News: Why Flash Fiction Series
Behind the Flash
By Dana Diehl
As a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was looking at old photographs of my family. My parents had five photo albums stored at the top of the hallway closet, too heavy for me to get down by myself, with dark covers and no labels. Five albums filled with pictures of me, pictures of my brother, pictures of my parents’ childhoods and their lives together before my brother and I were born. I would sit cross-legged in the hallway, my feet going numb against the hardwood floor, turning the thick pages, satisfied by the flop they made in my lap. (more…)
Will You Please Not Be Quiet, Please?
For Raymond Carver
By Len Kuntz
He was already dead when I found him. There was no one to call. My stomach filled with acid, my head spun. So I sat down, right there in the bookstore row, and read—This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—until my eyes bled.
I was spellbound.
This was before flash fiction even had a name.
Others had known him before me, and I found this disappointing. Couldn’t someone have introduced us? How is any fair writer supposed to make their way without Ray?
Why Flash Fiction? Because Jim Carroll
By Kara Vernor
Not all of us drop from the womb writers. In 1991, when I was seventeen, none of the books I read—Vonnegut, Kerouac, Nin—made me feel as connected to the world as the music I listened to, as Courtney Love in a slip dress screaming: “Is she pretty from the inside/Is she pretty from the back.” That was all I needed, really, that emotional quick fix, those urgent jabs on the electric guitar. Plus, unlike reading and writing, which I did alone in my room, music brought me into contact with Real Live People—in gushing talk of mutual fandom, through traded mix tapes, at live shows in boiling pits of longhaired boys. So it was with modest expectations that I went with my overage boyfriend one winter night to see some old musician named Jim Carroll perform “spoken word.” Not written? Not sung?
Four Vignettes on Flash Fiction
This “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Michelle Elvy shares what Debussy, beasts, birds, and the sea reveal about flash fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
When I was a kid, I studied classical piano. I played the requisite Bach and Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms, sure. But my favourite works, hands down, were Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Russian Easter (Suite No.1 for Two Pianos, op.5 mov.4) and Claude Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair, also known as Prélude No 8). I played Russian Easter with my two-piano partner; the relentless ringing of those bells rumbled my soul. The composer said he had written the suite to paint a picture – and I believed it. At around three minutes, it was demanding and challenging. It required control and focused energy. It told a story in a short interval with a bang – that piece, more than any other we played, was the very embodiment of intensity and precision.
The Deception of Flash
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Melissa Scholes Young discusses why and how she teaches her students flash fiction as their first assignment. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Melissa Scholes Young
On the first day of class, my students are often cautious. They’ve heard I’m a hard teacher. Their friends have told them I’m fanatical about form and revision. Rumor has it I lecture too much about concrete details: “It’s never an apple! It’s a Gala or a Pink Lady or a Jonigold.” Others warn them to never have their characters strolling through cities without sensory details: “Cities smell. How do they smell? Put it on the page!” My first fiction assignment is an analysis and emulation of a flash form. When I share the instructions, my students begin to snicker. 500 words? 1,000 words? Seriously? Finally, an easy A, they think. That’s when the deception begins.
In “The Art of Microfiction,” a column by Gayle Towell published at LitReactor, she compares the brief fiction form to meals:
“Good stories come in all shapes and sizes—all lengths and forms. If a novel can be thought of as a ten course meal, and a short story as an excellent deli-sandwich. A microfiction piece might be an exquisite chocolate truffle. All are food. All are enjoyable. But they’re each very different. Microfiction is a scrumptious, bite-sized nugget of a story. It packs big flavor and satisfaction into a small package.”
Continuing with Towell’s lovely comparison, I teach flash fiction first because it is a manageable morsel all on its own and it is a digestible amount for sharpening writing skills. Depending on whether I’m teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level, I assign either Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction anthology or Rose Metal Press’ The Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Marsh. With our guides in hand, we dig in to understand the stories first. Here’s the assignment:
Close Reading and Analysis
In less than 500 words, tell us how this story works. Do not waste space summarizing; we’ve read the story, too. Focus on how not what. Your liking/disliking of content or theme is not necessary. Do open with a one-sentence declaration that tells us the technique you’ll analyze and eventually emulate. Use specific text references to support and to expand your claim. Consider the structure carefully. Also, tell us how “complete” the story is and how the author accomplished (or didn’t) so much with so little.
To prepare them for the reading task, we discuss “Close Reading” by Francine Prose published in The Atlantic. It’s delightfully ironic that the essay is actually four times as long as their assignment, but we are developing skills to put flash under a microscope. It’s heavy lifting and we need to build our reading muscles.
After wallowing in how others write micro/flash well, we try out the techniques in our own work.
Writing a Flash Fiction Emulation
Using your analysis and micro/flash fiction choice, write a new story in less than 1000 words. It should be a complete story and the technique you are emulating should be obvious. For example, if you wrote your analysis about the use of dialogue, your emulation should rely heavily on dialogue and accomplish a similar result. The theme and content should not be the same as your micro fiction choice.
Inevitably, because my students are hard working and earnest, someone will raise their hand and ask the “rules” of flash fiction. They don’t like my answer that “rules” don’t matter nor do they find it satisfying when I insist that “rules” in art are meant to be challenged, so I give them a few rules I’ve adapted from “Stories in Your Pocket” by David Gaffney published in The Guardian.
- Start in the middle.
- Don’t use too many characters.
- Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.
After their close reading and emulation drafting, they present their analysis and we workshop their stories. In my experience, most of what needs accomplished in a workshop can be done in fifteen minutes. After fifteen minutes, someone usually brings up their grandma or starts rewriting the story for the author; neither are useful to the work. I limit their responses to three questions and require a specific text reference for each.
- What is this story about? What is the writer accomplishing?
- What is the central conflict? What are the character’s motivations?
- What does this story do well? What might this story need to do better?
Using these parameters, my students write “Dear Author” letters before class. In that way, they’ve focused their feedback in preparation and, like the flash form itself, we can accomplish more in the briefer workshop form.
What I hear most from my students during this assignment is a whining variation of “This is harder than it looks.” They’re right. Flash fiction does a lot more with less. Reading, examining, understanding, questioning, analyzing, and emulating flash is worthy and difficult to do well. You can’t hide anything from the reader in micro/flash forms. Your intention must be crisp. We can see your every move. As my students learn, deception is futile.
Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and other literary journals. She was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri and still proudly claims it her hometown. She teaches now at American University in Washington, D.C. is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her debut novel, Flood, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in June 2017.
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Jennifer A. Howard discusses how puzzling over the world’s mysteries drives her flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jennifer A. Howard
Sometimes the ugly truth might be that I write flash because I’m super Midwestern or female or an INFJ and don’t want to take up too much of your time. At my worst, I don’t want to bother you at all or demand your attention for what might feel like too long. Performing as an artist with an audience, in which I’d have to dance or cello or juggle in front of you, would be an impossibility. Even reading my own work to a crowd of people can feel like a compromise more than a joy. Sorry, I’m going to read to you for a little.
And what have I got to say anyway?
But that dark feeling really only happens sometimes. Because most of the time, my writing flash, my writing, isn’t about you at all. The world is full of interestingness: right now I’m trying to figure out if the British drink more tea than we do because their kitchen outlets kick out more power and their electric kettles boil water more quickly. Could that be true, and what else in my life would change if my house were wired differently?
This investigation into plug adapters may or may not lead to an insightful meditation on love or parenting or language or time or bodies or habit or gender or history. Probably on its own, it won’t. I’ll have to track down three or four more leads first; post-its around me right now contain notes from Forensic Files and tweets about #Brexit and my nieces’ kid-syntax and translation apps and albino deer and this movie about an astrologer who turns around a 1970s basketball team, plus I’ve got a leaky faucet in my bathroom, which will require some research to figure out.
Because I do not know yet what I have to say. But things in the world need to be written down, feels like anyway, and the fun part is figuring out how to puzzle those irrelevant facts and wishes and gumdrop or grease-stain words together into a handful of sentences that follow each other and land somewhere honest. Often, that takes for-freaking-ever to figure, but how awful is it to be given a mystery and guess the solution right away? No fun at all: I want the game to last and last. I want to work, at least some, for the win.
Which is why I’m so grateful writing flash is not a performance art. I want tangling together a story to take a long enough time, so it feels like a case I’ve cracked, but I don’t want you to watch me guess and guess at where I’m going, to witness every time I get it wrong. That part is private. Here in the tip top of the Midwest, it’s me and a coffee pot that only needs 110 volts to spark and so much delete key and then once in a while a little solution on paper with a title you can take home with you and read. You know, if you want to.
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Robert Scotellaro charts his journey from loving Emily Dickinson to co-editing a collection of micro-fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Robert Scotellaro
Communi Territorio: Shared territory
I came to writing early, as a poet, and perhaps in the vanguard because I didn’t need to be born into the Computer Age to have a short attention span. I was a natural. I devoured Emily Dickinson’s short poems—wrote them, dreamt them, saw them in my alphabet soup. I was hooked. Distance mattered. That point between the first word of a literary work and the last. And, of course, what was skillfully and honestly crafted between.
Because I was dyslexic reading was a particular challenge; words, and how they were put together, had an added heft. An extra weight I carried gladly. I read slowly, but voraciously. Short/small was my MO. Short poems, short stories, and the novels (there were many) I read in segments. Short takes. So, I guess, as a writer, I was always a sprinter. As a reader, I relished the impact of literary works in small containment. Brief, but not slight.
Sometime in my early twenties I discovered prose poetry (my gateway drug) and then short-shorts, and on to what was to be called flash or micro fiction. Forms that would become abiding passions. I wrote/read all the prose poems I could find. I was taken with the blending, the annealing of genres. That shared territory of forms in short prose/poetic blocks, sometimes a single paragraph long. Then, later discovering W. W. Norton’s seminal collection: Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas, and Tom Hazuka. And in it, finding Richard Shelton’s poetic piece, “The Stones.” Short, metaphorical, and with the narrative arc of fiction. Along with a plethora of brief arresting fictions that incorporated a variety of strategies in constructing this astonishingly powerful literary form. I was home. Found a genre that suited me, and that I was suited for.
Also in the same anthology, James Thomas (who coined the term flash fiction) asked Carolyn Forché if she would convert her poem, “The Colonel,” from lines into sentences, which of course, she did. It is considered by many to be a quintessential example of this blurring of distinctions between what is considered poetry and what is considered fiction in the very short form.
Now, ironically perhaps, serendipitously for sure, I am coediting a collection of microfiction with James Thomas for W. W. Norton. In the course of our research, we have found many writers of the form who were or are poets. It’s far from a prerequisite, but is a natural enough precursor. In Tara Masih’s stellar flash fiction series, The Best Small Fictions 2016, Stuart Dybek in his introduction addresses this genre bending and blending: “No matter what names these individual fictions go by, this is not a collection of literary cubicles, but rather an anthology where writers locate their work along a continuum of infinite gradations that spans the poles of fiction and poetry, and the narrative and lyric.”
Horror Vacui: Fear of empty spaces. In visual art, it is the filling of the entire surface of
Within flash fiction’s small constructs the opposite is the case. And I like that. “Empty spaces” are in fact capable and vital components—need not be filled in by the author, as in a novel or traditional length short story. Rather, most often, it is allusion the reader places inside them: an allusion to something larger, deeper, more nuanced and telling. A resonance of implications. A partnered, tacit agreement between writer and reader. A detail that hangs in the air, a gesture, a snippet of dialog, something unsaid that swells. A sense that what is lost in extrapolation is gained in the concentration of what can be imagined. The empty spaces do not take away, but add. They are expandable, exponentially so. It is one of the things that draws me to writing flash fiction—its inherent flexibility. The stories are brief and small, but they have borders that do not bind—spaces left open like many windows to a bigger world. And beyond, in those great outdoors, there is fresh earth to sink into, soil that adheres to your shoes and does not kick off easily.
Robert Scotellaro has been published widely in national and international books, journals, and anthologies including: W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International Anthology, The Best Small Fictions 2016, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and many others. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and two full-length flash 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. He was the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. A collection of his 100-word stories, Bad Motel, is scheduled for release by Big Table Publishing later this year. Robert currently lives with his wife and daughter in San Francisco. Visit him at http://www.rsflashfiction.com/.
The Temporal Art of Flash
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from April Bradley explains how her long-term memory loss influences her flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By April Bradley
Hematologists at Yale-New Haven Hospital discovered I had the genetic blood clotting disorder Factor V Leiden as they treated me for massive pulmonary emboli, pneumonia, and a collapsed lung just after the birth of my son, Henry. Since then, I cannot say now how many blood clots I’ve had—too many to track without reference to extensive medical records—but when I was 29, an MRI revealed evidence of several older, small ones in my brain. One lasting effect of those clots has been permanent long-term memory loss.
Much of my past remains vivid—enhanced even. Some memories have vanished, including relationships with others and the details of the experiences we shared. Some memories are entirely fiction—my mind has manufactured them to replace too much fractured time. Some of what I’m left with are ephemeral flashes of multi-sensory recall, a different sense of memory than what I possessed before, strong emotional responses to those of whom little to no recollection exists beyond a brilliant, few moments. I grieve this loss and am grateful for those who are my memory-keepers, who tell me about shared histories and make sense of what’s missing or confabulated. Flash is how I convey this sense of memory and time.
Narrative is time, and “[F]iction is a temporal art form,” Robert Olen Butler tells us in my well-worn copy of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Compelling fictive narratives typically contain time’s duration by introducing a reader to characters in situations who change and grow over an interval in a fulfilling dramatic arc. Characters are beholden to and act in time. They move in a recognizable sequence in a demarcated narrative to achieve momentum within a plot: a beginning, middle, and end.
Flash narratives, especially flash fiction, allow for more elastic experiences of time, and its porous boundaries permit more temporal fluidity and slippage. This impermanence of time in flash is a unique feature of the genre. More so than any other form, flash is a wonderful physics of narrative due to its simultaneous contraction and dilatation with its layered condensation. As I wrote in a blog for Words in Place, “…various elements of flash each influence the way time is re-ordered internally and externally.” We change time; we change everything. Flash provokes writers, readers, editors, pedagogues, and critics to reconsider what is good writing.
When I write, flash is what ends up on the page. When I read, flash is what intrigues and excites me the most. It’s an achievement when I write long, and although I’m writing a novel-length work, the chapters resemble flash. After working intensely with flash as both a writer and an editor, I noticed that the longer-form works I cherish contain flash narratives, worlds within worlds, flashes of stories within stories. I’ve been marking up texts for decades, unaware at the time that what I found fascinating within them was flash.
Flash is not a diminutive short story; it’s a genre with many subgenres. While long-form narratives demonstrate how to accomplish elegant, masterful craft, flash calls for far fewer requirements. What is essential to creative and fictive forms of flash endure in long-form narratives: momentum, resonance, immediacy, emotion, weight, pace, tension, language, effect, setting, character, theme, voice, subtext, force, but not necessarily all at once and certainly not in a hierarchy. Compression, concentration, and brevity work in tension to unfold a sense of story that endures beyond the flash, a literary Big Bang. The rules of shifting perspective, time and tense, character arc, plot, and setting, aren’t merely flexible in flash, they are different. Flash resists confinement beyond its forms and structures while challenging our vocabularies and aesthetics to describe and define it.
One evening when I was first hospitalized for the clots in my lungs after Henry was born, my physician told my then-husband, Peter, not to leave the ward because she was uncertain I would make it through the night. She spoke, he tells me, in terms of “if April gets through this,” not “when.” I recall only brief moments from a morphine haze and wasn’t aware of how ill I was: a coven of doctors in white coats surrounding me; my friend Allison sitting next to the bed; my neighbor, a med student, talking to me in an elevator while I was going to radiology; speaking with my sister on the telephone; a mercury thermometer reading 106 degrees; my grandmother holding my hand. For years I thought Peter and I stopped for Thai at my favorite place on York Street after I was released. The memory of our meal there is especially detailed but brief. However, it did not happen. When I mentioned the meal a few years ago, Peter was floored that I thought he would do anything but take me directly home: “You nearly died!” All the more reason to eat Thai food, my mind must have determined. A flash fiction of my own.
My experience, my own narrative—my life, my writing—especially regarding memory and time, is flash. The numerous clotting from Factor V Leiden altered my body, mind, history, and relationships. The unexpected and fearsome gave way to something marvelous: I discovered flash.
April Bradley is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Literary Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Narratively, and Thrice Fiction, among others. Find her at aprilbradley.net and at @april_bradley.
Tiny Secret Objects
In honor of the release of The Best Small Fictions 2016, this week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from collection contributor Rosie Forrest examines the hidden life within flash stories. Buy The Best Small Fictions 2016 online at Amazon, and learn more about the collection on the Queen’s Ferry Press website.
By Rosie Forrest
I did not know my grandfathers. The one who worked with wood died long before I was born, and the one who welded steel passed away when I was three. I do remember that second grandfather lying in a hospital room after his heart attack. An orange door with a rectangle of tempered glass sat way above my head, but if I jumped high enough, I could see all the white inside his room—a hollow cloud—and his small frame so far back from the door, he looked like a doll. I bounced and bounced until a nurse told me to quit it, to find a chair and draw.
A black frame hangs on my bedroom wall, a shadow box with a glass pane that opens on a hinge and a back made of pincushion. I’ve had this frame for years, a gift from a friend, who knows my penchant for small things. Over the years I’ve filled it with photographs and pieces of dress fabric, notecards and postcards and stamps, and strange little nothings that buzz with meaning when I hold them. When I move to a new location (and this has happened often), I empty the box and fill it again. I won’t call it a ritual, but it has become a habit, preserving miniature worlds behind glass.
There’s a mid-twentieth century artist, Joseph Cornell, who is famous for his shadow boxes, small structures with images and trinkets inside that convey a story larger than the actual thing. He is known for juxtaposition, layering cinema references on top of celestial ones; birds and children appear to float nearly out of view, and objects dot the landscape with precision and purpose. Most of his work went untitled, and critical essays often point to his art as a metaphor for a reclusive, basement life, but who doesn’t want to shrink themselves down and wander inside these perfect capsules?
Padlocked or lidless, ceramic or cardboard, boxes of all sizes give shape to space and what lies within; they create hierarchies, definition, contradiction, and silence.
Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m from a long line of craftsmen who work in miniature, the same way I can drop my Italian heritage into conversation or map the generations of tailors on my father’s side. I think about the ways tiny secret things entertained my only-child brain, handwritten code for a made-up language, closets as reading nooks and bottom bunks as hideaways draped with bed sheet curtains. A metal case, purple with my name in fat letters, sat for years on my nightstand. It held folded paper fortune tellers, a geode pendant, a photograph of my grandmother, five dollar gift certificates for McDonald’s (from my grandmother), a cassette tape of songs recorded off the radio, and probably some puffy stickers.
In elementary school, fish became my obsession, and fish tanks—boxes of sorts—were places where little realms bubbled with life. It began with a goldfish (it so often does) from the county fair, who went belly up within a week. Then, a blue beta fish came home with me from a strip mall pet store, disgusted by his eight ounce glass bowl as one should be. For my twelfth birthday I got a hexagonal tabletop tank for my dresser and filled it with fake plants and dozens of small fish, until I’d cramped a habitat for the fish to navigate. I bought the monster 20-gallon fish tank from the classifieds with my allowance. It had its own stand, and the silver hatchet fish skimmed the top, flinging themselves into the air if the lid was off for feeding. The lights flickered and the filter growled at night. I could barely sleep.
I’m drawn to flash fiction the way I’m drawn to ghost stories, as if each story has a life of its own—unaffected by external happenings. There’s so much that we never see, and I’m lucky to spend a few minutes inside, to catch a glimpse of something that captivates, holds, then carries on without me. The flash in flash fiction is not a fried fuse. These stories with their three-digit word counts and five-minute readings are defined by their length—of course they are—but in short we don’t have less; in brief, we don’t have flat. It’s not an interrupted line. It’s fully embodied with texture and heart.
I’ve been asked if I like to pillage thrift stores because they make frequent appearances in my stories, that and a plethora of yard sale items, toys and wicker rocking chairs, teacups, and old radios. For me, this is the stuff of the story, the tangible wood and iron that smell like a life and give history to a grand or almost nothing moment. The stuff is magnetic and reflective; the stuff must be handled or ignored; and the stuff creates architecture within a clip of time. But the stories themselves are objects too, and I wonder if I approach flash not like a poem or a traditional short story but like a forbidden room, a Cornell box, a glass bowl that hums with dissonance, or at the very least, uncertainty.
For the multitudes, for the minutia, flash fiction lifts the lid, pops open a corner and invites the reader to peer in. The diorama can be so fragile that you hold your breath, but if you do away with daintiness and instead Alice-in-Wonderland your whole self inside, the enormity dwarfs you, becomes magnificent and dangerous; you hardly know where to look first.
Rosie Forrest is the winner of the 9th Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, and her flash fiction has been published with Literary Orphans, Hobart, Wigleaf, Word Riot, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She was the writer-in-residence with Interlochen Arts Academy and holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Now in Nashville, Rosie oversees the adolescent programs with Vanderbilt Programs for Talented Youth. You can find and follow her @rosieforrest and rosieforrest.com.
Flash as a Second Language
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Mark Budman muses on his journey toward writing flash in a second language. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mark Budman
Everyone who ever put together the words “flash” and “fiction” knows that the resulting term describes a very short genre of literature. Even I, who was born in the former Soviet Union and came to this country as an adult, knew that when I was learning English as a second language. I figured that while my ambitions were gigantic, my vocabulary was small, my time limited, and my patience virtually non-existent, I still could write flash fiction.
Since I knew what a subordinate clause was and could use a semicolon and other punctuation marks correctly, I reasoned I could write something short—a relatively easy task even for a recent immigrant and a student of English.
I concocted my first flash, full of wisdom, punctuation marks (including a healthy dosage of semicolons), and long strings of subordinate clauses, but short on definite and indefinite articles that are absent in Russian, and promptly mailed the story to The Atlantic. They didn’t take it. I was offended. I called them and asked in my halting English, “vai not?” I don’t remember exactly what they said. It was an intern who answered the phone, so she may not have had much editorial wisdom to share. But I sat down and figured out what she was supposed to say.
She was supposed to say that while the renown writers like Dan Brown and the bestselling author of too Many Shades of Gray can and do sacrifice individual sentences on the altar of the plot, the flash writer cannot. Every word counts and every sentence is king. It’s like a stone arch where every stone is the keystone. If you remove one shade of gray, 49 will still hold its light-to-non-existent weight. If you remove the keystone from the flash, it will collapse.
So I listened to the intern, sat down and wrote “And Counting.” A story that is intense, concentrated and full of hope in the face of mortal danger.
The flash fiction I like is layered. First goes the simple, surface meaning. Boy loves girl but she loves another girl. Dig deeper and you discover allusions and clues. Words have multiple meanings that create hidden connections between the protagonists and actions. Maybe things or characters’ reaction to them are not what they seem or are open to interpretations? Maybe this love is far from what we expect? Maybe the boy and the girl are the same person? Maybe the boy loves the girl to death and maybe the other girl is death incarnated? Maybe the reader needs to cooperate with the author to resolve the story’s hidden mysteries? I sought to achieve this kind of effect in my own story, “All Points East.”
Even this short essay contains some word play. Is it complete without them? Probably. Can we have a garden without flowers? I guess so. Is it complete? I doubt it.
Flash fiction. If you don’t have time to read them, then fine literature is in trouble. Worse yet, you are. That can be said and understood in any language, from the first to infinity. So, do yourself a favor. Read flash. You have time for this.
Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His writing appeared in PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction, and elsewhere. He publishes Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press, and he is at work on a novel about Lenin running for president of the United States.
Why Flash Fiction? Because of a Parrot and a Porn Star, Of Course
In this week’s installment of “Why Flash Fiction?”, Ashley Chantler, co-director of the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA), looks back at his path-breaking (and occasionally potholed) essay “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story.” Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Ashley Chantler
Ten years ago, in 2006, I rather rashly offered to deliver a conference paper titled “The Short-Short Story.”
I was inspired to do so because I was a fan of the 101-worders in Dan Rhodes’s Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories (2000), particularly “Innocence”:
I thought my beautiful fiancée was innocence itself until I met her parrot. She had taught it to say terrible things. Wank. Minge. Fist fuck. Stick it up your Jap’s eye. I was disillusioned to find she had taken such delight in training an unknowing bird to swear. My love diminished, but I didn’t cancel the wedding. The parrot was in the church. When the man asked whether anyone knew a reason for us not to marry, it squawked, “Cunt flaps.” My bride bent double with laughter, and even though we made our vows I knew that the marriage was over.
I also liked some of the 55-worders in Steve Moss and John M. Daniel’s anthology The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death (1999), especially Shannon O’Rourke’s “Easy Come, Easy Go” (about which, more soon). I figured that writing the paper would help me better understand the short-short story form. It did – sort of.
A year or so after the conference, I developed my paper into an essay, “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” which was published in The Short Story (2009), edited by Ailsa Cox. My (necessarily hasty) research discovered eighteen anthologies and collections, which I listed in a section titled “Towards a Bibliography of the Short-Short Story” (my repeated use of “Towards,” stolen from T. S. Eliot, was a cunning attempt to pre-empt charges of incompleteness). I suspected that there could have been more, but the essay was overdue. I’d listed everything that Google had to offer and I had teaching preparation to do.
At the conference, it was pleasing (relieving) that my audience, like me, knew very little about short-short stories. (After I’d delivered my paper, a professor of creative writing, perhaps feeling the need to say something, asked if all short-shorts are misogynistic. The parrot had not amused.) If I delivered the paper today, I could cut the explanations of what a short-short is and get to the close reading much sooner.
In 2007, I edited An Anatomy of Chester: A Collection of Short-Short Stories.
In 2008, I founded, with my colleague Peter Blair, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, which has established itself as the world’s leading periodical of quality short-short stories and serious reviews of flash-fiction anthologies, collections, novels, guidebooks, and critical studies.
We have been interviewed by Grant Faulkner for 100 Word Story and have published interviews of two of Britain’s leading flashers, David Gaffney and Vanessa Gebbie.
In 2015, we launched Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press with the publication of David Swann’s Stronger Faster Shorter: Flash Fictions, followed soon after by Meg Tuite’s Lined Up Like Scars: Flash Fictions. We also founded, in 2015, the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA). We run the National Flash Fiction Youth Competition, and have been judges on several other competitions. We have given readings at various venues and talks to several schools. Our own flashes have been published in anthologies and magazines.
We teach flash fiction on the BA and MA Creative Writing programmes at the University of Chester.
At Chester, we have also established the Flash Fiction Special Collection, the world’s largest archive of short-short anthologies, collections, magazines, and secondary texts. My 2009 essay listed eighteen books in its bibliography; the collection, to date, has swelled to nearly 500.
In the light of the vastly increased popularity of flash fiction and what I now know about the form, I am going to return to “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” quoting from it and offering updated responses.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story” began as “The Short-Short Story.” Beginnings are often optimistic. In the middle of my research, feeling pessimistic and mortal after reading so much brevity, I placed “Notes Towards a Definition of the Short-Short Story” at the top of the page. Blankness was to follow. A Tristram Shandyesque essay? A Dave Eggersesque short story? Both? I did not know, but of course had to, Unnamable-like, go on, to fill the page, to banish the silence for better or worse.
What follows, then, is “Notes Towards the …,” a study of the short-short story tinged with the optimism that “The Short-Short Story” might one day be written and the pessimism that it will not be by me.
Since my essay, much has been written about flash fiction. Read together, the following constitute a very good “The Short-Short Story: A Survey of the Form”:
Blair, Peter, “Flash Fiction,” in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2016 (2015).
Casto, Pamelyn, “Flash Fiction,” in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading: Volume 2: E–M, ed. Kenneth Womack (2008).
Hazuka, Tom, “The Short-Short Story,” in Behind the Short Story: From First to Final Draft, ed. Ryan G. Van Cleave and Todd James Pierce (2007).
Masih, Tara L., “Introduction,” in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, ed. Tara L. Masih (2009).
Shapard, Robert, “The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction,” World Literature Today, 86.5 (2012); online.
Williams, Tony, “Flash Fiction,” in The Handbook of Creative Writing, ed. Steve Earnshaw, second edition (2014).
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
The short-short boom [in the 1980s] was a sign of the times, as is the form’s increasing popularity: the internet buzzes with numerous e-zines, websites, forums and blogs containing short-shorts, no doubt because they are perfect for the emailing, texting, abbreviating, ADD generation. For the (ephemeral) short-short, the future’s orange.
This is still correct, though it does sound a bit dated. Do we still refer to “e-zines”? My students don’t share their flashes by email, favouring Facebook. There’s no mention of Twitter.
It is now impossible to keep up with all of the flash-fiction anthologies and collections that are being published, let alone all the online magazines. This is a good thing.
I’m not sure about my reference to the “ADD generation.” The kids are all right – they are multi-tasking. Lol.
Several social-media-initiated flash-fiction collections have appeared in print, among them:
Beach, Lou, 420 Characters (2012); first published on Facebook.
Hill, Sean, Very Short Stories: 300 Bite-Size Works of Fiction (2012); first published on Twitter.
Thay, Jacque, Twictions: 140 Stories Each Told in 140 Characters (2010).
If you really want to read one, choose Lou Beach’s. Sean Hill can be quite amusing, but Twitter fiction is severely limited and often inclines towards jokes.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
There seems to be […] no difference between a flash and a sudden, other than the word count, so why have two terms? To give the short-short form some sort of stability, it would be helpful if editors and authors dispensed with all the different terms and just used “short-short” […].
“Flash fiction” has become the most popular term for stories of no more than c. 750 words.
A prediction: “sudden fiction” will become a term referred to only in critical studies of short-short stories that consider Robert Shapard and James Thomas’s Sudden Fiction anthologies.
Some authors (Vanessa Gebbie and Robert Scotellaro, for example) use “micro fiction” to differentiate their very short flashes from their flashes. Fair enough – we know what they mean.
“Drabbles” (stories of exactly 100 words) are now an established form under the “flash fiction” umbrella. I recommend Grant Faulkner’s Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (2015) and his online magazine, edited with Lynn Mundell and Beret Olsen, 100 Word Story.
I don’t know if “dribbles” (stories of exactly 50 words) will be written about in the future – they might be mentioned in a footnote. Most dribbles aren’t very good. I’m still waiting for an impressive collection.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
According to [James Thomas], the “success” of short-short stories “depends not on their length but on their depth, their clarity of vision, their human significance – the extent to which the reader is able to recognize in them the real stuff of real life”.
I still agree. Which is why I think dribbles and other micro micros are often limited.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
Brevity, when done well, leaves potentially productive narrative “gaps” (more so than in the traditional short story), and I will suggest in the next part […] that the best short-shorts are those where the reader is prompted to question and to write the unwritten. […]
What follows are two short-shorts from The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death. The first, D. Ray Ramsey’s “The Lifeguard,” is an example of a limited short-short; the second, Shannon O’Rourke’s “Easy Come, Easy Go,” shows the short-short’s potential. They are each fifty-five words.
I eyed that chick all summer and she never looked my way. Strutting around the pool, twitching her butt, adjusting her top, drinking Cokes, ignoring me … Then one morning, she almost drowned. I blew my whistle, dove. As I carried her out, she squirted water in my eye and laughed, “Thought you’d never notice me!”
She’d zealously guarded her virginity, so he’d stood her up on Prom Night. Years later, he’s come downtown to see her new film. Now, he watches her image on the screen, realizing his mistake. She has undeniable talent. He should’ve stood by her. Suddenly, the screen goes dark. He searches his pockets for more quarters.
“The Lifeguard” contains “1) a setting; 2) a character or characters; 3) conflict; and 4) resolution,” but it is not very stimulating imaginatively. The narrator’s use of the derogatory “chick” suggests something about him, as does her look-at-me “Strutting,” but there is little else to interest, except perhaps the ambiguity as to whether or not the narrator works out she feigned drowning. In the spirit of generosity, one might argue that the story is shallow intentionally because it is about the shallowness of 1990s American middle-class youth, but there is no evidence to support this.
John L’Heureux has written that “a really good short-short, whatever else it may be, is a story we can’t help reading fast, and then re-reading, and again, but no matter how many times we read it, we’re not quite through it yet.” On these terms, “The Lifeguard” is not “a really good short-short.” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” however, perhaps is because it prompts questions due to gaps in the text: Why did she guard her virginity? Does “zealously,” with its connection to “zealot,” imply she did so because of strict religious beliefs? (He is also a zealot in his uncompromising pursuit of sex.) If so, and perhaps even if not, how did she end up as a supposedly talented porn star? (What is her “talent” and is it “undeniable”? The shift in point of view is subtle and effective.) Did his standing her up have something to do with her transformation? What has happened to him in the intervening years? He could still be single, or with a partner who lacks “talent,” but is he seedy (sordid, prurient; he is probably bursting with seed)? He goes “downtown to see her new film,” which suggests a special journey, but he might have seen her previous films at other venues or on video. She is not a virgin; is he? “He should’ve stood by her” (rather than want to lie with her all those years ago), but who is to say that she would have developed “undeniable talent” if he had? Perhaps she would have converted him (the story is, in part, about transformation); perhaps he would have eventually made her drop her guard, for better or worse.
The best short-short writers know that what is unsaid is as important as what is said. One might be able to speak, but being silent can be productive: into the silences the reader speaks, and thus lengthens the short-short. As Paul Theroux has said, a short-short can contain a novel.
I still agree with all of this. “Easy Come, Easy Go” is a perfect flash. I’m a big fan of Dan Rhodes’s “Innocence,” but O’Rourke’s flash made me ponder the potential of the form.
When asked what my favourite flash of all time is, I used to say “Easy Come, Easy Go,” and also mention David Gaffney’s Sawn-Off Tales (2006; “Pop-Tarts,” in particular, is wonderfully dark). If the questioner had time, I’d now also encourage them to read, among others, Robert Olen Butler, Lydia Davis, Holly Howitt, Vanessa Gebbie, Etgar Keret, Robert Scotellaro, Ana María Shua, David Swann, Tony Williams, and Barry Yourgrau. In the future, I hope to recommend collections by Flash magazine authors Jonathan Cardew, Michael Loveday, David Steward, and Kevin Tosca.
Now, I have a new favourite. It is a masterpiece. Michael Buckingham-Gray’s “And Brings Up Loose Dirt”:
He kneels in front of the cabin. He thrusts his long fingers into the ground, and brings up loose dirt. The sun illuminates him as he digs. He strikes something hard, and pulls out a potato. He places it in front of him like a prize. He plunges a hand back into the earth. A shadow casts over him. He gets to his feet and tilts his head upward: nothing but blue sky. He considers going into town. But he may see the mayor. More than once the elected official has taken him aside and congratulated him on the polished redwood dining tables he used to make. Then the mayor asks why the business shut down. Each time, he fails to respond. He kneels in front of the cabin. He thrusts his long fingers into the ground, and brings up loose dirt.
I could re-read it, and admire it, and envy Buckingham-Gray, every day.
“Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story”:
The shorter the work, the longer the rope to hang yourself. The problem for the writer of the isolated short-short is that you are judged on the one piece. Read within a single-authored collection, though, the reader is likely to be more forgiving, in the same way that a reader will probably forgive a novelist for a clunky sentence or dull paragraph, perhaps even a tedious chapter or two, so long as the work as a whole works: entertains, stimulates, informs, humours, saddens, intrigues, involves …
I like to think, even though I now sigh when sitting down, that I can still be so insightful.
For the conclusion of “Notes Towards the Definition of the Short-Short Story,” I wrote a flash about points of view that alluded to Ford Madox Ford’s points-of-view-obsessed novel The Good Soldier (1915). It’s not one of my best short-shorts, but it works in context, if the reader gets the allusion … There are gaps – and there are gaps.
I don’t know how to conclude this essay, beyond thanking Virgie and Annie and SmokeLong for allowing me to do some pondering on flash fiction, a form that is even more exciting now than it was in 2006.
 Dan Rhodes, Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), p. 37; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
 Dave Eggers’s “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself” is five blank pages; see How We Are Hungry (London: Penguin, 2005), pp. 201-06.
 In the essay, I wrote: “‘Short-short’ is an umbrella term that covers: micro fiction; flash fiction; sudden fiction; postcard fiction; minute fiction; drabble; byte; ficlet; 55 fiction; 69er; nano fiction; furious fiction; fast fiction; quick fiction; and skinny fiction. Micro fiction, flash fiction and sudden fiction are the most common terms.”
 James Thomas, “Introduction,” in Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, ed. James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka (New York: Norton, 1992), p. 12.
 Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” (first published in New Literary History, 3 (1972)), in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood, second edition (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2000), p. 193.
 D. Ray Ramsey, “The Lifeguard,” in The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, ed. Steve Moss and John M. Daniel (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), p. 26; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
 Shannon O’Rourke, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” in The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, p. 28; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
 Steve Moss and John M. Daniel, “How to Write a 55-Word Story,” in The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, p. 217.
 John L’Heureux, “Afterwords: The Tradition,” in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, ed. Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1986), p. 228.
 Paul Theroux, “Afterwords: The Tradition,” in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, p. 228.
 Michael Buckingham-Gray, “And Brings Up Loose Dirt,” Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 7.1 (Apr. 2014), 20; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Ashley Chantler lectures in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Chester, where he leads the MA Creative Writing: Writing and Publishing Fiction programme. He is co-director of the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA), and co-editor of Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press. He is editor of An Anatomy of Chester: A Collection of Short-Short Stories (2007). His flashes have been published in a wide range of magazines, and most recently in A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed: National Flash-Fiction Day 2016 Anthology, ed. Calum Kerr and Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2016). For more information about the IFFA and Ashley’s flash-related work, go to: http://www.chester.ac.uk/flash.fiction
Flash Fiction as Language Art
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Anne Weisgerber likens writing a novel in flashes to traversing a museum. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Anne Weisgerber
Museums : Novels :: Paintings : Language
When I visit a museum, I flit from point to point and confront paintings. By standing close, I can smell linseed oil, and sometimes discern the artist’s range (when standing fixed in front of the canvas, do the brushstrokes radiate from elbow or shoulder height?) Where did the creator stand? Is anything happening on the surface, or below it? What emerges? I don’t stop at every abstract work, as most require prior knowledge to understand on whose shoulders the work is balanced. In this same way, understanding and appreciating a writer’s range, the control of syntax, cadence, or allusion, helps one see where the artist stood, and adds to the enjoyment of flash fiction.
Portraits : Fiction :: Drawings : Sentences
When it comes to portraiture, painting gets mass appeal. Scenes get human. A great juxtaposition in the world of museums, I think, hangs at The Frick. Flanking a single mantelpiece are both the portrait of Sir Thomas More and that of his mortal enemy and executioner, Thomas Cromwell. These two images reunite and preserve a real tension known by Holbein and preserved via physical placement. This orchestrated staring contest, in a museum full of great art, presents timeless, truthful, moral themes. To me it is exactly like a flash fiction diptych, a counterpoint. The intellect of the viewer compresses and commemorates the conflicts. Through use of space and omission, Holbein emerges, for me, a flash pioneer.
Colors : Words :: Surface : Page
In galleries, I traverse the space happily, wandering, wondering how to enter a conversation and with which object, with whose portrait, over what surface. I might orient myself to the curator’s introductory essay; I will be bored by it and skip right to the players, the art. I am free to roll dice and move myself into the game. Maybe I’m in New York or Paris or London, but I look for what the images say. I code what I see as words, and stop when I am amused, intrigued, or grateful. Flash fictions are gambles of intelligence, wit, language. Individual writers, like painters, invite readers to respond intellectually, emotionally, skeptically. Nothing requires a patron to react, either to a museum’s worth of material or to something from the Western Canon; a Denon Wing or Moby Dick; Crime and Punishment or Getty. One powerful image in a whole museum, one 300-word scene in all the language, can orient me in the deep universe of place and time.
Until I started writing flash, I hadn’t appreciated that I am alive in a time where something exciting, very new and powerful, is happening in the language arts. It’s all happening in small adventurous journals, freed from expectations of syntax, objects, conventions, and curated by pioneering editors. The best of it is beautiful to write, and moving to read.
I’m currently writing a novel in flashes. I had this crazy idea to connect all these literary characters named Leggett (or close variations of the name), from Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8. No sooner did I begin plotting across three continents and time-lining the five generations of this saga than I despaired. The plot hit snarl after snarl, the timeline ticked out of tune, and I was completely overwhelmed, paralyzed, and ready to chuck it. Then I took a flash workshop with Randall Brown; I continued to contemplate my novel as I studied flash. Something happened.
I realized I could craft flash miniatures that added up to something bigger if I intended them to, like dabs in a Seurat painting. In this way, my reader at novel distance will see the rose window, hear the orchestra, experience the video wall of calibrated gifs but within scenes, each pane, each cellist, each meme stands alone. A reader might experience my novel as a flash choir, or pointillism, or whatever it winds up being. Flash forces writers to have the nerve to say: THESE WORDS ARE BEAUTIFUL. So I find myself now writing a huge novel in meditative, colorful spoonfuls. I must remember to look at images my words create, both at the linseed tip of my nose and at twenty skeptical paces. Up close, I worry: How can I honor this life with my writing? At practical, admission-paying distances, I fret: What’s in it for my reader?
I only attest that the act of forming sentences and scenes, the punctuation, the pushed and brushed pigment of vowels and verbs and slow-motion ninja gerund phrases has become a vocation. Flash is an artist’s medium; writing it places one where people care about art.
A.E. Weisgerber has recent fiction in Shotgun Honey, SmokeLong Quarterly, Entropy Magazine, New South, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and her story “Sleeping Beauty: Markson Fangirl” is a Best Small Fictions 2016 Finalist. She reads for Pithead Chapel, reviews for Change Seven Magazine, and is writing her first novel, Unincorporated Area, one flash at a time. Follow her on Twitter @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.
Flash Fiction for Genre-Benders
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Dot Dannenberg discusses her transition from poetry to flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Dot Dannenberg
Poetry vs. Fiction. In grad school, the divide between the genres sometime felt like the Sharks and the Jets. We poets were flighty. We got hung up on word association and the names of plants. Why were we there, the fiction students wondered? There were no book deals for us. But I could never live in the fog that seemed to be required to write fiction. My fiction-writing friends confessed that they thought about their characters all the time—even dreamed about them. I wanted to be grounded in the here and now. I knew what a good last line for a poem sounded like, and I was going to set up everything else accordingly.
Of course, this is why they shouldn’t let twenty-two year olds into MFA programs. Because we know nothing, Jon Snow.
Though I was trailing down the academic path of becoming a poet, the truth was, all I ever read was fiction. I was the kid who broke bedtime rules with a novel and a flashlight under the covers. I have novels I re-read every year, those old friends who keep revealing new truths as I age. Even in grad school, I convinced my advisors to let me add fiction to my reading list. “It’ll, uh, help my narrative poems,” I said.
So maybe, for me, leaving poetry for flash was inevitable.
I came to flash fiction because I am greedy. Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial woman and I want to Have It All. I want the job and the babies. I want the wordplay and the narrative. Flash fiction, to me, combines all of the best elements of poetry with those of my true love, fiction. In flash, imagery and characterization are equally important. Space is at a premium, but you may still need a plot. Flash fiction seems easy, but can be incredibly technical. W.B. Yeats said a poem should “click shut” like a box at the ending–the best flash also has this quality.
Flash fiction showed me that through using poetry, I could dip a toe into the immersive fog of fiction writing. I could make the fog work for me.
Writer Pam Houston once said that the brain has two halves to it: the Creative Unconscious and the Analytical Bitch. The Creative Unconscious is where all the best stuff comes from. The brilliant ideas. The dialogue that writes itself. The Analytical Bitch? She tells you that you suck, you don’t know how to spell, your vulnerability is embarrassing, and you will never get published. Writers need all the help they can get to turn off the voice of the Analytical Bitch and let the Creative Unconscious do its work.
The poets figured this out first. If you’ve ever tried to write formal verse, you may have found that you focus so hard on the rules that your sonnet about your boyfriend turns out to be a sonnet about soccer. A better sonnet about soccer than any love poem you could ever write. Following the rules gives the Analytical Bitch something to do, so the Creative Unconscious fills in the content and delivers the poetry magic.
While novel writing still feels unwieldy and intimidating to me, flash fiction, even without a prompt, is built on something my control-freak self loves: constraints. The internet is teeming with requirements for flash. Exactly 250 words. No more than 500. I’m an editor at 1:1000, where, after the old adage “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” we ask writers to craft a 1,000-word story inspired by a photograph.
I like that Flaubert quote–“Be regular and orderly in your life…so that you may be violent and original in your work.” The constraints of flash make me feel safe and orderly while I jump in over my head. The human brain is a wild tumbleweed. Tell me to write whatever I want, and I will stare at my notebook for fifteen minutes and then start scrolling through Instagram. Give me a photograph and a word limit, and suddenly the winds of distraction stop blowing. The mind stops wandering. The flow state fog sets in. The pen scratches. Magic.
Dot Dannenberg is a contributing editor at 1:1000. She lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and writes about life and culture shock in her newsletter See & Say. She holds an MFA in poetry from Pacific University.
On the Mirror and the Echo
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Carmen Maria Machado analyzes the famous six-word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Carmen Maria Machado
Whenever I teach a class or unit on flash fiction, I always begin the same way: encouraging my students to dismantle one of the most famous tiny stories in the English language:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
I know, I know, I can hear your eyes rolling. For most folks, even non-readers, this little story became a cliché a long time ago. It doesn’t even have a proper title, just a multi-segmented body, like a centipede or string of pearls: for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn. The story was, allegedly, written by Hemingway (also, allegedly, to win a bet?), but that’s all apocryphal. No one knows for sure.
When I write for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn on the board, there is always a collective groan of recognition from the class. Then I ask: how many characters are in this story? They usually stare at me for a moment, but once I say “Well, there has to be a mother, yes?” the answers start rolling out.
Depending on the group’s enthusiasm and imagination, the list of characters varies, but usually we end up with something like this:
- A biological mother
- A biological father
- A baby, maybe
- The person who placed the ad
- The reader of the ad
Granted, some of these are stretches, and some of them could overlap, and there are certainly more inventive choices missing, but this list is a fast way into various interpretations of the events of the story, and can lead us down wildly divergent paths of understanding.
For-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn can be a tragedy: A baby is dead and the family is selling off the infant accouterments. Or, it can be a comedy, a tall tale: A baby was born with amusingly large feet, and the shoes are unneeded. (A1924 Omaha newspaper once speculated on the potential narratives behind a similar, real-life advertisement that had run in the paper, about a baby carriage: “Why was the baby carriage never used? Is the little fellow waiting by himself until the Heavens be no more, or were mother and child buried in the same grave? Or did some old bachelor win the baby carriage at a raffle?”)
This exercise can go on for a while. A man buys his pregnant girlfriend baby shoes, and then discovers she’s had a miscarriage. An adolescent attempts to sell off his unwanted younger sibling’s gifts, piece by piece. Well-to-do parents realize that their offspring has way more clothing than is necessary, and tries to spread the goodwill around. An on-the-outs n’er-do-well tries to sell off a box of junk he stole from someone’s garage. A teenage girl discovers she’s pregnant, buys baby clothes in a fit of sorrow, and then has an abortion. A couple prepares for their adopted child to come home from a foreign country, and then learns that bureaucracy is standing in the way of the process. A woman undergoing fertility treatments buys the shoes on a whim, and after the treatments fail, decides to get them out of her house. And this doesn’t even touch on the potentially infinite non-realist readings of this story.
How you interpret the events of for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn might depend on many factors, all of which have to do with you, the reader. Are you melancholy, or relentlessly optimistic? Do you enjoy irreverent playfulness, or are you a serious character? What genres of literature do you gravitate toward? Have you heard for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn before, or was this the first time? Have you ever worked for the classified section of a newspaper? Are you young enough that you’ve never seen the classified section of a newspaper? Are you thinking practically about how much money someone might make from the sale of baby shoes, and how an ad in a paper would be more expensive than any recouped costs?
Maybe, most importantly: Have you ever lost a child? And if so, how?
I teach this little story because it’s a quick way to demonstrate one of my favorite properties of flash: its ability to reflect back on the reader. All good fiction has some level of flexibility: open to shades of interpretation. But the shorter the piece—the more spare the details—the more you, the reader, are required to rush in to fill the space.
In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer talks about the function of “flatness” in the traditional fairy tale. “[Fairy tale characters] are not given many emotions,” she writes, “and they are not in psychological conflict.” Why does this technique work? Bernheimer posits:
This absence of depth, this flatness, violates a technical rule writers are often taught in beginning writing classes: that a character’s psychological depth is crucial to a story. In a fairy tale, however, this flatness functions beautifully; it allows depth of response in the reader.
Flash fiction borrows from this idea. It is, by definition, short; it leaves things out, it relies on inference. It doesn’t necessarily have psychological flatness, per se—though it can look like that, sometimes, depending on the story—but possesses missing details (the right missing details) and flatness (the right kind of flatness) that creates a vacuum that begs to be filled.
And who is on hand to fill it? A reader, an entire complex ecosystem of experiences and opinions and preferences and instincts, with a profound desire to have the thing in front of her make sense.
One of my favorite short-short shorts is Amy Hempel’s one-sentence “Housewife.”
She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, “French film, French film.”
When I first read it, I was a wee thing, in college. I marveled at this little jewel of a story, how much was folded up inside those words, inside that one sentence. “She’s cheating on her husband,” I thought of the protagonist of “Housewife,” “and she’s excusing it by romanticizing her life like it’s a French film.”
But years later—seasoned with experience and after a stint of relationships, good and bad—I revisit it again, and my reading has changed. Suddenly, I slide between wondering if she is referring to infidelity or polyamory or something darker and less consensual. I wonder if she incants “French film, French film” to concede to the tropes of the genre, or to convince herself that she is happy or cosmopolitan or right or safe. I notice the word “exploit,” which pulses like a wound, and the passive voice of “whatever was left to her.” I also notice, ten years later, that the story incants the word “day” three times—a full seven percent of its length (only the word “the” is used more)—as if convincing itself of something, too.
So now, a decade after my first encounter, I see that “Housewife” contains new and different truths, and even more mysteries. But it hasn’t changed—I have.
I arrive now at the part of the essay where I have to find a neat, useful, and poignant image, a helpful metaphor for flash fiction, like: it is an iceberg or ice melting on a hot stove or a single raindrop that “engulfs its own blue pearl of light” or the world in a grain of sand.
So what of this quality that I am so obsessed with? What is it like, in a way that you (the reader) will carry with you long after my name, and the specifics of this essay, have vanished from your mind?
It is not a mirror. I know the word “mirror” is in the title of this piece, but that’s because it’s an image I considered and discarded. A functional mirror returns to the viewer what is put before it with reflexive faithfulness, and no good piece of flash—hell, no good piece of art—can say the same.
An echo, then. Language hollered into a canyon. The story is the space, the crevices and hollows and peaks, and the reader is the caller at the end of a long walk, and their voice always returns to them altered.
A student once said “The fairy who stole the baby and left the changeling child in its place!” which delighted me. I’ve also entertained plots about alien abductions, ghosts, wormholes, parallel universes, and infant-eating cribs, all of which introduce a unique cast of characters to the exercise.
 She once told an interviewer at The Atlantic that she she’d first written it and thought, “Oh, this is the first line of a story, and two and a half years later I’m like, Nope, that is the story.”
 This is actually Hemingway.
 And this, Joyce Carol Oates echoing Robert Frost.
 Stuart Dybek!
 Good ol’ William Blake.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Ravi Mangla writes about flash’s role in interstitial spaces and why the form is a middle finger to capitalism. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Ravi Mangla
For the past month I have been a writer-in-residence at an art museum in Western Massachusetts. Each day, at lunchtime, I walk across a tracery of gilded cracks in the pavement. The installation (Sidewalk Kintsukuroi by Rachel Sussman) is part of The Space Between, an exhibition that shines a light on those peripheral spaces that most of us—as the distracted, harried, and (let’s be honest) flawed individuals that we are—tend to overlook.
Flash serves a similar purpose. It gives voice to stories in the margins, the ones deemed too slight or elusive for more conventional narrative modes. And the deeper I get into the practice of writing, the more I am drawn to this interstitial space: between sense and scene, snapshot and story, silence and sound. By illuminating the underseen, we reveal a world more fully realized, in which small gestures resemble events, and a single moment can carry the weight of years.
It was nearly a decade ago that I encountered my first piece of compressed fiction and I still find the elasticity of the form enlivening. Novels surprise me less and less (especially those turned out by major publishing houses), but flash regularly upends my expectations, leaves me dazzled by its distillations and odd constructs. “Its littleness is the agency of its power,” writes Steven Millhauser in an essay on the short story. Though one could just as easily affix this quote to flash.
The market urges writers to think bigger, act bolder, be more ambitious. But flash doesn’t care a whit about the market. It’s a middle finger to our whole system of capitalism, its demands and imperatives. There is no such thing as a commercial flash fiction writer. No Thomas Kinkade or Michael Bay. We don’t do this work for remuneration. (Partly because there is none.) We do it to be accomplices to beauty, to produce pieces that aren’t mediated by the latest taste or trend. I’m talking art in the margins. In the recesses. In the tiniest of cracks.
Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His very short stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, The Collagist, American Short Fiction, Gigantic, and Tin House Online. Follow him @ravi_mangla.
Flash Fiction: A Flash Essay
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Rolli posits that his love for flash fiction may be pathological. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing a very short story. I’ve set out to write longer things… But my novels erode into short stories, my short stories into flash fictions. This is probably pathological.
Yet I’ve written three novels. Improper novels, mongrels. A pair of novels-in-stories, a novel-in-poems. Purebred novels terrify me—and bore me. They’re so plumped-up with filler that one has to read hastily to make headway. Forcing readers to see only every tenth word has been the fashionable ambition for centuries. But it isn’t mine.
That’s flash fiction’s real virtue: it can’t be skimmed. Skim, and you’d miss everything. Flash gives you permission to read as slowly as you like, to savor. To read as bookish children do: deliberately, with pleasure. Or why bother?
Of course the challenge of a lean medium is that every word needs to be the right word, the best word. So it can take as many or more hours to write a good flash as a mediocre 4,000-6,000 word story. But to write well and efficiently, to write “good parts,” only… That’s my objective, always. My ambition.
It’s thankless work, naturally, and unprofitable, and if I had more sense (and less self-discipline), I’d write that important four hundred page opus and drag my wagonful of prize monies into the Swiss sunset. But I couldn’t do it. Not to stave off starvation, not to save my life.
Like I said… It’s probably pathological.
Rolli is a writer and cartoonist from Regina, Canada. He’s the author of six books, including the flash fiction collection I Am Currently Working on a Novel, which was longlisted for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and shortlisted for the ReLit Award and the High Plains Book Award. Guernica Editions will publish his flash novel The Sea-Wave in the fall. Visit Rolli’s website (rollistuff.com) and follow him on Twitter @rolliwrites.
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Claire Polders describes her journey discovering flash fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Claire Polders
Once I wrote my first flash I was hooked. So much so that I often need to remind myself I have a novel to finish.
It all began when I brought home The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis from the American Library in Paris. It was my introduction to flash fiction, or so I thought, and I loved it. Was this a genre? Davis’ interpretation of what a story could be made me curious about what else was out there. I looked up which magazines published her work and what other authors they featured. Whenever I liked a specific writer, I would click and discover where their stories had also appeared. Incredible how many fantastic venues there were! This was a world I wanted to explore.
I paused my novel (which was good timing anyway because I’d just finished a draft and needed some distance) and tried my hand at flash. Could I tell a story, or at least communicate an interesting idea, in a thousand words? In fifty?
I wrote dozens of pieces for which the only rule was an economy of words. I’d never felt so free. When I heard a voice, I let it speak. When I saw a scene, I described it. When a character presented herself, I focused on her life-changing moment. There was no need to slave beforehand on plotting or callbacks or arcs. If the flash amounted to nothing, I would toss it aside and write another one. No time wasted. If the flash showed promise, I would develop it further. Could I make it stronger by changing the setting, the perspective, my storyteller’s identity? I wrote and rewrote, editing my best pieces over and over again. Short as they were, they demanded attention to detail. I discovered the joy of honing, of getting as close to perfection as possible. My love for the English language intensified as I weighed and cherished each word.
After this wild spree, I studied the genre more. From the bookstore came Etgar Keret and a Norton flash fiction anthology. Online I discovered authors like Roxane Gay, Shasta Grant, and Amber Sparks. I began to understand that my love for Kafka, Calvino, Kawabata, and Borges had a lot to do with the brevity of their prose: I had loved flash even before I knew what it was.
I examined what could be excluded from a story without leaving the reader clueless. How to condense a narrative? I experimented. Although I’d always loved the postmodernists, their deconstruction of plot and character, their fabulism and fragmentation, I’d never done much in that department myself. I didn’t believe I could keep it up for an entire novel. But for five hundred words? I liked the challenge.
When the time came to send out my work, I tried to match my stories to the magazines. To my surprise some of my flashes were accepted. There were rejections, obviously, yet they were rarely absolute. Kind editors on the other side took the time to comment on my work. Encourage me. Make suggestions to improve my craft.
My novels may remain character-driven, with plots that can be summarized, but I hope my flash will keep escaping my design. Flash allows me to test my voice in a myriad of stories and experience how readers respond to each. Flash is my playground, my freedom, my way of expressing myself. Flash is an addiction I’m happy to have.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author of four novels. Her flash fiction appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, matchbook, Literary Orphans, Minor Literature[s], Superstition Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, and elsewhere. Her flash nonfiction was published in Tin House (The Open Bar), Word Riot, Fiction Southeast, and Atticus Review. If not writing flash, she’s polishing up her first novel in English. You may find her on Twitter at @clairepolders or at http://www.clairepolders.com.
The Silence and the Flood
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Alvin Park discusses how his father’s short-lived rule that the family speak only Korean at home laid the groundwork for his love of flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Alvin Park
My parents tell me this story often: I was three or four when my father ordered that we only speak Korean at home. While my brother did fine, I didn’t have enough words, Korean or English, to navigate. I used what little I knew, but mainly stayed silent. My mother tells me that I would point and gesture, lips closed, but mainly stayed to myself.
As a writer, I started with bad poems. I was drawn to poetry’s rhythm, flow, and length. I was amazed at how so few words can cut to the bone, haunt me, or make my heart swell. Except that my poems had no real form, reason, or intent. They were nonsensical floods of words turned into columns that didn’t fit together. They felt frantic, desperate, and insecure.
Around the same time, I took a class on Faulkner. We read Absalom, Absalom!, and my professor pointed out the paragraph-long sentences broken down by parentheses, semi-colons, and ellipses. He suggested that the lengths that these narrators—Rosa Coldfield, Quentin Compson, Shreve—spoke was born from a need to keep secrets. The denseness of the story was undercut by the idea that none of the characters were actually saying what they wanted or meant.
A substitute instructor asked us to write a one-page story comprising one sentence. I tried to write with the rhythm of poetry but measured each word so that the story still made sense. I wrote about a man breaking a mirror, stripping off his clothes, and taking the moonlight into his skin. Frantic, desperate, insecure, but in a different way.
Flash for me works on this balance between what needs to be said and what doesn’t, choosing the right words and understanding how they work with the words that aren’t there. It forces me to focus my writing, doing away with long descriptions, drawing on the reader’s own memories and assumptions.
One of the first pieces of flash that stuck with me was Joey Comeau’s “Red Delicious.” It’s about a blind woman navigating the world. It’s about colors and flesh and blood. It’s about love. The narrator talks about how she prefers rolling car windows down manually, just the way she did when was young:
Emmett’s mother let him take the car once, to go for groceries. It had windows that you could roll down. I couldn’t get over it. When I was a little girl I used to roll and unroll the window when we went for Sunday drives. Now our car has electric windows. Everybody’s does. With a button, god knows what is happening. I like to feel the window move. I like to know. I rolled down the window and fastened my seatbelt. Then I rolled it back up again. Then I rolled it down.
That image of rolling down the window during Sunday drives offers smells, colors, the feel of the wind on her face, the plastic handle, all unwritten but still there. I think about riding in my brother’s car along the coast, windows down, stereo turned up. This sense of controlled freedom, safety, and escape.
I’m still learning. I think more about word length and syllables. I think about colons and how they can convey place and passage of time. I’m trying to be more honest and vulnerable with my flash. I’m trying to incorporate and connect with the Korean culture I pushed away for so much of my life.
My father eventually lifted the Korean-only rule because of my mom, who was afraid I would grow mute. Part of me feels like I’m still struggling to find the right words, still pointing and gesturing. Part of me realizes that all I need to say is already there.
Alvin Park lives and writes in Portland. His work has been featured in The Rumpus, the Mojave River Review, Wyvern Lit, and New South Journal. He has a long way to go. Follow him on Twitter @Chipmnk.
The Flash That Haunts Us
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Hillary Leftwich explores how her son’s epilepsy has informed her fiction. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Hillary Leftwich
Ten to fifteen seconds. The average time of a seizure. Enough time to cause brain cell death. Enough time to affect learning and memory. Enough time to cause death.
My son has suffered from seizures since he was a baby. I didn’t know what they were. His face would twitch and his eyes would move left to right, right to left. His pediatrician always gave him a clean bill of health. When he was two years old he suffered a generalized tonic-clonic seizure or grand mal seizure. He was visiting my friend and her children in Colorado Springs for the day and I was doing laundry in my apartment in Denver. The phone rang and I answered. The man on the other end of the phone told me: “This is the fire department. Your son stopped breathing. We had to resuscitate him. We are taking him to the hospital. If you’re driving down, whatever you do, don’t speed.” I jumped in my car and immediately started the 45-minute drive from Denver to Colorado Springs. I must have been going 100-120 miles an hour. Enough time to dry half a load of laundry. Enough time to consider every horrific scenario of what was happening to my son. Enough time to make the drive in thirty minutes. Years later, I wrote my first flash fiction story called “119 MPH.” This is how I became a flash fiction writer.
I was introduced to flash fiction during my master’s program. Except it wasn’t called flash fiction. I knew it as micro fiction. Or sudden fiction. Or postcard fiction. My professor in creative writing during that time, Marty McGovern, told me he didn’t care what it was called as long as it was under 1,000 words and contained all the elements of a story. Easy, I thought. The end result was a sorry attempt at a flash fiction piece that my dear professor sent back with a note stating: “I don’t think you understand what micro fiction is. Please read the assignment again and revise this piece.” I dug my heels in, determined to figure out the genre that was eluding me. Like every other assignment I was faced with during my master’s program, I decided to research it. I went online and found every journal that published flash fiction I could find. I kept a log of every flash writer published in these journals, along with their flash pieces. I read every story I could locate by that writer and read those, too. During my research, it was inevitable I found myself reading Kathy Fish. Almost every journal I stumbled upon had a Kathy Fish story. The first story of hers I read was “Warrior” in Alice Blue Review. It is precisely 115words. For weeks afterwards I couldn’t get the final lines out of my head: “She regards him with a terrible precision. ‘You are my brilliant boy,’ she says.” This resounded. This did not tie everything up nicely. It was an unanswered question. I knew everything I had written up until that point was about to take a completely different direction.
There’s an article in The Review Review by Becky Tuch called “Flash Fiction: What’s it all About?” Some of the best editors and flash writers such as Mark Budman, John M. Cusick, Stace Budzko, and Tara Masih offer their advice on the world of flash writing. My favorite insight comes from Grant Faulkner, editor of 100 Word Story: “The joy of flash fiction as a writer and a reader is found not only in the words of the story, but in what is left out–the absences can be almost spectral, haunting what’s been told, only guessed at.” There’s a Twilight Zone episode, or maybe it’s from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, about a missing puzzle piece. Two characters—perhaps a husband and wife—find an old puzzle in a bookstore, or maybe from an old trunk in the wife’s grandmother’s attic—the details aren’t important. The puzzle’s box has no front picture to tell you what the image will be. So, husband and wife get bored one night and decide to start putting the puzzle together. The longer they keep at it the more they start to realize that the scene is very similar to their own living room. The man and woman in the puzzle look very much like themselves. There is something terrifying outside the living room window. In the end, they can’t find the final puzzle piece, but they won’t know what is outside the window until they do. That missing piece is everything in flash. The tension should just about kill you.
Three years after my son’s first known seizure, I found myself living in a hospital room in the children’s intensive care unit. The cause of my son’s seizures was still unknown. He was comatose, for the most part, and not likely to survive. He was diagnosed with a series seizure disorder with an unidentified cause. What Faulkner said about flash fiction was proving to be true to my own life. My son’s diagnosis haunted me. Not knowing if he would recover drove me to the point of hysteria. By our second night in the hospital, a patch of my son’s hair had turned gray from the stress. Six days under the care of the neurology department and my son’s seizures were finally under control. By the time we left the hospital my son was alive, but he could barely walk and his speech was slurred. But he was alive. During this time, I was completing my final semester at CU Denver for my undergraduate degree. I returned home with a broken son, a pile of homework, and over a week absence from my job to catch up on. My son recovered very quickly. He began a series of medications that were able to control his seizures. I was told children are more resilient than we think. Eventually, I began to reorganize my life much as I would a flash fiction story: I started at the point of action and focused on a single moment in time. I didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed by too much detail. I kept everything short and sweet. I realized the impact of all the unknowns in my life. The possibility—even today—of losing my son to epilepsy. How frightening and yet how important the absences in our lives can be.
Thirty minutes. Enough time to make dinner and feed my son. Enough time to do half a load of laundry. Enough time to have my son read “Willy Wonka and the Great Glass Elevator” up to chapter three, right when they are hurdling through space. As a single mom, time is always elusive to me. Is there ever enough time? Probably not. Raymond Carver once said, “Write what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets?” The same holds true for our writing lives. Our experiences, good or bad, are the heart of our writing. And let’s face it, the wicked moments—the times when you want to punch something (or someone) and curse everything, those are the moments we die for in writing. Those are the moments are hearts ache for when we read them. One piece of flash is never the same as another. There’s no pinning flash down, and that’s what is so mesmerizing about it. Flash fiction is the lover you never get bored with. The affair is unending, always changing, always thrilling over and over. How can you not fall in love with it?
Hillary Leftwich resides in Denver with her son. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, and pinup model. She is the associate editor for The Conium Review and Reader/Marketing Coordinator for Vestal Review. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart and appears in a number of journals including Hobart, Matter Press, WhiskeyPaper, NANO Fiction, Monkeybicycle, Dogzplot, Cease, Cows, Pure Slush, FlashFiction.net, Gone Lawn, The Airgonaut and others. You can find her at https://hillaryleftwich.contently.com/ or follow her on Twitter @HillaryLeftwich.
Fiction That Strikes Like Lightning
In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Berit Ellingsen provides an overview of flash and shares selections from Lightspeed Magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Flash Fiction! special issue, which she guest edited. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Berit Ellingsen
Some of the first stories I got published were flash fiction, such as “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” in SmokeLong. As a new writer, I was immediately attracted to the flash fiction form, because I didn’t know it was possible to tell entire stories in just a thousand words or less. Thus, flash fiction was new and so fun to read and write, with a great variety of voices and styles and writers getting published online.
But what characterizes flash fiction? Most literary publications define flash fiction as being prose that is less than 1,000 words long. Some publications limit the length to 750 words, others at 1,500 words, and some at 300 words. There was even a site, Safety Pin Review, edited by Simon Jacobs, that published stories in 30 words or less and which were worn by people.
With online literary journals flash fiction has become widespread the last five years, but writers have been writing flash fiction for much longer than that. Gaius Petronius (cirka 27-66 AD), the author of Satyricon, who lived in ancient Rome under Nero’s reign, wrote at least one flash story, “The Young Widow” (reprinted in the anthology Flash Fiction International), a story about a young widow who gets locked inside the tomb of her dead husband together with her new love. In 1933, W. Somerset Maugham wrote “An Appointment In Samarra,” a retelling of an ancient tale about death and trying to escape the inevitable, a riveting story told in less than two hundred words.
Like its name indicates, the best flash fiction is brief and jolting, and leave a lasting impression, like the scorch path of a lightning bolt. Yet, despite their brevity, flash fiction stories have the power to create whole worlds, describe full and complex characters, and an unforgettable plot, all in just a few hundred words. Such as Kathy Fish’s “Spaceman,” about a crashing astronaut who still has almost infinite possibilities, and Allie Werner’s “Mars,” which speaks volumes of how human beings interact and long for one another. Both these stories take a single concept or emotion and bring it out into a full and deeply moving story.
This is of course not always easy to do. It requires the writer to focus on the essentials of the story, its core, or centers of gravity as I have heard other writers call it, and maybe even pare that down a little, depending on what word count needs to be reached. The writer must also be as accurate and as right on point as possible, with both plot, characterizations, descriptions, and voice, so as not to waste space and dilute the essence of the story.
Yet, despite its short length, a flash story is not simply an outtake from or part of a longer story. Neither is it a short version of a longer story. A flash story is a tiny story all of its own, with a clear start and middle and beginning that is independent of any larger context.
Neither does the small word count and the restricted space mean that you can’t do a multipoint plot structure with rising and falling tension, or describe the characters and surroundings and landscapes in exquisite detail. In fact, flash writers should do this, but only insofar as it adds something and is central to the story. Such as in Faith Gardner’s “Behind The Silver Window” and “Out in the Desert” by Seth Seppala, where the story really is in the details.
Perhaps because there is so little room, the narrative voice in flash fiction is often very strong and highly characteristic, such as in Kevin Jared Hossein’s story “Hiranyagarbha,” about an environmental catastrophe that slowly starts to eat the Earth and all living beings. Or Teresa Naval’s “An Offertory To Our Drowned Gods,” which also tells of future disaster, but in a completely different form than Hossein’s story.
Often, the events in flash fiction are sudden, unpredictable, catastrophic, but not always. Sometimes they can be quiet and soft and seeming to amble on their path, but this is just deceptive. Like the slow, yet extremely forceful winds on Venus, these stories gather momentum slowly to completely bowl the reader over at the end. Like Ethel Rohan’s powerfully moving “I Love You.”
With the smaller word count of flash fiction, it might sound like the form has a lot of limitations, and maybe it has from a certain point of view. But some of the trick is to utilize the lack of space instead of being limited by it. All the best and most memorable flash fiction does this successfully.
Thus, the form itself encourages experimentation and trying out new and unusual structures and approaches. Some flash fiction work is more on the side of prose poetry, such as Kristine Ong Muslim’s linked vignettes “Age Of Blight,” or poetry, or is a hybrid between the two. Other experimentations number or alphabetize sections, or the stories are written as one entire sentence or without punctuation, or backwards or in an otherwise unusual sequence.
The short-short form lends itself well to both fiction and creative non-fiction (for the latter, see Brevity Magazine). This too, encourages experimentation and moving outside of one’s usual genres or themes. With less time and energy required to craft a whole story, flash stories can be the first forays into new thematic territory or to try on new and different modes of storytelling.
It is also possible to write a whole novella or even a novel as flash fiction, with each chapter having the form of a flash story, or the novel consisting of several linked flash stories. Such as in Matthew Salesses’ novel I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying. And some flash stories, once started, may turn out to be larger stories, even whole novels.
The stories I have mentioned here are only a few that display the great range and variety of flash fiction. SmokeLong is one of the best places to get a sense of contemporary flash fiction. So is Wigleaf’s yearly selection of the best flash fiction across the web.
More great tips on writing that are applicable to flash fiction (but not only to flash fiction) are found in Matthew Salesses’ “A Month Of Revision” in Necessary Fiction.
Berit Ellingsen is the author of two novels, Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio), and Une ville vide (PublieMonde), as well as a collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin (Queen’s Ferry Press). Her work has been published in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Litro, and other places, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. Berit travels between Norway and Svalbard in the Arctic, and is a member of the Norwegian Authors’ Union. Learn more at http://beritellingsen.com.
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.
Like Apples and Rollerblades
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, SmokeLong Managing Editor Christopher Allen takes down comparisons between flash and novels, and explains why flash is like a really short hottie at a party. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Christopher Allen
At AWP this year I must have spoken to 500 writers about SmokeLong and flash fiction. Many of these writers said they were trying their hand at it. The form is hard to overlook these days. Most journals offer the category, and SmokeLong even offers a flash fiction fellowship. Flash is popular—like that really hot, really short guy at a party who everyone wants to talk to.
But there was this one person—there’s always one—who reacted with such vehemence that I can’t possibly withhold her from you. When I asked her if she read very short fiction, she replied, “Oh no no no. Short fiction is anethema [sic]! There’s no room for character development!” (Before I go any further, I should point out that our conversation began with her asking me if I knew where she could find wine.)
How important is character development in flash fiction? In the narrative arts in general? Where does development end and beating a dead horse begin? And why compare flash fiction to novel-length prose at all? In my mind these two forms require very different skill sets. It’s like comparing apples and Rollerblades. You might as well tell an Olympic diver his perfect-10 front 4 ½ is irrelevant: not a novel. Sorry, writer of your masterpiece villanelle: not a novel. Three-star Michelin chef, your amazing soufflé was tasty but didn’t have quite as much character development as, say, a novel. Hey, Fabergé! Eggs? Really? Couldn’t you write novels? (I’m stretching the illustration, but I’m also having fun.) Paul and John, “Yesterday”—no matter how much money you and your children make each year—is too short for character development; in fact all of your songs are. Tennessee, Suddenly, Last Summer is too sudden, so last summer. Where are the other two acts? Where is the novel? And don’t get me started on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Why did he even bother? Fourteen lines? Not one of them a novel.
I hope you see my point: character development is only one aspect of art. Flash fiction is not, and was never meant to be, the malnourished, stunted little brother of the novel; it’s a narrative form unto itself with its own ambitions. As an editor of flash over the last eight years I’ve read around 2000 of these very short stories each year, so I feel I know a good piece of flash fiction when I see it (which doesn’t necessarily mean I always write good flash; we all know we can churn out some clunkers). Good flash prose moves quickly, sometimes with explosive energy but sometimes in subtle waves; it dares to use innovative language that accomplishes in a paragraph what longer prose often doesn’t manage in a chapter; it’s focused and tight, self-confident and rare. It’s so short that the writer can’t afford infelicity or longueurs. In this way, flash is much more like that front 4 ½ dive or that villanelle than a seven-hundred-page all-you-can-eat buffet of a novel. I loved Lord of the Rings, but there was definitely a tad too much walking through the woods. Walking through the snow. Walking through bogs. Walking through caves. For what seems like hundreds of pages. Length doesn’t equate to “development.” Take, for example, the composition Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) by John Cage. The performance began in 2001 and should last 639 years. The last note change happened in 2013; the next won’t come along until 2020. Talk about a longueur.
My own meandering, slow path to flash fiction started in graduate school when a professor, after reading one of my essays, told me I should be writing short stories. As is my habit with all great advice, I ignored hers at the time. I continued working on my novel. I wrote three of them (all unpublished and probably unpublishable). I also wrote two screenplays and published two very bad poems. It wasn’t until I joined an online writers’ group that I started to dabble in the form and began to see what my professor had meant. Something about that small space of writing drew my thoughts together in a pleasing arc. That something was “the moment,” and I think this is the ambition of flash I mentioned earlier: to concentrate art into a moment. While at graduate school I read just about everything Virginia Woolf wrote, first because it was required and then because I loved the words on the page. I was inspired and moved by the rhythm of her prose (as I continue to be in so many subtle ways).
Years later I’ve come to realize how Woolf’s idea of moments of being and non-being has influenced my love for flash fiction. Woolf describes this so well in “A Sketch of the Past” that I find it difficult to find a tiny portion of it to quote here. Moments of being are deeply profound events that are branded in one’s memory while moments of non-being are going-through-the-motions events, which are easily forgotten. I find it interesting that Woolf says, “The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. I think Jane Austen can; and Trollope; perhaps Thackeray and Dickens and Tolstoy. I have never been able to do both.” Very funny. A sort of backhanded compliment? I think what Woolf is really saying here is that she was never interested in moments of non-being. She was really only interested in the exhilarating world of a profound moment.
If we look back at that front 4 ½ dive, it has a beginning (set up), middle (somersaulting, twisting through the air), and an end (entry into the water). The art of the dive demands technical precision, elegance and timing—as do all of the narrative arts on some level, but flash has the gravity of a very limited word-count pulling it toward the water. It is an exhilarating moment. That’s my point. And that’s the flash I love.
I write longer stories, and I appreciate their space to take a character on a longer, more relaxed journey. That said, I also think focusing on flash fiction has improved my longer prose. It has taught me to create art at the sentence and word levels, to concentrate on urging the reader along on a ride rhythmic and surprising. In the end, though, you write and read what moves you. And in the end—God—aren’t we just happy that people are reading?
And in the very end, I was content to leave the person at AWP to believe what she wanted about flash fiction and the primacy of character development. You can’t save everyone. I did help her find her wine, but I didn’t tell her we had bourbon at the SmokeLong table. As the adage goes: “wine is fine, but liquor is quicker.” Sometimes I drink wine; sometimes I drink bourbon. Sometimes 12% alcohol, sometimes 44%. And there’s room for both.
Christopher Allen’s flash fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Indiana Review, Camroc Press Review, Literary Orphans and lots of other beautiful places. His story “A Clown’s Lips” was the recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal’s award for flash fiction. SmokeLong Quarterly nominated his story “When Chase Prays Chocolate” for the Pushcart and included it in SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years (2003-2013). And he’s received a few other nods. Since 2014, Allen has been the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe. Find him online at @christopher_all or www.imustbeoff.com.
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.
The Expansiveness of Compressed Writing
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, SmokeLong Interviews Editor Karen Craigo explores how flash sharpens readers’ senses. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Karen Craigo
I’m the person at a reading who eyeballs the writer’s sheath of papers and tries to figure out how long I’ll be stuck in my folding chair.
I’m the one who tries hard to listen, but gets snagged on an image or idea and is off to the moon. When I come back, I have literally no idea what’s going on.
I’m the one who loves lyrical language, but who has a low tolerance for navel-gazing. Get to the point, I plead.
Where fiction is concerned, flash is my passion, and that’s why I love my role as interviews editor, along with Michael Czyzniejewski, of SmokeLong Quarterly. It’s always rewarding to examine a writer’s goals and inspirations and choices in the context of a very small piece of writing.
I write flash fiction, but I’m primarily a poet. I’m accustomed to devoting a lot of attention to small utterances. And why not? Each word is rich with connotation and texture, and each represents a choice—this word, rather than twenty close synonyms. Words are little time capsules, containing whole histories of civilization and war and peace and conquest. They merit some scrutiny. And flash invites us to scrutinize so many small decisions that produce a nuanced whole.
I not only assign and edit interviews for SmokeLong, I also read submissions. I can avouch as a rank-and-file screener that it’s a very well-run magazine; if I’m late in reading my assigned batch, someone is there to crack the whip. Work submitted to SmokeLong is given serious and efficient attention from a group of experienced and diverse readers. Each issue has many voices and styles of work—many moods, many artistic aims. Before I ever got involved in the magazine, I was smitten with it.
It may be the poet in me, but when I consider work, lyricism is my first concern. Wordy, dialogue-laden writing doesn’t make the cut with me; I want tight prose, wherein every word is necessary and every syllable has been vetted. I vote down the work that merely tells a small story in an ordinary way. Flash has a higher purpose: the meticulous use of language.
It’s not a short attention span that has me squirming in my seat at a reading; it’s a close attention span—too close, sometimes (and I spend most of my time listening the best I can while adjusting my attention dial, turning it up and down). A beautiful image arrests my attention almost every time, but it’s worth the distraction. Flash is so much less about this-happened-and-then-this-happened, so savoring beautiful or striking moments is a luxury the form allows.
I have a confession to make: I once won a very large prose fellowship based on a packet of work I had submitted. The deadline was upon me and I had a pretty good piece to send, but it was flash, and I was far from the page limit. What I did to fill up the submission was to take a few narrative poems and remove the line breaks. Not only did this strategy win me a recommendation for a big award ($10,000, in fact) in prose; it also resulted in some very cool micro-fictions, and a new way of looking at genre.
Truth is keener when it’s spare.
I also edited the literary journal Mid-American Review for a number of years, and during that time, we established a contest we called the Fineline Competition. Our goal was to explore the “fine line” between prose poetry and flash fiction and essays. The submissions to this contest were always my very favorite works to read, and many of them were very strong. (This was in marked difference to submissions to our regular poetry and fiction contests, which were always quite a bit weaker than general submissions; maybe those writers were playing it safe because of the submission fee.)
The strength of the writing I saw while doing initial judging of the Fineline Competition year after year was very telling. Flash is prose to which heat has been applied. It has burned away extraneous flourishes; it has condensed to an essential oil.
I used to think it odd that airports and airplanes weren’t packed full of people reading poetry and short fiction. It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? A story or two can get you from Knoxville to Chicago, from San Diego to Portland. We could devour a poetry chapbook in the distance from New York to Atlanta. But the most popular choice on an airplane seems to be a long novel in a genre like romance or mystery. I read mysteries myself when I’m looking to relax with a book. Give me fictional gumshoes Kinsey Millhone or Stephanie Plum—not Ishmael; not poor, dead Finnegan.
And not flash. Airplane books are meant to get our minds off of the height, the plummet; flash is meant to ensnare the mind and captivate our attention, so that we are fully present in our bodies and minds, feeling the weight of each noun, the energy of every verb.
I’m the woman in seat 3B with her nose in a Janet Evanovich novel. I’m the one trying hard not to think of turbulence or Tenerife, the one who can’t decide if she prefers Ranger or Joe Morelli. (Who am I kidding? I’m Team Lula all the way.)
But I have a collection of flash in my suitcase for when I get where I’m going and I’m ready to be serious about what it means—when I’m ready to handle the tight-packed tragedy or beauty or essence of it all.
Karen Craigo is the author of two forthcoming poetry collections, No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017), and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.
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.
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.
Why Flash Fiction? It’s a Not-Quite Accident
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 our inaugural column, new SmokeLong Associate Editor Virgie Townsend traces her flash fiction roots through an early novel about cousin incest, back to her childhood growing up in a fundamental Baptist church. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Virgie Townsend
When I started writing flash fiction a few years ago, I thought it was by accident. It wasn’t, of course, but it’s taken me almost a decade to see how the seeds of loving short short stories have been sown throughout my life.
I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to be a writer. I was shy and uncoordinated, but writing made sense to me in a way that little else did. I could hear a rhythm to language, and I wanted to put it to paper.
But short stories weren’t on my radar during my early writing years. My reading list was comprised entirely of longer works. As far as I knew, real writers wrote novels, and I was ambitious to be a ‘real’ writer, even at seven years old.
Between the ages of ten and fifteen, I wrote five novel-length projects, all of which are now humiliating. My first novel could best be described as Little Women meets Gone with the Wind meets accidental cousin incest. I titled it A Legacy of Passion.
Sadly, the world will be denied further gems like A Legacy of Passion. Short stories drew me away in high school. At first, it was because my creative writing teacher assigned them, and I perceived them as being easier to publish, which would bring me closer to my vision of being a ‘real’ writer. Over time, I fell for writing short stories. They were still garbage, but they were garbage I enjoyed rolling around in.
While working on one of those garbage short stories, I stumbled on flash fiction. That moment marks the beginning of my adult creative life.
For several months, I had been revising a short story about a teenage girl who grows up in an isolated religious community, and whose friend commits suicide after finding out she’s pregnant. The plot points were fictional, but it was inspired by my own upbringing in a fundamentalist church with cult-like qualities. I felt compelled to write it.
The problem was that it was a 12-page bloated mess, complete with a gratuitous exorcism scene. Frustrated that it wasn’t working, I began deleting everything that didn’t cut to the heart of my story. When I was done, only about 626 words remained. It was my first piece of flash, and it became my first published story, “Seventeen.”
Since then, I’ve written longer pieces and nonfiction, yet I come back to flash for reasons both practical and emotional. A practical benefit is that it makes me a better writer in every genre. Flash behooves writers to think critically about what’s essential to a story. It allows little room for our egos, or our fantasies about the mythical ‘real’ writer. It asks us to stay with it through every moment, tending each sentence.
Last year, I wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about the long-term effects of childhood trauma. Although it was generally unrelated to my literary work, flash made it possible because it helped teach me how to make tight arguments and convey my points in 1,200 words. Everything I write owes some fraction of its existence to my first piece of flash fiction.
But nature of the form also connects with me philosophically. I haven’t been a fundamental Baptist for fifteen years, but flash fiction reminds me of something that I still cherish from my religious upbringing—the powerful simplicity of Christ’s parables. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, which illustrates love across sectarian lines. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which demonstrates the importance of forgiving others.
The first places where we find beauty and truth are the places to which we return repeatedly throughout our lives, searching for understanding. More than two decades before I wrote my first piece of flash and thought it was happenstance, I was learning to love little stories as a kid in Sunday school class, and that love has driven a lifetime of writing.
Virgie Townsend is an associate blog editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. Her short fiction has been featured various publications, including Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and this one. Read her previous blog post about teaching flash fiction to high school students, and find her online at www.virgietownsend or @VirgieTownsend.