The Foul Rag and Bone Shop – Brian Kirk

On Writing ‘The Invitation’ (from Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd).

Dating back to Aristotle’s Poetics, right up to Robert McKee, people have picked apart the bones of what makes a great story. Still, it’s no surprise to anyone who tries to write that Flannery O’Connor, one of the masters of the short story form, once said: “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”

That’s exactly how I feel every time I sit down to start a new story. At the outset I might have a vague idea of a character or a scene in my head but rarely more than that. Getting from there to having a finished story can be a long and arduous process. It’s not that I’ve learned nothing from reading widely or from my own previously written stories, but more that each new story requires a fresh outlook and a new approach every time. Some stories rely on dialogue or narrative to get to the end, while others can be more impressionistic, allegorical even, and need to take a different route to get to where they stop. I say stop rather than end because endings aren’t always endings in the normal sense with short stories. Oftentimes short stories just seem to grind to a halt when there’s nothing more to say.

I knew from the start that ‘The Invitation’ was going to be a naturalistic story with a certain amount of dialogue and human interaction. But I wanted it to be low-key also, not overtly led by narration, but to achieve by artificial means what I hoped would be an organic movement towards its own believable conclusion. No fireworks, no angst, just the usual accretion of small events and details unfolding as they do in actual life. But don’t be fooled, stories aren’t really like life at all.

Jean Luc Godard said: “Sometimes reality is too complexStories give it form.” I have to agree, but it’s not just a matter of simplification. If you imagine a basic narrative as a straight road between points A and B, a long form story goes down that road but also takes you down some alleys and shows you other paths you might not necessarily need to take on your way to reach your destination. With the shorter form you take the direct route, but you see a lot along the way. What you leave out is as important as what you put in.

In ‘The Invitation’ I took my main character, Patrick, out of his normal place of residence, and sent him back to a town he was only too happy to have left ten years earlier, to attend an old friend’s wedding. I’ve always been interested in the back stories of characters; what events or circumstances have brought them to the place in which they find themselves at the time of the story. Patrick’s is a common enough predicament. He is an educated emigrant who has left his home and country to find a better life abroad. His partner, Magda, is purposely left back in Copenhagen and in the story they never manage to talk beyond some brief text messages they exchange. I wanted the sense of the stability of their shared life together to be clear to the reader. But I also wanted the focus of the story to be on Patrick and Alison, in this old/new place where they meet, identify each other as outsiders and make a brief connection. I wanted their mutual attraction to appear natural and believable. And I wanted something to spark between them, for good or ill.

Storytellers rely on the familiarity of shared experiences and values, but they relish the peculiar also, the all-too-human imperfections that we all try to hide. If the novel is a camera panning across a wide expanse, the short story is an extremely tight close-up, or perhaps even an x-ray letting us look inside the hearts of characters. When people say that everyone has a story to tell, what they really mean is that everyone has a secret they would rather keep hidden. That’s where the best stories reside, in what Yeats called ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’, in the dark of the closet where our baser selves reside, in the warm fug of the dirty laundry basket.

Brian Kirk is a writer from Clondalkin in Dublin. He was shortlisted twice for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards for fiction. His first poetry collection After The Fall is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in early 2017. His novel for children The Rising Son was published in December 2015. He is a member of the Hibernian Writers Workshop and he blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com.

You can read ‘The Invitation’ in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd.

© Brian Kirk, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.