You Can’t Write This

You’re a writer, right?

At least you’re in some way intrigued by the movie industry or else you wouldn’t be here.

So, you’ve got imagination.

Now, dig if you will this picture…


Two police cars scream into view, shattering the rural silence.


A small, elderly lady on the wrong side of 90, opens the door. She is sweetness and light personified complete with neatly pressed baby blue shirt and khaki skirt. Her cotton-white hair is swept back.

This is JEAN STEVENS -- she doesn’t seem surprised by her visitors. In fact, she’s been expecting them.


JEAN offers her guests a slice of pie. They decline.


You’re afraid I’ll poison you.

Jean puts the pie down beside a framed black and white photo of her in her early 20s. She smiles wide beside a man in an Army uniform.


(almost to herself)

We were married for 60 years.


A slowly decomposing human being -- dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and blue knitted tie -- lies on a couch.


It’s been 10 years. But I still talk to Jimmy. See him, look at him. Even touch him.

JEAN pushes some dust off another framed snapshot -- a colour image of a woman who looks just like her -- this is Jean’s twin sister, JUNE.


A decomposing female body sits on a chair wearing a pair of glasses.


When I put the glasses on, it makes all the difference in the world. (beat) I make sure she wears her best housecoat.



Now, some people say, ‘Why do you want to look at a dead person? Oh my gracious! Well, I feel differently about death.


–         Jean smooths out June’s hair.

–         Jean spraying June with Chanel No. 5

–         Jean wiping her sister’s limbs with a dry cloth


Death is hard to take. But this way, the people I love most in the world don’t need to spend an eternity in a casket -- that’s suffocation. When you put them in the ground it’s goodbye, goodbye. This way... I can touch my sister’s face, look at her and talk to her. I know what people must think of me. But I worry that after death, there’s... nothing.


Jean pushes back a delicate white lace curtain slowly turning yellow.


I’m not alone out here... not really, long as I can visit Jimmy and June.


Dear fellow story lovers…

If you think you’ve just read a manufactured tale, think again.

This story is true. Nothing has been changed – not names, plot, dialogue, not even the fashion. Jean Stevens is a real, rather ghoulish grandmother-type person, but she is alive in the world today.

And, since 1999, this unassuming nonagenarian kept the embalmed bodies of her husband and sister in her house.

This was one of those true stories I stumbled on in my daily cyber-pilgrimage to the Sydney Morning Herald website. And it was one of those moments when I said to myself,

You can’t write this stuff.

Everything in this story was movie-tastic. Even the setting was positively David Lynchian – Endless Mountains, Pennysylvania.

You can’t write this stuff.

And if the definition of ‘write’ in this case is dream up fanciful notions, scenarios and mysterious set-ups that involve a sweet little old lady who digs up her family’s corpses for a good ol’ chin wag well, wow – you’ve struck scribe gold.

But the truth is, you cannot possibly write this stuff – if you’ve done your job, this sort of narrative magic should ‘write itself’.

In other words you can’t always contrive fabulously quirky characters and hope they’ll enact nuts things for you in the course of your story without the results looking staged. Why?

Well, if your characters are as flimsy as the paper you write on, you won’t be able to conjure up some true storytelling magic – the kind that makes writers say, you can’t write that stuff.

The story only starts with you.

When you create a solid story populated with memorable, mutli-faceted characters, the quirks, the realities of these human beings seem to write themselves.

You just the start the ball rolling – sorry I can’t be more romantic about the writer’s mysterious craft here. But sometimes there ain’t no mystery, just precision thinking and a little clever contrivance.

So, the moral of the story?

Research your characters. Know them inside out, back to front, enjoy their backstories, relish in their evil, angelic natures. Fall in love with them, ask them questions. Welcome them into your family.

Do all of this and there’s every chance you’ll write a Jean Stevens-esque story that’ll make corpses staying for tea read like an impotent fairytale.

-Phyllis Foundis

Writer, producer, presenter Phyllis Foundis has written and bellydanced her way to the tender age of 39-ish. She’s been writing stories, ads, one-woman shows and to-do lists forever. Not so much a budding screenwriter than a scribe that’s bloomin’ ready to see her stories up on the silver screen. Phyllis loves her boys and big, feelgood movies – that appeal to people not funding bodies.

4 thoughts on “You Can’t Write This”

  1. This was a great read. Why? It reiterates that you should always look to the real world for your source material (especially if you’re stuck for an idea) but it also made me smile because in my short story, ‘Escaping to Venus’, I have a character who talks to his dead wife as she’s propped up in bed. And I just made that story up – I didn’t source it from the Sydney Morning Herald or any other newspaper.

  2. It’s true! It’s true! The “Paper” never lies! Sometimes fact IS stranger than fiction…or at least as strange as it. The truth is, my Mum is going to talk to dead people tomorrow!…in a zinc-alum. garage in the back yard of a fibro house in midwest suburbia. I don’t believe there is any rotting flesh involved though. Perhaps only a comfy chair; chunks of rose quartz and amethyst; flimsy wisps of gauze in hues of purple and pink; a dark-haired woman in flowing robes; and the scent of burning incense.
    How do you find the time to troll the abyss of cyber information whilst my “free” hours are spent opening little yellow envelopes with my cyber dagger?…It is SO unfair. I have relegated 190 letters to my recycle bin, only 361 to go….why wasn’t I so popular in the days when pen was put to paper and I stood anxiously at the letter-box awaiting the arrival of the post-man?!

  3. Harry was in a battle with the tax department over money he didn’t owe. Eight years later Harry wrote to the Government to get a copy of his tax file. When Harry receive his file it was 240 pages deep, Harry was shocked to read what the tax person assessing his file had written to another tax collegue “Harry doesn’t owe the taxes as we stated”. After reading a few more pages Harry read “Get him to go bankrupt”. Wow! That explained why they were trying to coeirce him into bankruptcy and telling him his debit would be eliminiated if he did so.
    But Harry was determined to get to the truth, a bankruptcy agent advised Harry not to go bankrupt if he didn’t owe, it was the tax depatments cheap way of not having to be accountable.
    Harry took his documents to show the tax department what he had, and stated the documents proved “you were Acting in Bad Faith with my file”. The lady tax agent’s eyes bulged and her face got red as she read what they had done, she had pressed a button, yanked the documents out of harry’s hands and called security, saying “these documents are going to security”! Harry without hesitation grabbed the documents back and left the building.
    Harry gave a copy of his tax file to a tax lawyer in a sealed envelope. Harry later learned the the tax lawyer left the law firm after handing over Harry’s client-solicitor-privileged-documents to tax agents without a court order. Later on the law society found the lawyer guilty on many counts, the lawyer did not advise Harry what he had done.
    The tax department eventually paid Harry back most of the money the seized and garnished over the years. Harry wanted to share his story. Harry was writing a book on how to deal with the tax man. 10 year battle with the tax man, it was Harry’s way of getting back at them while helping others in his situation.

    After three days of promoting his book in public in front of the tax office, he was arrested by police, taken for a mental health evaluation, denied his call to lawyer, his family was not notified, the medical staff locked Harry in a small darkened room, ordered him to remove his clothes and put hospital gown on. The door opens again, a nurse walks in holding a syringe. With security by her side, she tells Harry “I’m going to medicate you”, Harry refused, stating “I refuse, I have a right to call a lawyer”, nurse told him “you have no rights”!
    Harry was drugged and detained for eleven days. Harry is currently advocating to have policies in place to ensure things like this do not happen to others. This is based on a true story, while Harry is not his real name, the events are true!

    • Wow… In Canada??

      Now here is something I WOULD like to see a movie about.

      Hang on… Hasn’t Terry Gilliam done that already??


      In any case, I’d be interested in seeing it.


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