News: Guest Blogger
Flash Fiction Day Top Ten: Allison Pinkerton’s Favorite Flashes About Kids
June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day in the U.K. Although the festival is over, we at SmokeLong Quarterly would like to party one more day. In celebration, we asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. On our final day of celebration, SmokeLong’s Kathy Fish Fellow, Allison Pinkerton, shares her top ten flashes exploring the distance between children and adults.
Flash Fiction Day Top Ten: Claire Polders’ Favorite “(Dead) Father” Flashes
June 24 was National Flash Fiction Day in the U.K. Although the festival across the pond is over, we at SmokeLong Quarterly would like to keep the party going for a few more days.
In celebration, we asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. SmokeLong contributor, Claire Polders, has a story featured in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour. Today, she shares her favorite flash stories featuring (dead) fathers.
by Claire Polders
This year’s theme for the National Flash Fiction Day anthology was “Life as you know it.” I interpreted that as autobiographical writing, and whenever I turn toward my own life for inspiration, I often end up writing about my father, who died way too young. The small piece I submitted to the anthology, “Swing State,” was accepted (thank you Tino, Meg, and Calum!) and reading it back in the proofs, I wondered what other flashes were out there dealing with fathers, dead or alive. Here are some of my favorites:
“My Father Took Me To Watch” by Mai Nardone (published by Tin House, the Open Bar).
Mai Nardone’s story startled me with its first sentence in which the callousness of a father is portrayed. And there was a lot more to discover as I read on. About the responsibility of being a first-born. About what it means to keep secrets from your “noosed mother.” A cruel but beautiful read.
“Letter to a Funeral Parlor” by Lydia Davis (published in The Collected Stories Of Lydia Davis, excerpt made available by NPR).
Lydia Davis is a huge inspiration for me, so a list without one of her stories would seem incomplete. In this flash, she expresses the anguish of grief by focusing on the absurdity of the way we deal with death in our society. Who can disagree with her when she writes: “Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate.”
“Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead” by Steve Edwards (published in SmokeLong Quarterly)
It’s hard not to love a good ghost story. What I admired in Steve Edward’s flash was the optimism in the narrator’s voice and the perceived innocence of his father’s presence. It made me wish my own father would drop by sometimes so I could love him without reserve for the man he was.
“Relic” by Aubrey Hirsch (published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts)
I selected this story by Aubrey Hirsch because of its seducing reticence. By focusing on a dining room table, the narrator tells us about her father’s tragedy and her response to it. It’s a talent to let something as hard as wood reveal so much emotion.
“Father’s Return from War. Topics” by Horia Gârbea (published by Words Without Borders)
What can you know about a father who goes to war when you stay behind as a child? What can you imagine? In this ingenious story by Horia Gârbea, I was treated to nine versions of a history that left me wondering how many of them were mutually exclusive.
“Timbre and Tone” by Sudha Balagopal (published by Jellyfish Review)
In Sudha Balagopal’s flash about a father’s funeral she brilliantly shows the mystery our parents are to us. Here’s a daughter who tries to figure them out, pin them down, so that by her understanding their actions might hurt her less. But in the end, they keep surprising her, which, surprisingly, comes as a relief.
“Empire State Building” by James Yates (published by matchbook)
Should we hate or love our fathers for their lies, their exaggerations, their obsessions? In this touching story by James Yates, in which more is said than written, I was left pondering that interesting question.
“The Hand That Wields The Priest” by Emily Devane (published by Bath Flash Fiction Award)
In Emily Devane’s story an entire relationship between a father and his daughter is transformed by one well-chosen scene. “That night, his hand felt different on my head.” I felt it, too.
“Candles” by Paul Maliszewski (published by Gulf Coast)
Stories about fathers are often about authority. Paul Maliszewski strikingly shows how a son deals with the authority of both church and father and finds invisible ways to be defiant.
“Reunion” by John Cheever (published in The Stories of John Cheever and anthologized in Sudden Fiction)
I’m not a son and my father was the opposite of the man in John Cheever’s story, but when reading this flash I am that young man, so excited to meet with my father and in the end so… oh, just read it.
Plus One. Are they flashes or chapters of a novel? Whatever they are, Justin Torres writes beautifully about fathers in We the Animals. An excerpt, “Heritage,” was published by Granta.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels with a debut in English on the way. Her short prose most recently appeared in TriQuarterly, The Offing, Connotation Press, New World Writing, Necessary Fiction, Cheap Pop, and elsewhere. You can find her at @clairepolders or www.clairepolders.com.
Flash Fiction Day Top Ten: Gay Degani’s Favorite “Car” Flashes
June 24 is (Inter)National Flash Fiction Day. In celebration, SmokeLong Quarterly asked several amazing writers of flash fiction to share a top ten list of flash favorites on a topic of their choice. SmokeLong contributor, Gay Degani, has a story featured in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour. Today, she shares her favorite flash stories featuring cars.
Flash Fiction Day Top Ten: Santino Prinzi’s Favorite Funny Flashes
June 24 is National Flash Fiction Day in the United Kingdom. When we learned that flash fiction has its own day of celebration in the U.K., we at SmokeLong Quarterly wanted to participate in the festivities, especially since many of our beloved contributors are included in the National Flash Fiction anthology, Sleep Is A Beautiful Colour.
One of those contributors, Santino Prinzi, is a co-director and editor for the anthology. In celebration of (Inter)National Flash Fiction Day, we asked Santino and a few other amazing flash writers to give a list of their top ten favorite flash fiction stories on a topic of their choosing. Over the next few days we will be posting those lists in celebration. Enjoy and Happy Flash Fiction Day!
Flash, Back: Revisiting Jayne Anne Phillips
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Writer and professor, Jacqueline Doyle, is the first in this series. She introduces the column by revisiting Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets and Sweethearts, and evaluating their subliminal influence on her writing. Submit your own “Flashback” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jacqueline Doyle
The spine of my mass-market Laurel paperback of Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets is broken, whole sections falling out, the paper brittle and yellow. A price sticker on the blue cover reads $3.95. On the flyleaf: my name and “Ithaca, July 1983.” I was back in graduate school at Cornell then, following a hiatus from my studies after my divorce. It was humid and hot. I had a summer scholarship and I was in love, spending a lot of time at my new boyfriend’s studio apartment downtown, long lazy days when I could read for fun. I don’t know how I described the very short stories in Black Tickets to myself at the time. It would be years before the term “flash” meant anything to me. My boyfriend was a writer in the MFA program, but I was working on a PhD, where we barely touched on contemporary literature. It would be years before I became a writer myself.
That summer I was also reading Edgar Allan Poe for my dissertation, who favored compression, the “short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal,” cautioning against “undue brevity” but even more against “undue length” (his own tales requiring less than half an hour to read). I was reading and re-reading “The Waste Land,” beguiled by T.S. Eliot’s juxtapositions of glittering fragments. I was reading Virginia Woolf, who predicted that women writers of the coming century would engage in new experimentation, introduce new subjects (particularly the unrecorded lives of women), produce books “adapted to the body” (“at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work”). I was reading Adrienne Rich, who was “diving into the wreck” of old forms and outworn myths and emerging with new ones, and Audre Lorde, who proclaimed that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Everything I was reading prepared me for what I was going to teach, and write about, and write myself in years to come, but I didn’t know that, stretched out on the green cotton blanket on my boyfriend’s double bed in front of the oscillating fan. Everything was fertile ground for my understanding of Jayne Anne Phillips, but I wasn’t thinking about that either. I only knew that her words jumped off the page and stayed with me.
I might have called the opening story an ekphrastic vignette, if I’d been asked to classify it, though the word vignette suggests a marginal literary form, something slight. Not a portrait as powerful as “Wedding Picture,” which dives below the surface of the photograph it describes to explore the body “under the cloth” of the bride’s white wedding suit, what we can’t see or hear (“Her heart makes a sound that no one hears”), along with the history we can’t know. When “Wedding Picture” was included in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction in 2009, Phillips voiced her objections to the term “flash” (“there’s nothing flashy or spangled or shiny (superficial) about a great one-page fiction”), but also expressed her conviction that such fiction rivals other genres in importance. “The successful one-page fiction is a whole story in a paragraph or three: just as strong, tensile, and whole as the well-written story, novella, novel.”
I didn’t know at the time that Black Tickets originated in a flash chapbook (Sweethearts, from Truck Press, which I’ve miraculously unearthed in the Special Collections of my university library). But I did sense that the 16 very short stories were somehow primary in Black Tickets, not just secondary to the 11 longer ones. John Irving in his New York Times review didn’t agree. He called them “miniatures” (descriptive, but also dismissive), and “ditties” (not descriptive at all, and derogatory). His largely positive review was suffused with sexist condescension, starting with repeated references to “Miss Phillips.” (Surely not all female writers in 1979 were called Miss X? Or maybe they were. The first volume of the Norton Anthology of American Literature back then included only one woman, Emily Dickinson, whom the critics all called Emily, though male writers were referred to by surname.) Irving opened his review: “Of the almost 30 short fictions collected here, there are about 10 beauties and 10 that are perfectly satisfying and then there are 10 ditties—some of them, single paragraphs—that are so small, isolated and mere exercises in ‘good writing’ that they detract from the way the best of this book glows.” He didn’t discount all of Phillips’ short fictions (“I don’t want to suggest that all of her smaller pieces are ‘ditties’”), but expressed the hope that she’d write a novel.
The Great American Novel, the bigger the better! Phillips has obliged by writing a number of great long novels, but no female writers have been credited with writing the Great American Novel, which is surely a male provenance, even a reflection of the expansive imperialism of American manifest destiny. In a craft essay in Brevity, Joy Castro echoes A Room of One’s Own and Tillie Olsen’s Silences when she draws attention to privilege and the Great American Novel: “Every time we praise a literary book for its heft, we contribute to a kind of aesthetic confusion. The sheer length of a text is not a mark of its literary excellence or worth. Rather, it’s a reflection of the material conditions of the author’s life.” She herself began writing flash, she says, when she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, living below the poverty line, overwhelmed by student loans and the demands of childcare. “Short forms,” Castro writes, “especially flash forms—are particularly amenable to writers snatching time from obligations. Such writers by definition include family caregivers, who continue to be mostly women, and people from poverty and the working class.”
This time around I’m reading Black Tickets as a writer, and paying particular attention to the flash. The narrative point of view varies (first person, third person, first person plural), but all of the narrators and protagonists in the flash fictions are female, most of them below the poverty line, most of them adolescent and preadolescent girls, “white an dewy an tickin like a time bomb.” They sleep together, drink together, read movie magazines together, go to matinees, tell pornographic and scary stories, sing along with the radio, flee boys, take care of their fathers. A stripper gives her fifteen-year-old cousin advice about appealing to the clientele. “With that long blond hair you can’t lose. An don’t you paint your face till you have to, every daddy wants his daughter.” A junior high girl pregnant by her brother, ostracized at school and at home, dismembers her unwanted newborn. “Next morning she sits in the house alone while the others shout and sweat at a revival in Clinger’s Field. The dogs come in with pieces in their mouths.” In “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive,” a girl with a summer job at a theme park watches as a body is carried out of her dormitory: “One day they carried a girl out of the barracks wrapped in an army blanket. They found her in the showers. Sue saw her rounded buttocks sag the olive wool. Inside there she was sticky.” The collection ends with a longer story narrated by a male serial killer. What does it take to keep a young girl alive?
The flash are both spare and rich, image-driven and rhythmically complex, the language lyrical, but also raw and visceral. In her Field Guide essay, Phillips draws attention to the radical compression and subversive potential of flash: “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I taught myself to write by writing one-page fictions. I found in the form the density I needed, the attention to the line, the syllable. I began writing as a poet. In the one-page form, I found the freedom of the paragraph. I learned to understand the paragraph as secretive and subversive. The poem in broken lines announces itself as a poem, but the paragraph seems innocent, workaday, invisible.”
Irving let his critical guard down and unwittingly exposed himself when he wrapped up his New York Times review with the line, “This is a sweetheart of a book.” The context makes his compliment potentially comic. He’d even quoted the relevant passage from Phillips’ flash “Sweetheart,” undaunted by the fact that it’s a dirty old man who hugs the preteen girls and calls them sweethearts: “Stained fingers kneading our chests, he wrapped us in old tobacco and called us his little girls. I felt his wrinkled heart wheeze like a dog on a leash. Sweethearts, he whispered.”
It’s a warm hazy day in September when I drive into campus to look at Phillips’ chapbook Sweethearts, by appointment, in the Special Collections Room at our library. A California State University campus with overtaxed faculty, low income students, and a drastically waning budget, we don’t have the kind of library that houses special collections, or even many books published in the last couple of decades, so I’m surprised and gratified to discover Sweethearts, long out of print. Classes don’t start for a week, and the campus is deserted, apart from workers in hard hats drilling in the parking lots and raising dust in the library courtyard.
The 1976 chapbook from Truck Press in North Carolina is off white, yellowed at the top and bottom, with the sepia wedding photo described in “Wedding Picture” on the cover. I sit down and read the entire collection, 24 flash, none more than a page, 13 of which made their way into Black Tickets in 1979. It takes me a bit over half an hour, well within Poe’s parameters for the ideal prose narrative. In Black Tickets, the flash are amplified by the longer stories, which explore male as well as female characters (often pairs of middle class daughters and mothers). The men are sad and divorced, old and sick, angry and violent. Reading Sweethearts is a different experience, focused more on the private world of young girls. “Chloe likes Olivia,” Woolf observed of the fictional Mary Carmichael’s experimental novel, imagining fiction in the future that would focus on women in relation to each other and not solely in relation to men. “We lay on a cot pretending we were Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, touching each other’s stomachs and never pulling our pants down,” Phillips writes in “Stars.” “The Lettermen did billowing movie themes. There’s a summer place, they sang. Where our hearts. Will know. All our hopes. She put her face on my chest. You be the boy now, she whispered.” Summer over, the other girl writes letters to the ten-year-old narrator. “Just because you’re a year older than me, her last one said, is no reason not to answer.” Sweethearts vibrates with the energy of the girls’ intimacies and betrayals. I love reading the flash gathered together on their own.
Rereading Black Tickets and reading Sweethearts for the first time has been a revelation. I’ve kept up with Phillips’ novels, even taught Machine Dreams, but I haven’t thought about Black Tickets for years, or about the graduate student lounging in front of the fan during that hot Ithaca summer, innocent of her future. Pressed to name a literary influence on my upcoming flash chapbook The Missing Girl, I might have said Joyce Carol Oates, maybe Sherwood Anderson. But now I wonder whether Jayne Anne Phillips played a greater role, both her formal innovations and her themes and sensibility, even though I was unconscious of it. The effects of my first introduction to flash may have lingered and reverberated for over thirty years.
The one-page story continues after the last line, according to Phillips. “Fast, precise, over. And not over.”
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash chapbook The Missing Girl (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2017) won the Black River Chapbook Competition. She has published flash in Quarter After Eight, [PANK], Monkeybicycle, Sweet, Café Irreal, The Pinch, Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (White Pine Press, 2016), and many online journals. Her creative nonfiction and fiction have earned two Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and two Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband (the MFA with the studio apartment) and their son.
Interested in Everything
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, Aubrey Hirsch shares how flash appeals to the writer with a myriad of interests. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Aubrey Hirsch
I started writing flash fiction before I knew there was such a thing as flash fiction. My early “stories” (please note the quotation marks) were tiny things. They were Twilight Zone rip-offs, mostly. There’s an alien invasion; everyone must run for cover—only (surprise!) turns out the narrator is a Martian and we’re the aliens who have come to terrorize this unsuspecting planet.
No. You cannot read them.
In my first fiction writing class in college, our weekly assignments had to be 750-1,000 words long. These were meant to be pieces of stories, but mine were finished things. I liked the rhythm of an 800-word story: the establishing shot, the build, the detail, the breathless climax. It was my next fiction writing class that swiftly beat that out of me. Stories, I learned, were between 3,000 and 5,000 words long. No more and, certainly, no less.
I got used to writing longer stories and, ultimately, it’s a skill I’m glad to have. Sometimes a story will come to be that’s just big and when it does, I’m glad I know how to write it. But when I discovered the vibrant and growing world of flash fiction a few years later, I knew that I’d finally found my tribe.
The brevity of the form encourages play. In flash, I can try on ideas or constructions that would wear on a reader in a longer piece: second person point of view, a heavily stylized voice, fairy-tale reimaginings, non-linear structure, lyric prose, and on and on and on. I can experiment. I can be bold. The pieces that fail (and mine fail often) don’t even feel like failures. They feel like stretches, like exercise. It’s easier to relegate a three-page story to eternity in my “documents” folder than to call it quits 20 pages into a 25 page story.
I love flash because I am interested in everything. Beginning a new story gives me permission to explore something that’s been calling to me, or to ruminate on a passing idea. Writing forces me to think not just “about” something new, but “into” it. I have a limitlessly curious mind and an appetite for discovery. When anything can be a story, everything you do is research.
I’m a good way through a novel draft right now and, though I am enamored of my characters, the draft is 60,000 words all about the same thing. Sometimes I look at those 60,000 words and think about the 75 little ideas I could have exploded into existence instead. I like to write about science and gender, parenting and history; I have written stories about circuses, pilots, illnesses, attics, astronauts, war, baseball, pregnancy, snakes. And all of this within the span of about 30 pages. When I look around at the weird wide world, I find I have a lot to say.
I’ve even come full circle and written a real science fiction story. I like to think Rod Serling would be proud. Flash fiction was the perfect form for that, too. It’s a short little piece, but there’s magic in brevity.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar (a short story collection) and This Will Be His Legacy (a flash fiction chapbook). Her work has appeared widely in journals like American Short Fiction, The Rumpus, Third Coast, Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, and The New York Times.
Universe, Multiverse, Miniverse
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer Tara Campbell shares why she writes speculative flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Tara Campbell
Like most writers, I experiment with various lengths and genres. But I have a special fondness for speculative flash: short works containing elements of science fiction or fantasy.
And why speculative flash, you ask?
Because sometimes I wonder how happy the ever-after really is when a woman shacks up with a genie. And who hasn’t ever been afraid that all their magical days are behind them?
Because sometimes I need to figure out the pyramid marketing scheme for a chlorophyll-based diet product. And I’m not a huge fan of the beauty-industrial complex.
Because sometimes I want to know why a mermaid gets exiled from the ocean to a lake—and more importantly, what she plans to do about it. And I’m sick of the gods having all the power.
Because sometimes I just have to let the model shrew brain placed right next to the whale brain in Vitrine A at the zoo’s animal education center speak its…mind. And sometimes I feel really out of place too.
Because beyond the swashbuckling adventures in space, I wonder what it would be like to run an interspecies nursery on a starship. And even if you don’t have kids, we should all support family-friendly workplaces.
Because if earth-based student exchange is already so tricky, how nuts would intergalactic student exchange be? And life on either side of a behavioral contract is no great shakes.
Because how the peanuts became sentient doesn’t matter—what matters is they’ve got your husband!
Okay, I haven’t written that one yet, but how fun would that be?
So why write flash?
Because we experience life in flash.
We live in episodes rather than fully explicated, contextualized, digestible paragraphs.
We take in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures.
We think in shorthand and synthesize later.
We usually have no idea which moments in time will be significant until much later. The details themselves don’t tell us what that moment means, yet without them, we cannot effectively recreate the experience.
And why do I write flash?
Because I love to go through the whole process—map out, contextualize, and synthesize an experience—then circle back to the beginning and whistle at a reader to come look at this cool thing I found.
And sometimes I need to focus on style, language, and compression.
And sometimes I just want to get to the meat of the thing.
And why speculative flash?
Because it’s the icebreaker that crashes through the frozen ocean inside my head.
And because serious times require serious dreaming.
And because stories don’t have to be factual, or even possible.
They just have to be real.
Tara Campbell is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. With a BA in English and an MA in German, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Her fiction has appeared in Barrelhouse, Punchnel’s, Toasted Cake Podcast, Luna Station Quarterly, Up Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, Master’s Review, Cardinal Sins, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, among others. Find her online at www.taracampbell.com or on Twitter @TaraCampbellCom.
It Is Always a Sunday Afternoon in April
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer Myfanwy Collins shares how flash taps into her truest self. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Myfanwy Collins
I found this line in a document from June 2012: “It is always a Sunday afternoon in April.” It’s the only line in the document. I have no idea why it struck me. It’s not a great line, but I must have seen some starting point. A way in.
Typically, my flash starts with just such a line that sticks to my mind’s windowscreen, latching on with spindly legs, hoping to be let in though it does fully not know why. The moment to explore this line has passed but at one time it lingered in a moment, blazed brightly.
I breathe and think and move because I was built this way. I tell. I tell the truth. I speak. I translate my emotion into words. I feel. I breathe. I blink and unless I capture you with my words, you, and the emotion you carry with you, are gone.
I wrote my first flash fiction in 1991 when I was a senior in college. I had no idea at the time that it was flash fiction. What I was doing, I thought, was writing a novel for my senior honor’s project. In reality, what I did was write a novel in flash. Each chapter was self-contained, often lyrical, filled with imagery and emotion, hoping to catch the reader at the end with an understanding that something true had happened between us.
The novel remains unpublished (as it will) but that is where I cut my teeth, gnawing on the typewriter ribbon that powered the printer of my word processor.
I understand now that I gravitated to the form because I chose vulnerability, pure emotion. I was trying to get to the heart of the heart, my own.
Novels, short stories, connect to one part of my consciousness. That is the more logical, process-oriented, storytelling part of my brain. Flash tunnels into my emotion, digging out the hurt and the hurting, the ugly beauty.
I spent some years when there was both exquisite joy and deep sadness. When I sought to document this emotionally turbulent time, I turned to flash. I wrote it out hard and fast and posted it on my blog without caring if there was an audience or not. You may call it self-indulgent if you wish to, but I call it vellum.
The original vellum was animal skin upon which one would write. It was irreproducible. One skin. One of a kind. My blog is made of nothing concrete. Packets stitched together by code and shot through air and light and sound. Ether.
But why? Why peel my skin away and reveal the aged, wasted sinew and bone?
I fall back to when the human mind first began to understand storytelling in a philosophical way. Flash, then, is something about mimesis and catharsis. Holding the mirror up to a scream.
And so, I write these pieces upon my own weathered skin. I write with the insect legs and the coil of my veins. Flash is my emotional autobiography, representing this compulsion to mine my truest self. My dark heart lives there, and my light.
“Catch These Little Gifts”: Flash Interviews with Dan Nielsen, Robert Scotellaro, and Nancy Stohlman
by Jonathan Cardew
Like a shot of whiskey, or a plunge into cold water, or a breeze on a hot summer’s day, good flash recalibrates the senses. It does it swiftly. It knows what it’s doing.
Dan Nielsen, Robert Scotellaro, and Nancy Stohlman know what they’re doing.
I asked these fantastic flash writers a straightforward, possibly infuriating, and definitely several-barreled question: Describe, elaborate on, or riff about a recent flash story you have had published. Keep your response to around 150-ish words. Give us a link to the work.
Luckily, they said, “Ok, Jonathan, fine.”
I figured if they could write flash so well, they’d be able to get to the point.
Dan Nielsen is no stranger to keeping things simple. A Wisconsin native, his flash stories and poetry can be found in many fabulous venues. His pared prose style lulls and then startles you with its honesty and strange humor. You’ll be glad when you’ve read a Nielson story.
Dan on “Monster Truck” at Bird’s Thumb:
“I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.” ―Franz Kafka
That Kafka quote is funny because it’s true.
(in my opinion)
Stories need named characters who move about and say things aloud.
A writer is omniscient, but doesn’t brag about it.
Second person present is best left to hypnotists. “You are a chicken.”
“Monster Truck” takes place in my house so that imagined Dave can look out a real window and see an imagined panel truck pull up to a real curb. There is imagined snow on my real sidewalk. When imagined Preston says, “They say eight to twelve tonight, the worst toward morning,” imagined Dave really hears it and feels comforted that imagined Preston is a real person. The basement and dryer are real and the dryer was broken and repaired, but that was at least ten years ago and I remember nothing about it except that the real repair guy mentioned a Monster Truck.
I just reread the story. It’s real funny. I hope you agree.
Robert Scotellaro needs no introduction. What comes out of the Scotellaro Compression Machine is pure gold, finely pressed and polished, with an extra buff for good measure. “Fun House” is masterful work, filled with smoke and mirrors and “wobbly globes.”
Robert on “Fun House” at New Flash Fiction Review and reprinted in Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton):
Writing this story, I inhabited a place both familiar and unexpectedly surreal. Our daughter had not so long before left for college (the familiar). “Fun house mirrors” was something I’d jotted in a notebook years earlier. Just those words. I extrapolated, framing the idea of two “empty-nesters” cutting loose in a spare bedroom covered, wall to ceiling, with fun house mirrors acquired at an auction. And discovered I was exploring a bizarre, yet fundamental kind of safe infidelity, where my characters were having sex in a room filled with the strange strangers they became—(the unexpectedly surreal). Their experience (its oddness notwithstanding) allowed them a certain kind of adventurism in contrast to their prior, buttoned-down, predictable lives.
It was great fun writing this piece, seeing where it might lead me, how far they/I would take it. I am ever drawn to the little surprises that rise up from that deeper (sometimes darker) mind we all carry.
Nancy Stohlman is many things: performer, singer, writer, shark-petter. Her stories bound across the page in whatever outfit she chooses. She hosts a number of flash fiction events in the Denver-area, sings in the lounge metal group Kinky Mink, and dreams up stories like this one…
Nancy on “The Morning After” at nancystohlman.com and forthcoming at Woven Tales Press:
There are few scenarios more frightening than waking up next to Donald Trump. In my case I panicked, rolled over, grabbed a pen and wrote this story down almost fully formed in the notebook by my bed. Over the years I’ve probably gotten at least half my ideas from dreaming—I always tell people that the dream world is like an all-night diner of free inspiration. Sometimes I only get a wisp or an image or a setting, but sometimes the whole story just rises out of the dream ether in one piece, usually in that transition time between asleep and awake when the muse is still whispering in my ear but I’m not awake enough to sabotage her yet. I think dream material only works if you learn to speak its language and approach it on its own territory. The key is to be vigilant, to catch these little gifts and write them down before they’re gone, and don’t ask yourself “is this idea crazy?” because it probably is.
READ IT HERE: “The Morning After,” by Nancy Stohlman, March 2016
Dan Nielsen drinks bourbon and plays Ping-Pong. Old credits include Random House and University of Iowa Press anthologies. Recent work in: Jellyfish Review, Bird’s Thumb, Minor Literature[s], Storm Cellar, Random Sample, and Pidgeonholes. Dan has a website: Preponderous and you can follow him @DanNielsenFIVES
Robert Scotellaro has been published widely in national and international books, journals, and anthologies including: W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Best Small Fictions 2016 (forthcoming), and others. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and two full-length flash and micro fiction collections by Blue Light Press: Measuring the Distance and What We Know So Far. The latter was the winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award. Bad Motel, a collection of his 100-word stories, is due out by Big Table Publishing later this year. Robert currently lives with his wife and daughter in San Francisco. Visit him at www.rsflashfiction.com
Nancy Stohlman’s books include Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (forthcoming), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi: a flash novel (2009), and four anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at www.nancystohlman.com
Jonathan Cardew’s short [and very short] stories appear in Atticus Review, Blink Ink Quarterly, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Flash Frontier, KYSO Flash, Segue, and Spelk, among others. He was a finalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. He lives in Milwaukee. https://jonathancardew.wordpress.com/
Have an idea for a blog post? Submit your own interviews, reviews, or flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
Idea of the Sprawl
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer Brian Oliu discusses how he wrote his SmokeLong story “Gradius” and making creative connections. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Brian Oliu
I had an undergraduate literature professor who always told us to “take out our microscopes” when we were writing: to keep our subject as tightly focused as possible. I was one who was extremely susceptible to ranting on for a long period of time on a multitude of different topics. One of my most memorable moments in undergrad was being told by this professor to take a 45-page paper and cut it down to six pages. Perhaps this is where my love of short pieces came from: a senior thesis about Dante’s Divine Comedy that was pared down to four instances of where the Pilgrim wept and the meanings behind those tears. Instead of attempting to tackle an epic work and simply glazing over the majority of it, a better paper comes from shrinking the focus down to a handful of incredible and emotional moments.
This is an anecdote I tell my students often. More often than not, they are trying to capture the entire weight of the moment in their piece: they believe that they have one shot to get it right and they have to provide the largest timeline of whatever it is they are crafting. It is daring and it is earnest, but the result is that their work often lacks the emotional connection needed to draw a reader in.
Instead, I ask them to find those moments that shimmer, as Didion says: those weird and strange memories from their harrowing times that they can’t get out of their head–the static feel in the center of your forehead while walking down a hallway after a national tragedy with every television on, the feel of a basketball rubbed of its tack while shooting hoops in a cul-de-sac after the suicide of a loved one. As a writer, you owe it to your work to try to find the thread between these “shimmerings”: Why is it that I use the same words in my writing over and over? What happened when I was writing a fun piece about going to a dance club and I start talking about being uncomfortable in my own body?
I am a “sprawling” writer: my process is one where I have a couple of key ideas and concepts that I want to tackle in a piece that provides an extremely rough outline. A lot of these things are often juxtaposed with one another—I always try to pick things that wouldn’t necessarily be natural fits. For example, in my SmokeLong piece “Gradius,” I had a handful of images that I wanted to touch upon.
Tuscaloosa, the town that I live in, slants toward the river. In the video game Gradius, the player takes on the role of a fighter jet that is traversing through an alien world that is both space-like, but also organic. Your fighter jet is constantly moving forward: you cannot stop or slowdown—it is an inevitable slide toward the unknown, much like how Tuscaloosa is falling, in grades, into the river. In Japan, Gradius was called Salamander—a creature that is capable of regeneration. I extensively researched these three elements: I watched a few documentaries on salamanders; I read extensive histories of Tuscaloosa; I played Gradius to completion.
Finally, I felt ready to write. For me, the most magical and interesting thing about writing is the sprawl: we have ideas and concepts that we have pictured in our work that we have carried around in our brains leading up to the moment where it is finally time to work—to put fingers to keys, to put pen to paper. However, when we finally carry out the act of writing, these other images begin to surface that we never expect.
In Gradius, amidst the parts that I had researched, I kept coming back to the body (isn’t all writing about the body, truly?) and specifically the concept of re-growing, which, undoubtedly came from the concept behind the salamander: a creature that loses limbs without a second thought. This brought me to trichotillomania, a disorder that brings about a compulsion to pull out one’s hair. This reminded me of a friend who suffered from this affliction, which gave me a personal way into what was becoming a piece that was beginning to feel a little distant.
Of course, this is something that can quite simply sprawl out of control—that I would inevitably be back in senior thesis land, piling up the word count with fluff as I tried to jam in as many concepts and ideas as possible. Instead, I find comfort in knowing that I will be writing for a long time—that I will create and create and create, that I will have projects that will take years to develop. When working on “Gradius,” I had one of those images that pops up all the time in my work: my fear of water and the idea of drowning. However, I knew that this was not the piece for that. Instead, it found itself in a different piece of my collection, Leave Luck to Heaven.
I am fortunate to know that many things in my life “shimmer”—images find themselves rooted in my brain when I least expect them, that these different cornerstones will keep popping up in different ways and need to be dealt with in my writing—that the image of doing crosswords on an airplane while thinking about my grandmother might not make it into the piece I’m working on currently, but it could be tabled for another piece. This provides me a semblance of freedom when I write: that instead of attempting to write one grand piece that captures everything I wish to convey, I can write smaller pieces that ruminate on a theme.
This brings me to another lesson that I learned while taking undergraduate courses: I was told that in a book of sixty-three poems, the sixty-fourth poem is the book itself. This rings true in all writing. You will write so many wonderful things over the course of a life: there is no need to cram everything into one spiraling monstrosity. Instead, take comfort in the fact that you will write and you will write again, and you will continue to write—observe all the magical things underneath the viewpoint of the microscope and then move onto the next glass slide.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and five full-length collections, ranging from Craigslist Missed Connections, to NBA Jam, to 8-bit videogames, to computer viruses. He is currently writing a memoir about translating his grandfather’s book on long-distance running. Follow him on Twitter @beoliu.
What is Possible
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, flash fiction writer and Longform Contributing Fiction Editor James Yates compares and contrasts his experiences with flash and longer short stories. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By James Yates
As a contributing fiction editor for Longform.org, I read online literary magazines and select a “Fiction Pick of the Week.” Aside from the usual emphasis on quality, the desire to feature small, independent presses drives me, primarily to make sure the site is not promoting only the New Yorker and other behemoths. The only requirement, dictated by the Longform founders, is that the stories I feature be at least 1,500 words long. I’ve read dozens of stellar works, only to become crestfallen when they come to 1,200 or 1,300 words.
Word counts are strange beasts, especially when an arbitrary number, even rightly and necessarily dictated by a literary organization, becomes a dividing line between long form and short form fiction. Of course, much like definitions of genre, flash fiction limits are not easily agreed upon. Some writers and journals deem flash fiction to be 500 words; others set the threshold at 1,000. Microfiction can be defined as a single sentence, a six-word story, or anything under 250 words. Without hyperbole, it’s very possible to ask fifty different writers to define flash fiction and receive fifty different answers. This division, however, is beautiful. Word counts don’t often lend themselves to tedious “MFA vs. ___”-like debates. No matter what someone defines as flash fiction, it still moves toward the ultimate goals of any fiction: to move, to challenge, to illuminate. Within any strict word count, the limitations can make for many possibilities.
I returned to serious fiction writing in 2010, after a creatively squandered decade of listlessness, confusion, and a grave misunderstanding of how much time, reading, and effort actually went into the romantic concept of “being a writer.” I started writing flash fiction as a way to hone my understanding of craft, plot, and movement; the small spaces I limited myself to yielded surprising results. The stories I wrote were generally straightforward and traditional, but as my stack of drafts grew, I noticed instances of my branching out, my willingness to make mistakes for the sake of exploring new ideas and ways of creating imagery. Not surprisingly, this also coincided with more reading, as I read more independent presses, publishers, and writers. One of the first books that truly highlighted the possibilities of flash fiction was Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, and it also defied categorization. The chapters are scary, sometimes biblical accounts of demonic, animal-like children and the doomed landscapes they inhabit. The book was called a “novel(la),” and while the chapters combined into a wonderful collective work, the individual sections also worked as their own tales and worlds, and could be read alone as flash pieces. Like a beautiful domino effect, the more I read, the more I became aware of other writers who can do many things within tiny thresholds: Amelia Gray, Kathy Fish, Lucy Corin, and Kate Bernheimer, to name a few.
My flash fiction tends to be rejected at a higher percentage than my longer work, but for some reason, I take these rejections easier. Flash fiction is much more fluid, and tends to remain a work in progress longer. I work toward one draft, and if it’s declined for publication, then I work on another angle, rather than just cosmetic changes. Some writers and editors might balk at this; I’m not saying that I send out intentionally weak work, nor am I writing only with an eye on publication. Instead, this is more about my approach to flash fiction. When a longer work is turned down, it’s usually for a glaring issue (a plot discrepancy; an editor’s taste not being in line with the work; etc.). Since I tend to write flash that works more as open-ended rather than concrete, many avenues remain uncovered. If one doesn’t work, I approach another hook, another opening, or another motivation. I’m generally happy with my published flash fictions, but every single one can still be taken apart and reshaped, if I so desired. Overall, flash is like a running stream: it remains the same, but never maintains a consistent state. One of the common themes in my work is an ending frozen in time, with a character waiting for a response, a choice, or lost in their own possibilities. While I’m actively working to not end the majority of my fiction in this way, this idea lends itself so well to flash. Yes, a flash can have a beginning, middle, and an ending, but some of my favorite short works are moments, glimpses, a period of time with hints to the past and the future. The most recent example that sums this up is the opening sentence of Kendra Fortmeyer’s “The Lepidopterist,” from Hobart: “The killer dispatched the boyfriend easily in the kitchen, and then he had an idea.” Fortmeyer drops the reader into the scene, hints at the past, and quickly moves to the future. The story is grotesque and thoughtful, a precise mix of horror and beauty, dark impulses and a yearning for a better place. Can this be achieved in a novel or a 5,000 word story? Of course. But in Fortmeyer’s flash, the space becomes an immediacy, a claustrophobic area filled with a variety of thoughts, motivations, and outcomes.
During my thesis meetings with writer Christian TeBordo, he remarked on how surprised he was to find my novel to be more “traditional,” compared with the experimentation and weirdness I tend to infuse in my flash fiction. At first, I was worried by this assessment, but then I realized everyone has their own ways of approaching craft and style. TeBordo’s most recent novel, Toughlahoma, is a work I’d never be able to sustain through my own work: a full-length novel of surrealism, intricate language play, and perverse humor in unexpected moments. However, I’ve tried to create my own strange worlds within flash. Just because I wouldn’t be able to do this over the course of a novel doesn’t mean my work doesn’t have a sense of playfulness, craft, and experimentation. I’m not one of the foremost writers of flash fiction, and I probably never will be. However, the form, with its ability to take so many shapes and rules, allows me to be an expert in my own way, to push my own boundaries and strive toward a creative piece that works in the right way for me. The only true requirement of a flash fiction writer is that one must read widely for an idea of what is possible. After that, the journey between prose, poetry, singular works, and collections continues to evolve and shift. I’m grateful to be a small part of the community, and the daring work I consistently read always keeps me going in a never-ending attempt to keep my writing in various directions.
James Yates is a Contributing Editor to Longform.org. His most recent stories (flash and otherwise) have appeared in matchbook, Hobart, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn; his book reviews have appeared in The Fanzine, Necessary Fiction, and The Collagist. A graduate of the MFA Program at Roosevelt University, he lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. James can be found on Twitter @chicagoexpatjy.
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer, artist, and filmmaker Georgia Bellas discusses how a handcrafted film animation class illuminated flash fiction writing for her. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Georgia Bellas
Twenty-four frames per second. There are 40 frames in a foot of film, approximately 1.6 seconds. Four hundred frames equals 10 feet equals roughly 16 seconds of film. What can you do in just 16 seconds?
My animation teacher counted aloud, one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand as she stepped, twirled, spinned, jumped. You can complete a dizzying array of actions in 16 seconds, more than you’d think possible when you hear the word seconds, a unit of time that can also be described as a “flash.” It happened in a second, it happened in a flash.
Holding the film in your hands, letting it spill out across the table, you see time in a different way. You see one second, you see 16 seconds. They are tangible, a physical visualization of something as slippery and bodiless as the idea of time.
You can hold time in your hands, look at it with your eyes. That second that passes so quickly is suddenly measurable, a length of film you can see and touch. It now seems long. And 16 seconds? I spread my arms wide open and the film stretches beyond my fingertip to fingertip reach, falls to the floor. Sixteen seconds of film is longer than the wingspan of a red-tailed hawk.
If you want to read a word you have to write it 24 times, in one little box after another. Methodical, repetitious, sometimes tedious, often meditative. Twenty-four times will get you one second. A flash.
Ten feet of film spins through the projector, enchanting flashes of light and color and movement that flicker across a screen for 16 seconds and stop, giving you enough and yet leaving you wanting more.
You experiment and project — see what you drew, what materials you used, what effects you tried, and how it all translates visually on a wall. Sometimes you get what you imagined. Sometimes you don’t. And sometimes you find the magic, the unexpected pleasure that keeps you going.
Flash is like these handcrafted animations. You have a limited space — under 1,000 words, or 700 or 500 or 300, whatever limits you define it by. That length is your 16 seconds to make things happen, make your characters walk, jump, skip from frame to frame. Make them come to life.
You spend hours laboring over words, your tiny frames of film. What can you fit in those tiny rectangles? Do you work frame to frame, moving in minuscule increments or do you concentrate on the flow and movement over the frames?
Because the writer is an animator too. You create a world that plays out, feels complete and yet draws you back to the beginning to read over and over, finding more and new nuances each time. It’s like the magic of film. Rewind and play it over. Look again.
Use the minimum amount of space and time and materials to tell a story. Labor, labor, labor over every frame, every word. Many constraints, infinite possibilities. Invest hours into something that yields only minutes, or even seconds.
A flash of light. A flash of words. A flash of heart.
This essay was inspired by a class I took on handcrafted film animation by the amazing Gina Kamentsky. Watch one of her films here.
Georgia Bellas is a writer, artist, and filmmaker. Her work appears in a number of journals, has been nominated for a Pushcart, and is included in Sundress Publications’ 2014 Best of the Net Anthology. You can follow her teddy bear, host of the award-winning weekly Internet radio show “Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon,” on Twitter @MrBearStumpy.
On Frayed Ends and Open Doors
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer Joyce Chong discusses how flash fiction reflects life’s ambiguities and frees up writers and readers to experiment. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Joyce Chong
I’ve only started to realize recently that flash fiction is not just about the story or the plot—the what came first, then next, or the what came last. The stories that stick with me most leave me with something less tangible than just the journey or a sense of familiarity with the characters. Flash fiction has the ability to leave doors open, to ask questions that it knows can’t easily be answered. While in a novel every conflict is expected to be tied up by the end, flash fiction revels in undoing those knots, leaving the ends open and frayed.
In Diane Schoemperlen’s The Antonyms of Fiction, the main character relays the story of her meeting, falling in and then subsequently out of love with a man named Jonathan Wright. The story is told over fragments, broken into sections titled “Fact,” “Truth,” “Non-Fiction,” “Poetry,” among others, and even begins to take on the forms that each headline suggests. Schoemperlen mixes meta-fiction with a fragmented, experimental format that left me wondering what’s true, and where does the voice of the character mix with the voice of the author confessing that this is all fiction? What do we consider fact versus truth versus reality?
Schoemperlen asks us to not to trust her—or the narrator—and instead asks us to read beyond the lines. There is an ending, there is a way to make sense of it, but years after I read it, the first thing I remembered was the categories, the confession, the sensation of watching the fiction crack and break down in front of me. This story wants you to do more than just suspend your disbelief. It wants you to drop it, pick it up again, understand why it’s there and what purpose it serves.
In a similar vein, Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” explores variations in the timeless tale of man meets woman. Options A through F allow you to have your pick of the story, which ending you prefer, while building upon one another or swapping characters in every new scenario to suit the reader’s tastes. Each section is a story in itself, run through briskly in summary, but the narrator is frank. It almost feels like getting directions in a grocery store. If you want x, go here. If you need y, go there. Just swap out x for happy ending and y for tragedy. The narrator asserts that the only true ending is that every character will die eventually and that endings are contrived, overly optimistic, overly sad, or meant to deceive.
These stories played a big role in my writing education. Understanding how important frameworks of fiction can be subverted and tested in such small spaces meant I had to understand what those key components of fiction were. Because of its brevity, flash fiction often draws from outside of itself. While a novel uses words to build worlds and people and their convictions into reality, flash fiction builds key images or ideas.
Thomas King’s short story “A Short History of Indians in Canada” (which I highly recommend you read) is composed almost entirely of dialogue, with little to no excess exposition or lingering description. The story is sparse and instead of relying on itself, it pulls a lot from outside of the text, and it asks more of the reader. I first read this story for class and was left picking apart every brief sentence, examining the use of allusion, and not only reading between the lines, but outside of them. This story taught me what can be done with brevity, the immenseness of ideas that could exist in compact spaces. Flash fiction can be more than just a story. If it’s possible to pursue big issues in the shortest of spaces, then it’s possible to pursue them anywhere in your writing. It can ask not only more from the reader, but from the world, too.
Instead of concerning itself only with what happens next, flash fiction is capable of pushing outwards in every direction. It poses questions, and feels free of the burden to provide answers for everything. As in real life, not all things can be easily solved, not everything is a happy ending.
I see the inspiration from these stories slipping into my writing often. When I write a story about the end of the world in the format of a questionnaire, I am pulling ideas about plot and fragmentation and format from the stories above. I’m working with brevity and testing the ways I can use structure to enhance a story, to build it up. The ways we experiment and subvert expectations when it comes to fiction is something I am still learning and exploring all the time. What do I want a story to leave behind? What impact will it have once it’s out in the world? Not only that, but what impact will it have on other writers? Fiction is a form that’s growing and changing every day, and when we pursue new ideas and new innovations in the way we tell stories, we’re taking part in that growth as well.
Joyce Chong is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated poet and writer living in Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Throne Magazine, Liminality, Milkfist Magazine, and Outlook Springs, among others. You can find her at joycechong.ca or you can follow her on Twitter @_joycechong.
Coming Out to Flash Fiction
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, Santino Prinzi shares how reading and writing flash helped him accept himself and come out of the closet. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Santino Prinzi
Omeprazole. I don’t remember the dosage, but I remember the feeling that my stomach was a cauldron continually on boil, a potion bubbling away and, sometimes, trying to escape. Curtains closed, lights out, I stayed in bed and wouldn’t leave. I stopped eating. When I tried to leave the house I would manage for a while before wanting to come home.
The doctor wasn’t sure what it was at first. The pills helped but the feeling would never disappear for too long, no matter how hard I tried to suppress it. When, after two weeks, I was advised to continue the medication for a month, and if that didn’t improve things, we may need to take a closer look, it occurred to me what I was doing to myself. I was making myself ill, all because I had a secret.
But during my reclusive moments I spent a lot of time reading and writing flash, which I was introduced to earlier that year as a part of my course at Bath Spa University. The brilliant Tania Hershman (previously published by SmokeLong) read from her collection My Mother Was an Upright Piano and this sparked my love for flash fiction. I’d lie there in bed reading Tania Hershman, David Gaffney, Lydia Davis, Calum Kerr, Etgar Keret, and many others, and writing my own. These writers in particular have such distinctive voices and styles, and they all helped me develop my own voice as a writer.
The rumbling in my stomach reminded me: How can I develop my own voice as a writer if I can’t accept myself?
Coming out was a paradox; I thought it wouldn’t be okay, except I knew it would be, but there was no way of me knowing for definite until it happened. It was Father’s Day and funnily enough, as soon as I said it, it felt like someone extinguished the fire beneath that cauldron. My stomach calmed, and I was hungry for food again, but more importantly, I was hungry for life. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
I’d been writing flash from the moment I discovered it, but I’d never submitted any; I knew this had to change. I started redrafting my flashes, and I found one inspired by the way I had made myself ill called “What We Do in Our Sleep.”
The story is written entirely in dialogue and is about Mr. Humphries who visits his doctor because his stomach won’t stop making noises. At the time of writing, I had read something horrific about the amount of spiders we swallow in our sleep, but spiders inside your stomach, I felt, didn’t reflect the types of noises I heard. So Mr. Humphries discovers he’d swallowed a kitten in his sleep, according to his doctor, and is prescribed medication so he can ‘digest’ the animal.
Mr. Humphries doesn’t want to digest the kitten, but when the doctor tells him it’s that or let the kitten grow and claw its way out, Mr. Humphries must decide if he wants to allow this creature to continue growing to the point it destroys him, or he can accept it, and take the steps required to make him better.
I found an open call for submissions to the 2014 National Flash Fiction Day anthology, and I thought, why not? “What We Do in Our Sleep” was accepted and published in Eating My Words, and became my first published piece of flash.
Nearly two years on, and I’ve had more flash published in a variety of online and print journals, and I help with National Flash Fiction Day too, and all of this has been possible because I accepted and embraced who I am. Flash has helped me find my voice, develop my style, but crucially has allowed me to accept myself.
Santino Prinzi is currently an English Literature with Creative Writing student at Bath Spa University and helps with National Flash Fiction Day (UK). He was a recipient of the TSS Young Writers Award for January 2016, and was awarded the 2014/15 Bath Spa University Flash Fiction Prize. His flash fiction and prose poetry has been published, or is forthcoming, in various places including Litro Online, Flash Frontier, Ink Sweat and Tears, CHEAP POP, the 2014 and 2015 National Flash Fiction Day (UK) anthologies, Unbroken Literary Journal, and was selected for The Best of Vine Leaves Journal 2015. His website is https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com and his Twitter is @tinoprinzi.
Fox Coats and Dictionaries: A History of My Flash Education
In SmokeLong’s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer Ursula Villarreal-Moura discusses how the form’s inscrutability put her off initially, and shares the stories that dispelled her preconceptions about flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Ursula Villarreal-Moura
It’s likely I became a flash writer because initially I found the form inscrutable. This is not the story of someone who started reading at age three and aspired to be a writer by age five. In fact, for most of elementary school I found phonics and reading as cryptic as hieroglyphics. I distinctly remember studying the word the on an index card at age seven and not having a clue how to shape my mouth to pronounce it.
Much like learning to read, my experience with flash fiction started with frustration. For years, I resisted flash as a literary form because of misconceptions I developed while trying to understand it. My first misconception was believing shorter pieces to be incomplete stories that resulted from quick, timed writing exercises. Another of my early theories was that there was little to no difference between a flash story and the first few pages of longer works. I would often read the beginning of a short story or novel and wonder if it could pass for flash. About 93% of the time, the answer was no. The remaining 7% when the first few pages did strike me as complete, I found myself even more perplexed.
During my first semester of graduate school, my workshop instructor assigned New Sudden Fiction, a flash anthology edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. When I realized all the work ranged between one and four pages, I wondered how much story could be conveyed in so few lines. I ignorantly believed that in order to engross a reader and build a universe, a writer required a minimum of fifteen pages. Then I read “The Red Fox Fur Coat” by Teolinda Gersão (translated by Margaret Jull Costa). The story overturned all my notions of short-form storytelling. Gersão is a master. She knows what to divulge, what to hint at, and what to withhold. Gersão successfully illustrates a social-economic class and culture in a matter of paragraphs. Her story confirms that plot, character, and arc can be developed and reach a satisfying conclusion in mere pages.
Three years after reading “The Red Fox Fur Coat” I attempted my hand at flash. At the time, I was struggling with longer narratives and perceived flash to be a one-or-two-drafts-type of art. This misconception proved advantageous. Had I known that I’d draft flashes that almost four years later continue to be works in progress, I might not have attempted the form.
The first flash story I wrote was about a double date. While revising, it became apparent that the strongest part centered on the character who’d won a middle school spelling bee. Killing darlings in a 600-word story terrified me more than killing darlings in a 6,000-word story. In my mind, fiction felt safer and somehow more insulated from criticism in longer form. The final product was a micro-fiction titled “Daily Dictionaries.”
Over the past few years, I’ve dispelled many of my early theories about flash. I’ve learned that not all flash requires a traditional arc in order to be successful or evocative. However, nearly all good flash manages to build a universe—a fact that will forever blow my mind.
As I mentioned earlier, I still have drafts that probably require skills and insight I don’t yet possess. History has taught me to be patient, though, because every flash I read, draft, publish, revise, share, admire, imitate, hate, or analyze is part of my education.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura’s writing has appeared in CutBank, New South, DOGZPLOT, Sundog Lit, LUMINA, The Toast, Gargoyle, Washington Square, and dozens of other journals. Her nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and one of her stories was longlisted in Best American Short Stories 2015.
Just a Flash. Did You See It?
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, WhiskeyPaper editor and past SmokeLong contributor Leesa Cross-Smith shares what flash gives her that longer works just can’t. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Leesa Cross-Smith
I devour wordy books and stories and three-hour-long movies but honestly? I prefer brevity when I can get it. A book like the Bible, a book like Les Miserables, a five-hour miniseries like Pride & Prejudice—I know what I’m getting into. I know there are going to be lots and lots of characters, plot lines, locations, stories to tell. Those aren’t easy spaces where I can get the quick and dirty. Flash fiction is where I get my quick and dirty. That moniker alone interests me. Flash fiction. Flash. They are here and they are gone. Did you see it? The stories gathered and told via flash fiction can be just as poignant, just as gorgeous as the heaviest, wordiest tome, but flash is going to get you there quicker—we’re talking not much room for backstory, we’re talking drive-thru stories and quickies and pit stops and sneaky, stolen kisses and breathless sprints and gotta go.
One of my favorite tiniest flash pieces is by Scott Garson from his book Is That You, John Wayne? and in its entirety it reads: They gave me a job at Halloween Town. Strip mall with vacancies. Sad. I was a wizard, vaguely swinging my wand. “Everything change,” I commanded. I don’t walk away from that story wondering more about the protagonist. I got to know them quickly. They’re hilarious, they’re human, they’re me. A Halloween Town in a strip mall with vacancies is sad for anyone and everyone. Those two sentences set the tone easily. But our wizard isn’t giving up! He mentions it, calls it exactly what it is and commands it to change. Not just some of it, all of it. Everything. That little five sentence story brings me joy. I laughed and laughed the first time I read it. That story alone was the price of the book. I believe in flash because it doesn’t try to glamour me into thinking it’s something it’s not. Here is our story, here is our scene, here are our characters—let’s go.
When I write flash fiction, I always have a flicker of an image in mind. It is how my brain processes the creative work, it is what inspires me. I feel at home among the smallness. When I began my piece “Sometimes We Both Fight In Wars,” I knew I wanted to (almost annoyingly, hypnotically, borderline claustrophobically) jam-pack it full of descriptions of smells and feelings and I wanted the reader to immediately feel like they were on the houseboat with this couple or as the man or woman who make up the couple. Houseboats have a sound, the river has many sounds and smells, people have sounds and smells, there is a storm, they play a game and flirt and touch one another physically for both pleasure and pain. I wanted the reader to know that the woman in the story was safe in spite of the man’s strength and past of bringing violence to other men he encountered. I wanted there to be sexual tension and longing and regret in both the past and present. I wanted there to be history there, presented quickly. I wanted there to be tenderness and love. A lot to ask of a story that’s not even 450 words long, I know, but that challenge interested me because I knew it could be Smoke Long. That was the allure of wanting to see it appear in Smokelong Quarterly. I feel comfortable saying I believe most people long for ways to insert more beauty into their lives, more ways to incorporate art and storytelling into their lives, more connection with other humans, more heads nodding yes, more warmth and empathy and amazement. But life is life and life is busy and where’s the time?
Reading and reading and reading requires time, a lot of time. It’s easy to feel like there’s not enough time in the world to read even a short novel or book because there are so many other things we need to do and take care of. But I think an important sell of flash fiction is simply: You have time for this. Even if you don’t think you do! I have two young children. I sometimes feel like I don’t have time for anything and I love seeing a link to a new story on social media where the magazine has mentioned Hey this is a quick read! Read this with your morning coffee or on your lunch break! I think that’s part of the reason people read WhiskeyPaper with such frequency. We only publish flash fiction. People feel relaxed about it, it’s casual and chill, doesn’t require too much time and energy. It’s freeing, I think. To feel like just as easily as it is to turn on some music and listen to one song, I can read one little story even if I feel like I don’t have time to get overly-invested in it. Maybe I can’t handle the entire album right now, but I have time for a song. We all have time for a song! Flash fiction makes me feel like I have time for a song. One Song. Glory.
We find time for the things we want to find time for. We connect and make time for our children, our families, our spouses, our friends, our hobbies, our desires. There’s a time for an 800-page Russian novel the size of a brick and there’s a time for me to be wonderstruck and inspired by a tiny story like “How I Liked the Avocados” by Wendy Oleson. Our lives, our stories, our relationships and loves, made small. Strip malls, avocados, houseboats—these seemingly mundane things made glittery and brought into focus for only a moment. A pocket-sized moment we can carry with us, reach in for and double-check it’s still in there, safe, waiting for us to have time again. A twinkling of an eye, a flash of something you see and then it disappears. But it was there. You have time for this. Did you see it? I saw it. I know it. I just know it.
Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of Every Kiss A War (Mojave River Press) and the editor of WhiskeyPaper. Her writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2015 and lots of literary magazines. She lives in Kentucky and loves baseball and musicals. Find more at LeesaCrossSmith.com.
Students Take Over Our Queue! A Hands-On Approach to Teaching Fiction
Creative writing professors Wade Geary and Huan Hsu teach at Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands. This week, their students will be reading the SmokeLong queue, discussing the stories, and ultimately picking a favorite for us to publish in our next issue. We talked with Wade and Huan about their class and what they hope their students get out of such an exercise.
What can you tell us about your college?
Wade: Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a fairly new liberal arts and science program; this year will mark its seventh in existence. It’s part of an expansion of university colleges within the Netherlands. Like the city of Amsterdam, the institution is quite international—close to 50 percent of the students are from outside of the Netherlands.
I feel pretty lucky to be teaching at AUC, especially to be teaching Creative Writing at the school. There aren’t many places on the European continent where students can take creative writing courses at the university level, especially in English. Many countries rely on art academies for these sorts of studies.
What is the creative writing course structure?
Wade: I’ve taught the course at AUC for four years now. Some of the students are studying literature, but there are several that are in other areas of the humanities or even in the sciences. This means the students view writing creatively in pretty diverse ways. And the course structure itself—split into three sections (Romance, Exposure, and Refining)—tries to celebrate a variety of writing practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the structure is borrowed from a math education researcher who studied how to get students interested in mathematics.
Huan: I think you’re being a bit modest here about the course structure, which I think is really effective in addressing the tyranny that genre can have on a creative writing syllabus. So rather than a rigid trudge through fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, we start reading (and writing) all three genres from the start, and put the focus on allowing students to explore, engage, and fall in love, hence the Romance. The upshot of this is that when we do get into the genres in the Exposure section there’s already a foundation.
Tell us about your students.
Huan: This is my second year teaching the course and I think my class composition is pretty typical of the creative writing sections: 20 students, mostly women (only 4 guys), comprised of second and third years (AUC is a three-year program). I have 6 exchange students (3 American, 1 South Korean, 1 British, and 1 Australian). The rest of the class is half from the Netherlands and half from the rest of Europe. They are well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, and far more sophisticated than I was as their age. They are sharp, motivated, and empathetic. All have excellent spoken and written English. They are so fluent that I have to constantly remind myself how marvelous it is that so many students are writing creatively in their non-native languages.
The writing backgrounds of the students vary widely, as do their ambitions. Some are just beginning to engage with creative writing in a structured environment; some know the New Yorker inside and out and have taken writing workshops before. Some are likely curious to explore the limits of their abilities—how far can they go with writing? Some seem to simply wish to scratch an itch. All of them do share the common trait among writers of feeling the urge to write—to say something—even if they aren’t yet sure what to say or how to say it. Many of them keep writing journals. I’m pleased that very few, if any, appear to be taking this course just because they think it will be easy. They all seem quite invested in getting the most from the class, and stretch themselves accordingly on the assignments. They are strong critical readers when it comes to other people’s work.
How familiar are they with SmokeLong?
We assigned them an exercise early in the semester in which they had to go explore SmokeLong and find at least one story that they really loved and explain why. Most found more than one, and there was actually quite a bit of overlap both in terms of stories they loved and also stories they disliked, and the subsequent discussion in class about why they loved their favorite story and why they didn’t love other stories was so lively and critical and helped to convince me that they were up for the responsibility of selecting a winning submission.
What do you hope they’ll learn from reading submissions from the slush pile?
Wade: An activity like this makes the act of writing more tangible. They’ll see that writing doesn’t exist within a bubble and isn’t only discussed in a classroom. And that the world of writing is multi-faceted, where editing is equally important.
Huan: Exactly. I think teachers naturally teach in reaction to their own experiences as students, and one of the things I disliked about my creative writing education was the sense that professors were gatekeepers for the larger writing world and thus enforced a hierarchy that turned established writers into celebrities beyond reproach and kept writing students (and their opinions) at the bottom. Questions about, say, how literary journals worked or which you should read were dealt with in a way that discouraged curiosity, punished inexperience, and suggested that students had to first be deemed “ready” to engage this larger world. Often this anointment could only be attained by gaining the favor of the instructor, which often meant hammering away at a story until it became “good” (whatever the instructor meant by that). This might be how that oft-maligned “workshop story” comes into being. I completely agree with the reasoning at the heart of this philosophy, that too many young writers get caught up on publication and that all writers should focus on process and not outcome. But the orthodoxy in practice was annoying (and counterproductive to developing writers, in my opinion) then and completely outdated now—it’s about as tone deaf as journals that still forbid simultaneous submissions.
So all this was in my mind while I was guest editing for SmokeLong in December, which, first and foremost, was just a lot of fun. There was a sense of falling in love with reading and writing again (Romance!), and a reminder of how a great piece of writing can inspire by making it all seem so easy and natural and possible. And that’s what we want our students to feel. Likewise, many submissions also affirm by not being great. In fact, it might be more helpful for young writers—who can struggle with confidence and courage and often get paralyzed by some imagined gulf between them and “real” writers—to see bad or mediocre writing to remind them that there’s nothing to fear. And it occurred to me as I was reading and deliberating over my selections that I was doing what we ask of our creative writing students when it comes to fiction: considering narrative and storytelling and voice and character and completeness, to name a few.
Given that the process of guest editing practices all the skills we are trying to build, and given my belief that writing should be demystified and democratic, why shouldn’t a group of bright young writers—and SmokeLong readers themselves—be trusted with determining the most worthy journal submission? In my experience, students—like all people who want to be successful—thrive when challenged, when trusted with responsibility, and when they feel their work is meaningful. Finally, it’s logistically more feasible to ask our students, who have little time between academics and extra-curriculars, to read 60 flash pieces in a week than full short stories.
Born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, Huan Hsu is the author of The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China. As a staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly, he won two Society of Professional Journalists awards and received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Literary Review, and Lucky Peach. He received his MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and currently lives in Amsterdam where he teaches journalism and creative writing at Amsterdam University College.
Why Flash Fiction? Because of “Karintha”
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, District Lit fiction editor and 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship finalist Tyrese L. Coleman delves into the tradition of flash in African American literature and how it drives the lyricism and urgency in her flash fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Tyrese L. Coleman
Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer’s Cane is a story collection I always come back to when I want to reeducate myself on how to write flash.
No, “story collection” is not right. I can’t call it that. What can I call it? A book?
It is a book. That is the best I can do.
I can only give it this basic label because defining it with terms and categories would mean dismissing one or more of its elements. This book is complication made tangible in black ink and sepia-turned paper. Only the barest of explanations will ever make it comprehensible. In one instance, it is a collection of very short stories—short-shorts or flash fiction or prose poetry is what we would call them now, but who knows what the form was called back in 1923 when it was first published, if anything. The book is divided into themes portraying Reconstruction-era black life in the country and the city. In another instance, is a collection of poems, songs, and spirituals. And yet, in another, it is a play.
It is all of this, and none. It is everything.
This book changed me.
The slim, dark Kelly-green cover of my now dog-eared, scribbled-on copy quotes Alice Walker: “[Cane] has been reverberating in me to an astonishing degree. I love it passionately; could not possibly exist without it.” This sentiment is true for me too. I can’t lie and say it is the book that made me want to write. I was a writer before this book came into my life. But, when I read it in an undergraduate Harlem Renaissance literature course, my mind expanded like a batch of Southern biscuits rising in the oven, a once hard, round mound building slowly upwards into something providing sustenance. I thought: “You can do this?” “Who does this?” “I want to do this.” But, I was not able to appreciate the book as much as I would later. It moved me, but I didn’t quite understand it.
Many years after undergrad, I started a Master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. For no reason or every reason, I found this book again. It was the best example I could think of to help supplement my practical writing education—the book I went to when our instructor told us to “read like a writer.”
The first short story is titled “Karintha.” The story (?) prose poem (?)…the piece takes up a page-and-a-half. In that short distance, we travel through ten years in Karintha’s life, the piece’s shortness representing the hurried nature in which this child is made to become a woman. The rush is due to the desires of men urging her body to age: “This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.” Old men rode her hobby-horse on their knees. Young men bided their time, waiting for her to ripen for devouring. Because of this desire, she grows vain, loathing the men who love her, playing them like the toys they denied her.
Who sent me this book? Was it some long-dead ancestor who watched over me, knew I would see myself, right there, on the very first page? Karintha herself, maybe. My skin is the same color: “dusk on the eastern horizon,” and I know what it feels like to grow up too soon. I am a daughter of the rural south, of running down dirt roads with bare feet, “red dust that sometimes makes a spiral in the road,” of long black pigtails flopping against my shoulders. Old men had ridden me hobby-horse on their knees. I used to write poetry, bad bad bad poetry, but I loved—still love—verse. The lyricism and flow of Toomer’s prose, how he begins and ends with a verse, and interrupts a paragraph with a song, blew my mind when I was in graduate school learning how to read and understand these techniques. Never jarring, the ebb and flow between structures is natural, the natural swirl of Karintha’s story, like smoke or dust with everything caught up in it.
After returning to Cane, I wrote a flash memoir essay for my class called “I Am Karintha.” It was the first thing I ever published. The first time I ever cried while writing.
As I continue to write flash, I often find myself returning to this method of combining prose and poetry, trying to recreate the feel of “Karintha.” Toomer is not the only flash writer I admire who uses this lyrical mashup of poetry and prose. Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric all use this style in some variety. Reading their work has been integral to the development of my voice as a writer. I have a cultural and racial connection to these writers and their stories, enamored by the way every piece is written as if someone is speaking to me, or singing to me, or telling me a secret turning me on to this world.
Their style of flash is immediate, creating a verbal impact, a short punch that, when it’s done and read, makes you cock your head to the side and say “huh,” and then lower it to read again and again. You can call writing flash “a stripping down,” but I call it “a building up.” Flash builds tension with every sentence, every word, so that the intensity is like a line of wire pulled tight. The combination of verse and prose is difficult to maintain in longer stories or essays—there is so much building with language you can do before readers lose stamina and interest. Poetic or figurative language in longer pieces, if done too much, can feel contrived. That is why I adore Maud Martha especially, an entire novel of short flash pieces written in a lyrical prose style. In the tradition of Cane, Maud Martha, and Citizen, my goal as a flash writer is to create my own work of art, something undefinable that merges forms, a combination of fiction, non-fiction, prose, and poetry: a literary mutt.
And as I’ve worked on this baby, I’ve dragged around my dog-eared, scribbled-on copies of these books all over—to work, to writing groups, to the store, to visit friends. If I leave them behind, will the ghost who sent them to me think I’m ungrateful and take away my muses? Probably not. But, I like the reassurance of having them with me, to know that when I need to remind and re-educate myself on how to write lyric in the form of a story, I have a book at arm’s reach that will show me how it’s done. I have Karintha by my side.
Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and the fiction editor for District Lit, an online journal of writing and art. She is currently working on a flash fiction and memoir chapbook called, How to Sit. A finalist for the 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship with SmokeLong Quarterly, her flash has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, The Stoneslide Corrective, The Tahoma Literary Review, Hobart, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and elsewhere. Reach her on Twitter @tylachelleco or at tyresecoleman.com.
Imitating Life: Lovers of the Arts, Unite
This week on the blog, Dan Cafaro, the founder of Atticus Books, makes a case for recapturing the fiery spirit of small press publishing.
By Dan Cafaro
“No artist tolerates reality.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I try not to take this thing we do too seriously. I remember starting out in the used book business (1995-1999). I sold secondhand and out-of-print books from a small storefront in a quaint northeast Philadelphia suburb. I romanticized about the stimulating conversations I was bound to have with writers and artists who frequented the shop. I envisioned us talking late into the evening hours about the philosophies of Nietzsche and Sartre, waxing poetically about the nimble acrobatics of Wordsworth and Ferlinghetti, discussing the vulgarity of Bukowski, the elegance of Gwendolyn Brooks …
But no, it hardly ever went down that way. The first thing many people asked me was how much money I made selling books. It was shorthand for “small talk” in the book business. And the question always confounded me. I had left behind a paltry full-time sportswriter’s salary to try my hand at writing and selling literature. I was young and naïve, on a quest for authenticity. I had never asked my newsroom peers how much money they made. It was a rude, baffling non sequitur. Everyone in the arts was broke, weren’t they? Why belabor the point?
I channeled the disgruntled spirit of poet-bookseller Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I sat behind my shop’s long antique oak checkout counter and wrote bad poetry and dialogue on my word processor. I looked at every customer interaction as material for my next poem or play. I saw the inevitable money question posed by proverbial grazing sheeple as a relentless flea on my backside. Who in his right mind squanders an adequate living wage with health benefits and a retirement pension for the uncertainty of a new state and enterprise? A raging idealist and lover of the arts, that’s who.
I was miserable and yet never so unencumbered. Sure, a used bookstore’s income barely kept the lights on, and sure, I grossly underestimated how hard it would be to make ends meet … but I didn’t let the notoriously high percentage of failed startups discourage me.
I subsidized expenses by covering criminal trials at the courthouse up the street. I filed stories three times a week through an assignment editor at the Bucks County Courier Times. It was a decent freelance gig—complemented by the daily nourishment of Italian ices from Nat’s Pizza three doors down—except the courtroom beat reduced open shop hours because I could ill afford a reliable part-timer to watch the all-too-often empty store while I was away.
And so started my pattern of rotating in and out of Corporate America, and so too began my struggle of figuring out how to compensate staff to help me bring literature into the world.
This Thing We Do
When I owned Chapters Revisited, I stayed awake at night thinking about the buying and selling of assorted printed matter including collectible first editions. These days I lose sleep over the purveying and dissemination of new literature produced by writers who solicit my press, Atticus Books (1,000+ full-length manuscript submissions in 2014-2015), and its sister journal, Atticus Review (an average of 2,100 annual submissions for the last three years, excluding writers we solicit).
Moreover, I’m revved by the challenge of educating the public about indie literature and the vibrancy of the small press scene.
It’s a precious gift, this thing we do. And I don’t, for one lousy minute, take it for granted. In fact, I would like nothing better than to talk about the stellar work of our weekly contributors—both editors and writers—at Atticus Review.
The themed issues and departments (e.g., The Feast Issue, The Transit Issue, More Than Sports Talk, Atticus On The Trail, Tales from the VFW) that each journal editor so carefully conceives and compiles and …
Hold on, Dan! We know you want to talk about great literature, but there’s a question hanging over this essay like a black cloud:
How do we monetize this thing … you know, so we can eat, and like, pay our staff and the writers who provide us work?
That’s the question I’m supposed to answer, right?
God, I hope not. I’m seriously finished with trying to somehow economically justify the “how” and “how much” behind what small presses do. I loathe tallying book sales like they’re cans of soup. Andy Warhol certainly was onto something with his “art as commodity” concept.
Independent presses and literary journals exist because many of us desperately desire (and perhaps even need) to be part of something more meaningful than a 9-to-5 for-profit business of widget and service superiority.
Indie presses and lit mags are on their own uneven playing field because most have come to learn that once they attach “commercial product” to a creative project, it no longer feels like art.
Once writers and editors strain to think of the “positioning” and “marketability” of a character or work in progress, it impedes the work’s natural flow. Words dissipate. The work’s original meaning washes away.
The same holds true with the well-meaning press that has one eye on the cash register and the other on Google Analytics. Each decision you make, every move, begins to feel constrained and contrived.
Once you turn your back on art, you risk gutting the words for sport instead of sustenance. The original mission of your press washes away.
We must stop talking about money.
Artfully crafted creations are a kink in the chain of commerce. Big business doesn’t know what the hell to make of us literary types, this thing we do—this living, fire-breathing organism we call “small press.” Whether it’s poetry, flash fiction, long-form narrative, experimental, or creative nonfiction, what we do is purposeful. It is art.
Chains—both physically and metaphorically—may act as a mechanism for connection, but when our small press conversations steer toward “sales projections” and we get hung up on “audience size and demographics,” we’ve tripped the wire and lost our footing. We’ve let the chains of commerce stifle our innovation and redirect our fiery spirit.
Mini-Capitalists Left Holding the Towel
If we are not going to talk about money (thank you), then I’d like to break my self-imposed rule and close with a recollection. Two years ago, I got into a Facebook debate with a seasoned writer and writer’s coach who admonished me for not paying Atticus Review editors or writers. She couldn’t understand how I’d be willing to pay for cover/interior designers, editors, and proofreaders for the books Atticus published, but didn’t pay our free online journal contributors.
She accused me of “screwing writers” and devaluing their words by not paying them. She found it “appalling” and “insulting” that so many journals and magazines don’t pay.
Instead of telling her to take a long, leisurely barefoot stroll off a short, splintered pier, I responded with something like:
It may be hard for a successful writer to remember or relate to how brutally cold it is for unknown, unproven creative writers who can’t get the time of day from mainstream publishers.
Small presses serve this rather large constituency of writers by offering them: (1) moral support; (2) affiliation; (3) credibility; (4) affirmation; and (5) creative latitude in a noisy marketplace that has zero tolerance for writers without a platform or marketable idea that fits neatly into a category so that commercial publishers and booksellers know how to spin and merchandise their work.
A primary mission of Atticus is to discover misfit/debut literary writers whose works cannot be easily classified or placed squarely in a genre. Our goal is to help advance the artful craft by providing a venue for experimentation by bold, distinct voices.
We are enthused by quirky, inventive works and have very little interest in formulaic narrative that does not challenge a reader.
Some may consider this kind of literary publishing as elitist or snobbish or senseless because it typically doesn’t make money or appeal to the mainstream.
I think it’s okay to disagree on this point. Most of us like the view from here and know that we benefit society by elevating the visibility of writers who may have otherwise walked off a ledge or thrown in the towel.
I try my best not to take this thing we do too seriously. After all we’re merely players between the covers of a book imitating life.
Dan Cafaro is the founder and chief imagination officer of Atticus Books, a fiery multimedia press based in Madison, N.J. Dan is a rabble-rousing old swordsman with a penchant for satire and sun-dried tomatoes. Despite his eternal hunt for meticulous prose, he is an untrained metaphor grifter and frequent abuser——Strunk & White, take that——of the closed em dash. Atticus Review is his celestial firstborn. Dan tweets with great inconsistency @AtticusBooks.
The Excess of the Short-Short
This week we’re over the moon to have Rachel Levy, author of the novel A Book So Red, guest blogging for us. Levy is here to set the record slant regarding the hedonistic capability of short-short prose.
By Rachel Levy
Writing about flash fiction is tricky. I feel compelled to stumble through a course of predictable if not unproductive questions. What do I call these things? Am I talking about flash-, sudden-, short-short-, nano-, or micro-fictions? Why are there so many labels? Some call short-shorts “sparks” or “blasters,” others “fragments” or “vignettes.” There are those who describe the short-short as if it were simply excerpted from the “conventional” short story like Eve from Adam’s ribcage. Length, of course, is the cited convention here, which brings to mind additional, tired questions. Which stories count? Those under 1,000 words? 700 words? 500 words? In any case, which side am I on? Am I for or against flash fiction?
The critics are divided. As if the short-short were a campaign or a cause, some push for legitimization, standardization, and canonization. Others dismiss flash fiction by predicting its going out of style. Detractors diagnose the short-short to be a passing blight upon the corpus of literature—it’ll go away when we discover the cures for internet addiction, ADHD, and youthful frivolity. Or maybe when Jesus Christ comes back to earth he’ll send all the perverts, deviants, and short-shorts to Hell. In the meantime, some suggest we hedge our bets by partially and pragmatically buying in. For example, Harvey Stanbrough declares, “Flash fiction is not only enjoyable to write, but it’s also a good learning tool for improving your work.” By “work” Stanbrough presumably means long-form fiction. The real deal. Serious stuff. Because short-short stories “appeal to young people” and their “one-byte-and-go culture,” Aidan Chambers proposes we grant flash fiction a provisional pedagogical advantage: “Many professional authors agree [the story of conventional length] is one of the most difficult of all the literary forms to tackle. … Flash fiction, on the other hand, seems … to be what comes naturally to late childhood and teenage writers.” Except for Etgar Keret, the “master” of flash fictions, critic Jacob Silverman suggests we can safely ignore the genre’s practitioners:
The problem with flash fiction, is that much of it isn’t very good. Boosters like to say that So-and-so packs more into a thousand words than most writers do into a novel, but that’s almost never true—particularly when you consider that time spent with a novel, and all of the mental and emotional investment that that requires, is one of its principle features.
For Silverman, the reader is a mental/emotional banker, and flash fictions aren’t sound investments. Fair enough. Short-shorts don’t pay.
Big-big fictions are another story. They’re worth it. The time and effort it takes to read them pays off. Our language suggests that even though reading can be an arduous, trying, or painful experience, compensation awaits for those who finish the job. The bigger the book, the better the reward. A reader needs to feel like he’s exerting himself. Every effort counts. The discernable effort it takes to physically lift, carry, or hold a big book counts. Difficulty counts. With extremely long fictions, there comes a point in the reading experience when sheer tedium is most likely a formidable wellspring of difficulty. But not all tedium is sublime. It’s best if the tedium is intentional, so the reader has only herself to blame if she quits. Can she really blame the book about boredom for being boring? If an endless fiction is actually about the agony of ennui, then that fiction is probably difficult in a way that matters and pays off—and is spiritually purifying, too, no?
Dave Eggers thinks so. If you find investment banking too craven a metaphor, then look no further than Eggers’s foreword to the tenth anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s critically acclaimed big-big story, Infinite Jest. Eggers describes a “reader-mechanic” who labors on a book like he does on “a car or an Ikea shelving unit.” The job might be difficult, not to mention archaically gendered, but the pay, Eggers vouches, is as sweet as salvation. Infinite Jest is “a book that gives so much,” Eggers preaches, “that required such sacrifice and dedication.” Like a modern-day Puritan, Eggers assures you that it is through extended textual toil that you fortify your “brain” and your “heart,” and bear witness to the fact of your predestination: “When you exit these pages after that month of reading,” Eggers testifies, “you are a better person.”
Perhaps it’s the devil in me—or the witch, the whore, and the girl—or maybe I’m just lazy, but even talking about this holy work ethic makes me want to don the shortest short-shorts I can find and run through the stacks of the library, shrieking. Praise Satan! All hail the short-short! Down with hard work! … What. I won’t work. No work, no apologies.
Who wears writes short-shorts?
Yes, we still can’t decide what to call short-short stories, or which texts count. We know short-shorts only by their lack: they are that which is shorter than. Which is why, of all the labels, I like “short-short” best. It’s a name that signifies an excess of lack, a disruptive potentiality. Though some may try to assimilate short-shorts into their good old economy of labor—they’re great practice, a productive use of time between masterpieces—length is still a final frontier in our system of value. But we don’t have to believe the critics when they reduce the short-short to a byproduct of our one-byte, MTV, ADHD culture. We know the world is big, and Culture’s a beast. Short-shorts dash through. Dispossessed, they disinvest. This is their pleasure—and it is defiant, disturbing, deviant.
Since its 1953 publication, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha has received a multitude of labels. Some say it’s a novella. Others call it a series of vignettes, ideograms, or prose poems. Today, some readers might call Maud Martha a “novel in short-short stories.” Critic Mary Helen Washington notes how early reviewers gave Brooks’ book “the kind of ladylike treatment that assured its dismissal” by focusing largely on Maud Martha’s lyrical prose style, light comedic tone, and brief episodic structure. Washington writes:
In 1953 no one seemed prepared to call Maud Martha a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger. No one recognized it as a novel dealing with the very sexism and racism that these reviews enshrined. What the reviewers saw as exquisite lyricism was actually the truncated stuttering of a woman whose rage makes her literally unable to speak.
Consider the following excerpt in which Brooks’ protagonist, Maud Martha, silently and unhappily works to prepare a chicken.
People could do this! could cut a chicken open, take out the mess with bare hands … feel that insinuating slipping bone, survey that soft, that headless death. … The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.
Though Maud Martha seems optimistic that she too is a person who can easily “cut a chicken open,” she identifies increasingly with the chicken as she handles “the mess” and feels “that slipping bone.” The “difference” may be “in the knowing,” but Brooks shows us that knowledge is constructed sensually and spatially. In this way, Brooks relocates the production of meaning from linguistic difference to the reality of gender and racial segregation. Feeling trumps thinking, and by the close of this short-short chapter, eating trumps speaking: “Maud Martha smacked her lips at the thought of her meal.”
Roland Barthes claims there are texts in which meaning is “sensually produced.” Is the short-short such a text? And there are “some perverts,” Barthes notes, for whom “the sentence is a body.”
Maybe one of Barthes’ perverts appears as the narrator of Diane Williams’s short-short, “The Care of Myself.” The narrator’s story opens with a brief encounter: a fireman rings her doorbell, and she mistakes his helmet for a bandage. “Do you have a wound,” she asks. Hers might have been a love story were it of a larger ilk—but no. “The days and years pass so swiftly,” the narrator states, and she swiftly brings her tale to a climax and a close:
Now, what I am doing for my wound is this: I stick any old rag or balled up old sock I can find as close to it as I can get. Belly-down on the floor, with my reading glasses on, I’ve also got some filler sticking almost into my asshole. With my bawdy book here to comfort me right in front of my nose—we are both, the book and I, products of a great civilization—I take the plunge. I am thrusting mightily, and sometimes I manage to get hurt again.
Bedding down with the “products of a great civilization,” Williams’ narrator reads with her body. She fucks the culture that wounds her. And what does that mean? What does she gain? I don’t know. She pleasures herself.
Short-shorts don’t work. They come.
Who wears writes short-shorts? What is a short-short? Of course there’s no one answer. You have your mutable list, and me mine. But I’m always looking for them, no matter the text I’m reading. A short-short: an exit for dashing through: an occasion to clock out and to get off.
I think there’s a short-short in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. Yes, Tamburlaine is a drama in verse, but there’s a moment (a short-short?) in the fifth act where the text breaks out in prose. Zabina and her husband, Bajazeth, have been captured by the mighty Tamburlaine. Bajazeth is held like a pet in a cage, but he commits suicide by ramming himself headfirst into the bars. Zabina finds his body and then brains herself, too. She says:
O Bajazeth, O Turk, O emperor—give him his liquor? Not I. Bring milk and fire, and my blood I bring him again; tear me in pieces, give me the sword with a ball of wildfire upon it. Down with him, down with him! Go to my child. Away, away, away! Ah, save that infant, save him, save him! I, even I, speak to her. The sun was down. Streamers white, red, black, here, here, here. Fling the meat in his face. Tamburlaine, Tamburlaine! Let the soldiers be buried. Hell, death, Tamburlaine, hell! Make ready my coach, my chair, my jewels. I come, I come, I come!
Zabina’s final speech is a shredding of Tamburlaine’s discourse. But is she going or coming? Her rage is both a perversion and a pleasure. “I come, I come, I come!” Her voice reaches an orgiastic pitch.
Or maybe my favorite short-short occurs in the fifth chapter of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There’s a moment when the page is empty. There’s a break in the text, a barren swath, in which two lovers are presumably conversing. Woolf’s narrator explains how “it would profit little to write down what they said, … For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.”
That space: a carnal filling feeling. And also: a carnal falling? Yes, I fall into Woolf’s page, but upon my exiting I am not a better person. I am beyond that economy for now. Unburdened of brain and heart, I am perverted, hedonistic.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha. 1953. Chicago: Third World Press, 1993.
Chambers, Aidan. “Sparks of fiction.” The Horn Book Magazine 88.2 (2012): 55-9.
Eggers, Dave. Foreword. Infinite Jest: A Novel. By David Foster Wallace. 1996. Back Bay 10th Anniversary
Pbk. ed. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006. xi-xvi.
Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine The Great, Part One. The Complete Plays. New York: Penguin Classics, 69-153.
Silverman, Jacob. “Why flash fiction is an overrated genre, and why Etgar Keret is a master of it.” POLITICO. New York. 27 Mar. 2012.
Stanbrough, Harvey. “Sharpen your skills with flash fiction: flash fiction is not only enjoyable to write, but a good learning tool for improving your work.” The Writer 120.1 (2007): 34-7.
Washington, Mary Helen. “Taming All that Anger Down: Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha.” Massachusetts Review 24.2 (1983): 453-466.
Williams, Diane. “The Care of Myself.” Excitability: Selected Stories 1986-1996. Normal: Dalkey Archive, 136-7.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. 1928. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Rachel Levy teaches and studies at the University of Utah. Her fictions appear or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Fence, Tarpaulin Sky, and Two Serious Ladies. Her first novel, A Book So Red, is recently out with Caketrain. Along with Lily Duffy, she is co-founder and co-editor of DREGINALD.
How to Lead a Writing Workshop with Developing Writers: Advice from Flash Fiction Maestros Gay Degani and Kathy Fish (Part Two)
Today on the blog, we are excited to feature the second post in a two-part series from guest blogger Virgie Townsend, who recently taught a two-week intensive course on flash fiction for American University’s Discover the World of Communication summer program. In Part One, Virgie detailed her experiences working with her young students and provided examples of the work they produced. Here in Part Two, Virgie interviews flash fiction experts Gay Degani and Kathy Fish on how to conduct writing workshops with young and developing writers. Fish founded the American University flash fiction class ten years ago, and both she and Degani have taught the course.
By Virgie Townsend
What are best practices for conducting writing workshops with high school students or developing writers?
KF: It’s good to recognize that the kids are most likely new to fiction writing in general. Some may write creatively on their own or some may have taken a creative writing class at school, but mostly, this is new territory for them. Approach workshopping with that in mind. Recall how it felt to be brand new to creative writing. That huge, huge rush. It’s very likely their first creative expression of raw feelings as well. Remember what it’s like to be a teenager! Keeping all of this in mind, approach workshopping with empathy and compassion. Focus on the positives (and there are many).
GD: It’s important to create an environment in which the students feel it is safe to write imperfectly. One of the great misunderstandings that readers have is that writers sit down at a computer and write good stuff from the get-go. This is just not the reality.
It’s reasonable for them to have this misperception. Even with the badly composed stuff on the Internet, most of what they read has been published (which means vetted and edited) either in the newspaper, magazines, or the novels they read. They assume “this is writing.” What they can’t see is what led up to that finished product.
It’s the responsibility of the instructor to point out that almost no one can put words to paper and have it come out right the first, second, or even third time. There has to be permission to write badly first, and then go on from there.
This means that embarrassment, discomfort, fear of failure all need to be addressed as normal feelings we human beings have when asked to share. Sometimes there is praise, sometimes not. Our intent is to learn why, and what to do next.
Writing is a process and the more students embrace this idea—that we gain skills through practice and repetition and that no one should expect their initial work to be without misdirections, errors, random tangents, etc.—the more patient they will be with their own work as well as that of others. It is the audience of fellow students who are present to offer useful information.
From the viewpoint of the person who is responding (and I like the word “responding” rather than “critiquing” in this context) to someone else’s narrative, they must understand that they offer needed feedback to the writer. They are the shortcut to having perspective on a piece of work.
What challenges do high school students sometimes have with workshops? What are strengths you’ve seen?
GD: The main challenge is to clarify for the student that writing, while it does require a modicum of talent, is also about developing the skills needed to write a clear, coherent, and effective story. Any art is the process of combining talent with skill. Those with much talent must learn how to capitalize on their special view of the world through skill while those who may have “less apparent” talent can use knowledge and skill to bring out their special abilities.
The strength in high school students is their savvy about the world and engagement with that world. They recognize from a young age there are opportunities with technology that can jumpstart their commitment to writing or whatever it is they might want to pursue. They seem to be more willing to let their passion lead them than those in past generations. The rules are changing and the young people are taking advantage of that.
KF: Again, it very well may be their first creative expression of raw feelings and experiences. That’s huge. Students that age have not had the benefit of time and experience to filter their emotions. My own experience with teenagers (both raising them and teaching them) is that they are incredibly vulnerable and strong at the same time. They are also very honest. The challenges and the opportunities for the teacher present themselves simultaneously. Tap into the openness and honesty to guide them to writing strong work while also respecting their newness to creative work, their need to get their hands dirty fearlessly.
Your class may be the first time they’ve been a part of a workshop. How do you teach them to engage in the process in a respectful, but productive manner?
KF: The best way to do this is to model the behavior you expect of your students. Show them first your own responses to the work. Demonstrate how to pick out the positives of the work, the kind of language to use, before they workshop each other’s work. Be very clear about your own expectations. Gently but firmly keep them on track, realizing that yes, workshopping is a skill, too, and they’re learning.
GD: Rules or guidelines need to be specific and clear. After a discussion of the writing process, an instructor might find it useful to ask students to write a short paragraph on what they admire in the work of the authors they read. It could include point-of-view, sentence structure, spacing on a page—mechanical issues—as well as the nature of the protagonist, the focus of the plot and theme, etc., or merely the substance of the story.
Then have them write a second paragraph explaining what they would like to learn about their own writing. What works and what doesn’t work. There will probably be a strong connection between what they want from their personal reading and what they want to put onto the page. The response of the other students will lead them where they want to go.
Have you seen high school students’ writing evolve from taking a class with a workshop? If so, how?
GD: Absolutely, 100 percent of them, because there is always growth to be gained from experience, whether they are willing to believe that or not. Everything they do connects them to the world and helps to create who they are. Workshopping can be disastrous if not done properly and should always be conducted with careful explanations and clear understanding about what is gained. However, the skills learned from the process of workshopping inform students not just about the writing, but also about themselves. If handled properly, the students will be more confident because they will begin to understand that there is no such thing as immediately achieving “success” as a writer or an artist or most jobs worth doing.
What is important is the experience of writing—that search for inner truth through learning and striving, and then conveying that to someone else. This “conveying to someone else” is what workshopping helps them learn. It is a skill we all need in our lives, the ability to help others, learn from others, and put those lessons to use.
KF: It is always easier to “see” objectively another writer’s work. The value for students in workshopping is that they learn by “teaching” in a sense. When you start with intelligent, sensitive, perceptive individuals, the learning can be exponential. That has been my experience. The quality of the work from the first free-write on the first day of class compared to the final, polished story after an intensive two weeks of class and workshopping is frankly breathtaking.
The main difference I’ve noticed in my teaching is that they learn quickly the importance of specificity, how to use sensory detail to create strong, resonant fiction. There’s this huge “ah-ha” moment for students when they see how much more powerful their stories become when they make the transition from the abstract to the tangible.
Do you have any final thoughts on workshopping flash fiction with young or developing writers?
KF: What I learned most from teaching flash fiction to teenagers (and really to writers of any age) is that it’s absolutely essential to have the basics of writing itself down first. You can’t teach concision until you’ve demonstrated the importance of show vs. tell or the use of subtext or how to write a good opening. It’s important also to note that flash fiction is not merely a truncated short story. It is its own unique form. For me, flash is still wide open. Who knows how new writers will innovate and invigorate the form? What I want most to convey is that feeling of opportunity, of newness, and excitement.
GD: I’d have them read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay from his book Outliers about the “10,000 hours of practice” rule. There is some controversy about this oversimplification regarding practice, but it does stress the need to understand becoming good at something is a process. It rarely comes instantly.
Gay Degani has published over 70 short stories in different genres online and in print, three of which have been nominated for Pushcart consideration, another awarded the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. She blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found. Two of her characters are amateur detectives. The first is Nikki Hyland, Slacker Detective, who appears in the anthologies, Landmarked for Murder and Little Sisters. Her mystery novel, What Came Before, is about empty-nester Abbie Palmer tracking down the secrets of her mother’s past and finding a murderer instead. Her novella, The Old Road, will be coming out from Pure Slush in late 2015 and she is currently subbing her collection, Rattle of Want, to publishers.
Kathy Fish’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in THE LINEUP: 20 PROVOCATIVE WOMEN WRITERS (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Guernica, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A PECULIAR FEELING OF RESTLESSNESS (Rose Metal Press, 2008), WILD LIFE (Matter Press, 2011) and TOGETHER WE CAN BURY IT (The Lit Pub, 2012). She has recently joined the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver, where she will be teaching flash fiction. Additionally, she has begun leading unique, two-week intensive Fast Flash© workshops. For more information visit her website: kathy-fish.com.
Virgie Townsend is a fiction writer and essayist from Syracuse, New York. She has contributed flash fiction to such publications as Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and WhiskeyPaper, as well as the anthologies SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years and Best of Pif, Volume One. Her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and The Toast. She lives in the D.C. area with her husband and their moderately stinky dog. Find her online at www.virgietownsend.com or on Twitter @virgietownsend.
Teaching Flash Fiction to Developing Writers: Insights and Stories from Three Students and Their Professor (Part One)
Part One: “What Short Short Stories Tell Us About Being Human”
Today on the blog, we are excited to feature the first post in a two-part series from guest blogger Virgie Townsend, who recently taught a two-week intensive course on flash fiction for American University’s Discover the World of Communication summer program. Here in Part One Virgie details her experiences working with her young students and provides examples of the work they produced. Be sure to check back next week for Part Two in which Virgie will detail specific tips and insights about teaching flash.
By Virgie Townsend
On my first day of teaching flash fiction writing to high school students, I overheard some of my students wonder aloud: What is flash fiction?
They exchanged theories. “It could be when you write a story in a few minutes,” one said.
Others thought flash fiction was another term for vignettes—descriptive prose pieces that offer a glimpse into a scene.
The American University, Discover the World of Communication flash fiction class is a two-week course that Kathy Fish founded 10 years ago. When Kathy asked me to teach it, I was thrilled and then intensely anxious. I had never taught before and never planned on doing so. Most of my high school career was spent trying to fly under the radar, not trying to lead the class.
Moreover, I don’t have an MFA. My knowledge about writing comes from (a) reading, (b) taking one fiction workshop with Mary Gaitskill a decade ago; and (c) staring into my laptop at midnight, debating whether to move a sentence down three paragraphs or delete it altogether, while the screen makes me increasingly myopic.
Fortunately, Kathy and Gay Degani, who also previously taught the class, shared their course materials with me, and encouraged me to adapt them. Kathy also provided a key piece of advice: “Blend lessons on the basics of storytelling with flash fiction.”
With their recommendations, I broke the two weeks into two sections. The first week was dedicated to introducing the form, building flash fiction storytelling skills, and writing time to draft their pieces. The second week was reserved for workshopping and revision, discussing publication, and practicing reading their work. My class had eleven students, ages 14-17.
On the first day, I tried to answer my students’ initial question by providing the basic definition of flash fiction: They are stories of a thousand words or fewer, though some publications put the mark as high as 2,000 words or as low as 300. The operative word in the definition is “stories.” Someone has to do something or experience something. A character’s world must shift, if only a fraction.
I told them that flash would serve them well personally and professionally.
“I’m sure some of you had a hard time convincing your parents or guardians to let you take this class because it’s not practical,” I said, recalling my own parents’ entreaties for my high-school incarnation to be more practical. “But you’ll use the skills you learn in flash fiction throughout your lives. You’ll use them to write college essays, or academic papers, and later when you write memos at work. You’ll use them to write love letters or notes to your sick grandmother. Good writing skills open doors.”
But my explanations felt incomplete. They didn’t describe what fascinates me about flash: The tension between what is said and unsaid, and the stunning language that emerges from the form’s roots in ancient fables and its kinship to poetry. These are flash’s ineffable qualities that the students must be shown, not told. The first step in that process was creating a reading list with representation from different genres, writers from diverse backgrounds, and various styles.
As an introduction to storytelling, the students deconstructed “Flowers for Clockwork Street” by Jennifer R. Fierro. I asked them to identify how Fierro used exposition, conflict, action, and dialogue to drive the story’s progression. The students picked out the obstacles the characters faced, what they did in their attempts to overcome them, and what qualities they possessed that allowed them to fail or succeed. “Flowers for Clockwork Street” was one of the class’ favorite stories, so they jumped into the literary analysis.
“You can never dig too deep. There is always meaning to be found, and a message to be uncovered,” said student Genesis Martin. “Analyzing the form and style of flash fiction stories really helped me in discovering the way in which I enjoy writing.”
To teach story meaning, I used Leesa Cross-Smith’s “Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars.” We talked about how the piece’s imagery, metaphors, and subtext bear out its themes, given that much of the conflict and action take place internally as the characters struggle with the things they cannot say to each other.
“I think the most interesting and probably also most useful thing I learned in the class for my own writing was the fact that story arc doesn’t have to be obvious,” said Doenja van der Veen. “The character doesn’t have to physically attain their goal; they can undergo any kind of change and it can become an arc.”
Students loved the line: “Sometimes we take bloody knives, carve our initials into thick, tall trees that haven’t been planted yet,” and how it shows that the characters are staking their hopes on an uncertain future. I noted the significance of the characters playing Two-handed Rook—a trick game between the narrator and her lover.
“After the class, I have a much greater appreciation of how difficult it is to get a story across in 1,000 words or less,” said student Sophie Johnson. “I found it really interesting to see how much thought writers put into each and every word in their stories, and how each word choice communicates something different.”
As we wrapped up the first week of class, I felt great about how well the students were doing. They excelled at literary analysis, and seemed productive during their writing time. I was excited to start workshopping their pieces on the following Monday.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, July 5, I felt a twinge on my right side.
“Oh, that doesn’t feel so good,” I said in surprise.
Fifteen minutes later, I was lying on the floor in pain, unable to talk. My husband gave me two Ibuprofen, which did nothing, and then called an ambulance.
My appendix was belatedly celebrating Independence Day by seceding from my body.
I underwent an emergency appendectomy the next morning. My TA, Anna Rutenbeck, had to sub for me and led the workshop, thanks to her expertise from previously serving as Gay’s TA and co-leading their workshops. Kathy Fish generously made time to Skype with the class from Denver.
My surgeon recommended planning for at least a week of recovery. I was housebound, but the students were sending their stories to the class for workshopping. I couldn’t resist reading them. The day after my surgery, I began reviewing their pieces. Abdominal surgery or no, I wanted to provide feedback on every story I received.
There were all the elements we had talked about: Rich imagery, details revealing the characters’ personalities and motivations, metaphors, dialogue with distinct voices, conflicts, sparing use of exposition, bits of truth. Without my spelling it out, they grasped what I most wanted to share with them about flash fiction: That the precision it requires allows writers to cut deep into the heart of what it means to be human. Flash fiction is a refraction of light on moving water—searing and momentary as it calls you to follow it out to sea.
Virgie’s students were generous enough to share their flash fiction. Here are three examples of their work from the class’ journal, The Green Room Review.
In Our Eyes
by Genesis Martin
Elizabeth is five years old. She’s fascinated with bubbles, and finger-paints masterpieces furiously. When on a swing set, she believes her heels can scrape the cotton-candy sky. “See how high I can go!” Her silvery tone rings in her father’s ear like the sound of a jar lid popping- present and new. Elizabeth’s mother is dedicated to their lazy Sunday mornings. She spends the better half of the day scrubbing the surfaces Elizabeth has stained with her pancake batter fingerprints. She’s too young to realize she nurtures her mother’s soul in her amber eyes, and her father’s will within her ribcage. Elizabeth is too young to realize she holds the world in her small yet strong palms.
Elizabeth is eleven now. She prefers to be called “El” because “Elizabeth is an old people name” she’ll say at the dinner table as she mashes her peas with the spires of her fork. She doesn’t fingerpaint anymore because she is “much too old to do little kid things.” She now takes the school bus in the morning and watches the tall oak trees bend at the wind’s command, as she daydreams of being a veterinarian, or novelist, or whatever she decides that day. Her mother watches her with solemn warmth as El stops asking her to tuck her in at night. When she was a littler girl, they’d make believe a palace of princes, and fantastical creatures that existed within the lavender walls of her room. El doesn’t ask for her father’s hand when thunderstorms wash over their home, and when rain distorts the transparency of the windows making her feel suffocated and small. She is too young to understand that her imagination is the food of life.
El is now eighteen. She knows how heartbreak can roll your soul between its iron fingers and spread it thin- like she remembers the pancake batter as it hits the inferno-ignited pan all those Sundays ago. The walls of her bedroom are navy blue like a night sky that leads to infinity. Strong cardboard boxes line the walls, securing her memories within their parameters. Her mother and father separated two years ago, leaving El’s heart sprinkled like dust across the surfaces of the people she loves. Swingsets are a dream behind her and may as well be folded neatly into one of the boxes in her room. She knows she can’t graze the sky with the soles of her feet. “Once you know the distance from here to the moon, the idea of space isn’t so interesting” she’ll say with a shrug as she grips her car keys in one hand, door handle in the other. Her mother’s eyes shed tears that run like salty streams down her face that spell out Elizabeth’s childhood when she arrives at university. Her father’s hair reminds El of the pepper shaker that remained on the counter in her kitchen back home. She is too old to see that while she gets older, they are too.
Over a decade has passed, and El is now thirty-two. She has a preoccupied, yet loving husband, a four-year-old son, and a small yet comfortable home. El has taken herself back as Elizabeth for “professional reasons” and is usually busy with her lively career as a pediatrician. She doesn’t take the time to wondrously watch cream as it swirls within the dark liquid of coffee, or how the newly risen sun is caught by the stain glass window and casts a radiant rainbow of pigments in her very own kitchen. But, she does notice the liveliness captured in her son’s lava shaded eyes that mirror her own, and how his heart beats thickly with the uncertainty of his imagination. Elizabeth watches him in wonderment as he pretends the bathtub is a bottomless ocean. She’s too old to understand him.
Elizabeth is now held between the weathered pages that she knows create the last chapter of her life. Both her mother and father have passed. The seconds begin to slow. She is always waiting. Always counting the seconds as they ooze through the narrow tunnel of time, like morphine drips into a bottomless IV bag. The stillness of her existence so quiet, she can almost hear the hands of a clock ticking between her ears. Her son is older now, and off with his own family like she once was. Her irises are still burning embers of orange and gold , but they are held with leathery skin and deep set wrinkles. She questions how children can be so amazed with a bottle of bubble soap. Elizabeth watches as children run with dirt smudged faces down streets until they pinch into nothingness. The days drag on as she anticipates the burning glow of the sun as it sets. One day, the next day doesn’t follow. She finds herself the way she began; with a little bit of nothing, and everything to create.
Brothers in Arms
By Sophie Johnson
“Hugo, darling,” said his mother, adjusting her earrings in the hall mirror, “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us, even for just an hour?” His cousin was getting engaged to an oil baron’s son with too-white teeth and a chateau in the south of France, and tonight’s party was the Event of the Year.
“I have to study. I keep getting the dates and names mixed up for history class. Tell Cordelia that I’m really sorry to miss it.”
Hugo gave her his best apologetic smile, shifting from one foot to the other. He knew he had studied all weekend, and Mother did as well, but she only leaned over and kissed his cheek goodbye, leaving a smear of red lipstick behind. He watched from the doorway as she took one final check in the mirror, and then waited with Father in the front hall, the chandelier above making the rubies at her throat look like drops of blood.
Xavier emerged from upstairs, scowling and pulling on his dinner jacket. Reaching over, Mother clasped his upper arm, her nails digging into his jacket as she steered him out of the ornate front door.
When it closed behind them with a click, Hugo sat on one of the couches in the library and looked out the window down onto the darkened grounds below. He could see himself reflected in the glass, black hair and pale skin standing out against the dark night.
The high cheekbones and grey eyes that made Xavier so striking sat oddly on his face, as if an amateur had tried to copy a master’s drawing of his older brother and lost something, some crucial spark that made Xavier elegant where Hugo was awkward.
Below, he could see the car driving down the road, its headlights cutting through the darkness. Sleek and black, he could almost picture Mother in the front, driving, while Father, probably on the phone to a business associate, sat next to her. Xavier would be in the back, sullen and hostile, staring out the window much like Hugo was looking out his own.
The house was unusually silent without the rest of his family, without the click of Mother’s heels on the marble floors and the sounds of the keyboard in Father’s office and without the thumping bass of Xavier’s ‘music’ emanating from his room. Hugo sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes. He could order take-out, eat it on the bedroom floor with his hands while watching television. There would be no need to shake hands and make polite small talk, no need to trip over his own feet while attempting to dance. He had a whole evening to himself, to do whatever he wanted.
Hugo was curled up reading next to the fire when he hear the creak of the door signaling his family’s arrival home.
“Darling, it’s a really a shame you missed the party. Cordelia was so disappointed not to have you there. Also, your brother somehow managed to lose his jacket.” Mother turned to Xavier, “I’m extremely disappointed in you. This is exactly the sort of disregard for your possessions that I talked to you about the other day.”
Last year, Hugo had lost a pair of expensive, antique cufflinks, and all his mother had said was “Don’t worry darling, they’re going out of style anyway. I’m not sure if we can trust the new cleaner though, I knew there was something suspicious about her.” She had fired the cleaner the next day, never mind that he had lost the cufflinks in another country three weeks before they had hired her.
Xavier didn’t reply to her comment, so Mother sighed and retreated upstairs to the bedroom, hanging her coat on the stand as she left. Father trailed behind her, still talking on his phone, but taking a moment to glare pointedly at his son.
Hugo looked up at Xavier, who was still standing in the front hall, glowering into the distance.
“How was it?”
Xavier snorted, a sound of glorious distain. “Dead boring. Cordy’s fiancé looks like a rodent.” He laughed at his own joke, and cocked his head to the side when Hugo didn’t join in.
“How did you manage to lose your jacket at a party that only lasted a few hours?”
“Oh God, not you too. I left it on the back of my chair when some girl asked me to dance for the thousandth time. I said yes just to get rid of her, and I forgot to get it before we left.”
No girls ever asked Hugo to dance.
“I didn’t even want to go,” Xavier kicked the wall, hard, but not hard enough for their parents to hear upstairs. “They made me. I have a maths test I need to study for but instead I got dragged to one of their stupid parties because they didn’t trust me home alone. When I fail the test I’ll get another lecture about responsibility.”
He kicked the wall again, harder his time. M other was down the stairs and into the hallway in an instant.
“Xavier Declan Terrance Saville-Henderson, I don’t know what you think you’re doing. You should be on your best behavior tonight after the incident with your jacket.
You’re lucky your father and I haven’t grounded you for your behavior.” She turned back to the stairs, and then stopped, a sly glint in her eye, “Oh, and Hugo, darling, let us know if you need any help studying. We know how hard you’ve worked, and we’re so proud of you.”
When Xavier turned and stormed to his room his hair fell in elegant disarray and
Hugo could see the lipstick mark on his neck only partially concealed by his collar. But for once he didn’t feel his usual twinge of resentment towards him. Instead, Hugo turned and looked towards the door of his parent’s room, cocking his head to the side, a perfect mirror of Xavier only minutes ago.
Rivers of Rock Lead Me Here
By Doenja van der Veen
Concrete surrounds you, rivers of asphalt with banks of pavement cement take twists and turns until your head is spinning.
“You okay there, lady?” A small boy tugs at your sleeve
“Yeah, thanks.” The answer seems to satisfy him and he runs off, sneakers breaking the surface of peaceful puddles.
It feels as though your insides could tumble out any seconds and send all your organs crashing to the street. The instigators of your nausea have left your body; all that’s left is the feeling, the one that’s lingered, subdued, since you came into the doctor’s office 3 weeks ago.
Your footfalls are lighter now but you still trace your fingers along the bright shop windows to keep you steady.
Tracing with your eyes the features of the crowd, the surrounding chaos, you find maroon and ochre, fall colors which you found so dull but now seem a relief after weeks of white on white on grey faces and bright lights.
The sounds of London, hissing of buses, scratching of a million feet on worn streets are a sweet symphony; no longer heard from your window or marred by a steady beeping noise or the scuffing of slippers on tiles.
You’re looking for her. For a face not covered in secondary sorrow who doesn’t have endless degrees and a million promises to her name.
She’s the first call they made. Her voice was tinny yet sounded realer from where she was in America than any noise you’d heard, in weeks, in Kensington.
“It’s gonna be okay,” she said then.
“I’ll be let out for a few days, they said that until the tests are back the symptoms aren’t bad enough to keep me here.”
“That’s good, I’m flying back tomorrow. You know where to find me.”
“See you Thursday.”
There’s a click and you’re back on a high street, the night sky colors reflected in ever-present clouds.
You do know where to find her but not when there’s an array of symptoms waging war on your body and all your senses are being tricked and tumbled and spun like cotton candy by lights and crowds.
Familiar brownstone finally brings her to you. Having walked for what feels like all night you lean against the door and ring the doorbell. The door, labelled 43 with bronze scratched lettering, opens. She’s wearing the mint sweater you gifted her, three autumns ago, heavy knit and soft against your hands when you hug her.
“It’s so good to see you,” she says when your hands are stuck in the rough denim of your jeans again.
“When do the tests come in?”
She frowns, her delicate complexion crumpled.
She takes you upstairs and both of you lay down and stare at the ceiling, where a fan spins around despite the tea she put on to warm you.
You fall asleep on her wooden floor.
When you wake, both of you get ready in silence surrounded by the art she’s collected over the years. Tacked above her mirror is a picture of both of you at the London Eye when she first moved here, underneath it you see your reflection quirk a smile. Light beams reach through the framed windows and reflects shadows through the plants on her window sill. The light comes to rest on her silverware and you eat eggs at her kitchen sink accompanied by her idle chatter.
Walking out of the living room you slip the dense knit sweater over your head without a word.
She leads you out onto the streets, light now, bouncing rays of sun across pools of water on the street. You follow her down the concrete waterfall and you trust her to guide you past the rocks at the bottom.
About the Author
Virgie Townsend is a fiction writer and essayist from Syracuse, New York. She has contributed flash fiction to such publications as Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and WhiskeyPaper, as well as the anthologies SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years and Best of Pif, Volume One. Her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and The Toast. She lives in the D.C. area with her husband and their moderately stinky dog. Find her online at www.virgietownsend.com or on Twitter @virgietownsend.