Note: Are you looking for the meaning of Cam’s “Burning House”?
Flash fiction has a lot in common with songs. What can be learned by reading song lyrics as flash fiction? Let’s take a look at “Burning House,” by Cam. If you’re unfamiliar with the song, the lyric video is embedded below.
“Burning House” is the second single off of the album “Welcome to Cam Country”. It was written by Cam, Jeff Bhasker, and Tyler Johnson, and produced by Jeff Bhasker.
What first caught my attention about this song is how different it is from everything currently on country radio. The simple folky instrumentation, the extended metaphor of the lyrics, and the haunting vocals all drew me into this song.
Of course, many of the things that make a song what it is do not exist in flash fiction. From this point forward, let’s treat the song lyrics as a story, and examine it in prose terms.
Lost love is a recurring theme in literature. When a relationship fails, the breakup can leave behind some complicated feelings. From its first paragraph, this story focuses on a single image:
I had a dream about a burning house
You were stuck inside
I couldn’t get you out
I laid beside you and pulled you close
And the two of us went up in smoke
(Lyrics from MetroLyrics)
This simple five-line description of a dream is the focal point of the entire story: the narrator returns to it again and again. Dreams often contain surreal or nonsensical elements, as this one does. Rather than panic over being trapped in a burning house, she simply lies beside her love until they both go “up in smoke”.
There is an element of romance here, but also a tragic death, which suggests that this is a story about lost love. The next paragraphs confirm this:
Love isn’t all it seems
I did you wrong
I’ve been sleepwalking
Been wandering all night
Trying to take what’s lost and broke
And make it right
Sometimes in a story about lost love, there is some ambiguity as to whether the lost love died, or simply left. In this case, there was an unhappy breakup, and the narrator is trying to sort out her emotions (“take what’s lost and broke and make it right”). Any lingering doubt that her lost love is alive is removed with the next paragraph:
I see you at a party and you look the same
I could take you back
But people don’t really change
Wish that we could go back in time
I’d be the one you thought you’d find
And that is essentially the story. A relationship ended. Someone was wronged. The narrator feels sorrow, guilt, or remorse that this former love of hers is lost to her — except in her dreams.
Image or Symbol?
In college I was fortunate enough to take a course in Imagist poetry. Imagism was a movement that emphasized focus on a single, clear image. Even though it’s been years since that class, I still remember the three principles of the movement:
- direct treatment of the subject
- use no words that do not contribute to the presentation
- “compose in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not the rhythm of the metronome”
Is the dream an image, or merely symbolic? The dream can certainly be interpreted as symbolism: the fire is the all-consuming guilt that the narrator feels, and the death is her sense of loss.
However, even though it is not a physical “thing” that can be seen, the image of two lovers, going up in smoke in a burning house, presents a vivid image to the reader.
Likewise, the haunting refrain evokes the desperate thoughts of someone lost in grief, trying to sort out her emotions.
I’ve been sleepwalking
Too close to the fire
But it’s the only place that I can hold you tight
In this burning house
And so, at the end of the story, the narrator continues to dream her burning house dream, because “it’s the only place” she can be with her lost love.
“Burning House” does not exactly meet the criteria of the Imagist movement of poetry, but I’m glad that it reminded me of this, because there are interesting parallels between flash fiction and the three principles mentioned above.
On one hand, “direct treatment of the subject” is not always followed in flash fiction. Instead, it’s fairly common to have a “twist” or an unexpected reveal.
On the other hand, “use no words that do not contribute to the presentation” could as easily be a principle of flash fiction as it is for Imagism.
What about the third principle? How does “compose in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not the rhythm of the metronome” play in short-form prose? Would this be a suggestion to be a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘planner’ when writing? Or would it mean something else?
And as for “Burning House”… love gone wrong will probably continue to provide flash fiction inspiration for a long time to come.