A few months ago, I received feedback on a story I'd written. It focused in on the fact the central character spent time peeling potatoes and preparing tea in the opening paragraph. 'No one wants to read about that stuff,' I was told. 'Everyday life isn't that interesting.' There were many other faults the feedback highlighted but that one particular comment has stayed with me. Because everyday life does very much have a place in the stories we tell. It can keep a story grounded in reality. It can provide a tonal contrast to the more unusual things that are going on. It can act as a mask to hide what is happening beneath the surface. It can add grit or banality or universality.
If I were to have been the one giving feedback on my story, I would maybe have framed my thoughts as a question - 'What does this potato peeling/preparing tea section add to the narrative?' It was a story about a child carer and I wanted to show the amount of responsibility she was having to take on. That got me to thinking how the way we live our everyday lives tells us so much about our character and personality. What everyday life means to each of us is different. And I would argue to the giver of that feedback that these differences in our everyday lives are inherently interesting.
Whilst my story is still languishing in a forgotten place somewhere in my computer's dubious filing system, I've picked out six stunning pieces of flash fiction and poetry that shine a wonderful light on the everyday struggles and intrigues of their characters. They include jumpers and shopping lists, details about the weather and descriptions of food being prepared. They make the everyday come alive and use them as a backdrop for extraordinary things, discussing prejudice and expectations, relationships and mortality. They are full of perceptive detail and emotions that can cut you like a knife.
Karen Jones | Reflex Fiction
"The next-door neighbours blew away in last week’s storm." There's nothing ordinary about this wonderful opening sentence and how it gives a Mary Poppins-esque romanticism to the plight of the quiet couple next door. But the rest of the opening two paragraphs is all about jumpers and language barriers and heating, and every ounce of the word count is carefully chosen to ground the story. The tone of voice is brilliantly casual. The little interjection "oh, now" and the question "eh?" at the end of the first paragraph give just the right amount of accent suggestion. I love the word "snottery" in the middle of the second paragraph. It feels like it's a play on words between "snot" and "snobbery." And of course, the snobbery and casual racism of the "proper local" people is what is at the heart of this story. The gritty everyday details provide the foundation on which the emotional edge of the narrative is built as well as providing a brilliant counterbalance to the absurd thought of the quiet couple "blowing around in the sky."
Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor | SmokeLong Quarterly
Writing a story that is one, long, continuous sentence is much more challenging than it first appears. It needs to sustain a flow, it needs to be readable and it needs to not appear (on the surface) to be as complicated or as well structured as it is. This single sentence story carries all that off with aplomb and unravels a narrative that encompasses past, present and future. There are some lovely splashes of contrast in here. The narrator comes to life through asides like "ahh dear Lord" and the chuckling "buhahaha." There is the imagined ecstasy of the father and the interjections of speech at the hospital the night the boy is born. I really like the grittiness of the description. It feels very earthy - the "tiny, musty office", the "poor sneaky nurse", "all gooey and matted with red", "both of them sweating, clinging to each other, naked." There is a whole childhood in here as well as an exploration of how we are shaped or not shaped by our parents, of temptation, of finding happiness in "this noisy, miserable world."
Jen Fawkes | Jellyfish Review
This story hinges around the purchase of a single walkie-talkie. It is a fantastic story-telling device - slightly weird, slightly old-fashioned, connected to communication and childhood etc. I'm with Vera - "now why would anyone in their right mind want to buy that? " There is a lot of chatter about the use of adverbs in flash fiction but I think the "unbelievably" in the third paragraph is a great addition. It adds a wonderful emphasis and carves open Vera's nascent obsession with Maureen's choice. The rest of her purchases are the mundane everyday things Vera would expect. "An oval-shaped gold-leafed mirror and five taped-together painted-daisy juice glasses" - so much care has been taken here to describe everything precisely that I felt I was there "at the Goodwill on Cheviot" with them. Later, matched sets of "cowboy boots, horsehead bookends, rhinestone earrings" are used to show how Vera thinks of herself and Maureen as a matched set. But then the emotional gut punch of the final sentence that we've known was coming right from the cleverly chosen title - "Mysteries that were Maureen’s alone."
Christina Dalcher | Retreat West
One thing that I think writers often overlook is the rhythm of their prose. Here, we jump into a wonderful rhythm straight away. It has an almost nursery rhyme quality to it and fits perfectly with the tone of the story. We have one layer of description on top - what is being bought at the supermarket and that is all very everyday. Underneath that, we have Rosanna's thoughts. But at the deepest layer, this is a wonderful exploration of skin colour and image and traditions and the irrationality of it all. There is a lot packed into the story - sir saying black is the right colour for women, the men with their skin whitening cream, the Russian girls "no longer bleached pale" - and the end result is something much greater than the sum of its parts. And right through the whole thing, there is the wonderful rhythm. It creates dynamics almost like a piece of music ebbing and flowing towards the end paragraph all about pigs - "Black ones and white ones and pink sucklings, all covered in the same wet sludge. A pig is a pig is a pig, she thinks, no matter how thick a coat of mud it wears."
Marisa Crane | Cotton Xenomorph
Playing around with form always risks falling prey to creating something that is style over substance. I can't even imagine where to start creating a poem inside a Venn diagram let alone creating one that doesn't fall foul of its complex form. But this is stunning. It is full of such wonderful language - "the liquid moon light" of the opening sentence, "the sky's iridescent cheek", "drinking down the moon." The essence of the two halves of the poems are distinct and often opposite. The left side is lyrical, absurd in its alcohol infused description whilst the right side reflects the more stark reality of the present. The left side is full of skipping, drunk-walking, twinkling like a dimple and magic tricks. On the right side, there are sickness, tears and regret. It is almost like they are ying and yang. And this poem would still be mightily effective if it were laid out as two separate stanzas. It explores so much (memory, sins, drink, light, bodies, things being trapped) and it is something you can read over and over again and always find new meaning.
Dina L. Relles | Matchbook
Finally, a piece that is all about the small details of everyday life, using these to suggest so much about the narrator and the world they live in. We begin with the view from outside looking in - "Neon sign in the window, swaying yellow lights, locals lining the counter." The sense of place is immediate. A homely, welcoming place. "Framed sepia shots" that suggest somewhere rooted in its past. The smells, sounds and touch of the place. I love how the waitress takes the order "like it’s a secret." Briefly, we hop away from the diner to "people holding hands across their wheelchairs in a hospital lobby" and the kindness of a stranger in an airport but it's the diner that's the star of the show. So much literature (at least, a lot of what I read and love) can be quite bleak but here, everything is wonderfully uplifting. "Here, a fork, a spoon. Here, a whole world." We don't need as much as we think to be happy. There is so much to marvel at in the tapestry of everyday life. Even so, the last sentence leaves us with just a glint of doubt. Is the narrator wanting to isolate herself or is she simply wanting to stare at the wonderful world outside the window?
If you've enjoyed this month's selection of pieces by Christina, Dina, Jen, Karen, Marisa and Tochukwu please let them know on Twitter...
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