Flash Fiction or Surreal Conversations?

Charlie to Charlie: 'The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality.'

Charlie to Charlie: ‘The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality.’

So, a writing pal of mine Ashe Conrad-Jones set herself a challenge to write a Flash Fiction piece, one per week, and she’s done it, so far – only 48 more to go. In a fit of solidarity I said I’d do the same, not one a week, but one at all. Easier said than done – the tightness of the word count gives me writer claustrophobia and the word ‘Flash’ looms in the imagination like a directive that makes me feel the piece must be newsworthy, illuminating, apocalyptic even. I did tell Ashe that I attempted to write these things in the past, but they wouldn’t stay put, kept turning into prose poems or surreal conversations.

Literary Crush: Dave Eggers 'Short Short Stories'

Literary Crush: Dave Eggers ‘Short Short Stories’

I didn’t tell her years ago I had a lit-crush on Dave Eggers so bad that I wrote a lot of these teeny-tiny things in homage and sent them to him, not joking. He even published one eventually, though to read it you would not exactly think it was a flash fiction, more like a moment in time. Flashworthy it was not. So today I find myself honoring a promise to a pal, but bereft of ideas that can fit into prose morsel the size of a fortune cookie. Why not write one about a serial killer? Then I remembered the crushingly insightful Charlie Kaufman line in the film ‘Adaptation’ where he says: ‘The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality.’ So I rooted in my shorts from the past and lo and behold, what do I find? Not a serial killer, but a multiple personality, hurrah! Nevertheless, it gave me joy to write, and what is writing for if not for joy?

Pat’s Perpetual Monologue With Perpetual Pats

…Pat, can’t talk here, try and understand, can’t talk cos they listen in, can’t have that Pat, there can only be one-Pat-per-one-Pat. Got to curb the Pats, Pat. Means you can’t talk back Pat. Sure it gets me down — not being able to talk to you Pat! But on balance it’s better I don’t talk to you and you don’t talk to me. Got that Pat? Down pat Pat. Pat? Now look here Pat, understandably, the down patting of Pat upsets you? Down patting of Pat is bad business. What to do with just one Pat? You’ll be a lonely Pat. Pat, I told you, there can only be one-Pat-per-one-Pat, understand? I know it’s difficult Pat, because you believe in you, which makes you your own one-Pat-per-one-Pat, and vice versa, makes it hard for me (and you) to be the one-Pat-per-one-Pat. But, don’t feel bad about being the one-Pat-per-one-Pat. Wouldn’t it be great to be the one-Pat-per-one-Pat? Besides, Pat must never know about the other Pat. That’s very confusing for Pat. What? You never knew about the other Pat? You thought you were the only one-Pat-per-one-Pat? But Pat, there can only be one-Pat-per-one-Pat. What? Pat, can’t talk here, try and understand, can’t talk cos they listen in, can’t have that Pat, there can only be one-Pat-per-one-Pat…

Edna O’Brien’s Memoir Solves Mystery of ‘Night’

Edna’s literary-leg has stellar quality that even Hollywood would find hard to outshine (photo of Edna: John Minihan)

Edna’s literary-leg has a stellar quality that even Hollywood would find hard to outshine (photo of Edna: John Minihan)

As her recent memoir proves Edna O’Brien has what decent writers aspire to; page-turnability without sacrificing literary muscle. I got her recently published memoir, Country Girl as a Christmas pressie. It was the savior book that got me through the seasonal lockdown. The memoir is packed with stories; a childhood in Ireland with a drinking father and an overprotective but loving mother, a fractious marriage with divorced writer Ernie Gébler who was so usurped by the success of her first novel that he told her You can write and I will never forgive you, the ensuing anxiety ridden battle to gain custody of her kids, her famous (or infamous?) parties where she entertained the literary elite, bohemian characters of all ilks, Hollywood royalty and actual royalty.

Page-turner with literary muscle ‘Country Girl’ by Edna O’Brien (Faber & Faber)

Page-turner with literary muscle ‘Country Girl’ by Edna O’Brien (Faber & Faber)

All this while raising children, dealing with impossible lovers that gave her both joy and despair and writing novels that brushed her native Ireland up the wrong way, a country, she reminds us that meted out monstrous treatment to James Joyce, ‘whom the authorities and Irish undertakers were so repelled by that his remains were never brought back.’ 

The memoir tells much about where she drew inspiration for her writing. I was aware that The Country Girl Trilogy was informed to some extent by her earlier life, but a mystery was solved for me as to how her exceptional stream-of-consciousness novel Night came about. Not to give it away for those who haven’t read the memoir yet, (and for those who already know, bear with me!) it arose following a life-changing experiment with Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, an episode she describes lucidly and brilliantly in the memoir. It was an event that sent her packing with ‘an opened scream…[that]…would become the pith of the novel … Night…’

An opened scream  ‘Night’ by Edna O’Brien

An opened scream ‘Night’ by Edna O’Brien

I’m a fan of Night. The astonishing change in style to her previous books is something of an event and I always keep it in mind as an example of how you, as a writer too can change your style if that’s what the context needs you to do.

Edna’s memoir tells of many fascinating relationships she had over the years, but one emerges stronger than all others — her relationship with her writing. She struggled against a disapproving mother, an envious husband and the punitive demands of domesticity before finally putting pen to paper and when she did she wrote the first draft of The Country Girls, in three weeks. ‘The words tumbled out, like oats on threshing day that tumble down the shaft…I cried a lot while writing The Country Girls but scarcely noticed the tears.’

For anyone struggling to keep the dream of writing alive this book will bring hope. On the flipside, one line about writer’s block sent shivers up my spine: To ease the block, Edna tells us, she kept a diary, even though she had read with misgivings that ‘only the very young and the very mad keep diarys.’

Duly noted (in my diary)!

A Vice To Breathe At All.

Hieronymous Bosch, 'Garden of Earthly Delights' c. 1510, a warning on the perils of life's temptations?

Hieronymous Bosch, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ c. 1510, a warning on the perils of life’s temptations?

I’m not making any New Year’s resolutions this year. Life is a resolution in itself. Anyway, once you’ve had your first (of many?) mortality checks, time is precious and I’m not wasting any time on vices that don’t give joy, like binge drinking for example. A minor session could set you back at least two days, including hangover, think of the writing you mightn’t do? As for smoking — health damaging, unattractive, smelly – actually the new NHS ad goes deeper than that. Not only is it well shot, but it features a harassed looking bloke, a person like you or I, enjoying a lovely solitary smoke in his backyard oblivious that his cig is growing tumors before his eyes!

Screen shot NHS AD smoking

NHS Ad: Man enjoying a peaceful smoke

The subtext gets you on so many levels, you never know what’s creeping up on you while you’re taking a breather, smoker or not. Not like the peculiarly Irish moral subtext in the ad where the girl gets humanly ‘welded’ to the boy she’s snogging by a crazy speeding car? They went a bit overboard here, (hence this ad is linked here, but not embedded…who needs such gore?). Isn’t the vice unclear here? Was it the snogging or the speeding that destroyed young love? Is the ad actually saying:  Isn’t that what you get for wrapping your legs around a bloke shamelessly on a wall outdoors for all to see? Reckless hussy. Vices, vices, vices! And so many start as normal things, innocent things. They get out of hand; love, sex, socializing and their counter-parts; hate, reclusiveness, remote intimacy. Where are the ads for them?

Maybe that’s why fiction is so compelling. It explores quirk territory in a way an ad can’t mutilate. I like to give my characters vices, and not ones that will be sorted by a nicotine patch or some weedy Jan 1st resolution. For example, here’s what my increasingly unstable protagonist says in Draft 2 as vice takes hold of her in the form of obsessive love:

‘Loving him was my secret worrying quirk. It was like being addicted to something. The need, indeed, the craving for him, for his substance, his touch and his company was endless. I lived in terror of never having access to him, so in the days following his fatal words you can’t ever come here again. Understand? No, I did not understand.’

Was it the snogging or the speeding?

Was it the snogging or the speeding?

Anyway, on a day where the wagging finger is on the move to make-you-a-better-person, I wonder if excessive resolution isn’t a vice too? Deprivation can be as potent as a hit of what you fancy yourself. Isn’t deprivation a bit of a cheat? Aren’t you better off keeping your vice tangible as reminder of what could be, like that old saying: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer? Fiction, however, is another matter. Had my protagonist seen an ad for obsessive love that ended with one (or both) fatally wounded, or indeed flesh-welded at the waist, she still probably would have remained blatently resolution free.  As for the the poor aul divil in his backyard taking a breather? We know he’ll be back on his doorstep smoking when February hits, we know the tumor on the cig isn’t real. We get the metaphor, he’s not stupid, he’s just human and some of us need a vice to breathe at all.