This month our Flash In Five comes from writer Emily Devane
The Word Swallower (2018) Ellipsis Zine (click title to read)
Idea: This story came about by accident. I wanted to write a piece of flash for the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, on that year’s theme of ‘food’. I still have my notebook, filled with abandoned notes. I wanted to write something that would stand out. It was in thinking around the theme that an idea came to me: what if I told a story about people who eat things that aren’t food? I was familiar with stories about pregnant women craving coal, earth or chalk. I have hypo-sensory tendencies, so this was something I could relate to, albeit in a small way. I went down a lengthy research rabbit hole, exploring the phenomenon of people eating non-food substances. Pica, as it’s known, is classed as an eating disorder. The story started life as a paragraph with the holding title ‘The Paper Eater’.
Development: At the back of my mind was the expression: you are what you eat. I became interested in the concept of a person eating paper, and somehow becoming the words on the page. The story set out in a playful direction. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this but the tale about the eaten lunch ticket actually happened to me, and it provided a humorous jumping off point. Then I thought of other things that might be eaten – and what might be rejected by the discerning paper eater (I had fun with that part!). But at this stage, the story was a series of anecdotes. As I worked on the story, it became clear that this character was eating paper due to a lack of something. By the final draft, this girl has become so shaped by the words she has consumed, she is now unrecognisable to her own mother. Everything slotted into place with that last line – another literalised metaphor. Sometimes that happens, and it feels like magic – a ‘ta-da’ moment.
Editing: During the editing stage, I switched perspectives. In the first draft, the story was told from the mother’s perspective but that made it harder to convey the final message. Third person allowed me to shift tones as the story progressed. I decided the title, ‘The Paper Eater’, wasn’t doing enough work. This girl wasn’t just eating paper, she was consuming words – and swallower seemed to have more resonance as a word. We talk of people swallowing a story whole or being swallowed up by something. That word seemed to better reflect the transformation at the heart of the story, and I felt it would prime the reader for something a little deeper. I still have the first draft of this story and it was one that grew and evolved rather than being honed and polished. I know I’m unusual in this, but I resist over-editing. First drafts have an energy and rhythm to them that’s hard to replicate.
Submitting: I ended up not sending this to the NFFD anthology – ironically, in my attempt to think outside the box, my story had become too removed from the theme of ‘food’. I submitted the story to Ellipsis Three (the print edition), along with another story, ‘Night Music’. Steve told me he’d like to publish both stories – ‘Night Music’ ended up in the print zine, and ‘The Word Swallower’ was published online. I was thrilled when it was later nominated for Best of the Net and went on to be a finalist.
Reflections: I’m still fond of this piece because it reminds me to play. Too often, I forget that bit!
Emily Devane is a writer, editor and teacher based in Ilkley West Yorkshire. She has taught workshops and courses for Comma Press, Dahlia Press, London Writers’ Cafe and Northern Writers’ Studio. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a Northern Writers’ Award and a Word Factory Apprenticeship. Emily’s work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Best Microfictions Anthology, Lost Balloon, Ambit and others. She is a founding member at FlashBack Fiction. Emily co-hosts Word Factory’s Strike! Short Story Club and runs a monthly social writing group at The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley. Find her on twitter @DevaneEmily and @WordsMoor