On Writing ‘Covenant’

Mary-Jane Holmes

As with much of my writing, the springboard for this story was a single image – a pleasure boat ‘moored’ in a desert. This was not something I invented but something I had come across while travelling. Propped up in the middle of mesquite and creosote scrub, its name ‘A Wonderful Life’ peeling under the fierce heat, it had a powerful impact. David Capella says this of the potency of image:

The image is very much a gift and the poet (I think we can include fiction writers here too) is someone who is open to receiving gifts, who is not afraid of what is there in the world around him or her, nor of the powers of the imagination.

On seeing this strange vision, I felt like I had been given such a gift even if I wasn’t too sure of the powers of my imagination. What struck me however was how, when a thing is removed from its natural environment, it has such an interesting effect on the mind. Not only does it prompt a host of questions that can spark any story: How did it get there? Who put it there? Why? But seeing this item in an unexpected context creates what the Russian formalist Shklovsky described as a ‘special perception of the object’ which in turn, as the surrealists believed ‘reinvigorates [its] mysterious qualities’ (Baxter). Coming across a boat in the desert resonated with me in this way – it was no longer something familiar but something ‘other’ prompting an emotional reaction and thought process entirely different from one that might arise from seeing a sailing vessel in its expected surroundings of say, sea, river, lake. In this way the writing of this story became an exploration of the surreal and how to work across the boundaries between realism and fantasy. It was great fun to consciously consider the effect that de-familiarisation can have on the imagination and on writing itself; how odd pairings of actions, circumstances and characters allow a story to approach what it is to be human in a fresh unique way. It also showed me how by creating unconventional connections it may help imbue the writer with the scope of imagination that Capella alludes to.

Curious images might be fertile soil for a narrative seed but until they find a way of being converted into something useful to a story they will inevitably remain sparkling knick-knacks that gleam but do nothing more. I kicked ideas around for this story for quite a while, deciding to take the advice of Robert Shapard when he talks of ‘staying true to the image’ and so left the boat more or less where it was geographically and drew on that detail to seek out character and significance. Although not a conscious decision looking back, the emotions I had attached to the initial image of the boat when I first encountered it metamorphosed into the conflict and desires that propel the protagonist through the narrative.

When I look back at this story I wonder how I ever made those connective leaps between crows and cocktails and a golf-playing Noah character but I know that from now on whenever I am stuck for a story or feel something is lacking emotional resonance, looking for the subversive image, reveling in the surreal may lead the stories I want to tell into places I never dreamed.

pic (2)Mary-Jane Holmes is chief editor of Fish Publishing Ireland. In 2014 her work was shortlisted for the Bridport & won the 2014 Dromineer Prize. She is an article contributor for Flash Fiction Chronicles, has work published in
​Prole, Firewords Quarterly, The Incubator​,​ Journal of Compressed Creative Arts & other reputable places.​

You can read ‘Covenant’ in Issue Two of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.


Words & Image: Copyright © Mary-Jane Holmes, 2015.