News: Flash in the Classroom

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.