All the short stories I write are chiefly about ‘seeing’. But their starting points are often an idea or even a memory rather than the ubiquitous ‘picture prompt’.
I note here in summary the creative, critical and poetic considerations of the story Lost Children.
The idea for the flash story Lost Children evolved from an unreliable childhood memory. In the first instance this made me think about an important critical consideration posed by John Berger, “What served in place of the photograph, before the camera’s invention?” In essence, it was memory. “What photographs do out there in space was previously done with reflection” (Berger 2013). Photographs replace what would normally only have resided in the memory. Berger goes on to draw on Susan Sontag’s perception of the photograph as “memento mori” (Sontag 1973), as “…an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask”.
I want to write about what ‘trace’ evokes with regard to the ghost of a memory. In my mind it evokes an image of something incomplete – the whole story cannot be told by a photograph. Photographs invite questions. What has been here? What exactly am I looking at? There are similarities if one thinks about a memory; the ‘trace’ lives only in the mind and the question is not what am I seeing but rather, what am I remembering? Memories, like photographs, do not narrate– essentially they accompany the story. In the case of memory, the story is preserved only in the chamber of the mind.
So, the narrative around the Lost Children story had its starting point in a memory of visiting my adoptive grandparents’ home in Liverpool. There was a children’s home, an old Victorian sandstone building, behind my grandparents’ tall garden wall. There were broken bottles like coloured jewels along the top of the wall. These broken shards of glass, my grandfather told me, were to stop the children from the home getting into the garden. I remember climbing up and looking over the wall and not seeing any children playing out there. But I remember ‘seeing’ children through the large rectangular windows of the home. I saw bars on the window. I could not see any light coming from the windows. I think in reality, aspects of the memory cannot be accurate because the sandstone house was set far back in large grounds and partly obscured behind trees. I don’t think I could have seen the windows. However, I carried this particular ‘memory’ from childhood into adulthood with two associated questions. Why were these children trapped in the home? And, why did the children need to be kept out of my grandparents’ garden by broken shards of glass cemented into the wall? My childhood imaginings were of abandoned children, lost children, flitting about in dim light, like trapped birds bumping into the bars of a cage.
In my adult imagination, to turn the memory into a narrative, I considered a number of spectral associations. The children, as I remember them, cut off from the root of any familial associations seemed to me isolated, in the way that a ghost is isolated – ‘lost children’ ‘disowned’ ‘lost identity’ ‘existential aloneness’. Those children had no place – they were only living ‘there’.
As I developed the poetics of the story, I considered how in the space of a piece of flash fiction I could depict that type of isolation. I considered the associations of crows and ravens – their mythical relationship to ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ in the Norse Legends as retold here by Guerber. “Two ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), perched upon his [Odin’s] shoulders as he sat upon his throne” (Guerber 2009). I also wanted to allude to the ‘magic’ and folkloric associations of black feathered birds particularly in relation to death and to ‘the trickster’ on the one hand but also to the positive connotations of freedom and flight.
The photograph is “…a physical object that exists in time and space…” (eds Edwards & Hart 2004). There are no physical photos in Lost Children, that thing made of chemical and light but I wanted the story to be photographical. The negative and positive associations of ravens and crows, the darkness and the light, are the photographical elements of the story. In a synesthetic sense, I wanted the story to be the shape of a small oblong like the flash of a camera.
A further allusion to the photograph is Lizzie seeing herself reflected in the sharp eyes of Ted. It was intended to produce a ‘photographical’ quality in that image. Ted’s eye, sharp like a bird’s, acting as a mirror where Lizzie’s image is reflected back. However, I also wanted the bird associations to continue. From the simple ‘raggedy pocket’ intended to conjure up images of the ragged black feathers of the crow, to the allusion of the retina of the bird’s eye and the ocular/optographical myth that the eye was capable of recording the last image seen before death.
Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.
Briggs, J. (1977) Night Visitors: Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. London: Faber & Faber.
Cole, H. and Srinivason, S. (1989) Eudora Welty, Inquiring Photographer New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/22/specials/welty-photographer.html
Edwards, E. and Hart, J. (Eds.). Photographs, Objects, Histories : On the Materiality of Images. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge.
Ings, S. (2007). The Eye: A Natural History. London: Bloomsbury Press.
Kroll, J. and Harper, G. (Eds.). (2012) Research Methods in Creative Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Crime Stories and Ghost Stories 2014, radio programme, BBC Radio 4, London, 13 October.
Petit, L. (2010) ‘Specters of Kath: Negatives and Negativity in Penelope Lively’s The Photograph Narrative’, Ohio State University Press, 18 (2), pp. 220-228.
Sontag, S. (1973) On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Tresidder, J. (2004) The Complete Dictionary of Symbols: In Myth, Art and Literature. London: Duncan Baird Publishing.
Guerber, H.A. (2009) Myths of the Norsemen: Eddas and Sagas. Available at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28497/28497-h/28497-h.htm [accessed 2 December 2014]