A Flash of Inspiration: Grass by Christina Sanders

A Flash of Inspiration: Grass by Christina Sanders
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Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr
Photo by Markus Grossalber from Flickr

Our Flash of Inspiration for November is “Grass” by Christina Sanders, an accomplished piece of writing that grabbed my attention with the very first word.

“Grass” is a story that pulled me in immediately.

“Imagine.”

With one word, I understood  I was being invited to participate in the story, that it was not only the writer who was imagining, nor the central character; as a reader, I must also jump in.

“Imagine.”

It’s a powerful declaration but it can only work effectively if the writer makes good on the promise. The “imagining” has to be worth it.

“Grass” is a story that masterfully achieves this.

So, how?

The importance of point of view

The most striking thing about “Grass” is the second person narrative. Having “you” as the point of view, makes space for the reader within the story, and allows us to imagine the experiences as our own. It’s what lends this piece its emotional resonance.

Try reading it in the first of third person. It’s not nearly as effective.

By opting for this voice, and because of the way this particular point of view internalises the story within the reader, the emotional tension can be developed and accentuated using an almost minimalist language.

Take a look at the line “You no longer make love” for example. It’s a brutal statement in any point of view, but the fact that we are party to the experience lends it an added force and poignancy.

For me, the matter of fact tone in “Grass” allows the emotion to shine more brightly.

Crafting a complete story within a compressed form

It’s not just the voice which makes “Grass” such a well-crafted story, however. Structurally the story is very accomplished.

Flash fiction can sometimes be a whimsical form, the language lyrical, the ideas a little off-beat, the story lost within the compression of the form.

In “Grass” however, we get a very complete impression of the central character’s life, told in a series of -not quite – linear moments.

The opening invites the reader to imagine an idealised world – the beautiful garden, the comfortable home, the pleasant family life – and we are allowed to share an intimate moment by the fireside as the dreamed of life seems to become reality.

Only for the dream to be shattered abruptly with a time shift, as we are taken from the romantic moment of conception, to the dark, sad reality of the son’s psychological breakdown, the strains upon the marriage, and the mother’s sense of disorientation as she tries to make sense of things.

Such a sharp swerve in a story is very daring, and in less accomplished hands it would not work, but in “Grass” the shift from the idealised world to the reality works well because we have been invited in from the start and asked to imagine alongside the protagonist.

Because of this, we can share the woman’s sense of confusion, her shock at the contrast between what she dreamed of and hoped for, and what has actually happened.

In this way a wistfulness pervades the story that is poignant and tender and never slips into cliché or melodrama.

What we do get is a light touch of humour as the story shifts again, closer to the present. We are asked once more to “imagine”, only this time things are not so much idealised as self-deprecating.

The self-improvement “elobix”, the Spanish classes, the Chardonnay soaked despondency, these efforts and moments are described with a slight sense of bemusement, which not only lightens the tone but allows us to get a sense of the protagonist having moved on through life – her idealism is tempered this time by experience.

The ending, when it comes, is all the more powerful because of this.

We have come full circle – back to the beautiful garden. Only it is made real now, and experienced in the light of all that is now known – the life that actually happened and not the one that was dreamed of, the one that was imagined.

The final, poetic lines acknowledging that this is simply life, that time moves forward, and everything, great and small returns to dust, to dirt. It’s a bleak idea, and one that could provoke a deep despondency within the reader, but is, instead, lifted by a sense of acceptance.

We understand why she crawls in the grass and dirties her nails, because we have been on the journey with her. We know exactly how she feels.

Christina on writing “Grass”

Christina Sanders
Christina Sanders

Jen: The second person point of view is not one you often encounter as a reader. Why did you opt for this point of view in “Grass”? Is it a point of view you use often?

Christina: I didn’t consciously write in the second person. The story felt to me like opening a door, and standing side by side with someone to point out the view, naming all the hills, lakes and valleys in my role as a dispassionate observer.

The second person is an interesting POV to use as it is strong, immediate, and intimate. The reader becomes complicit from the beginning. This closes the space between the reader and writer, but also allows room for interpretation, so I found it rather liberating.

Jen: I loved the structure of “Grass” the shifts in the time from one moment to the next. It really gave me a sense of a whole lifetime having passed before my eyes within a very short space of time. Did you set out to construct the story this way? I can imagine it would have been quite difficult to compress so much into such a short piece.

Christina: I usually write much longer stories. With Grass I set out to narrate a life in under 1,000 words. I wanted to condense the narrative to as few images /scenes as possible to give a sense of time passing, and allow the characters to be defined by the drama. I was thinking visually when I started writing it, using the Saturday Guardian to create a kind of fictitious collage – the way we are served ideas of how life ‘should’ look on one page, then shown the reality on another. The Talking Head’s song ‘Once in A lifetime,’ was also in the mix.

Jen: The title is very intriguing. Can you tell us a little about that?

Christina: I’d love to say I had all sorts of clever notions about this, (universal, self seeding, grass on the other side is always greener etc….). However, it was originally (and unimaginatively) called ‘Imagine…’   Grass came from the vision of the flame grass, a presence in its right, rustling, a kind of chorus, subtle but insistent on being heard. I wanted this to give expression to the universality of the narrator’s experience.

Jen: The language in “Grass” is beautifully understated, almost minimalist, but it packs an emotional punch. The final paragraph is quite lyrical and stands slightly apart – in terms of its tone – from the rest of the story. I liked this. It made the final scene very powerful for me, as if I was also becoming aware of time passing and the essential essence of things – the dirt, the dust. How conscious of this were you?

Christina: Ah… the difficult last paragraph (as opposed to the first and second one). The ending changed many times as I couldn’t get it to ring true to the rest of the story. However, I knew it would have to end in the garden. At the time I began writing it I was teaching a creative writing class on endings, and thinking about Lorrie Moore’s adage that the ending should shine a light over the whole story, but as I couldn’t get it to work I abandoned it for a while. It was only when I came back to it afresh, that I knew she had to get down and dirty; this in a sense was life and death.

Jen: Finally, we’ve had our say about “Grass”, but what do you like about it?

Christina: That it’s published! Seriously, as I grow older I’ve become increasingly interested in the notion of compromise which I’ve been exploring in my writing. It’s a word that is usually used pejoratively to suggest you can’t get want you want, or have to give something up, both of which are negatives. Yet, I think the concept of compromise if far more nuanced and less bleak than this, so I’m pleased a little of this has been conveyed in Grass.

What do you think of “Grass”? Why not take a read and let us know?

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