This is the second time in recent months I’ve come across an unusual and beautiful memoir. The Naming Of Bones by Jan Kaneen is a collection of flash fiction that, at first, seems like a series of thematically-related stories. As you get further into the book, you realise that you’ve been reading fragments of the same life. There’s an undercurrent of grief which the writer seems to be investigating just as much as the reader is, and delicious prose that managed to capture both the confusion of a young child and the voice of an adult longing for closure.
I wanted to find out how she came to write a memoir in such an unusual style, how she coped with such an interweaving of plot and her route to publication. Read on to find out more.
One thing that really struck me was the style of the book. It was very easy to forget that it was a memoir as it was written in such a lyrical and beautiful style. Did you plan to write it like this or did it just come out when you started writing?
Thanks so much Sarah – that’s a really insightful question because no, I didn’t plan to write The Naming of Bones in this form or style. In fact, I didn’t plan it in any way, shape or form. I just started writing as therapy after the death of my step-mum, then signed up to do course A215 – An Introduction to Creative Writing at the Open University. Short stories and what I was later to discover were, flash fictions, poured out of me and I didn’t realise I was writing to a theme until much later when I attended a Michael Lovegrove workshop on sequencing flash at The Flash Festival.
A truly unique, startlingly beautiful book
During that workshop, which I very nearly didn’t attend because it was the last of what had been a jam-packed flashing weekend (it was a Sunday afternoon and I was almost flashed out and had a long drive home ahead of me from Bristol to Cambridge and was really tempted to just get in the car and set off, but I didn’t because sequencing was something I was very interested in, and because Michael is such a brilliant teacher), so I dragged myself along intending to snooze my way through it. But the workshop was brilliant, and Michael said something that resonated deeply with me, about writers often writing to themes subconsciously, sometimes without really knowing they’re doing it.
This rattled round my head as I set off home, and when I stopped for coffee, I bunged some of my flashes into one long document and put in into WordCounter – Count Words & Correct Writing searching for the words I’d used most to see if this revealed any hidden themes. (Flash writers can follow this link if they fancy doing the same – it’s free, though it’s best if you take out common words such as ‘like’ and ‘because’ first). I won’t give away what my key words were, but it was a revelation and made me realise I was writing an aspect of my own history.
It was a very emotional revelation and me and shortly afterwards my husband and I went away for a week to help me process my emotions, and it was then I started sequencing my stories and freewriting to produce flashes that sort of joined up what I’d already written.
I was also really struck by the structure of the book. You intertwine past and present so we get an overall impression of a life lived rather than taking us from the beginning to the end. I think it makes it very emotionally powerful, but what was the thinking behind it and was it complicated to organise?
I’m so glad the emotional power comes through to you, Sarah, because it can be tricky when you’re writing about something so personally emotional to be sure this is translating, so thanks for that.
We return to the same site over and over in different voices, to uncover an important memory
I think that maybe the emotional nature of each constituent flash in The Naming of Bones already exists because they were written as a sort of exorcism of emotion I was truly feeling, and maybe this standalone emotion strengthens as it gets layered and reframed by subsequent flashes.
I also think that having my story situated in a realistically described place and time provides a narrative anchor around which other narrative strings can be woven really flexibly, allowing me to move between moments using different voices, tenses and temporalities without confusing the reader too much. The reader is repeatedly brought back to that fixed place and moment and so are on narrative firm ground as the story flits between dreams and memories. This would have been difficult for readers to navigate without the anchoring flashes I suspect, but I didn’t think about that when I wrote them, I just wrote them and came to know that after the event.
There seem to be more and more books written ‘in flash.’ Why, as a form, are you drawn to it and what do you think are the benefits of using it in a memoir?
Well, it found me rather that I found it, but I think it’s a wonderful form that helps writers really collaborate with their readers, leaving gaps, omissions and white spaces as they disclose the biggest of stories in the fewest of words. There is something in the brevity of works ‘in-flash’ that makes a partner of the reader, that demands readers read between the lines to come to their own bespoke versions of the narrative truth. As memoir I think this is really powerful because it acknowledges the nature of individual versions of events, and it makes readers really lean into real-life stories which has the effect, for me, of having my story feel deeply seen.
Having written a memoir recently, I found it to be a very cathartic experience, emotionally. Is this something that you found as well?
Yes, very much so. I started writing creatively as therapy, and in the process of learning how to write, discovered the issues that I really needed help addressing. I’m not saying that I’m cured, but the whole writing process is and continues to be, curative for me, and I’m very, very grateful I found it. I genuinely believe creative writing saved my life.
Competitions are an excellent way to give you confidence and to get your work out in the world
What was your route to publication and what advice would you give to writers at the early stages of their career?
After I did A215 at the Open University I went on to do their MA in Creative Writing and, as I was studying, continued to work on The Naming of Bones. As part of the MA, we had to do a synopsis of a work in progress, researching publishers who might be interested in publishing it and write a letter of introduction to the publisher we thought most likely to want to publish it. This was just an exercise, and the letter wasn’t to be actually sent, but I used The Naming of Bones as my work in progress and, as I’d just won a flash comp at Retreat West, I chose them as my publisher to do the exercise around. When I finished my MA, I finalised sequencing The Naming of Bones and entered it into the Ellipsis Magazine Flash Collection competition and was gobsmacked when it came second. Feeling all confident in the wake of this, I submitted it to Retreat West, and they accepted it for publication.
Advice-wise to new writers, I’d say that entering competitions is really brill because it gives you deadlines to work to and positive feedback, as well as possible routes to publication. I don’t think The Naming of Bones would have been published if I hadn’t entered the comps I did enter.
I’d also say, to do your research. Pieces that win comps in one venue can go unlisted in other comps, not because they’re rubbish, but because their faces don’t fit that particular venue.
Also, I’d say get yourself some expert critical writing pals who can help you polish your stories to be the best they can possibly be. I’m so grateful to my feedback buddies especially when writing flash. Other pairs of eyes can tell you exactly where you need to give extra narrative hints and where you are laying things out too explicitly. Also, feedback pals are wonderful to help you navigate the perils of rejection, and we all get constant rejections as writers, and that can be tough. Also-also, I’ve learnt so much from giving feedback to others. When you read to give feedback, you’re reading not just as a reader, but as a writer too, and you get to deconstruct writing, to really see the nuts and bolts of how the words work on the page and that helps you ‘see’ your own writing which is what helps you edit better.
Jan Kaneen is a mum, wife, sister and daughter who’s been a bar maid, betting office cashier, magazine publisher, community development co-ordinator and chief cook and bottle washer for several local charities. She started writing in 2015 at the age of 50, as a sort of mindfulness therapy to help channel her emotions. She now has an MA in Creative Writing from the Open University and her stories have won prizes hither and yon and been published widely on-line and in print, in places like the Bath Flash Anthology, Aesthetica, Comma Press’s Dinesh Alirajah Prize Anthology, Reflex Fiction anthologies, The Fish Anthology and Molotov Cocktail. She’s been nominated for Best on the Net, several Pushcarts and Best Microfiction and one of her flash fictions made the BIFFY 50 2019-20 list. The Naming of Bones is Available from Retreat West Books here.
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