– why what a writer knows can be found in the most surprising details of a story.
‘Jesus is in the tree again. The second time this week.’
And he is.
I’m standing in front of our kitchen sink, looking out of the window, down into the garden. An old sycamore stands at the top of one of the beds, a slice taken out of it, where a large branch was sawn off. The gnarls in the wood, fungus, discolouration all combine to create an image, which could be interpreted as the head-and-shoulders of a bearded, long-haired figure – rather like the usual representations of Jesus. It particularly looks like this in the rain, which is what it’s doing now… for the second time this week. Just like in the opening of my story, ‘Jesus in a Tree’.
And yet I’m a writer who believes in using your imagination, who hasn’t followed the mantra of many a Creative Writing tutor or manual down the years, telling me to ‘write what you know’. In fact, I’m leading a discussion on the subject ‘Writing about what you don’t know’, in the Northern Short Story Festival, now postponed until October (hopefully…).
My new short story collection, ‘Trouble Crossing the Bridge’ (to be published shortly, by Chaffinch Press, the book imprint of ‘The Blue Nib’) is described as a melting pot of personalities, voice, setting and plot.
It opens with ‘Risk Factor’, set in the United States, about a shopaholic woman, hooked on Black Friday spending, after the death of her controlling husband. Further along, there’s ‘The Cabinet of Immortal Wonders’, where the protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur, an eighteenth-century ornithologist, who invented arsenical soap to preserve the birds he caught for display. And then there’s ‘Watching Me Watching You’, in which a man who’s capable of extreme facial recognition falls in love with a photo in a Missing Persons file.
None of these situations (quite obviously, I hope!) is based on my own experience – setting, theme, voice all come from an external idea, followed by imagination, coupled with research, which is the method I tend to use in my work. So how come I’m doing exactly the same thing as the main character in my story… or, rather, she’s doing exactly the same as me?
‘Jesus in a Tree’ is about a young woman, who is desperate to have a child, but is unable to conceive, following repeated rounds of IVF treatment. She wants to carry on hoping, trying, but she senses that her husband has given up. She needs him to keep faith, she wants him to see Jesus in that tree – a metaphor for her belief.
I’m lucky enough not to have been in this situation myself, so the story hasn’t come from real-life, except for that one image – the detail of my cut sycamore tree.
(Some would take issue with me about this. Am I using trauma misappropriation – a hot topic recently, along with cultural misappropriation? But I think that’s an issue for a separate piece.)
And so it is in other stories, with further distinctive details.
The toy in ‘Trouble Crossing the Bridge’ – ‘a wooden cat, found in the bottom of my Christmas stocking… A cat on a drum, hiding a button beneath.’ The earplugs in my story about insomnia, described as tiny orange marshmallows. The red geraniums in ‘The Woman who Turned out to be Me’ – ‘scarlet velvet’, looking so good, ‘flaunting themselves. Mine, back home, are streaked with black, on top of brown, rotting stalks.’
I had one of those toys – several, in fact… a cat, a dog, a donkey. I was always intrigued by the mechanism, turning them upside down, trying to find how they worked. And yes, they were usually found in my Christmas stocking. And I’ve used ear-plugs like that many a time, when visiting my son in London, finding it hard to block out the planes heading in and out of Heathrow passing over his flat, or the clanging and shouting of market-traders setting up their stalls at five in the morning.
Then there are my own potted geraniums, which tend to be just as poorly as the plants of my narrator. And, like her, I can never understand why the ones I see outside cafes and pubs are always so perfect. How do they manage that… she asks, I ask?
From a reader’s point of view, do these details matter? Why mention geraniums, why not just say ‘flowers’? Why describe the earplugs, or the toy? In a novel, there is room for the writer to indulge in description. You can spend pages, if not chapters, on the setting of the book, which can be a crucial part of the story. Or with the characters – their looks, their past, their ways, their likes/dislikes… any of these things, all of them, and many others can be gone into at length. This isn’t the case with the shorter forms, the stories, the novella (flash fiction most of all, perhaps, but flash is a genre I stay away from, on the whole). Every word counts, in order to explain what’s happening, to explore your theme. Yet a few choice words of description create a vivid image giving a story an immediacy it might otherwise lack – a distinct feature that sharpens the overall picture. And, sometimes, if the reader identifies with these particular references (aren’t most ear-plugs those little orange ones?!), well, that’s an added bonus.
But what about the writer? Does slipping in these small, personal connections from their own life serve any purpose for them? I’m a great fan of the sculptor, Sophie Ryder, particularly her giant hares, fashioned out of wire, or bronze. I love the pitted surfaces of the latter, crying out to be touched. But look closely, and you’ll see that the texture is partly achieved by a surprising collection of items embedded in the ‘flesh’. Car parts, small toys, torn-off paper – scraps scavenged from her own everyday life, captured indelibly in her art.
Another of my passions is gardening, and whenever I read articles by designers talking about their own gardens, the common, underlying message is that they always include something of personal significance, in amongst the careful structure and the beauty of the plants.
And I think that’s how it is for me in my writing. Precisely because I don’t write from my own experiences, I still want a tiny part of myself hidden within the fictional world I’ve created, some aspect of my life (a memory, a possession, an opinion) … that says ‘this is me’.
Jesus won’t be in the tree much longer. More fungus is growing, the wrens are forever picking at grubs in the crevices of the bark, and the squirrels climb up and down it. But he’ll always be in my story, sending me back to the view from my kitchen, and what I once saw there. Which is why I’ll continue to include these snapshots of my existence in my work wherever I can, whilst still writing about what I don’t know.
Diana Powell’s stories have won, or been featured, in a number of competitions, including the ALCS 2020 Tom-Gallon Trust Award (shortlisted), 2019 Chipping Norton Literature Festival Short Story Prize (winner), the 2019 Bedford International Writing Competition (3rd place), and the 2014 PENfro award (winner).