner fast-dwindling cash to convert my house to central air....

For months, I agonized over this pool motor and couldn’t let it go.



Until the next summer when my neighbor started pulling out equipment and assembling in the exact same spot. I snapped and raced over to the privacy fence to quickly suggest that she run a longer line and situate the motor to the back of the property where it wouldn’t be against our fence…knowing that she now hated me and the only time I ever spoke to her was to complain. I was incredibly nervous but also desperate to make my summer bearable before the pool was in place. I was highly motivated and my obstacle was myself: I hate confrontation and somehow I couldn’t communicate with this person without being inflammatory.

As I opened my mouth and began to stutter out my convoluted request, I saw over the top of the fence that it wasn’t a pool she was erecting, it was a trampoline. I stopped stuttering mid-sentence, and said quite brilliantly, “Oh, you’re not putting up a pool. You’re putting up a trampoline.” At this point, my neighbor, who hadn’t said a word, wasn’t looking at me (couldn’t look at me?). And that’s when I said the infamous, “Leave me alone” and she turned and went into her house and shut the door and I staggered away in shock.

I told my colleagues this story right after it happened and one of them made sense of it for me. Apparently “leave me alone” was my go-to catchphrase at that time. Once it was pointed out to me, I heard myself say “leave me alone” at least once a week. “Leave me alone” in Victoria Speak translated into “Oh, sorry, never mind. I was wrong” in Normal Person Speak. I often said it in meetings! Who knew? (I hope I’ve grown out of this phrase.)

I never had a chance to redeem myself to my neighbor, to translate “leave me alone” for her. We never developed that “hail fellow, well met” relationship that men on the street do so well. Last week she put the house up for sale and it sold in two days (for $110,000 over asking, of course, because this is Ontario and what is going with real estate???), so that’s the end of my journey of villainy. Cross fingers.



Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve been reading incredibly well-written romances with the most fleshed-out dialogue that distinguishes character from character within the same stories, which is a masterful technique. And I’m also reading romances where characters have rich inner dialogues but say lovely, sweet things in their outside voices…possibly because their creators are worried about their likeability and are worried about losing reader sympathy. It’s powerful stuff: that struggle between wanting something and the needs that drive us to take actions that risk losing that thing we want.

Kudos to the Harlequin Superromance authors for bringing this struggle to the page. For motivating their characters to that breaking point and letting ‘er rip! However, unlike me, I wish all of your characters redemption by the end of their journey.

Victoria, heroine




9 comments:

Fiona Marsden said...

I love that bit in The Holiday where Kate Winslet's character realises she should be the heroine in her own story. It's what we all want to be, but sometimes we sabotage ourselves. It's great when that inner conflict we can all relate to occurs on page.

Victoria Curran said...

Hey, Fiona! I haven't seen The Holiday...must add it to the list. I'm in the middle of binging the New Zealand TV show The Almighty Johnsons: speaking of self-sabotage. Norse gods are very human, it turns out.

Honestly? I have no idea how writers do it. But when I read that text/subtext/action/reaction come to life in an unexpected and original way, it sends shivers.

dstoutholcomb said...

I always thought my friend's husband was a bit brusque until I realized he was just a transplanted New Yorker, and his sarcasm's bark wasn't really a bite. Its all in the delivery...


You must see THE HOLIDAY! Just a wonderful rom-com. I have it on DVD.

denise

Claire McEwen said...

Hi Victoria, I love this post! Your story about your neighbor... I get that. I sometimes say things all wrong and it's created a few problems for me in my 'hood. Oops! And you hit the writing nail on the head. I am trying so hard to get to the point where my characters really stay themselves for every second of the story, and where I'm not afraid to let them make the mistakes they need to make. It's an ongoing struggle for me because I want everyone to play nice, but that immediately diffuses the conflict and the story gets stuck. (Waves to Karen Reid....Hi! I'm learning!) Thanks so much for visiting the blog today, Victoria!!!

Victoria Curran said...

Denise, I had the most terrifying phone conversation at a pay phone in Grand Central Station, NYC, trying to explain to the Lincoln Center ticket woman that I'd already tried to book a ticket to the ballet that night online but I didn't know if I'd succeeded and could she check. It was a bit hard to hear with commuters streaming past me in all directions, but the woman bit my head off for about two minutes. When I finally finished the transaction and bit her head off in "goodbye", she replied, "Now, you have a nice day, dear." Heart of gold with a screamy "you're an idiot" delivery. I loved her.

Victoria Curran said...

Aw, thanks, Claire! I think what was most interesting about the neighbour episode was that I never knew I had a habit of saying that line. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why I'd said that and how horrible the moment was. Huge insight into me.

It's a pleasure to visit this blog! Happy spring, everybody.

Mary Preston said...

I can recall yelling down the telephone to someone not long ago. They waffled on & on & on and I just snapped and said WHAT DO YOU WANT? They hung up & we haven't spoken since. I must admit to feeling that it is their loss. Not a sorry bone in my body about this one.

Laurie I said...

The Holiday is one of my favorite movies!!

Laurie I said...

I enjoyed reading this post. When I'm impetuous I tend to say things the wrong way. When people provoke us or get us all riled up we can respond in an impertinent way. I'm trying to assess situations better before speaking. On occasion I've come to realize that it's best to say nothing and just walk away.

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