Now that I’ve started to charge for my audio work, I’m flipping my Hobby weeks back to writing flash fiction. As previously discussed, writing is hard, but I feel a responsibility as an editor to keep myself at the sharp end of it, honing my own skills to better empathise with and advise my clients.
I recently put out a call on social media for an evocative image to inspire me, and three key words I’d have to use in my first piece. (Many thanks to Daryl Duncan for the butterfly image that heads up this post, and to Gary Couzens and Chloë Yates for the words: Fiddlesticks, Chump, and Usurped.)
I’ve set no maximum word limit but my intention is always to keep things as tight as possible. What’s emerged is a painful little vignette that I call Stilled Life.
I’ll give you the story first, and then go on to talk a little bit about my creative process and the choices that I made along the way.
(Content Warning: blood, abandonment, childbirth, and miscarriage.)
Stilled Life, by Dion Winton-Polak
The ripples diminish, bumping up against the sides with ever-decreasing vigour, returning the glassy surface to its proper, natural order—red as the evening sunlight glancing in; still as the butterflies pinned in their varnished frames.
Vision blurs with salt and memory as you gaze down and through to a life of clarity lost.
There was love, once. Touch was welcomed, welcoming, and the whirl of the world was a dance to be cherished, though it often left you dizzy. Time was given, spaces graciously shared and, in the soft eddies of silken sheets, a future was conceived.
And chump that you were, you celebrated your annihilation.
His was a poison seeping in, griping at your insides. His roots pushed through your body, thickening, hardening, stabbing shrieking splinters of self-doubt and outrage through your organs, coiling ever upwards. They usurped your mind—you know this! Knew this.
Until you didn’t.
It drove him from you, into her, lickety-split. What was left as you sweated, strained, screamed for it all to just stop? Dry leaves rattling round the stoop, scraping on the floor, insect wings scratching at the walls, batting at your windows, hopeless and husked in their multitudes.
How can he move on as if he had no part in this? In changing you? What fiddlesticks and fuckery earns him the right to— oh Christ!
The pain rises again, overwhelms. Bath water bucks in the storm, thrashes and bleeds with placental pity for the perfect stilled life lying at the bottom.
It ebbs eventually; you can feel it seeping out in hot spurts of pain and shame until there’s nothing left but you sinking, your darling butterfly, and darkness.
(I’d like to thank Penny Jones for acting as a sensitivity reader for this piece. Please see Further Reading at the end of the article if you need help or want to reach out about your own experiences.)
I tried to monitor my creative process as I wrote Stilled Life, so for anyone interested, let’s weave our way through.
The image was a striking one. I received several options from other people, but this one called out to me. There was something so beautiful about these two butterflies floating in the water.
The comparative sizes made me think of a parent and child, though I didn’t know how or why – nor even whether the parent would be mum or dad.
The peace and beauty of the scene made me want to reach for that sense of admiration first, and I began to write it with the notion that – for a certain kind of mind – corpses might be deemed more beautiful than the living, fixed in place like a butterfly (ah!) to be admired in full detail rather than flapping about with messy, uncontrollable vigour.
I wanted to bring in a sense of dissociation to match this damaged mind, so I thought I’d try the second-person perspective. The deliberate choice of where to place the viewer (and what its effect might be) was something I grappled with in last week’s blog: Perspective matters. I’ll let you judge how successfully I applied it here.
The redness of the water was brought in retrospectively (in the story and on the image) once I understood what was happening better. It was originally clear blue, glassy, framed by the edges of the bath to better suggest the ‘art’ of pinned butterflies.
I thought that the protagonist might have killed the baby on purpose – that her mind might have been so overthrown by postpartum psychosis, so overwhelmed by the noise it produced that she just needed to silence it in order to appreciate and enjoy her perfect little ‘butterfly’.
(Usurped was an easy word to apply here, if she were unbalanced, so that part clicked into place.)
Staring into water, for me, is so introspective and solitary that I could not imagine the mother being supported. There was nobody there for her in her time of need. I thought about how she might have *displayed symptoms early on and the father, unable to cope with this person so utterly changed by her pregnancy, might have simply left. Abandoned her. It’s an awful, horrible thing to contemplate, yet seemed to fit emotionally.
(It also allowed me to use the words Chump and Fiddlesticks – both a little archaic, but somehow suited to the sense of helpless anger she felt as her energies drained away.)
I knew there were two bodies under the water – and in solidarity with the mum I first thought the father should be one of them, righteously killed for his callousness – but the perspective of the image was too close, the feelings it evoked too tender to be truly murderous. I became overwhelmed with sadness and ever-greater empathy as the words flowed out, and I found myself moving the plot towards miscarriage.
That locked in the vibe for me: the mother alone in the bath, unaided, aware that her perfect baby is dead, her own life’s blood flowing after it—the pair of them represented by the inspiring image.
Okay, well that’s about it I think, but feel free to ask any questions that occur. I’ll be returning to write more flash fiction on Hobby week (the fourth week of each month), and I shall continue to discuss the creative process when I do.
Once again, I invite my readers to join me by writing their own pieces (see Flashes of Inspiration for our earlier efforts) though I shan’t be picking winners this time. I’d prefer to inspire a sense of camaraderie. We are none of us competitors in art, just fellow creators trying to get our words out one by one.
I will post the images and key words a week in advance, and you can post your own efforts in the relevant Comments section along with any thoughts, processes or observations you’d like to share.
Now, we have a fifth week this month, so I’ll do another piece of flash fiction next week. Here’s the image and the words I’ll be using to inspire me. Why not give it a go too?
Flattery, Warrior, Benign
* like the main character of Penny Jones’ book, Matryoshka.
If you have been affected by the story and want to engage more with the subject, please visit Grace In Action, a non-profit site featuring the experiences and thoughts of my friends Siobhan and David Monteith. They are far more eloquent than I on the subject. You’ll find a podcast, some useful videos and a blog there.
There is a Facebook page too, if you want to follow them.