News: Flash in the Classroom

Flash: The Literary Theory and Analysis Teacher’s Best Friend

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The following essay by Jolene McIlwain is part of SmokeLong Quarterly’s series on Flash in the Classroom, in which we invite instructors to share how they use flash fiction. If you’re an instructor who teaches flash, we’d love to hear about your experience. Submit your essay HERE.

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by Jolene McIlwain

I love literary analysis and literary theory. I love writing and reading short shorts: micros, flash, sudden fiction. So, deconstructing short forms in the classroom has been an amazingly satisfying treat in my work at two Pittsburgh-based universities: Chatham and Duquesne. I’ve had the luxury of choosing the texts—unconstrained by required anthologies, length, genre, or author—and exposing students to recently published pieces by lesser known authors in lesser known journals as well as the well-known, well-worn anthologized pieces like Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.”

Flash can hit you emotionally, but it can hit you in more objectively quantifiable ways, too, when you take the time to deconstruct it. Here are six approaches I use when utilizing flash to teach students how to deconstruct and analyze texts:  

1. Close readings/Multiple readings. Understanding literary analysis and theory requires an investment from the students to enter the text multiple times, each time thoroughly searching for new details, inconsistencies, and possible meanings/readings, layering their analyses with more information. Flash is so short so one can analyze every single sentence, phrase, word without becoming too overwhelmed. Also, because flash comes in around the 1,000 word count or less, it’s uniquely set up to propel the reader to the end, leaving them asking for more, as in Annie Proulx’s “55 Miles to the Gas Pump,” a micro from CLOSE RANGE about a serial killer found out after his wife’s snooping in the attic, which ends with the line: “When you live a long way out, you make your own fun.” I’m not suggesting a twist or shocking ending is required, though some flash offers that. Sometimes readers are left saying, “Wait! what?” They are compelled to go back to the beginning and reread the story, like hearing that nice click of a door closing and wanting to open it again, to revisit. Either of these scenarios is a literary analysis or theory teacher’s dream. You don’t have to tell the student to reread it—you know they will. A favorite I teach for both Marxist and popular culture theories is Ian Frazier’s “Tomorrow’s Bird,” (originally published in Harpers, reprinted as “Count on Crows” at UTNE). The ending reads like a marketing slogan. A close re-read will expose all the sales language missed.

2. Gaps. Lovely gaps. Word count requirements force the author to leave much out. Literary analysis thrives in the gaps, in the ambiguity. It’s where the reader climbs into the text to figure out what it means, which emotions it taps into; they gain a sense of mastery by puzzling it out. Gaps can lead to outside research where the reader is driven to look up obscure phrasing or perhaps other works by the author in their search of connections, recurring themes.

One of the most appealing aspects of flash is that there is no room for large swaths of explanation, back-story, history. The author must cut extraneous details—and the elements they keep gain greater importance. In “The Colonel” a piece set in 1978 El Salvador, the unnamed daughter files her nails. Why does Forché include that detail? What’s left out is equally—if not more—important in literary analysis. In flash, setting can be hinted at more than explained (in “The Colonel” there’s a maid, a commercial in Spanish). Authors can bring characters to life with minimal description—sometimes, strategically, without names as in “The Colonel.” Also check out David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children” and ask yourself why he chooses not to name the parents, the baby.

3. Voice, tone, POV. These come into play especially with psychoanalytic theory. Choosing POV, creating tone, establishing voice through word choice, word count, etc., all greatly affect the reader’s experience. With psychoanalytic theory, again, we look at what is repressed/left out as much as we look at what’s there. In one class period, we can reimagine and rewrite the whole story in another POV to see how this affects the message. What if Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” were told in all of the husband’s devolving voices? How might he see the human condition differently? Why does Leelila Strogov use the second person POV in her story “Paper Slippers” (why NOT first or third?) and what does the imagining part of the story reveal? (Psychoanalytic theory is big on imaginings and dreams.) Rewriting and reimagining is yet another way to enter the story.

4. Experimental/Hybrid forms. What is a story anyway and how can a list or a lecture or “fake” function as a story? Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” Kathy Fish’s “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild” and “Lifecolor Indoor Latex Paints® – Whites and Reds” by Kristen Ploetz show that form is an essential part of the “telling.” The anthology, FAKES, includes stories written as multiple choice tests, police blotters, letters, etc., which can ignite great discussions on how form functions and how form can shape how we interpret stories. One such favorite is Michael Martone’s “Contributors Notes.”

5. Titles. Creativity in flash titles never ceases to amaze me. Take another look at the pieces I’ve mentioned thus far. Analyze how these titles enhance the stories, how these titles function in the stories. In Jim Heynen’s “What Happened During the Ice Storm,” the title asks, the story answers… But we can also count the number of times Heynen repeats some form of the word “ice” from the title (10) and consider how these words counter the warmth in the end.

For another example of a memorable title and a story in list form, take a look at Gwen Kirby’s piece “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans…” up at SmokeLong, a piece I plan to teach in the near future within my feminist, psychoanalytic, and pop culture theory units.

6. Repetition. I love to see the boldness of flash authors who use/exploit repetition even when held to a word count. We can count the number of times Peter Markus repeats a handful of words in “The Moon is a Star” or “Good, Brother,” and many of his works. The repetition creates tone, voice, character, atmosphere that help to focus us. Repetition alone does all the work!

With literary analysis and theory, we must look at the piece as objectively as possible, citing quantifiable numbers: How many times does the author repeat this word, motif, or consonant for effect/message? How many sentences are there? What is their length? Long? Short? In “Incarnations of Burned Children,” DFW writes just over 1,000 words in one eight-sentence paragraph. Why? Authorial choices such as this lead the reader to make assumptions on what we think the author wants us to notice.

If you write but don’t teach flash, consider, while revising, how a reader might climb into your piece and nose around. Write lines that welcome analysis, endings that compel the reader to re-read. Cut, cut and leave some work for your readers. They might love you for it! Play with titles, repetition. Try out fakes if you haven’t. Explore changing POVs. If you want to learn more about “reader-response” theory, see the work of Wolfgang Iser. For other theories, check out the text I’ve used for years, Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today. We literary theory and analysis teachers can’t wait to teach your work!

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Jolene McIlwain’s work appears online at The Cincinnati Review, New Orleans Review, Atticus Review, Litro UK, Prairie Schooner, Prime Number, Fourth River, and elsewhere and has been selected finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology, Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contests, and the Arts & Letters Unclassifiables Contest, as well as semi-finalist for Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize and American Short Fiction’s Short and Short(er) fiction contests. She’s an associate flash fiction editor at jmww Journal, and while taking a short break from teaching, she’s currently working on a short fiction collection and novel set in the hills of the Appalachian plateau in Western Pennsylvania.

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.