News: Flash in the Classroom

Flash in the Classroom: Winesburg to Las Perditas

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In the SmokeLong Flash in the Classroom series, we ask teachers to share how they use flash fiction in their classrooms. If you are a teacher and have a story about how you use flash to get your students excited about writing, please submit your work here. Today, James Claffey, a writer and teacher in California, shares a grand idea.

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by James Claffey

In 2008 I took a “Forms of Fiction” class taught by Jeanne Leiby, the editor of the Southern Review. Flash fiction was unknown to me, and the first exercise we did in that class was based off Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, his linked stories about the assorted citizens of that town. The twelve students in the class (mostly in their twenties, and me several decades further down the road) created a fictional town, “Beersville,” and populated it with a variety of businesses, shopfronts, and assorted characters. Mine was the undertaker, based no doubt on my family’s long-defunct business in an Irish midland’s town, “Claffey’s pub, grocers, and undertakers.” Our brief was simple: to create a piece of fiction about our chosen character and to limit it to 250 words, no more, no less. On this, Jeanne was unwavering. The other stipulation was that we had to “write after” someone else’s story and mention their character in some way, shape, or form in our narrative (except for the first set of writers). The process of writing about the denizens of the town proved enjoyable, and it was my introduction to the art of flash fiction.

Flash forward to 2018 and my freshman classroom at Santa Barbara High School. Jeanne is almost eight years dead now, and I’ve been back in California for seven years, one child, two books, a major fire, and a disastrous mudslide. This year I’m reinventing my curriculum to generate greater buy-in from students, and to engage them more both in what they are reading and what they are writing about. This means trying on new strategies and reading more diverse authors, hopefully providing my students with a variety of mirrors in which to see their own experiences reflected back at them.

Every year I begin with great hopes of incorporating more fiction writing into the classroom, and each year I end up disappointed due to the curriculum maps to be followed, the Common Formative Assessments to be administered, the reading tests to be given, the core texts to be rushed through, and on and on and on. This year, with a supportive administration willing to let some of us experiment with a “different approach” to engaging our students I am actually able to incorporate Jeanne’s “Winesburg, Ohio” exercise into my teaching.

So far, my 9th grade honors students have chosen a town name–“Las Perditas,” West Virginia–and created character sketches for their fictional citizens of the town. The first five students have written their stories to varying degrees of success, and to varying degrees of adherence to word count. I can’t use names, but one student wrote about a transgender teen boy, another about a newly arrived junior high boy, Jimmy, who takes over the school’s Racketeering enterprise, and another wrote about a boy named July. There’s dialog, setting, color and humor in the writing, and while the stories may be “school appropriate” for language and content, they are running with the project and bringing the town of “Las Perditas” to life, and in a way, keeping Jeanne’s spirit alive, too.

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James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work appears in the W.W. Norton Anthology Flash Fiction International, and in Queen’s Ferry Press’s anthology The Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was also a finalist in The Best Small Fictions of 2016, and a semi-finalist in 2017. He is the author of the story collection Blood a Cold Blue, published by Press 53, and the novel The Heart Crossways, published by Thrice Publishing.

Flash in the Classroom: The Pleasure of Risk-taking

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The Flash in the Classroom series on the SmokeLong blog explores creative writing teachers’ various approaches to teaching flash fiction to their students. We–and the entire flash fiction community–are interested in hearing from anyone who uses flash fiction in a classroom setting. Please submit your essays HERE. We’re thrilled and grateful to have Steve Edwards as our first teacher in this series. What lucky students he has. 

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by Steve Edwards

Back in the 90s, my first creative writing teacher in college started every class by reading flash fiction. We called them “short-shorts” then. I’ll never forget the anticipation I felt as he cleared his throat and began: Something wild was about to happen. My life was about to change. Being read to was enough to make me feel like a kid again, experiencing the magic of stories for the first time. But it was the stories themselves—their pacing, their daring, the way so few words suggested so much world—that brought the wonder.

I had to learn to do that.

Until a student feels that desire, I’m not sure our teaching ever accomplishes much. The mere transmission of information isn’t learning. I’d trade all the craft talk in the world for the simple pleasure of getting high on words.

In working to build that kind of pleasure into the creative writing classes I teach, I’ve begun filling my syllabus with flash fiction. What I like about flash for this purpose, as opposed to, say, longer and more conventional works, is that its brevity allows for us to pinpoint the exact moment something explodes off the page. We can zoom in and attune to the micro concerns of language without losing the larger thread of the story. I also feel less compelled with flash to overexplain, to contextualize, to lecture…in other words, to do the work for them. Maybe it’s psychological but I think students approach texts of 1000-words or fewer with less fear and skepticism. And maybe less cynicism. What’s the point of reading a 20-page story if the teacher’s just going to choke the life out of it with explanations? A flash fiction is an experience at once dissectible and inscrutable. It’s right there. The students’ gut reactions are right there, too, and from them I can elicit further reflection that helps us all reimagine how we approach storytelling.

In addition to being dazzled by the intensity and immediacy of flash fiction, I have another learning goal in mind for my students. I want to get them in the habit of taking risks, striking out for new territory, failing hard and trying again. The cost-benefit ratio as I imagine it is something like this: If what I’m writing is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if it doesn’t work out? And the same is true for reading flash fiction. If what I’m reading is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if I don’t like it?

I think we’re all secret geniuses. But I think what often holds us back is that we want to write something “good,” and that the pursuit of “good” forces us to return to what has worked for us in the past. A semester of flash fiction sends a different message to students: Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this. Try this.

If you don’t like something, or if it just doesn’t work for you, you can abandon it guilt free. If you find something you love—something weird or diabolical or heart-wrenchingly beautiful—it’s yours forever now.

I think what beginning fiction writers need about as much as anything is to get into the habit of looking for moments. You walk through your day and think: There’s a story. A detail catches your attention: There’s a story. Something someone says or does. Something you remember from when you were a kid. There’s a story. Immersion in flash fiction is a study in how to train your mind to pay attention to what will light up someone else’s mind. What fires together wires together. What you see on the page, you see in the world. And like a figure-eight curving back on itself, you fill up your own pages with the worlds you discover. Flash fiction is risk-taking made manifest, and who wouldn’t want to get in on the action? It’s like being at a public pool and watching kids jump off the diving board, wriggling and contorting their bodies. It’s fun. Always something new to try. Even after a belly-flop they’re back climbing that ladder.

The other change I’ve incorporated as a teacher over the years—and this is made possible by the proliferation of great flash fiction sites like SmokeLong—is that I task the students with finding flash fiction online to share with the class. One of the fun facts I like to ruin their lives with is that no one really cares if they don’t write. They have to make people care. And they can. By asking students to search out work to share with the class, I’m offering them the chance to reflect upon what it is about a given work that makes it matter. In essence, I want to hold them accountable—not just to me but to themselves and each other.

It occurs to me I’m describing a kind of classroom economy whose currency is pleasure, risk-taking, care, and accountability. In flash fictions of 1000 words or fewer, or in novels of 100,000 words or more, it’s where we begin.

And beginnings matter.

When I was a little kid, somebody opened a book and blew my mind. It happened again when I went to college and my teacher read “Girl,” “The School,” “No One’s a Mystery.” And it still happens when a student comes to class with a story they are dying to read out loud because, as the kids say, “They can’t even.” We listen and are transported, transformed, transmogrified. We’re children again—with very old souls.

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Steve Edwards is author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months of solitude in the Oregon wilderness as caretaker of a 95-acre homestead. His writing appears in Longreads, Orion Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts.