"And when you write very short fiction you try
to document a motion, some kind of movement.
It’s not even time."
Evening. The grandmother waters geraniums: sunset orange, red glow. Flower heads bob as she showers them. Water trickles from the bottom of each saturated pot: big pots, small pots, decorated pots. She moves along the path. The pendulum swings, tick tock.
Geraniums: blood red, scarlet.
As a child, she stood astride the meridian at Greenwich where a circular blade sliced her in two, east west, right left. Like a magician sawing a lady in half; top bottom. North south.
‘Bipolar,’ he said. ‘Medication,’ he said.
‘Fuck you,’ she said.
And she did.
Geraniums in window boxes: bright orange, red passion.
The watering can is empty. The tap squeaks as she turns it on. The harsh sound of water hitting plastic disturbs the silence. As the can fills, the sound softens. The tap squeaks as she turns it off. Water spills. The pendulum swings, tick tock.
Her mother had stayed at home ironing sending her to Sunday school where Miss Simpson, with her doilies and china tea set, hissed and spat good and evil.
Geraniums in baskets: fire red, burnt orange.
She buried her godfather alive under stones in a dank, dark, boggy corner. Her godfather, fat doughy fingers, sniffing round her like a dog. Inside outside. Tick tock.
Geraniums: cherry red, berry.
She shakes the last drops of water from the can. Despite late birds on the feeder there is stillness. She brushes petals to release the fragrance.
‘At the still point of the turning world,’ he wrote.
She’s been there, stepped off that precipice on the edge of time and landed. With a sigh.
She leaves the empty watering can by the tap.
The earth spins around the sun, day follows night. The pendulum swings, tick tock. That’s all she knows.
Her hips sway gently, two heartbeats to the left, two to the right, arms in counterpoint.
Like a hula dancer.
First published by www.theshortstory.co.uk.
Winner of the Borderlines Flash Fiction Competition (2015).
Barbara Renel is a flash fiction writer, mother, dancer, teacher, performer, collaborator, and lover of textiles. Her publications include Spelk, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, FlashFlood Journal, theshortstory.co.uk, Structo, A3 Review. A reader at Arachne Press Story Sessions, Literary Kitchen FlashFest and her local Speakeasy. A member of the Patchwork Opera and Wigton Writers. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
You trained as a dancer. How does your dance background influence the way you approach writing?
On Dance and Flash Fiction:
Choreography is ‘… a kind of physicalized writing.’ 1
My first dance class was when I was five years old. It was a ballet class and I continued training as a classical dancer throughout my childhood and into my teens adding contemporary dance and choreography in my late teens. I have taught dance throughout my life and I still dance, albeit with a more limited range of movement! And, like many dancers whose bodies are aging, I needed a new form in which to express my creativity.
Creativity is a source. Creativity needs to find form. It could be argued that creativity is inspirational, that formal teaching/learning crushes creativity, but I would disagree; you need the tools to express creativity in your chosen form or there is a danger that the form becomes a therapy for the self rather than an art form to be appreciated by others. Both have their place, but I am interested in performance not therapy. And what I might describe as an instinctive feel for the shape, rhythm, tone of my writing may in fact be the result of years of classical ballet and contemporary technique training and the study of choreography.
‘Choreography is … a learnt skill, a taught craft, the method to structure creativity.’ 2
Dance has the choreographer, the person who creates the dance, and the dancer, whose body is trained as an instrument to perform the choreography. This could be one and the same person and it is as a dancer/choreographer that I now write.
When I was an MA Creative Writing student, my tutor suggested I use my dance background more in my writing. He had a daughter who was training as a dancer and he was fascinated by the art form. I think he wanted to read stories about dancers, their lives, the hours dedicated to their training, the sacrifices made in pursuit of a rarely achievable perfection. I was not interested in that as subject matter but it led me to consider how dance might inform my writing. And my thoughts found form in flash fiction. I can visualize a complete flash piece, see its shape, look at it from different angles. I can hold it, feel its texture, weight. I can hear its rhythms. It is a form that suits me.
As with all art forms the dance begins with an idea, a concept, inspiration, imagination, motivation. And the role of the choreographer is to shape that initial impulse into the dance. There are as many ways to create a dance as there are to write a story. Often a dance will start with improvisation, ‘dance scribbling.’ You move, you play with movement until you find expression for that original stimulus. My writing begins in a similar way. I may not be dancing, but I am seldom sitting, thoughts flow more freely as I move around. I might jot down ideas if I am out walking or, at home, I scribble words or phrases on paper left around the house ignoring any lines and the orientation of the paper, adding arrows, circles, boxes, more a visualization of my thoughts, which are often quite random.
As with all art forms the dance begins with an idea, a concept, inspiration, imagination, motivation. And the role of the choreographer is to shape that initial impulse into the dance. There are as many ways to create a dance as there are to write a story. Often a dance will start with improvisation, ‘dance scribbling.’3 You move, you play with movement until you find expression for that original stimulus. My writing begins in a similar way. I may not be dancing, but I am seldom sitting, thoughts flow more freely as I move around. I might jot down ideas if I am out walking or, at home, I scribble words or phrases on paper left around the house ignoring any lines and the orientation of the paper, adding arrows, circles, boxes, more a visualization of my thoughts, which are often quite random.
In the dance the initial improvisation may lead to a motif – a movement or movement phrase that in some way encapsulates the initial motivation of the choreographer. And in my writing a word/s or phrase/s will stand out and set the direction for the whole piece. This is often a surprising process. A motif will be developed; there are a myriad of choreographic devices – repetition, fragmentation, reversal, layering, manipulation, deconstruction, reconstruction – that might be used. Dynamics, the adverbs of movement, give texture, energy, power, intensity to the dance. There is the rhythm, the flow – the accents, the rise, the suspension, the fall, the stillness. There is the structure of the dance where smooth transitions may be added, the arc of movement observed. This is the craft of choreography. The innovative choreographer studies their craft and then breaks the rules. And while the dance is being created, the dancer trains daily throughout their careers always striving to improve their technique, searching for that illusive perfection. When you see a great dance performance you are so wrapped up in the moment you fail to analyse the choreography or notice the technique of the dancer. You just watch and admire. And the same with great writing.
I see my writing as a craft to be studied, practiced, improved. There is the initial idea, concept, inspiration, motivation; then, as a choreographer, I create the motif/s, develop the story, shape, structure, make use of dynamics, tone, rhythm. I edit endlessly searching for that illusive perfection of the dancer. My knowledge and understanding of dance is more than intellectual; dance is in my blood, it is in every bone, muscle, organ and nerve ending, my viscera and connective tissue. I would hope that this translates into my writing. I strive for my pieces to be little rounded gems, tiny three dimensional sculptures, self-contained, satisfying, complete.
Can you tell us a little about the origins of “at the still point” and why you wrote it?
The starting point for “at the still point”, there the dance is was the word prompt: borderlines.
Initial playing with ideas
- a photograph of my children standing astride the east/west meridian line at Greenwich opposites: such as left/right, north/south, up/down, good/evil
- clocks/time: the pendulum swinging and memories of a difficult time of dramatic mood swings which were monitored by watching the seconds hand on a clock!
- suspension of time: the moment before the pendulum swings the other way, the height of a jump that momentarily defies gravity, the top of a rise before the inevitable fall, the stillness of the turning tide.
The title of my piece is taken from T. S. Elliot’s Four Quartets where he is contemplating this moment:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Structuring the work and the choreographer/dancer in me
The structure for "at the still point, there the dance is" comes from the setting and gentle narrative: a grandmother watering geraniums in her garden, an image drawn from a street scene in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks where grandmothers water geraniums in the evening. It was a vivid image described in the simplest language – a real lesson in economy of words. And this also gave me the motif: geraniums.
Geraniums became the recurring motif giving rhythm and continuity to the piece, the different ‘red’ descriptions and sounds adding texture. There is also the repetitive rhythm of the grandmother filling the watering can and watering the geraniums.
It is within this overall structure that the initial ideas/images could be placed as memories/dreams/reflections of the grandmother.
Mary Wyvell, a poet and lecturer at the University of Minnesota, was on sabbatical in the UK during the sixties, studying at the British Library. We spent time together visiting museums and art galleries. Her poetry is quiet, contemplative and cuts through the complications of life:
… she sits
feelswarmth of sun on skin
Knows clouds move, people pass
From Gammie by Mary Wyvell
This informed the tone of my piece and the final image.
I edit endlessly (the dancer seeking perfection!) spending time on paragraphing (the overall look of the piece on the page is important), length of sentences, choice of words, punctuation; what I call the dynamics of the piece – pace, tone, weight.
Writing flash fiction is for me a very slow process!
Were you born into a family of writers or artists? What were some of your formative influences?
Growing up there was always music in the house. My mother had an eclectic taste, but jazz dominated. And living in London there was the theatre - I was regularly at The Old Viv and the Aldwych (Royal Shakespeare Company), and The National. I saw ballet at Covent Garden and contemporary companies such as Rambert and the visiting companies at Sadler’s Wells.
There were musicals – my mother always insisted we saw the American cast and concerts – Ray Charles, Nina Simone. And I read and read. This list would be virtually endless so here are just some: earliest reading – folk and fairy tales, particularly Hans Christian Anderson. Jo March in Little Woman was the first character I identified with (well maybe the princesses in the earlier stories) but I was very disappointed when Jo married! Anything by Carson McCullers, D H Lawrence, R K Narayan and more recently, Alice Munro, Sarah Hall, Annie Proulx, Claire Keegan, Colm Tóibin, Margaret Atwood. I particularly love the stories of Yasunari Kawabata and enjoy the work of Kathy Fish and Meg Pokrass.
What other art forms and disciplines interest you?
I enjoy all the arts and love collaborative work. Fire Station Ghosts is a site specific sound work for The Old Fire Station Arts Centre in Carlisle where I worked with a sound artist and poet. Cloud Illusion combines my words with music and film. Solo for Two is a sound work with my words and music. Postcard Stories is my most recent collaboration with the illustrator, Paul Taylor. I work with the Patchwork Opera, a fluid group of writers, musicians, photographers and film makers who create live performance works.
What are you currently working on?
Paul and I plan to continue developing our postcard project. There are early plans to work with a filmmaker and dance artist. Patchwork Opera is working on a number of upcoming events. There will be a live performance of Solo for Two (it is a recorded piece at present).
1 Adshead, Janet (Ed.). Choreography: Principles and Practice. Guildford: NRCD, 1987.
2 Lewis, Murray. (1980) in Preston-Dunlop, Valerie. Dance Words. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995.
3 Preston-Dunlop, Valerie. Dance Words. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995.