On writing ‘JOHN’

Carla Manfredino

‘The purpose of fiction is to transfigure the quotidian!’ was a disappointed friend’s response to reading my story, ‘JOHN’. The friend was upset by the repetitions, erratic chronology and the protagonists’ mundane existence; they felt I was reinforcing a sense of isolation and entrapment, when writing should be an escape from these states. You can’t excite everyone. As Vonnegut put it: ‘Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia’.

I’ve always been interested in art that can reveal emotional depth to the everyday. Take Degas’ paintings for instance, in particular the sequence of women doing domestic chores. Degas uses colour and lineation in a way that portrays the everyday, yet elevates it. I aspire to use words in a similar manner; I want to embrace the banal and depict it in a way that leaves space for reflection and emotion from the reader. Through writing about John’s menial routine in this style I hope to transcend it, and thus change the perception of it.

‘JOHN’ is separated into episodes with refrains to mirror John’s repetitive thoughts and the story circles back on itself. John’s habits are unending as he is unwilling to express himself directly. Through reworking the piece, I discovered that I write more clearly when I trust the voice inside me. When the conscious and analytical mind came in to play, problems arose. By coercing scenes into events that ‘made sense’ and maintaining a linear chronology, I felt I was taking away the uncertain sadness of John and his life.

I had the idea for the story a few years ago but it took some time to come into fruition. The voice and prosody of the story came first. I had to get to know and understand the protagonist, but I couldn’t figure him out: he abuses the dog yet he feeds the birds, he loses his temper with a customer at the computer shop, but he has a conscience. He is not exactly nice to Gill, but he genuinely misses their adolescent romance. I had to accept John’s ultimate humaneness; to be human is to accept life’s contradictions.

I used the third person subjective narrator so that I could focus on John but keep a distance from him. I think this distance allows the reader to more fully participate in the story, by piecing together what is not said. The fractured structure is to allow this too. The linguistic refrains are to show John is trapped in his monotonous existence, and also to suggest he lives by this internal poetry, one he is not aware of.

Ali Smith gave an insightful lecture on the short story at Goldsmiths last year, and she talked about its unique ability to capture the brevity of life. I wanted to do the opposite with my story by using the short form to demonstrate the stagnancy and perpetuity of John’s routines. I think that is why I am drawn to the short form – it seems the ideal space to explore the interiority and actions of a particular character. I don’t think the voice and form of ‘JOHN’ would work in anything longer, it could become rather annoying!

Carla Manfredino is currently studying for an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths in London. She also reads for The White Review and volunteers as a writing mentor at The Ministry of Stories.

You can read ‘John’ in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.

© Carla Manfredino, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.