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February 22, 2017 Fridge Flash
In this week’s Fridge Flash, eleven-year-old Irene Meklin shares a story about the end of school days, jelly donuts, sleepovers, throwing rubber lizards, and the exhilarating exhaustion of childhood. We are excited to share this story from this talented young writer whose name we are certain to see again in the decades to come.
By Irene Meklin
Time is something that will not do your bidding. When you are waiting for something, it goes unbearably slow, and if you don’t want to go somewhere or do something it smiles and runs away from you at a mile a minute, grinning. I thought as I watched the clock. It seemed to slow down and dwell on one minute, one second even. Tick-tock, it went, as if it knew that I was waiting for it. Move! Move! I told it. Don’t you ever get tired of standing in one place? Move! Move, move, move! Finally, it struck two fifty. Only ten minutes left! Those ten minutes felt like ten hours. I zoomed out of what the teacher was saying, daydreaming about what was sure to happen that night. Then I noticed that everyone was packing up.
I stood up and got my stuff. I met Kesenia, my classmate, outside. We waited for her mother and when her mother arrived, we picked up Kes’s sister, Eliana. We drove to Krispy Kreme’s to get jelly donuts, since it was one of the nights of Hanukkah, also the last day of school before winter break in case you want to know. I remember clearly what flavors the donuts were. Some were maple, some chocolate with sprinkles, some glazed with jam, and some custard-filled. After that, we drove to Kesenia’s house. I remember that ride: Kes’s mother tried to make conversation as we drove on to her house in the rain.
When we arrived, Kes showed me around the house, even though I’d already been there, but not for a long time. We had dinner and, afterward, I chose my bed for the night. She had three “beds”, one a purple beanbag and a bunk bed with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, so if you look up from the top bunk you would see “stars”. I choose the top bunk.
I asked Kesenia if I could see their cat, Patches, Patches Purface Lazerclaw Goldstein and yes, that is her full name. She Patches, not Kesenia, was hiding in Eliana’s bedroom. We walked to her room and quietly, ever so quietly, so as not to scare away Patches from her hiding place. For all our efforts to be quiet, she heard us and ran away. Kes called her and I petted her. Her fur was as soft as a bunny’s. I noticed something that was green, blue, orange, red, yellow and purple.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That? Those are rubber lizards.” Kesenia replied in a tone of nonchalance. It was a bit bizarre, but what could I say? I’m not sure what happened next, but eventually we had divided the lizards equally (not so much) and drifted over to Kesenia’s room. There, for some reason, Eliana ended up on the purple bean bag, which reminded me of my own black bean bag at home, and my sister’s pink bean bag and how we used to slide down the stairs galump, galump, galump, and drag them up the stairs, thumping along and going down again. Kes stationed herself at the bottom bunk and me, as usual, on the bottom (sorry, top bunk). Then, we somehow ended up throwing our lizards at each other. I still wonder how it happened.
I am pretty sure that Kesenia and Eliana threw them at each other first. I mostly ran around the room like a crazy person and grabbed the fallen lizards who were lying there like wounded soldiers, waiting for medical help in a children’s battlefield. I started writing a book in my head like I so often do these days. The battle was lasting longer than she would have thought. She opens the guns and fires! She hears the ground control “They are right behind you.” “Roger that” she says into the headset. Lizards streaked across the room. Oh no! She is hit by an enemy plane! Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… I raced up the ladder and climbed up to the top bunk. Safe! I balled up my lizards into a ball of color and prepared to fire.
“Time for bed, Eliana.” I froze.
“Five more minutes! Please!”
Mom ”Come on, Eliana.”
The door creaked as Eliana exited the room.
“So… What do you want to do?”
I woke up at around four thirty, wondering why was it that I had woken up. I did a mental run through of the day.
Krispy Kreme’s. Check.
Dinner… Just thinking about it made me feel sick.
I happened to glance at Kesenia’s aquarium and saw the little fish, swimming in circles in their glow-in-the-dark prison.
Hi, fishies. I mumbled weakly.
They seemed to stare at me as I helplessly lay in bed, feeling… how can I say… terrible. I dragged myself to the bathroom, as slow as a turtle who has a broken leg. I stood over the sink and threw last night’s dinner. I sank to the floor and lay there, motionless for what seemed like an hour and might as well have been. I am not sure what happened next, but in what seemed like one minute to my delirious head I was home in bed, exhausted. My head hit the pillow as I gave way to sleep.
Irene Meklin is an 11-year-old with big dreams. She currently lives in Oakland, California. She aspires to one day be a professional author, but for now, she is but a sixth grader. She, as a young child, wrote short plays that she performed for her sister. Today, she spends her free time writing and reading.
February 16, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
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?
My young eyes thrilled to find the community center packed with people dressed as they would for a club show—in trench coats and combat boots, black leather jackets and, yes, even berets. Carroll took to the stage looking much the same. He resembled David Bowie but with wider set eyes and a heavier brow. He chatted some before launching into his reading, which to my delight, proved profane, funny, and at times, disturbing. A writer of both poetry and prose, he had grown up in New York, done a ton of heroin, and been friends with the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. Like a concert, his reading was electric; it was amplified through a PA to an audience who whistled between stories as they would between songs. There was even a merch table with CDs for sale, which is how I went home with his spoken word album, Praying Mantis.
I slipped it into my pop-top CD boom box and discovered most of its twelve tracks were short, between twenty-one seconds and six minutes. Without seeing Carroll’s words on the page, genre dropped into the background. Was he reading poetry, personal essay, or fiction? It wasn’t always clear. What imprinted was not genre, but the characters and quick arc. These tracks, like his spoken word performance, said: write about something—any lewd or cheeky or demented thing you’d like—but keep it short. Like a song. Entertain, evoke, step off the stage.
In Carroll’s apathetic, waggish voice, I found the irreverence and transgression I loved in music more lushly illustrated. Carroll creates paradoxical portraits of
the lonely, the marginalized, and the depraved, the ways they’re doomed, hilarious or heroic. One piece that pays homage to a prostitute ends, “She walks and walks because no one can ever make her price.” Others tell of a race his girlfriend holds between her pubic lice and his, a friend whose mother, upon learning John F. Kennedy has been shot, discovers her son masturbating with a cut of veal from the fridge. It was punk rock to my ears, Carroll’s subversive blend of lowbrow subject matter and highbrow fluency.
Because Praying Mantis was a CD, I began patching its tracks into the mix tapes I made, kicking off compilations of indie anthems for the disaffected with Carroll’s “Sampling Nietzsche”:
Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me only serves to make me stronger.” My version is: What does not kill me only serves to make me sleep until 3:30 the next afternoon.
When I asked a friend about a mix I’d given her, I didn’t just ask if she dug that Afghan Whigs song, I asked if she thought that story about Carroll’s one night as a performance artist who exterminates a cockroach on stage with a can of Raid, was ohmygod so good.
Praying Mantis’ accessibility, short tracks and implicit rejection of categories then guided my first attempts at writing for others. I started making and distributing zines, drawn to another compressed medium that braids forms. My first piece not self-published was a nonfiction flash series, very much in the vein of Carroll’s personal essays, called “The History of My Boobs: A Catastrophe in Four Parts” (and, yes, in retrospect I see two parts would have been more apt). It appeared on a website that was home to the graphic goth character Emily the Strange. Had it been published in a journal (there were very few online journals at the time), I doubt I would have received numerous emails from girls all over the country who wrote to me about their boobs, emails that made me feel as connected to other people as music ever had. Though I drifted toward fiction, finding more freedom there, I continued to favor the greater access of online publishing where flash just so happens to reign.
In Jim Carroll I found a gateway drug, one that expanded the world and made me feel more at home in it. He showed me how writing could build community and how sentiments from my favorite music could exist sans instrumentation with similar brevity and voltage. By illuminating these overlaps between music and prose, he provided the inspiration and blueprint for the kind of stories I wanted to read and write—stories that entertain, evoke, and then step off the stage.
Kara Vernor’s fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, No Tokens, PANK, Green Mountains Review, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She is an Elizabeth George Foundation Scholar at Antioch University LA and was a 2015 Best Small Fictions finalist. Her chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press.
January 31, 2017 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Mike Minchin discusses Edward Falco’s story “Koi” and how this introduction to flash changed his writing. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mike Minchin
I knew very little of flash fiction until about six years ago, when I happened to be reading The Southern Review and came across Edward Falco’s “Koi.” I was struck first by the brevity of the piece, barely more than a page, and I thought, Oh, how short. Such was my ignorance of the form and its possibilities. I had loved poetry for years, but I thought of fiction as mostly a long-winded creature. I was, at the time, attempting to compress my sprawling, almost novella-length stories into something remotely publishable, which is to say I needed to chop off ten or twenty thousand words from most of my stories. And so, I was overdue for a lesson in concision.
“Koi” is written from the point of view of a woman whose body is failing; unable to speak, she sits in a wheelchair beside her pond, her son at her side. The central image is that of a great blue heron flying away with a “bloodstained koi.” Falco writes: “She watches as long as she can, and feels herself growing smaller as the blue of the bird is swallowed by the blue of the sky, till for an instant it’s only that ink-spill bloodstain that remains.” It is an image that, even years later, comes back to me at odd times. What struck me was the way this piece, so pared down, so beautifully uncluttered, lingered in my mind like the wax scent of a candle in a room, long after the flame has gone out.
That so much could be done—so much emotion stirred—in so few lines gave me such hope. In “Koi” there is, somehow, the hint of a whole life lived, encapsulated in six short paragraphs, one primary scene, and a bit of recollection as the woman reflects on her late husband working around the yard, tending to the “bleeding hearts” and other flowers in the gardens.
I consider reading “Koi” to be my first experience with what is usually referred to as flash fiction, and I was immediately humbled, and hooked on trying it. I’ll admit that I don’t usually set out to write a piece of fiction that is a certain length; it is more that I try to understand the scope of a piece, as in how many characters am I working with? How many scenes do I need to show something? How much story is crucial for understanding a character? And though I have come to know the world of flash to be diverse, I usually think of it when I have a startling or poignant image in mind, and maybe that is from reading “Koi.”
Having finished a novel recently, I realized I was still compelled to write about my characters, and so I imagined my way into moments that happened several years before and after the timeframe of the book. I wanted to reach into the marrow of scenes that I felt could reveal character, and the flash form felt perfect for this exploration. Some of these pieces felt complete in themselves, but with others I could immediately sense them expanding, opening into new territory, demanding more space. And so, as often happens in my writing, one thing leads to another: a piece of flash fiction can bloom into a novel; a novel can blossom into a bouquet of flash pieces.
But sometimes I just think, Oh, yes, this is going to be flash! One morning, for example, as I was driving to work through freezing rain, seeing the birch trees bent over with ice and the cars around me slowing down, I got this sick feeling in my gut. The highway was quickly turning to ice, not an exit or sand truck for miles. And that is when I began imagining, and then reciting aloud, a story about a man who does not realize he is going to die as he drives along a frozen highway in Vermont, singing along with Luciano Pavarotti. I knew it would be a flash piece because I wanted only what I could recite aloud and remember, those few sensations and details that, like a bloodstained koi in the grip of a heron’s dagger-sharp bill, might just come off the page and fly away.
Mike Minchin’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Gargoyle Magazine, Vermont Magazine, Mud Season Review, and others. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He earned his MFA from VCFA. Recently, he has finished a novel.
January 30, 2017 News Digests
You may have noticed in the last two issues of SmokeLong Quarterly that things were a bit less Anglo than usual. In September 2016 we published Rupprecht Mayer’s “Aufgaben: ein Triptychon,” translated from German by Christopher Allen (that’s me), and in December Timba Bema’s “Accident,” translated from French by Michelle Bailat-Jones. And we’re just getting started.
In the March issue of SmokeLong we’ll be running a story in Danish translated by guest editor Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov, in summer a Spanish story translated by guest editor Cecilia Llompart. You can read all of this on the Global Flash Series page.
Writers and readers in French will be thrilled–and we are also thrilled–that Michelle Bailat-Jones is remaining with SmokeLong to become our French editor. Submissions have now reopened and will remain open on a rolling basis. Michelle Bailat-Jones is looking forward to your best work in French. Welcome, Michelle! We are excited to have you on board.
We have also decided to reopen German submissions—also los! Schick mir etwas! This means that now SmokeLong is always open to submissions in English, French and German.
I would also like to welcome our newest Global Flash Series guest editor. John Obwavo is co-founding editor of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature and has published fiction and literary criticism books on East African and European fiction. He teaches creative writing at St. Paul’s University in Kenya. He earned his PhD in Mass Communication from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.
John will be reading submissions in Swahili starting June 1, 2017. He will consider submissions for the September 2017 issue of SmokeLong. If you know someone who writes in Swahili, please make sure they know about this opportunity.
Translators, if you are interested in guest editing for SmokeLong, please contact us. Ideally, you’ll have translation experience. You should also be well connected to your literary community in the target language, and you should be familiar with the kind of work SmokeLong publishes. If you’re not familiar with SmokeLong, just have a look at our archives.
January 26, 2017 Why Flash Fiction Series
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!
By Michelle Elvy
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.
But if I loved the technical challenges of Rachmaninoff, my favorite piano piece to play, when I was sixteen, was Debussy’s No 8 in his Book of Préludes. I could bang out more outwardly impressive works, sure, and even longer ones. But I was in love with that piece because of the apparent simplicity hiding a rich well of emotional content. I loved the colours, the harmonies. I loved all 39 measures, all 2 ½ minutes. I loved it for its brevity, and for its emotional impact. I loved that, precisely because of the quiet nature of the piece, every single note mattered. I loved it for its deceptively complex expansiveness, for the challenge of the phrasings, for the rolled chords. I loved it for the hushed legato, the subtle phrasing. I loved it for the quiet echoes that remained after I’d reached the last note. Playing Debussy’s Prelude No 8 was my first introduction to something so short and so powerful and so beautiful.
In a recent discussion about prose poetry, New Zealand poet Michael Harlow wrote about the idea of story and language:
Inherent in all poems (there may be some exceptions) is some ‘story’ or fragment of a story wanting to be told or beginning to be told. It is in the nature of language that one word is always in search of another word, and then another.
I like this idea of words chasing each other, or perhaps singing to each other. Flash fiction can be as wee as two birds on a fence – but they can’t just be sitting there; they have to be shifting, or chatting, maybe even singing. Singing may be too much – trending toward the expected thing birds would do. But they must be doing something. That’s what makes it a story. Two birds in collusion, or in conflict, or in love – something about their relationship is central to them sitting there on the wire. The birds/ words seeking the relationship: that’s what makes the story.
Someone asked me recently how ‘What we ate’ is a story. I think the answer lies in the idea that the words must be seen in relation to each other, as Harlow suggests. We like to trim away adjectives and adverbs in flash fiction – but this story is going too far! It’s all nouns! Look:
Honey, fish and toheroas
Honey, fish and toheroas, plus eels
Honey, fish, and toheroas, plus eels, and also ducks
Honey, fish, and toheroas, plus eels, and also ducks, and pheasants and hares
Honey, fish, and toheroas, plus eels, and also ducks, and pheasants and hares, and godwits
Honey, fish, and toheroas, plus eels, and also ducks, and pheasants and hares, and godwits and snipe
Honey, fish, and toheroas, plus eels, and also ducks, and pheasants and hares, and godwits and snipe, plus kumara, spuds, corn and watermelon from Spirits Bay
And yet, there’s an implied relationship to the nouns – a before, and before, and before. Or an after, and after, and after. Either way: the words are chasing each other. There’s a momentum in their arrangement on the page. The language is what matters here. Content matters (though content in this case is limited by a historical document – this is found material), but content can only be achieved via language. It’s a bit of a leap to find the story in lines that are essentially lists of nouns. But if you look, I think it’s there, possibly in the implications of the words ‘and’ and ‘plus’. To me, flash is about play, about breaking down expectations. Look again: maybe you’ll see that’s not merely an arrangement of nouns. Something happens. Something changes over time. And it happens in a particular place, too. Whether it’s a good story or not – well, that’s not for me to decide.
But there they are, those words, chasing each other line after line, like a family of birds.
I don’t count words when I wrote flash fiction. Not anymore. I write and the story takes shape. I know the feel of a 250-word story versus a 1000-word story versus a micro. I know if it’s going to sprawl into something more; some things you can’t say in 1000 words. With flash, I count at the end, yes – to see where I’ve arrived. Then I step back and see if the word count matches the feel of it. And the feel determines what kind of story it is – not the word count. That’s why I balk at the six-word story, never mind Hemingway’s mythically proportioned napkin. The six-word story is, for me, too brief. There can be expert six words. But they are rare, and they seldom reach the brush stroke beauty or the emotional mystery of the simple haiku. An awful lot of six-word stories result in summary (the tiny memoir is a classic) or declaration (see me or don’t: I matter) or the overly clever (giveaway: wedding dress, worn and fucked). Those are pithy and maybe even fun, but they don’t breathe much life. How can there be life if there’s no pulse, no movement? Life happens beyond gimmick. And so does a really good story. The pulse is what matters. The essence, the pull, the rhythm and music. Not strict word count. Sure, we impose word counts in journals we edit: 1000 here, 500 there, 250 there. But that’s merely a framework, something that helps tame the wild beast. The key is to let the beast roar, somehow, no matter which format the story takes. I like that in a 250-word story, or even a smaller micro, the beast growls below the surface. In the 500-word story, he may actually say something, and tangle with more than a couple other characters. In the 1000-word story, he may experience a full evolution of some kind. No matter the word count, it’s the deep reverberating hum of the beast’s heart that matters most. The scratching beneath the surface, the inevitable howl.
- Tell tales
Depart. Sail across an ocean. Arrive in port. Life has happened while you’ve been disconnected. But life is here, in this space, in your boat. Thirty days at sea: a blip or an eternity. Time and space collapse. Ocean swells lift you and drop you and lift you again. You think you stop time but no: time is relentless, neverending. Current flows. Wind comes and goes and comes again. Sometimes screaming, sometimes sighing. Your jib frays in light wind. You look up and see the tell tales have gone. When did they go? It doesn’t matter. Life is still happening, and you’re sailing on, tell tales or not.
Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor. She edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five Notebook and is Assistant Editor, International, for the Best Small Fictions series. She is editing an anthology of New Zealand flash fiction / prose poetry with James Norcliffe and Frankie McMillan. Her fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction and travel essays have been widely published and anthologized. She lives on her sailboat, Momo, and currently in East Africa. She can be found at michelleelvy.com and http://svmomo.blogspot.com/.
January 11, 2017 Reviews
By Santino Prinzi
In many of the stories in Deer Michigan (Truth Serum Press, 2016), characters reflect on memories of what once was and how the world around them has changed, whether they wanted it to or not. In these moments, we find loss, anger, and regret, as well as happiness and hope.
“Hoop Dreams” is a coming-of-age story about young boys obsessed with the NBA and Baywatch. The narrator remembers his childhood in 1998 and how he and his friends were fascinated by Denis Rodman and imitated his behavior: “Purposefully missing shots in order to accumulate more rebounds on the stat sheet, diving on the concrete for loose balls, temporarily dying our hair for a day with green and red Kool-Aid you know, Rodman type of stuff.” This imitation of celebrities or icons feels innocent and playful, and we probably all did the same when we were their age. Rodman’s actions become the boys’ aspirations as he begins dating Carmen Electra because “Dennis wasn’t considered good looking, so it gave hope to all of us teenage losers that we could date one of the Baywatch babes, too,” but already Buck suggests the recollection of this memory is tainted with contempt. The boys are losers, and this imitation of Rodman makes the narrator feel foolish on reflection. Buck then explores the naivety of these boys, “We all thought we were inevitably destined for the NBA, that was a given, but Dennis dating a television supermodel was an added boost of confidence,” and this evokes a feeling of what is natural to believe at that age. That these boys were going to grow up to become NBA stars and date models “was a given” and seems so normal, as we all did when, as children, we believed we would become our heroes one day.
As with any coming-of-age tale, there comes the moment where that innocence is lost, where we realize how naïve we have been, and we step closer to adulthood. Perhaps one of the most “adult” realizations I ever had was that life happens—you will experience things that are entirely out of your control, they will change everything, and there is nothing you can do about it. This begins to happen for the narrator of “Hoop Dreams” in June 1998 when Bill, who is integral to the friendship group because he “would tape the episodes of Baywatch and the Chicago Bulls games and then make VHS mixtapes for the 20 boys in our neighbourhood to watch,” moves away after his mother “won a jackpot at the Gun Lake Casino.” This move ties in with Rodman’s new contract signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. For the boys, ‘it all happened so quickly” and “it didn’t make sense to us that people would move away once they got a little bit more money,” demonstrating the beginnings of these boys becoming adults. However, it is the following year when failed contract negotiations suspend the NBA season and the boys burn their Rodman jerseys and stop watching any television involving Los Angeles, as if this action will make a difference. Of course, it doesn’t, and their disenchantment draws these young boys into a loss of innocence, an understanding that their “neighbourhood was changing, us with it,” and that they cannot go back.
“Somewhere in the future you are remembering today” is another reflective story, but this one is directed at the narrator himself, or rather his future self. Opening with one of my favourite lines of the collection, “You found out rather painfully that love moves to places like New York without giving two weeks notice” echoes the idea in “Hoop Dreams,” and in many stories in this collection, that things happen that are beyond our control. In this case, it is the breakdown of a relationship, and the narrator tries to move on, “You try to rationalize it; making lists keeps you somewhat sane. It’s the start of something else, as someone one day before now said to someone else in a similar situation.” The idea of list writing as a coping mechanism is striking; it is certainly something I do to try and make sense of my own mind. Even though “you’ll type up twenty-seven-and-a-half copies” of this list, there is the feeling through this half-list that the narrator gives up, and accepts that at this point, despite the pros and cons he has thought up about moving to New York with her, there is nothing that can be done now: he is too late.
Buck understands that life may happen, and that there may be nothing that can be done about that, but that these experiences too can hold great joy as well as sorrow or regret. In “you are:”, Buck presents the happier side of romantic relationships by using a list to outline all of the things that make the person the narrator is in love with so wonderful. What prevents this device, and the story as a whole, from being gimmicky is how these things feel intensely intimate and personal, but I could relate to each of them: “the taste good waffles in bed makes; all the best wine I’ve ever had and will later have,” “You are: me opening the door and you are there, then taking me out that very door I just walked through for me to see and think things I’ve never seen or thought before,” “You are: 5.5 liters of my body’s blood rushing to my heart; you are: making it acceptable for me to even be somewhat okay with ever writing something like “blood rushing.” This relationship is special, but Buck has invited us into its precious moments without us making us feel like outsiders to it.
In Deer Michigan, Buck masterfully invites us into moments where we’ll try to make sense of what happens in life, be them difficulties or triumphs, and reminds us that life will carry on.
Santino Prinzi is the Flash Fiction Editor of Firefly Magazine, a First Reader for Vestal Review, and the Co-Director of National Flash Fiction Day in the UK. His debut flash fiction collection, Dots and other flashes of perception, is available from The Nottingham Review Press. His short stories, flash fiction, and prose poetry have been published in various places. To find out more follow him on Twitter (@tinoprinzi) or visit his website: https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com
January 4, 2017 Reviews
By Eshani Surya
Imagine the things you do in a day. See those small moments in succession: walk by the preacher on the subway, bake cookies or bread in the oven, try to flirt with the cashier at a local store, watch Netflix with increasing horror as the clock ticks forward, visit the bookstore, listen in on a conversation in a café.
In his debut collection of flash fiction, Dots: and other flashes of perception, Santino Prinzi walks his readers through daily lives, giving small actions and events weight. Prinzi moves away from the autopilot mode that so many of us exist in, trying to find meaning in what is often ignored. Even the stories that depict more specific and difficult circumstances (like “Calls for Ronan,” which deals with a transgender character and her mother’s inability to call her by the correct name) do so without grandiosity. In “Calls for Ronan” the story is told through phone calls, storytelling that reads as tangible rather than philosophizing. The effect of all this is a delicate collection, with stories that breathe whispers into the subconscious mind. On the inevitable day that a reader is mimicking the actions of a character from the book, it is entirely possible that a sentence from a story will rise up out of memory, and that reader will find themselves reconsidering their bodies and motivations.
For all his interest in the mundane, Prinzi others the experience of daily motions, making them deserving of further inspection. In “Halfway to Fifty,” Prinzi takes on Netflix and the phrase that the website asks: “Are you still watching?” For most, this is a screen we have encountered. We hit “Resume,” and go on. But Prinzi situates this image into questions of age and accomplishment. The first person narrator considers Netflix, then the length of centuries, then Facebook, then suicide, before returning to watching television. In this way, Netflix becomes a gateway for showing how technology ties its users to endurance.
Often, this othering is created through explicating violence. Much of the collection deals with forms of violence, both physical and emotional. This is most evident in the stories that handle deteriorating or unmoored relationships. In “Hereditary,” Prinzi depicts a mother and daughter who both kill their abusive husbands in the kitchen. In “Shelf Life,” Lisa and Nick meet in a bookstore. They follow each other through the sections, using the genres to guide the dynamic of their relationship. They end in Crime, where Lisa hides Nick’s unconscious body. These relationships have higher stakes with this clear violence, allowing Prinzi to show how precarious human affairs can be.
But violence is evident in other stories, as well, acting as a tie between the different parts of the collection. “Little Details” is also a relationship story, but it is the violence of betrayal, as a husband paints another woman’s portrait. In “Burnt Out,” a car is engulfed in flames in the night. Here, a blatant act of destruction is embedded into the scene. But even crueler is how the first person narrator talks about Janet in the morning, with no indication of even wanting to help the car’s owner when it caught fire.
Powerfully, most of the stories in Dots: and other flashes of perception consider the inherent violence in human actions. In this thematic space, Santino Prinzi is at the height of his critical prowess, uncovering truths that most people refuse to confront about their so-called mundane lives.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. Her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, New Delta Review, Lunch Ticket, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, and more. She was the 2016 winner of the Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction from New Delta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
December 20, 2016 Fridge Flash
In this week’s Fridge Flash, ten-year-old Nikhil Sampath shares an homage to our most important writing utensil, the pencil.
By Nikhil Sampath
In every pencil there is a story waiting to unfold. I as a writer have to let it unfold. When I write I let it come through without any thought. All hail—the Great Pencil.
December 19, 2016 News Digests
Congratulations to Allison Pinkerton, our 2017 Kathy Fish Fellow and writer-in-residence at SmokeLong Quarterly. Allison’s application packet blew us away with its originality and sense of play. We are thrilled to get to work with her over the next year.
Allison has an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Her work is forthcoming from Image, received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train, and has appeared online at The Pinch, the Ploughshares blog, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Central Florida, loves to travel, and is currently listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat.
You can read Allison’s SLQ stories starting in our March issue.
We received a record number of submissions this year—396—and were truly stunned by the talent within. In addition, thanks to the generosity of those applicants that added a $5 donation to their submission packet, we are thrilled to say that we’ve raised enough funds to host the 2018 Kathy Fish Fellowship! Look for more details on that award later in summer 2017.
We’d like to extend another congratulations to this year’s finalists as well: Maria Alvarez, Joy Baglio, Jacquelyn Bengfort, Rebekah Bergman, Hedgie Choi, Tayler Heuston, JSP Jacobs, Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Andrew Mitchell, Eric Schlich, Mackenzie Smith, and Benjamin Woodard.
Thank you to all our applicants. It was a pleasure to read your work.
And Happy New Year to all!
December 14, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Bernard James shares the insight and humor of Langston Hughes’ character, Jesse B. Semple. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Bernard James
The indomitable spirit of Jesse B. Semple (aka “Simple”) was first introduced by Langston Hughes in 1943, through a series of stories that appeared in a column he wrote for the Chicago Defender. Simple’s legacy as a literary fixture was later cemented following the release of three compilations that made Hughes’ original content available for wider public consumption. The first was Simple Speaks His Mind, published in 1950, followed by Simple Takes a Wife in 1953 and Simple Stakes a Claim, released in 1957. Subsequent anthologies (The Best of Simple, 1961, Simple’s Uncle Sam, 1965 and The Return of Simple, 1994) sample from the earlier pieces to form new collections, but the charisma that is Simple and the grace with which Hughes delivers him to the page are no less impactful when viewed through this updated, curatorial lens.
Each story is presented as a conversation that opens a window onto the beauty of pedestrian encounters. Indeed, part of what makes them so beautiful is the ongoing discovery that Simple’s life (our lives) are not pedestrian at all. “Simple on Indian Blood,” “Simple Prays a Prayer,” “Temptation,” “Vacation,” “Letting off Steam…” The titles are succinct, the prose direct and easy to understand. Through Simple, Hughes elevates the ordinary and shines a spotlight on what is otherwise common. Simple becomes a metaphor for profound statements exploding from unassuming packages. Hughes’ abbreviated prose cuts to the chase and by intensifying the mood, brings his subjects into better focus.
In “Simple Prays a Prayer,” the protagonist carries on about how whites would not recognize Christ if he returned at that moment; that they would barricade their segregated churches and sink deeper into their pious, segregated selves. Simple hopes that when Christ does return, he lands in the South and brings anger and vengeance with him. Notably, Simples hopes that “Christ drives the Jim Crowers out of their high places, every living last one of them, from Washington to Texas!” concluding his rant with “I hope he smites white folks down.” When Hughes asks if Simple is referring to all white folks, Simple replies, “No, I hope he lets Mrs. Roosevelt alone.” ntentional, but discerning. Humorous, but righteous still.
In “Conversation on the Corner,” Hughes and Simple talk about everything from haircuts to gambling, drinking, and dancing. Simple claims he drinks because he is lonesome, but the author shoots this down, questioning how Simple could possibly be lonesome given his popularity and the many friends at his disposal. “I’m lonesome inside myself,” Simple explains. Yes…this line grabs at me too; and I keep going back to it, turning it over in my mind. Relating and understanding. Unflinching in his delivery, Hughes understates it like a whisper that pulls you in closer until it squeezes your soul with devastating veracity. Alone in one’s own head is sometimes a challenging place to be. Anxiety. Insecurity. Depression. Hughes plainly speaks the truth of this.
Simple manifests as an amalgamation of identities. He is everyone and no one, yet accessible to anyone. He is available to the masses—and as a technical construct, these conversational vignettes serve up bite-sized portions of commentary and introspection through which the reader comes to invest in Simple’s foibles and concerns. Simple’s observations as presented by Hughes are analogous to holding up a mirror on a typical day, reflecting its typical problems and potential (typical) resolutions.
Simple’s longtime lady friend Joyce figures prominently in his many discussions with Hughes. She is patient to a fault, and forgiving of Simple’s assortment of less than perfect traits. But we soon learn that Joyce has her limits, and when Simple really screws things up, even Joyce no longer finds him tolerable. In “Blue Evening,” Hughes finds Simple sitting on the corner stool alone. He mistakes his friend’s malaise as the manifestation of another hangover, but Simple explains that Joyce has finally quit him. When Hughes offers a drink to cheer him up, the author is blindsided by another surprise. “This is one time I do not want a drink. I feel too bad,” Simple says, and Hughes knows his friend is in serious trouble.
Simple pleads his case, but Joyce is not persuaded. He rings her bell, sends telegrams—phones her seventeen times in a row; and still she will not answer. “You never miss the water till the well runs dry,” Simple concedes. At that moment, he cares about nothing other than winning back Joyce’s affections. Liquor and other women are of no concern; the distaste he harbors for his landlady is of no concern; even race relations and Jim Crowers do not bother him in the face of this unexpected loss. “I would not care if Mississippi moved to Times Square,” he proclaims, which is something, because Simple is fiercely protective of New York and especially the (black) safe haven that Harlem provides. Having drifted beyond the point where Hughes’ explanations carry any weight, Simple has resolved to stand outside Joyce’s brownstone all night, pleading his case and calling her name if that is what it takes. Who among us has not experienced the pain of love lost and the desperation to get it back? That is a condition understood by everyone, escapable by no one, and applicable to anyone.
Novels have longer arcs; slower deliveries. Reading one is like taking a long train ride or a cross country trip. By contrast, Simple’s reflections feel more like a walk home from the corner grocery store—with a random stop on a friend’s porch or a quick detour inside the neighborhood bar to catch up on gossip over a couple of drinks. In Hughes’ capable hands, a profusion of action transpires inside these discrete windows in time. This is a testament to the author’s talents and the beauty of the sensory context established through repeated dialogue with Jesse B.
The Simple Shorts (as I like to call them) functioned as a kind of gateway; priming and preparing me for denser volumes that were yet to come. Flawed and irreverent though he was, here was this likable, accessible character who was plainspoken but substantive in discourse and thought. As fictionalized trough Hughes’ sensibilities, Simple opines on weighty matters of the day, striking a prescient chord as it relates to our current state of racial and economic affairs. But unlike the solemn to somber tone found in some of Hughes’ poetry (A Negro Speaks of Rivers, Kids Who Die, and Suicide’s Note for example), Hughes successfully reaches for a more buoyant plane of expression through the humorous and dubious rationalizations of Simple.
Having grown up in the decaying orbit of Youngstown’s once vibrant steel industry, I was several imaginations removed from the cultural consciousness that permeated Langston Hughes’ Harlem. Nowhere was that more evident than in the mostly Eurocentric curriculum to which I was subjected during my primary and secondary education. But my lovely mother, God rest her soul, was my saving grace. She stepped into the breach, exerted her influence and remedied this lack of exposure. An avid reader with a special appreciation for the canon of Black American classics, she made sure I was introduced to—amon others—Morrison, Hurston, Ellison and Hughes. More than any other, it was Langston Hughes who captured my imagination and fueled my desire to further acquaint myself with Harlem’s renaissance period; and it was Jesse B. Semple who stood out as one of the most significant influences on a young boy’s immersion into the world of black language arts.
Jesse B. Semple was a purveyor of flash long before such a notion had settled into common understanding. Hughes’ capacity for lyricism and his ability to unpack, then distill complex ideas uniquely positioned him to take full command of the short story form. By reducing the framework of each story to a brief conversation with Simple, Hughes imbues the narrative with additional powers, enabling it to punch above its weight. He sets us up to expect and wait for Simple’s gems. Each story is uniquely capable of standing on its own, encapsulating and resolving itself from brief beginning to end; but when taken together, the reader is lulled into a comfortable pattern of elongated time and space; each story building upon the one that came before it and in turn, setting the stage for the next in line. Hughes’ voice and the folksy appeal of Jesse B. Semple are what allow this magic to unfold—from story to story, in the space between collections, and in the reflective silence that follows, long after Simple’s tales have been told.
Writing under the pseudonym Bernard James, James Bernard Short is an emerging novelist, essayist, and poet. His singular ambition as a writer is to produce smart, expressive and culturally authentic content that captures the wide spectrum of aspirations and challenges encountered by persons of color. Notions of what define the cultural and geographic boundaries of the Black diaspora are of particular interest, as well as pieces that explore the dynamics of love, loss and personal transition. James’ work has appeared in sx salon, a Small Axe literary platform, the Killens Review of Arts & Letters, and the Columbia Journal of Literature and Art. He is a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, a member of the 2016 Writer’s Hotel Master Class in Poetry, a 2015 Givens Writing Fellow, and a participant in the 2013 MN Northwoods Writer’s Fiction Workshop. James holds degrees from Northwestern and The University of St. Thomas. He currently resides in the Twin Cities.
December 13, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Zombies. Yes, this is a zombie story. A stunning and moving one. While “The Dead Are Not Hungry” is yet another sign-of-the-times story about a world spinning out of control, it’s also a very personal story about a father’s feeling of helplessness. And Justin Lawrence Daugherty aces the ending. It will leave you breathless. – Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Read “The Dead Are Not Hungry”
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Marysa LaRowe’s “Independence Day” builds layer upon layer toward a shocking ending—a deluge that carries the reader away just as flash fiction should. – Christopher Allen
Read “Independence Day”
Congratulations to all of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nominees!
December 8, 2016 News Digests
Out of more than 300 applications for the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship, our staff has narrowed the list to 13 finalists. We’d like to congratulate and honor these 13 writers for their accomplishment.
The finalists are:
We hope to make a final decision about the winner of the fellowship in the next two weeks. Congratulations to all our finalists, and thank you to all the writers who submitted to the contest this year. We’ve been truly stunned by the talent in the queue.
December 6, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Over the next three Tuesdays, we will announce our nominees by posting links to the selected stories and author interviews.
“Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead” draws the reader in so effortlessly. Magic realism is not easy. It can often seem heavy-handed or forced, but Steve Edwards pulls it off with a solid, engaging voice that urges the reader along to a sort of coda in the brief line “Love is a mess.” This is a brilliant example of flash fiction. – Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Steve Edwards
The Apocalypse is coming. Our world in crisis has inspired an onslaught of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories. “The Sound and the Song” is one of these. Letitia Trent deftly uses cadence to create a confused and dazed tone as her characters, an archetypal nuclear family, succumb to the effects of a gas attack. Trent manages to make this apocalypse personal and even beautiful. – Christopher Allen
Read “The Sound and The Song”
Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Letitia Trent
Check back with us next Tuesday for our final round of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nomination Announcement!
December 6, 2016 Fridge Flash
In fewer than 30 words, this week’s Fridge Flash from Raya Ghosh-Roy follows the journey of a wistful Parisian fox. Showcasing evocative, haiku-like descriptions, “A Fox in Paris” recalls one of the earliest forms of flash fiction–fables–with a cosmopolitan twist.
By Raya Ghosh-Roy
There was a fox in Paris swerving in and out of a dark, gloomy alley listening to echos. It was thinking of its family, back in the misty hills.
November 30, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Stefen Styrsky waxes poetic on the day he discovered Isaac Babel and it changed his life. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Stefen Styrsky
Isaac Babel arrived in my life like a bolt from the blue, or maybe I should say like a Cossack horde appearing on the horizon. It was at Myopic Books, a used bookstore on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, near Wicker Park, an old neighborhood of odd-angled intersections and flatiron buildings.
It was pure chance, me fortuitously catching Babel’s name as my eyes swept the shelves. The Collected Stories. The cover image: three men on galloping horses, an abstract representation that appeared to be a sponge print; the cover itself helpfully taped at the corners and along the spine. The tape probably kept the book whole, enabling it to travel from its publication in 1960 — through who knows how many hands and boxes and personal libraries — to me in that year of 2008.
I’d often heard Babel mentioned in connection with other great short story writers, especially his fellow countrymen — Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov – artists who had developed and honed the story into the shape we know today. Floating around in my head were a few other Babel-related items absorbed over years of indiscriminate reading. There was his observation, so perfect a writerly sentiment it’s suspiciously apocryphal: “Nothing pierces the human heart like a period in the right place.” That his last public words, shouted as Stalin’s secret police hauled him off to the gulag, were, “But I’m not finished yet!”
When I returned to my hotel room that evening I dove right in and read the first few stories from the book’s opening section, Red Cavalry. (Attesting to the power of Babel’s stories, I can’t recall why I was in Chicago, my memory of the time completely subsumed by initial exposure to his prose). I had no idea what to expect. Stories, obviously, but my imaginings hadn’t prepared me for these compact, visceral tales.
The first paragraph of the first story, Crossing into Poland:
The Commander of the VI Division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno, and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.
Followed by two brief pages that end with the narrator awakening alongside a dead man he’d unknowingly lain next to when bedding down in a civilian’s house for the night. The man’s face is hacked in two and “in his beard blue blood was clotted like a lump of lead.” We learn that soldiers of the invading army killed the man the previous day, the same army the narrator marches with. The dead man’s daughter, who perhaps allowed the narrator to sleep next to the corpse as a kind of gruesome revenge, asks aloud in the story’s final line, “I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?”
Under a thousand words; it barely tops 850. History and war, horror and pathos, all in one compact package. I shivered with jealousy and awe. Who was this writer and when had he composed such brief stories? Babel seemed thoroughly modern, despite writing about a minor conflict from a previous century. I flipped to the copyright page. The book was a reissue of a translation published in 1929 by Alfred A. Knopf. And so here was not just an amazing writer, but here also was flash before flash technically existed. Before the writing of the short-short story was considered a separate prose genre.
Later, I’d learn from Lionel Trilling’s introduction that Isaac Babel began his career as a journalist in Odessa and often based his fiction on details he picked up. During the Russo-Pole war of 1920-1923 he rode alongside the Russian Cossack cavalry as a correspondent for Soviet periodicals. Bespectacled, asthmatic, and Jewish, Isaac Babel was everything the Cossacks were not, men literally born to the saddle, brought up riding horses across the steppe, who demonstrated outright disdain for “intellectuals,” and possessed a long and deep experience with violence, especially against Jews. Somehow, he earned their grudging acceptance. The thinly-fictionalized stories in Red Cavalry depict the evolution of outcast into tolerated colleague. Most are as short as Crossing into Poland. Only a few reach beyond five pages. So not only was Babel an early practitioner of flash fiction. In Red Cavalry he also stumbled into what is these days called the flash novella: a series of flash or very short pieces that comprise an entire story arc.
But it wasn’t simply Babel’s hyper-compressed style that prompted my reaction. There was first and foremost his language. It’s vivid, energetic and extremely tight. His stories come across as dispatches from the front, reports dashed off in the fire and heat of combat.
Then there are his metaphors which seem conjured from the fevered edge of dreams:
Savitstky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of his giant’s body. He rose, the purple of his riding breeches and the crimson of his little tilted cap and the decorations stuck on his chest, cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky. The sickly sweet freshness of soap emanated from him. His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots. (“My First Goose”)
And many descriptions in Red Cavalry simultaneously combine the horrible and the sacred. Acts of violence and destruction arrive in terms that seem almost holy. Consider this final paragraph from the one-page story Prishchepa’s Vengeance:
On the third night the settlement saw smoke rising from Prishchepa’s hut. Torn, scorched, staggering, the Cossack led the cow out of the shed, put his revolver in its mouth and fired. The earth smoked beneath him. A blue ring of flame flew out of the chimney and melted away, while in the stall the young bull that had been left behind bellowed piteously. The fire shone as bright as Sunday. Then Prinschepa untied his horse, leaped into the saddle, threw a lock of his hair into the flames, and vanished.
The Red Cavalry stories were so head-clearing they became one of the first times I actually studied how an author employed language. From Babel I learned that word choice could imbue a story with an emotional volume that belied its scant word count. Consider how powerful Crossing into Poland becomes with that final word: father. That the reader will intuit much in a story without having to be told. And that metaphors should not merely describe, but also reveal meaning. Above, the images around Savitsky convey the man’s dominating grandeur and beauty.
I revisit the Red Cavalry stories often. The language is forever fresh, the situations forever revealing of new angles and modes of interpretation. And, obsessed as I am, I’ve obtained other versions. In 2003 W.W. Norton issued the Complete Works of Isaac Babel translated by Peter Constantine. Red Cavalry was also printed as its own volume. I bought the 2013 Boris Dralyuk’s version from the Pushkin Collection not only because it’s an engaging translation, but also because the volume is sized perfectly to fit inside a coat pocket, making it easy to carry and pull out whenever I require a Babel fix.
No translation is perfect, but all three manage to capture the essence of Babel’s unmistakable work. Sometimes I’ll play a little game and lay the three side by side, each open to the same passage. Then I’ll try to decide which I like best, which I think comes closest to what Babel intended, where his periods, commas, paragraphs, and words seem to be in just the right place.
Stefen Styrsky is a graduate of the writing program at Johns Hopkins University. His fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Litbreak, The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, and the Tahoma Literary Review. He is currently at work on a series of stories based on a theme from Babel. He lives in Washington, DC.
November 29, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is excited to nominate six fantastic stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize!
Over the next three Tuesdays, we will announce our nominees by posting links to the selected stories and author interviews.
Why we chose it: “‘Daddy’s Boy’ is an abuse story. You might even call it a conversion therapy story. We read a lot of abuse stories in the SmokeLong queue; and while they’re all troubling and tragic by nature, few add much new to the story. Dennis Norris II gives the reader a dialogue between a father and a son: the father teaching his boy how to be a man in the first section, the son showing his father the man he becomes in the second. The father’s voice embodies so well that damning voice church-reared gay men carry around with them: I’m hurting you because I love you. Painful and real.” -Christopher Allen, Managing Editor
Why we chose it: “‘Some Cool Heaven’ is a linear narrative: an account of a mother taking her son to the fair for the last time. She’s dying, probably cancer. It’s one of those types of stories that we get again and again, but the difference is that Emma Smith-Stevens’ attention to detail is moving and so intelligent. This story has something to say, and it says it perfectly–in each and every line.” -Christopher Allen
Check back with us next Tuesday for Round Two of our 2017 Pushcart Prize Nomination Announcement!
November 28, 2016 News Digests
PLEASE NOTE VENUE CHANGE BELOW! This event is no longer being held at the Wonderland Ballroom.
Heading to AWP‘s conference? Washington, D.C. is COLD in February. So why not warm up with some dark, steamy flash fiction?
Join SmokeLong Quarterly and D.C.’s Noir at the Bar for an off-site AWP reading “Cold, Dark Flash,” an evening of noir flash fiction. RSVP on our Facebook event page.
Cold, Dark Flash
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017
The Pub and the People
1648 N. Capitol St. NW
Washington, DC 20002
(Three blocks from the Green Line Metro)
W. Todd Kaneko
and hosted by:
Music by DJ Alkimist
Books for sale, raffle prizes, music, and more! Hope to see you there.
November 25, 2016
It’s been an amazing week of flash fiction giving and receiving. Thank you to everyone who participated in SmokeLong’s #FlashGiving!
We discovered many wonderful pieces of flash fiction, while celebrating and saying thank you to the talented writers who created them. Please check out the hashtag #FlashGiving to read all the stories.
Five lucky individuals were chosen at random to receive a copy of Randall Brown’s Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. Below are the winners and a story they tweeted to us:
Christina Dalcher tweeted us Ani King’s “Conjugate ‘to be’, using complete sentences,” published at freeze frame fiction.
Cathy Ulrich tweeted us Rebecca Harrison’s “The Slinky” published at Menacing Hedge.
Jan Stinchcomb tweeted us Ashley Hutson’s “The Hen of God” published at The Conium Review.
Voimaoy tweeted us F.E. Clark’s “The Solstice Shade” published at The Molotov Cocktail.
Sophie van Llewyn tweeted us Paul Beckman’s “I Have a Problem” published at Spelk.
Thank you again to everyone who participated. Happy #FlashGiving!
November 23, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Katey Schultz discusses how Hemingway’s In Our Time allowed her to embrace flash along side traditional length fiction. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Katey Schultz
We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. This line, from Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, is one sentence from an eight-sentence story published by Scribner under the heading, “Chapter III,” in 1925. The piece, which might be labelled today as somewhere between a dribble (50 words) and a drabble (100 words), is 75 words in length. When I finished reading the story, I didn’t care what it was labelled. I knew I’d never be the same again.
Not because it was Hemingway, mind you. And not even because the piece was so beautifully short. But because of the verb “potted.” The entirety of the war—the senseless waste, the black humor, the scale of loss that leads to dissociative language—seemed summed up in that one, keenly appointed verb. To kill a human being should never be to “pot” one. And yet…Hemingway potted that soldier, and, as the story concludes, “Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.”
It’s worth noting that I read this story sometime around 2011. The number of rejections for my first book of short stories titled Flashes of War—as of then unpublished—was somewhere in the upper twenties. The rejections I received were filled with some of the kindest things anyone has ever said about my writing. Yet time and again, editors concluded something along these lines, “That said, I just can’t imagine how to market a collection of mixed full-length and flash-length stories. Regrettably, I’ll pass.”
Regrettably, too many writers are still receiving rejection letters like that, and while I certainly wouldn’t want any editor to take on a book she or he felt dispassionate about, I do want to beseech all editors (and readers! dear readers!) that the “problem” of marketing or relating to mixed collections isn’t new and it isn’t a problem. The work speaks for itself. In Our Time contains flashes, drabbles, full-length stories, and various indefinables. I suspect its sales are…well…isn’t it enough that almost a hundred years later, it’s still selling? Trends will be trends. We can never outsmart them and it isn’t the business of art to do so.
It is the business of art, however, to make every word count. Potted counts. Potted takes my breath away. Potted says more in two syllables than 50,000 first draft NaNoWriMo words can say in a month. (Ok, I’m not hating on NaNoWriMo, but I am suggesting that deep work leads to precise word choice, and it’s often hard to go deep and go long at the same time, at least in early drafts, while also under pressure.)
In the end, Flashes of War received 44 rejections. After Loyola University Maryland published it, it went on to win to awards, be required reading at the United States Air Force Academy, be studied at more than a dozen universities and colleges, and be embraced by the veteran community. I’m not saying that to tout accomplishments, I’m saying that to prove a point: mixed collections do speak to the human heart, and flash—dribble, drabble, micro, nano, sudden, call it what you will—deserves just as much shelf space as other genres. If Hemingway were alive today and faced with “marketing” and “platforms” and “tweets,” would he keep on shrugging and writing whatever he wanted to write? Easy answer. Hell yes he would, and he’d pot anyone who suggested otherwise.
Katey Schultz is passionate about short form writing and provides feedback to writers via email instruction.
November 16, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jennifer Fliss discusses the deliciously deep and ominous works of Franz Kafka. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jennifer Fliss
Somewhere in the middling, flannel, acne-covered early nineties, I was introduced to Franz Kafka, via The Metamorphosis. As someone who didn’t particularly enjoy classic literature, Kafka was a welcome departure. The strangeness and the details left unexplained impressed upon me that part of the fun of reading is leaving something for the reader to parse out – a mystery in form and not only in subject matter. I quickly read through Kafka’s other stories, long and short. And it is in Kafka’s shorter works that I found exactly what I was looking for and what would influence my writing decades after.
Often this style of omission can be difficult for a reader in longer works. When reading novels, my mind wants to grasp onto tangible setting details and storytelling. In really short stories, there isn’t enough physical space for these things and requires the reader to fill in the blanks and work with the writer for a fully composed masterpiece and experience.
One hundred years ago, Kafka’s 775-word story, “A Fratricide” is a very early example of what we now have given the name, “flash fiction.”
The premise is of a man, Schmar, murdering his brother, Wese. The killing is premeditated. As he awaits his brother, we see him sharpening his blade, we feel him hot with nerves, we see what he is wearing; we are in very close narrative distance to Schmar. Also, of importance: Kafka gives us a witness, Pallas, who is watching in his bedclothes from his apartment window.
In this short piece, in a style similar to what we see in many flash pieces today, it is unclear who the narrator is. This is critical. The first line is everything, and is a tell for the reader: The evidence shows that this is how the murder was committed. This means – and I love it – that you can’t actually count on this being the objective truth. This is only what the evidence shows.
In “A Fratricide” there is also some wholly unbelievable dialogue after the murder transpires. Schmar rejoices aloud in the blood-letting. But the words don’t ring true. Presumably, it is what Pallas has reported. And who is Pallas? Kafka asks the reader this pointedly which I believe was Kafka’s way to say – hey, this guy may not be so innocent.
This is all a break from straightforward narrative. In flash fiction, we can do that since flash is often conceptual. Flash writers experiment with all kinds of form and in this way, Kafka does not disappoint.
In my flash, I love writing the intangibles. What can you not grasp onto that is keeping you in the story? Have you caught it in the end? Yes? No? Want to read it again to see if you can parse out the meaning? Because the work is so short, you can easily read and reread it and engage with it on multiple levels and reinterpretations. It can mean something to one reader and something entirely different to another. As a flash fiction writer, you present a stage, throw in some clues as to what your intentions are and leave the rest to the reader.
But you decide. Read the story yourself. It’s brilliant and it reads very modern. One thing to note though is that Kafka was doing it one hundred years ago, a time when James Joyce and Marcel Proust and E.M. Forster were on the scene. These authors were writing long epic novels (Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is over 3000 pages!) filled with rambling sentences with nary a detail left out.
Of “A Fratricide,” others have said the three characters are personifications of Freud’s three elements of personality: id, ego, and superego. And if this was an English class, I’d say: yes, go there. Dig deep. Find meaning. See the obvious parallel to the biblical brothers, Cain and Abel. Look for the layers. But I also enjoy reading this story for the story directly put in front of me. That’s the beauty of flash fiction – it can be so many different things at once.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in PANK, The Rumpus, Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She recently won the Fiction Southeast Hell’s Belles Short Fiction Prize. She can be found on Twitter at @JFlissCreative or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com
November 14, 2016
Celebrate the season of giving with us by sharing your favorite online story!
From now until Wednesday, November 23, SmokeLong Quarterly is sponsoring #flashgiving to show how grateful we are to writers of flash.
Flood your Twitter account—and ours—with the greatest flash stories of the year. We depend on the talent, energy, and creativity of these writers, so let’s celebrate them.
Besides the great feeling you’ll have from promoting a writer, there’s something tangible and square to win: Five people will get a copy of Randall Brown’s Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction.
We will compile all the shared links on the SmokeLong blog sometime the week following Thanksgiving, right after we’ve had our vegan turkey and gluten-free stuffing.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose a story from any online journal (not your own story, not your own journal). You can share as many stories as you want of course (why would we stop you?), but your name goes into the hat only once.
- Use #flashgiving to tweet the link and the reason you love it. Also include the author and the journal’s handles whenever possible.
- Check out other #flashgiving stories.
We will contact the winners via Twitter the day before Thanksgiving. World-wide entries accepted. Winners should expect a direct message from us November 23.
November 10, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
November 3, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Insurrections author and former SLQ guest editor, Rion Amilcar Scott, breaks down the beauty and magic of Alice Walker’s short story “The Flowers.” Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Rion Amilcar Scott
Once I picked up an anthology and chose the shortest story in the interest of time, but neither time nor brevity functioned as I expected them to. I probably read it quickly—I’m sure I did—but years later part of me is still back in the woods of the story with the little girl protagonist—her name is Myop—puzzling over that disturbing thing I saw. My brain is unable to distinguish the action of the story from memory so images from the brief and intense tale come flitting through my head from time to time.” More so than any story I’ve encountered, it doesn’t feel as if I’ve read “The Flowers” by Alice Walker as much as it feels like I’ve lived it.
The story begins with the lightness of a fable, and somehow without losing that lightness, it takes on, in addition, the darkness of a horror. Myop skips through a clearing engaged in a child’s vocation, collecting flowers. And here is where Walker binds her protagonist to the reader. The author primes us to live the story rather than just read it with a series of notes to the senses. She tells us about the “keenness” in the air that makes Myop’s nose twitch. And then she follows it with this image: “The harvesting of the corn and cotton, peanuts and squash, made each day a golden surprise that caused excited little tremors to run up her jaws.” We go from feeling to sight back to feeling. The images cause a delightful Synesthesia that Walker plays with over and over again in the course of the story’s 563 words.
We learn that Myop is ten and carefree. She bothers chickens, feels the warm sun on her skin and with a stick she taps out a song on a fence (“ the tat-de-ta-ta-ta of accompaniment”). By this point, Walker has been so relentless with her sensory descriptions that the mixed sense effect begins to happen without the author even forcing it. The author mentions pigs and I hear them snort. There is a stream and Walker doesn’t mention it bubbling, but I hear it bubbling and I hear the whisper of its flow.
Then Walker does magic. She writes the sentence: “She found, in addition to various common but pretty ferns and leaves, an armful of strange blue flowers with velvety ridges and a sweet suds bush full of the brown, fragrant buds.” And each time I read it, out of nowhere I smell the sweet purple fragrance of the flora in Myop’s arms. The smell passes through my nasal passages and rests on my tongue until I can taste it. It’s as someone has sprayed the air with a floral perfume. Here I usually look around, feeling my sanity has finally come to an end. What is this weird evocation, but a hallucination?
And after this glorious delusion is where things begin to get dark. It’s noon and Myop is a mile from home, a place Walker says is gloomy. The fragrant air is now replaced by a damp scent. Perhaps we should have seen this change coming, right before the fragrant buds Myop begins looking for snakes, the first hint of danger after paragraphs of beautiful carefree images.
Just as she looks to turn for home, Myop bumps into a skeleton partially buried in the ground. Its clothes are rotted away and its teeth broken. Worst of all, a rope lay around this man’s neck. This was no accident. This was not a case of a poor fool dying of exposure. This man was murdered. He was lynched.
Not only does the finality of death intrude on Myop’s carefree jaunt, but the reality of racialized violence. This could happen to one of the men in her life, she realizes. Myop rests the flowers next to the dead man and leaves. In the end, an understated Walker announces: “And the summer was over.” Poor Myop, she can never have summer again. She can never truly experience the lightness of a nature walk again. She now knows too much of the world.
I’ve read this Walker story over and over, sometimes going from the final word back to the beginning hoping to find more of Walker’s secrets. I’ve read it out loud from semester to semester with my students to show how cleanly the story moves from purpose through perception; trying to figure out just how in the world Walker managed to make writing the perfect short story look easy. But often I leap back to not wanting to know, yearning for the innocence of Myop in the story’s first paragraphs. After all, doesn’t it ruin the magic to unravel all the movements of the illusionist’s hand?
Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International,The Washington City Paper, The Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House and Confrontation, among others. His debut short story collection, Insurrections (
November 2, 2016 InterviewsReviews
According to Webster’s Dictionary, there are generally three commonly used meanings for the word “Exposure:”
- “the fact or condition of being affected by something or experiencing something: the condition of being exposed to something;”
- “the act of revealing secrets about someone or something, and”
- “public attention and notice.”
Katy Resch George’s collection entitled Exposure aptly captures each definition within several beautifully layered stories. The collection contains ten stories of varied length, each story attempting to reveal or expose the characters, starting with the title piece that appeared in issue thirty-three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
I spoke with Katy via email to ask her about the collection, what inspires her, and the literary quality of photography.
Here’s our chat:
Tyrese: I know this may sound biased, but one of my favorite stories in the collection is “Exposure,” the one that appeared in SLQ. What I truly appreciate about this story is how seamless the transition between the characters is in such a short space. Why did you choose this story as the title piece of your collection? What does this story reveal about the collection itself?
KRG: I’m so glad you enjoyed this story. I was thrilled when SLQ published it. One reason I selected “Exposure” to frame the whole collection is because of that moment in the final paragraph, when the nurse is in the movie theater and observes the couple holding hands. She thinks: “… to hold hands in a theater is to say I am watching this movie, but I am also in this life that I share with this person; I bring this life with me wherever I go.” This idea that we contain many lives, or selves, and that we tote them around with us is one that touches nearly all the characters in the collection. Most characters in these stories are trying to reconcile past mistakes, past selves, with their current station, and with their wishes for their future. Often, this process is the heart of the story. To go through it, characters endure a variety of emotional exposures: they have to confront their whole selves– be exposed before themselves, if you will– in order to know why they behave as they do, and what they need to let go of.
Even though “Exposure” is short, it contains some detail that connects directly to all the other stories: a storm, sibling interactions, out-of-season death (and attempting to makes sense of it), making out in (semi) public places, wearing high-heels and its implications about feminine effort, marriage and the power of union, the playing-out of pathologies. There might be more! It was fun to discover those connections.
Also, the word “ exposure” draws attention to a central metaphor in the book, which involves the photographic process of capturing the accumulation of time through long film exposures.
I also think the form of the story– flash fiction but involving multiple characters and circumstances– prepares the reader for what’s coming: a mix of flash fictions and layered, lengthier stories.
Tyrese: Now that you mention it, I can see that thread of a photographic exposure weaved throughout your stories. Yet another definition of that term that is at play. The instant capture of life as we know it, so layered yet so simple is a hard concept to put down on paper, and I think you do this very well. I feel like this is the type of interpretation that only someone who knows about this type of exposure can pull off. Are you a photographer as well as a writer?
KRG: Many years ago photography was a hobby of mine. I satisfied some high school and college electives with photo classes and in college I worked in the darkroom mixing chemicals for the photo students. I loved capturing images but darkroom processes were tedious for me, though I had, and still have, romantic notions about them. I wanted to love it and I so admire photographers who get it.
Tyrese: Along this vein, another story I really enjoyed is “The Last Darkroom.” I thought the ending was particularly interesting as it left me with optimism, despite what we know about the main character’s circumstances and what lies in his immediate future. I love a short story that ends on a positive note, and I find that many writers are almost afraid to do this with contemporary short stories. Do you agree? Can you tell me about how you developed this story and what made you decide to end on such a hopeful tone?
KRG: Wow, thank you. I agree “The Last Darkroom” is especially hopeful at the end. Really, almost all of the stories are ultimately hopeful stories. I mentioned earlier that a lot of the stories show us characters’ efforts to realize a “better” self they want to become. Most of the characters make it, or the story ends with a character behaving in a new way that suggests she is on the right path. “The Last Darkroom” does this in the most clear and heartening way.
I can’t say if writers are afraid to end with optimism. I’m trying now to recall recent stories I’ve read that struck me as hopeful or optimistic and I’m struggling to come up with titles. That might say more about my tastes as a reader than it does about contemporary literary trends. Maybe writers—all people—don’t feel especially optimistic these days, or maybe people turn to the literary arts to exorcise fears or negativity to make room for optimism in their lives off the page. I’m speculating, of course. Maybe authors fear their optimistic endings would come off as saccharine? It could be a worthwhile exercise to draft two endings for a story in progress, both plausible yet surprising, but one grim and one hopeful. And see what feels most true to the characters and what the story needs to say.
“The Last Darkroom” began with the urge to write about people who were alienated and frustrated by modernity, really…people who felt a more “hands-on” approach to life was fading away. This pops up in the story with the darkroom vs. the digital lab, the narrator’s confusion about social media and his love of old cameras, and with his wife’s criticism of education being shrunken and dehumanized by standardized testing. Around the time I started toying with the story, I was thinking about what it would be like to become a parent and the story might be working through related anxieties Not only about physical health, but about new vulnerabilities and what would surely be a encompassing transition! (It has been– my daughter is now 17 months old!)
When I started the story I had no ending in mind—unusual for me. The narrative organically moved to a positive tone. I really loved writing that final scene. These characters, in their grief, had been removed from their vocations, from their marriage—they needed a break. The narrative also needed a break from the pile-up of misfortune, and it struck me as consistent with what we knew of the characters that they could find a way back to each other and their passion, at least for one evening.
Tyrese: What influenced your choice to include flash pieces along with stories of traditional lengths in one collection together? What are the advantages or disadvantages for the reader when digesting the collection as a whole?
KRG: This is a tough question! I collected these stories because they work as a unit to explore the themes I talked about earlier. I think if I tried to break apart “Exposure” and assemble two new collections– one of “traditional” length stories and one of flash fictions– I’d end up with two books investigating the same problems. As a writer and reader I love both forms. My intention was to let the flash fictions offer a more lyrical or formally experimental narrative exploration of themes presented in the lengthier works. Some readers might enjoy having these concentrated shots. But maybe some might find it jarring to go from a 7,000-word story that spans eight years to a 800-word story that covers one hour. I tried to arrange them to avoid that.
Tyrese: Are you working on any new projects?
KRG: Thanks for asking this. I am! I’m wrapping up a novel titled Lent that is about the emotionally fraught relationship of a young woman and her mentally ill mother. Part of the story takes place during the Easter season of Lent, which becomes significant as the young woman, in need of help for a number of reasons, is susceptible to charity that has bad strings attached. The other project is a story collection titled City Park that thinks about how operating out of our fears can make us dangerous.
Katy Resch George’s stories have appeared in Blackbird, West Branch, Pank, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other journal and have been recognized by the annual Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions list and by the storySouth Million Writer’s Awards. She is a recipient of artist grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and Richmond Culture Works. Katy has taught for the English Departments of Brooklyn College and VCU, and as a faculty lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband visual artist Josh George and their daughter.
Tyrese L. Coleman is an associate editor with SmokeLong Quarterly.
October 28, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Christopher Allen shares his experience reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” right in time for Halloween. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Christopher Allen
I was in graduate school during the Virginia Woolf craze. Remember that? When all the teenagers were screaming and fainting? Pulling out their hair? Putting rocks in their pockets. Claiming to be channeling Virginia’s ghost? Forget the Beatles; Virginia Woolf was our boy band.
I read everything. The journals. The letters. The essays. The novels. I read Orlando a decade before the film came out. You might say that I dived so deep into the person of Virginia Woolf that it’s a miracle I ever surfaced. Maybe it’s a tragedy. I’ve just reread Woolf’s story “A Haunted House” and am leaning towards the latter. She might have referred to it as a sketch, but as it continues to resonate with readers a hundred years later—it’s more. It’s flash fiction.
We should never ever stop reading Virginia Woolf. And that’s why I’m so happy to have this opportunity to dive right back into this haunting flash back.
One evening—I think it must have been October 1993—I got a call from a colleague of my father’s. He was enjoying a relaxed evening with a bottle of bourbon and he wanted to talk about Virginia Woolf. He needed to convince me that Virginia Woolf was crazy and her writing was a jumble, a bunch of nonsense scribbled down haphazardly for the rest of us to worry over. I think that was the upshot. Stream of consciousness was somehow on trial, and I was its advocate. Because back then we didn’t have caller ID, I found myself trying to teach this drunk guy the difference between reading and writing; meanwhile I had 200 pages of The Wings of the Dove to read. He was under the impression that stream of consciousness writing was unedited narrative vomit spewed onto the page for what it’s worth. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to read, but that’s not how it’s (normally) written. No matter how I tried to convince this person that Virginia Woolf edited her prose (again and again and again), he simply did not believe me.
Virginia Woolf, you’ll be thrilled to know, went through the same process of writing that many of us go through: we jot, scribble, scrawl down the first draft of a story, put it aside to marinate for months-maybe-years, and take it back out when we think it’s right for a journal. And then we edit, and we edit. And we edit. And, it seems, Woolf’s very short stories fell under an even more scrutinizing eye.
Leonard Woolf, from the foreword to A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, drives this point home:
“It was her custom, whenever an idea for [a short story] occurred to her, to sketch it out in a very rough form and then to put it away in a drawer. Later, if an editor asked her for a short story, and she felt in the mood to write one (which was not frequent), she would take a sketch out of her drawer and rewrite it, sometimes a great many times.”
I did not become acquainted with Woolf as a short story writer. Before I read “A Haunted House,” I’d read To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, Between the Acts, The Waves, The Years, The Voyage Out, A Room of One’s Own and so on. I don’t actually know how I ran across the short story collection. It just appeared one day—or maybe it surfaced. It has been on my bookshelf for decades.
“A Haunted House,” the first story in the collection and one of the stories published in Monday or Tuesday (Woolf’s only short story collection published during her lifetime in 1921), is to my knowledge the first piece of flash fiction I ever read, and of course I had no idea what flash fiction was back then. “A Haunted House” is character-driven prose that has all the elements of Woolf’s longer works: tertian rhythms, effervescent language (bubbling, threshing, pulsing), a narrative that mirrors post-impressionism here and points towards cubism there. It’s so dramatic, maybe melodramatic by today’s standards, and a ghost/love story to boot.
“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the pulse of the house beat softly.” Then gladly, then proudly, then wildly. These moments lend structure and cadence (something so important to Woolf) to this story that I’ll read a hundred times and still find moments buried in its two and a half pages. What I find again and again is a love story. An enviable love story.
“A great many times,” Leonard Woolf told us of Virginia’s editing habits. You can be assured that Woolf chose each word carefully. Even if she wasn’t the sanest person around (and who really cares?), she was an editor. “A Haunted House” is a great introduction to Woolf’s style. All the elements are there. And here. And there. Here is a popular audio version read by Tom O’Bedlam. And a dramatic interpretation that’s pretty cool and a bit wacky and which has not received enough attention.
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.
October 20, 2016 Flashback Series
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Jeanne Jones discusses Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,” and how it gave her permission to break the rules of traditional storytelling. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jeanne Jones
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to write, but I thought I was going to be a poet. If you had asked me then, I would have told you I was a poet. I wrote horrible lines in poems with ridiculous titles and I thought I was being mysterious and profound, until my poetry professor finally said, “coughing up ashes again? I think that’s a bit much.”
I also remember reading poems in this class from a book called 45 Contemporary Poems. One of them was Margaret Atwood’s “Variations on the Word Sleep,” which ends with the lines “I would like to be the air/that inhabits you for a moment/only. I would like to be that unnoticed/& that necessary.”
Once I read those lines, I never forgot them. They were everything I was trying to write and failing at, but more important, they showed me just how badly I was failing at it. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever reading that poem and saying, “that unnoticed & that necessary? Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” No. You read that poem and you say: “I’m going to read every Margaret Atwood poem I can find.” If I couldn’t write great poetry, I could certainly be good at reading it.
These were pre-Google days, when making good on a statement like that didn’t mean you had to sit down in font of your computer for the next 17 hours. You just had to make a good faith effort at a library or a book store. My good faith effort turned up Murder in the Dark, Atwood’s 1983 collection of short stories, essays, and prose poems. And nestled in that thin, 110 page collection of 27 pieces was a tiny story called “Happy Endings.”
“Happy Endings,” is not really a story. It’s more of a comment on stories. Or a manual for story writing. Or a comment on life. Or maybe it’s six different stories. But what I loved most about it was its strangeness. It is definitely weird. And back then, when I was learning about story analysis, plot structure, and Freytag’s pyramid in my literature classes, it seemed like a gift to me. A whisper of possibility that I could hear underneath all the different versions of “isn’t that a bit much?”
The story starts with a sentence that is about as basic as you can get in storytelling: “John and Mary meet.” Then Atwood asks us, “What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” So you go to A and you get a basic happy (and boring) plot line, with many cliches and no conflict: John and Mary fall in love, get married, buy a house, have children, who “turn out well,” and eventually they retire and have rewarding hobbies. We are told three times in the space of one paragraph that John and Mary’s life is “stimulating and challenging.” Atwood ends section A with, “This is the end of the story.”
But then there is section B, where we move into conflict. John doesn’t fall in love with Mary and Mary ends up doing things no self-respecting woman wants to see herself doing, eventually killing herself. And then section C, where John is an older man falling for Mary, who is only twenty-two. Section C adds more complications, and two more people—Madge and Fred. Eventually we find out that John buys a handgun. And here is where Atwood gives us an aside, saying, “this is the thin part of the plot, but it can be dealt with later.”
Now this was something new to me. A story that comments on itself? Are you allowed to do that?
With every section of this story I discovered a new possibility I thought writers were not allowed to do. In section D, the couple is getting along “exceptionally well,” until a giant tidal wave destroys everything, killing thousands of people. In section E, Atwood tells us we can substitute items in the story. “If you like, it can be ‘Madge,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘guilty and confused,’ and ‘bird-watching.’” In section F, she exhorts us to try to turn it into a story of political intrigue, “and see how far that gets you.” And finally, in the end, she warns us not to be deluded by the deliberately fake endings we may have read in other stories. She reminds us that in stories, as in life, the only authentic ending is death. And she repeats it three times to make sure we get it: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
This story made fun of everything I learned about story making. And it was hilarious. (Atwood says, about trying to turn the story into one of political espionage, “Remember, this is Canada.”) Here was the same woman who had written those meaningful lines about love and longing that I would carry with me for the rest of my life now telling me that fiction writing is basically “one thing after another, a what and a what and a what” and showing me that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can try something new if you like.
I carried on with my tortured poetry for another few years before I decided to write fiction instead. And when I did, I had this lesson as my fortress, always with me as a sort of encouragement. The lesson, as I read it, is there really is no wrong way to do it, and if you’re having fun while you’re doing it, it’s even better.
When one of my pieces was finally accepted for publication, the editor told me it landed “firmly on the lap of experimental fiction” they were looking for. I had thought, at the time, that I had written a narrative with a traditional story arc, but if they were publishing it, they could sit it on whatever lap they wanted. I have since realized that just knowing that “Happy Endings” exists has allowed me the freedom to make up whatever structure feels right for my story.
I recently read that Atwood compared writing “Happy Endings” to “scribbling anonymously on a wall with no one looking.” She believed she had discovered a new mutant literary form and that it was “disappointing to learn that other people had a name for such aberrations (metafiction), and had already made up rules.” I like the thought of Atwood creating graffiti and ignoring rules she didn’t even know were there. It gives me encouragement to do the same. “Happy Endings” was a new form to me when I came across it, and it still reads like a revelation every time I read it.
Jeanne Jones is a graduate of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. A writing teacher in the Washington metropolitan area, her work has appeared or soon will in Abundant Grace: Fiction by D.C. Area Women and online at American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, and the EEEL, among other publications. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with her husband and two children.
October 19, 2016 Interviews
Rose Metal Press is an independent publisher of hybrid genres, including flash fiction collections and novellas-in-flash. For the past 11 years, Rose Metal Press (RMP) has held their annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. SmokeLong discussed this year’s contest with founders Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney to find out what the press hopes to see in this year’s contest submissions and what titles they have in store.
SMOKELONG: Can you start by talking a bit about how the contest has (or hasn’t!) evolved since the first chapbook publication in 2007 to this year’s contest? What goals have changed? What has remained intact?
RMP: The contest has stayed essentially the same since its inception back in 2006. The process remains the same: we accept blind submissions of short short fiction and nonfiction chapbook manuscripts, screen them, send the finalists (usually between 6-8) to a flash celebrity judge, and then publish the winner the next summer in a limited edition with letterpressed covers. Our goal has always been to showcase one of our favorite forms in a format more typically used for poetry than for prose, and to make the highest quality book possible in both its content and its design. We’ve even left the reading fee ($10) the same since day 1, hoping to encourage more submissions while still offsetting some printing costs, but last year we added a $200 prize as well as publication, and we plan to continue that prize. Of course, in the 10 years we’ve been running the contest—going on 11 this year—more places have begun using the chapbook to publish prose, which we think is terrific, and of course the judges and people submitting have changed, but for the most part it’s been pretty steady-as-she goes. In a world that sometimes seems to change too quickly, this is kind of comforting to us—to have this small, dependable thing like clockwork year in, year out.
Our roots with the chapbook contest go all the way back to the start of our press and our goal right from the beginning to find more ways to highlight and promote flash forms. One of the great things about having a consistent contest format is that it’s been a great indicator of how flash has changed and grown as a genre in the last decade. We’ve watched aesthetics change in the field and various techniques and styles become popular. Around 2010-2011, we started to see a lot of linked flash manuscripts come in (we call them novellas-in-flash) and that trend has continued. We even published a book of novellas-in-flash with a study of the form, My Very End of the Universe, built around the terrific novella-in-flash submissions we were getting in the contest each year. This year’s contest winner, Lex Williford’s Superman on the Roof, is a novella-in-flash, for instance, but the majority of the submissions we receive are unlinked (but cohesive, as every collection should be) flash, like last year’s winner, Rosie Forrest’s Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan. It’s a real privilege to have this window, the contest, on what trends and styles are influencing flash writers.
SMOKELONG: What makes a submission stand out? Are there any deal-breakers in submissions?
RMP: It might seem weird to offer a negative definition, but the base level measure of a strong submission is simply that it not make any mistakes, whether that’s a logistical mistake of not following the contest instructions (page count, story length, blind submission, etc.) or an aesthetic mistake (not starting the manuscript with strong stories, having the stories in an order that doesn’t work, having a title that doesn’t feel like it fits the manuscript, etc.). Those kinds of errors are not necessarily automatic deal-breakers, but they do make a contest reader less inclined to keep something in the yes or even the maybe pile. As for what makes a submission stand out to us, we love things that are hybrid not just for hybridity’s sake, but because the piece really *has* to be that way—it’s the best form for the job. In the case of the contest, that means that the stories/essays really only work as flash pieces or connected flash pieces, rather than shortened versions of longer short stories. Many different kinds of narrative techniques and styles can be used to create terrific and effective flash, but the hallmarks of the flash form—compression, urgency—have to feel present and essential in the work. And, we also love things that operate in more than one emotional register, serious-smart, funny-sad, angry-comic, etc.
SMOKELONG: RMP is a publisher, and the goal with any chapbook or standard book is to market and sell them, so are there other considerations beyond the quality of a submission that play a factor when you begin judging? If so, what are they and how do they factor in when you review the submissions?
RMP: As a mission-driven non-profit, we have the privilege of being able to publish books without sales and marketability being our central endgame—at least not in how we choose what we publish. Part of our mission is to expand the literary landscape and to provide publishing opportunities to authors, genres, and books that more profit-driven publishers might not see as marketable enough. Of course, we do want to get the authors, books, and genres we publish the most exposure we can so that more readers get the chance to discover all the amazing writing happening in hybrid genres like flash, so after the editing process, we focus a lot on how to promote a book and how to get it to the most readers and reviewers, which means focusing on sales and marketing. But that’s not how we choose the manuscripts we publish—it’s what we feel like our responsibility to the author is once we accept a book for publication.
We read our submissions blind in order to do our best to not be biased by who an author is or how established (or not) they are. Once we send the submissions to the judge and the judge, in this case Amelia Gray, picks a winner, we work with the winner to make sure not only that their manuscript is in the best possible shape for publication by editing it, but we also help them have the platform (website, social media, readings, etc.) to get the word out about their chapbook. On average, we set up 5-7 readings per author and send out 35 to 50 reviewer copies of any given chapbook winner. We ask our authors to create author websites if they don’t already have them and help promote the book on social media. The more visible an author is when a book comes out, the more readers their book has the potential to reach, mostly because an author’s own community is the biggest initial source of sales, support, and word-of-mouth recommendations.
SMOKELONG: Tell us a little about the 2016 contest judge, Amelia Gray. How did you connect with her? What does she bring to the judging process?
RMP: Amelia got on our radar all the way back in November of 2007 when she submitted a couple of extremely strong manuscripts to our chapbook contest, actually. She didn’t end up winning, but we admired her work a great deal and have followed her career since then. We’re fans of her virtuosity as a writer—her diction, her syntax, her sense of structure and pacing—as well as her subject matter—unsettling, funny, strange, and haunting. Her unique and engaging writing style is showcased beautifully in her story collections Gutshot, Museum of the Weird, and AM/PM. We’re honored to have her be our judge this year and look forward to her decision.
SMOKELONG: Aside from the chapbook contest, what is RMP looking forward to within the next few months?
RMP: This November, concurrent to the contest reading period (November 1 though December 1), we’re launching our latest book, THE BITTER LIFE OF BOZENA NEMCOVA, a collage biography by Kelcey Parker Ervick. It’s about the Czech writer and feminist Bozena Nemcova, who is so famous in the Czech Republic that her face is on the money, but whose talents as a writer, collector of fairytales, and early Czech Nationalist are largely un-appreciated outside her home country. It’s a beautiful and compelling book, full of letters, tales, and artwork, and the innovative fragmentary form really creates a new way of approaching biography and memoir. We’re excited to get it out into the hands of readers.
October 12, 2016 Interviews
Most are familiar with the typical poetry reading scene: a dark bar, an uplit stage, maybe some jazz and finger snaps at the end of some emotionally wrought yet strange, if not cliché, poem. A familiar, yet overused scene, which is why we were so excited to hear about The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series.
Created by writer and flash aficionado, Nancy Stohlman, the FBomb Flash Fiction Reading Series features flash writers and their stories in a rotating line-up with a rotating theme. Nancy reached out to fellow writer and flasher, Paul Beckman, who introduced the series in New York City at the KGB Bar’s Red Room. On October 22, 2016, the Fbomb NY series will host the finalists and winners from the The Best of Small Fictions 2016, published by Queen’s Ferry Press.
One of our blog editors, Tyrese Coleman, caught up with Nancy and Paul recently for an email Q&A.
Tyrese: How did the series start?
Nancy Stohlman (NS): For me, it started as filling a void. I had spent the last six years co-founding/running Fast Forward Press, which started in 2007 as a small press that put out a yearly anthology of flash fiction (back when fewer people were writing it). Every year when we would release the new anthology, we would have a big release party reading. When I stepped down from the press in 2013 to work on my own writing (insert a moment of silent appreciation here for all the small presses working tirelessly for little or no pay), I missed the camaraderie of those events and decided that I wanted to create an opportunity for the flash fiction community to congregate in a new way. I called it the Flashbomb so we could “drop some F(lash)-bombs” and designed the structure with rotating hosts and a focus on community participation. Our first Fbomb was Valentine’s Day of 2013. I was the host and my feature was Rob Geisen.
Tyrese: Paul, how did you become involved with the series?
Paul Beckman (PB): I was invited by Nancy to be a featured reader along with Robert Vaughan in Denver. The talent and the energy were life-changing and it made me want to have something all flash in New York. Luckily the people at KGB were on board with it and every writer I asked said yes. I’m fortunate at the quantity, and especially the quality, of the flash writers in the tri-state area. I either know or know of many of the writers and in turn they gave me other names.
Tyrese: Tell me about your latest reading, who attended, and how did it go?
PB: The first was September 9th with Nancy Stohlman flying in from Denver to headline the twelve writer reading to a standing room only crowd. Also featured were Bud Smith, Gessy Alvarez, Sara Lippmann, Janee Liddle, Alice Kaltman, Jan Elman Stout, Chuck Howe, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber, Jolene McLLwain & myself. On October 21, Bud Smith will co-host a show from 6pm-8pm with Len Kuntz, Robert Vaughan, Meg Tuite, Gay Degani, Michael Gilan Maxwell and Karen Stefano.
NS: I loved being invited to kick off the premiere Fbomb NY event–it was fantastic! In Denver we’ve had events monthly for going on four years now. All our events are awesome. Last month we had Hillary Leftwich hosting and Marty McGovern featuring, and we have the best open mic in town. I have a background in community organizing, so when I designed this series I knew that if I wanted it to thrive in the long term, and if I wanted to avoid burning myself out, I needed to delegate and share the leadership. I got the idea for the structure from my obsession with Saturday Night Live: Each week on SNL they have a new guest “host” and a featured musician. Because the hosts and musical guests always change, the flavor of the event also changes. I never wanted to create the Nancy Stohlman Flash Fiction Reading Series. So I decided right from the start to empower others to take on leadership roles, assigning “hosts” from the audience and allowing the hosts to pick their own features and take ownership of their “month”. The result has been tremendous variety, from Elvis Luas to “Back To The Future” night to our upcoming October “Once Bitten” Fbomb, hosted by David Atkinson, with non-vampire costume prizes. The hosts, who I always invite from the active Fbomb community, bring in the fresh blood with their features–just as I brought Paul to Denver. It’s a way to acknowledge those who support the Fbomb but also build bridges to new communities.
Tyrese: What are your goals with the FBomb Series?
PB: To make it a must-attend series for both writers and readers–much as it is in Denver. Nancy calls it community building and I’d like to think of this the same way.
NS: So I had some goals/secret agendas when I created this series. I wanted to obviously create flash fiction community, and to community build by sharing leadership. I also wanted a place where writers could learn to be better readers: I have been to too many readings where someone’s brilliant work is lost in their poor delivery. So I wanted to create a space where people could become better readers of their work.
I also wanted a balance of open mic and featured reader(s)–almost all the readings I go to are one or the other, and I like the balance and inclusiveness of having some featured readers as well as the opportunity for community participation.
Also, in rotating the hosts and handing over control to different people each month, I intended to create opportunities for people to become better event coordinators and promoters. I got so tired of hearing everyone talk about how they were “no good” at promotion. So this way the spotlight changes each month, and we all learn how to promote one another and get over that block.
And it’s worked! We have incredibly dynamic events, our hosts all bring their own flavors, we have a welcoming community of features and open mic, and our readers are some of the best I’ve ever heard.
Tyrese: Tell me about the upcoming reading with the winners of The Best Small Fictions 2016. It sounds really exciting. Who will be reading?:
PB: This is an exciting group of readers coming in from as far away as Washington state. The book features 45 stories and will be on sale that night. We’ll have both winners and finalists reading their work. Some of the writers are: Len Kuntz, Robert Vaughan, Dawn Raffel, Paul Beckman, Tina Barry, Amir Adam, Eliel Lucero, Amy Shearn, Dianaca Potts, Ilana Masad, Nancy Ludmerer, Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber and others.
Tyrese: How did this event come about?
PB: This event came about during an email exchange I had with the editor, Tara L. Masih. She was looking for a venue and I offered to find one in NY, preferably at KGB. The manager of the Red Room, Lori Schwarz and the owner Denis Woychuk were so impressed with the first turnout that on the spot they gave me the perfect time and date for The Best Small Fictions 2016. One of the most important factors about reading at KGB is the respect the audience gives to the readers. They come to listen and the chat comes later.
Tyrese: Are there any other events coming up that we should not miss?
PB: I’m presently working with a couple of authors to have their flash collections rolled out in our Red Room and working with other authors to take on the role of hosts during the year.
NS: Every month we have an Fbomb. We’ve been having our events on the third Tuesday of the month at the amazing Mercury Cafe–which is a longstanding center of the art culture in Denver. Our schedule of past and future events is up at www.fbombdenver.com And even if you have never been to an Fbomb before, we’d love to have you. You can learn about flash fiction, hear from some of the best, and even jump on the mic yourself if you get brave.
Another cool flash fiction event coming up is FlashNano, which I started about the same time as the Fbomb as a way for flash fiction writers to suffer alongside the novel writers in November during NaNoWrimo. Our goal is 30 stories in 30 days, and I give an optional prompt every day for those who like that sort of thing. I end up hearing a lot of FlashNano pieces read at the Fbomb throughout the year. You can sign up for more info at my website.
Nancy Stohlman’s books include the flash fiction collection The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, The Monster Opera, Searching for Suzi: a flash novel, and four anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at www.nancystohlman.com
Paul Beckman’s story, “Healing Time” was one of the winners in the 2016 The Best Small Fictions and his 100 word story, “Mom’s Goodbye” was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Southeast Editor’s Prize. His stories are widely published in print and online in the following magazines amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Matter Press, Metazen, Pure Slush, Jellyfish Magazine, Thrice Fiction and Literary Orphans. His latest collection, “Peek”, weighed in at 65 stories and 120 pages. Paul lives in Connecticut and earned his MFA from Bennington College. His published story website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com and blog is www.pincusb.com
October 6, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
October 5, 2016 Interviews
What’s cooler than flash fiction? Reading it out loud and pairing it with music. Writer E.A. Aymar, a past guest editor here at SmokeLong, and Kimberly Venetz (DJ Alkimist) have partnered on a new project mixing flash and music for amazing effects. The two are also planning on performing live at select events. SmokeLong Editor Tara Laskowski chatted with them about the venture and what they hope to achieve.
Tara: Where did this idea come from?
EA: It’s been a complete collaboration from the start.
I run D.C.’s Noir at the Bar series and thought it would be cool if we had a musical component, so I looked up area DJs and really liked Kim’s (DJ Alkimist) work. We started trading e-mails and she mentioned she enjoyed crime fiction. I told her about my interest in working with musicians, specifically my readings where local jazz musician Sara Jones had provided accompaniment. Then Kim told me about the music she’s produced on her own, and I listened to her tracks and mixes and learned that, while Kim’s mixes could absolutely get a club bouncing, she also produces this deeply personal beautiful music, and it dug deep down into my bones.
I wanted to write to it.
So she and I kept talking about collaborations and getting excited, and I think we both started to realize this could be something unique.
DJ: I had been quietly producing my own weird little tracks as a side project from my DJing and performing and Ed suddenly fell into my world. It just took off from there. No one has ever approached me about doing something like this, so naturally, I was intrigued.
Tara: How does the process work? Do you write the story first, then add music? Or select music and then write a story that fits that mood? Does it vary? It reminds me of those call and response projects between writers and visual artists, and I’m always interested in that collaborative process.
EA: That’s a really thoughtful question and this is going to sound dickish, but I don’t like discussing process. I will say this. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen used to get thanked by actresses for creating such wonderful characters for them to play. When I first heard Kim’s music, and when I hear her new music, I understand that reaction.
And that’s something Kim and I have discussed—why we vibe. I’m a fairly straightforward writer, especially when it comes to giving a reading. I think it’s because I suck at listening to readings, and complex oral stories confuse me. When I write for a reading, I want the story’s complexity to be almost entirely emotional, under the surface, rather than twisted into the plot. Similarly, the music Kim creates (that speaks to me the most) has an easily recognizable surface, but it’s so emotionally and musically layered that, upon repeat listenings, I keep discovering more.
DJ: Ed put it best when he talked about how we vibe. Because it’s really all about that. And a little bit magic. Our writing styles are very compatible, and as Ed said, we create a whole lot of emotional complexity under the surface. We want it to linger with you.
EA: Check out Kim’s track “Silence,” for an example of a slow, heartbreaking piece of music that’s deceptively complex. You think you’re just listening to a few notes, but other elements are slowly brought in that deepen it significantly, and it transitions so subtly and smoothly that all of a sudden you’re like, “Hey, is that a bird?” And, crazily, it works, and the somber mood of the track is maintained. I don’t know how she does what she does.
Tara: Is flash fiction the perfect form for this kind of thing? Any plans to attempt a longer piece in the future?
DJ: If we decide we don’t want a story to be a standalone piece, then it makes more sense to keep the stories relatively short and weave them all together using music or similar themes. My DJ side can easily hear how all the songs can be blended into a longer piece, like a DJ set or a mix tape, with no dead time. Also, from a musical perspective, keeping the songs short helps me edit and make sure each phrase of my piece is important and not just filler.
EA: I like to keep readings to about five minutes or less, which is probably around the average length of the song. I wouldn’t mind going longer, but Kim’s right; a longer form would be different than that idea suggests. To put it in writing terms, I think longer would work better as a series of interconnected stories or novellas, rather than one fat novel.
Tara: How long does it take to complete one pairing? How many “takes” do you need to do? And on that note, any mistakes you made or lessons you learned along the way?
EA: Probably a month. We didn’t do need to do a lot of takes for “You Would Have a Queen” because I practiced it so much. I rehearsed it over a hundred times, which is a lot more than I do for a typical reading.
One thing I’ve struggled with (and a lot of people do) is talking too fast. I try to slow down, but some of the tracks require a faster pace. So lately I’m all about enunciating. That’s kind of my new thing.
DJ: I had no idea Ed practiced it a hundred times; I just assumed he was pro.
Tara: What do you think combining these two forms does to elevate each?
DJ: OMG, I could probably talk about this idea for hours (but don’t worry, I won’t).
I think music adds life and depth to everything. Try to picture a commercial, or a scene from your favorite movie, or eating at a restaurant, or anything, and think about how you feel when there’s music accompanying that scene versus silence. But I’m not knocking silence; silence is powerful in its own right.
I think sometimes our mind wants to hear the music of a scene anyway, just as sometimes it wants to verbally express the story that seems to manifest from a piece of music. And music affects our brain in ways we are only beginning to understand. If you were to hear a story with its own soundtrack, it’s going to affect how you feel and interact with that story, even if you’re not directly paying attention to the music, and vice versa. I also believe that language is the shortened version of music. They’re just different methods of communication.
If I write a track, I’m trying to communicate something with it. But I’m not the best with words. Ed’s stories ground my songs and give them form and direction, a certain life. It’s a relationship of reciprocity. And the result is something of beauty, emotional complexity, uniqueness, and a whole lot more.
EA: Well, shit, I can’t beat Kim’s answer. But I’ll just add that I make a conscious effort to keep the written piece a short story. It intentionally lacks the cadence or style of rap or a poem, although I borrow elements from each of those forms.
We call this “short stories + music,” but that’s pretty much the same thing as a song or rap. To be different, the written element has to be identifiable only as a short story. So, although my stories follow the rhythm of Kim’s music, and the two play with each other, I’ll occasionally ignore measures just to break rhythm.
Tara: Ed, you’re a crime/noir writer primarily, but it seems to me that most any style or genre could work for this kind of project. Do you have any plans to accept submissions from or solicit other writers?
EA: No, DJ Alkimist is awesome and she’s mine. Stay away everyone. For real, fuck you.
Kidding. We have a couple of upcoming projects where we’re working with other writers in different ways. I usually don’t collaborate with writers, so it’s a little odd. Very much something I’m learning to do as I go. Writing, I’m a loner.
But if other writers wanted to work with Kim on their own, I mean, I guess that’s cool. She makes music that we don’t use for this project and performs on a regular basis. This is by no means all we do, and I expect each of us will be working on different projects in the future.
But this is something that I want to continue doing, and return to. Something about this burns.
DJ: I’m a Scorpio and therefore also fiercely loyal. I have no plans at the moment to collaborate with other writers besides Ed and the peeps we bring in on this project. But I’m also a pretty open-minded person. And I’m always open to submissions of really delicious raw food recipes.
Tara: Everyone always says they hate the sound of their own voice. Do you?
EA: Yes, it’s awful. I worked with two people: a voiceover artist and singer named Art Tiller; and the writer Kim Alexander, who has a background as a radio host. They assured me that my voice was fine. I doubt it. I’m pretty sure everyone I asked was lying to me and I sound terrible. Hopefully the music and stories are so good that no one notices.
DJ: I know this question’s not for me, but can I just say that I’ve always thought Ed had a great voice?
EA: Aw. But, for real, it needs to be, like, fifteen percent raspier. I’ll probably start smoking. You know, for art.
October 4, 2016 News Digests
We have six months worth of updates on book deals, publications, interviews, awards, and other accomplishments from SmokeLong contributors and staff, so take a deep breath and dive in. If you’ve previously written for SmokeLong, please submit your news for future updates via our Submittable form.
Steve Almond (five SmokeLong stories) has a story, “Okay, Now Do You Surrender?” featured in the newly-released Best American Mystery Stories 2016. Additionally, his story “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben” was selected as a notable story in The Best American Short Stories 2016.
A.A. Balaskovits (“An Old Woman with Silver Hands”) has a short story collection, Magic for Unlucky Girls, forthcoming with SFWP Literary Awards in April 2017. The collection was previously named the grand prize winner of the 2015 Santa Fe Writers Project Awards, chosen by Emily St. John Mandel.
Matt Bell (three SmokeLong stories) released the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall with Soho Press in September. His story “Toward the Company of Others,” published in Tin House, is featured in the newly-released Best American Mystery Stories 2016.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty (“The Dead Are Not Hungry” and “Blood”) was a finalist for the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize offered by Lake Forest College in conjunction with &NOW Books.
Kelle Groom (“Jimmy Wasabi, Juan Juan and the Toaster Oven“) recently published six new pieces: short story “25 Reasons to Attend the Gala” in Map Literary, poem “Hour” with No Tokens, poem “Incurable” in Provincetown Arts Magazine, poem “Taxonomies” in Vinyl, essay “Six Ships” in BROAD! Magazine, and AWP panel talk “Blood & Water: Poets Writing Nonfiction” on the AGNI blog.
Melissa Scholes Young (“Storage”) has a novel, Flood, forthcoming from Hachette in 2017. She also published a reported essay, “Navigating Campus Together: First Generation Faculty Can Steer First Generation Students to Success,” with The Atlantic.
Bud Smith (“Junior in the Tunnels”) has a collection forthcoming with Maudlin House in 2017, which will include his SmokeLong story. He also has six new pieces out: “Boss” and “Two Daydrinking Stories” with Hobart, “Reviews of My Life” at Barrelhouse, “Roast Beast” with Maudlin House, and “Grapes” at Real Pants.
Kara Vernor (“David Hasslehoff Is from Baltimore“) has a chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, out now with Split Lip Press. She also recently published two sex ed fictions: “If You’re a Girl…” with Minola Review and “How Much Tongue When Kissing?” with Your Impossible Voice.
Anne Weisgerber (“Summer Baby” and “Flash Fiction as Language Art“) was recently nominated for Best of the Net for her short story “How to Meet Marc Chagall,” originally published in The Airgonaut. She will also be reading at the FBomb NYC Best Small Fictions reading at The KGB Bar Red Room on Oct. 22.
Kevin Wilson (“Blue-Suited Henchman, Kicked Into Shark Tank“) received a notable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2016 for his story An Arc Welder, a Molotov Cocktail, a Bowie Knife, published in Ploughshares.
Managing Editor Christopher Allen’s story “The Air Between Us” is publishing today at Juked. His story “My Little Cuckoos” recently won third place in the 2016 Literal Latte Fiction Awards. His other recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in FRiGG and Chicago Literati.
Blog Editor Tyrese Coleman’s flash essay “Why I Let Him Touch My Hair” was published in Brevity’s special issue examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization.
Interview Editor Karen Craigo’s chapbook Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In will be released in November from Hermeneutic Chaos Press.
Staff Reader Josh Denslow was a finalist for the 2016 Moon City Fiction Award.
Staff Reader Sherrie Flick’s flash fiction “Chest Out” was published in New World Writing. Additionally, the Ploughshares blog reviewed her new collection of short stories, Whiskey, Etc. Her story “After the Fall,” written with Sam Ligon, was the first collaborative feature at New Flash Fiction Review.
2016 Kathy Fish Fellow Shasta Grant’s chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home was selected as the first runner-up in the Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming from Split Lip Press in June 2017. Shasta has recently published stories in Hobart, matchbook, Pithead Chapel, and Third Point Press.
Art Director Ashley Inguanta’s photography is featured in the current issue of Ghost Parachute.
Editor Tara Laskowski’s essay “Why Parents Should Take Their Children to Literary Readings” was published by Publisher’s Weekly. She recently interviewed Christopher Irvin in “On Writing Violence” for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Additionally, Blog Editor Tyrese Coleman interviewed Tara for The Rumpus about her short story collection Bystanders.
Blog Editor Virgie Townsend’s essay “I’ve known two convicted child sex offenders. But I refuse to parent by fear” was published by the Washington Post.
Finally, we are both saddened and excited to announce that today is Executive Editor and 2013-2014 Kathy Fish Fellow Megan Giddings’ last day at SmokeLong. Megan has accepted a position as co-Fiction Editor of The Offing. Although we will miss her keen editorial eye and professionalism, we look forward to seeing the work that she’ll do at The Offing. Please join us in thanking her for her service to SmokeLong.
September 29, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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/.
September 28, 2016 Flashback SeriesGuest Blogger
SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. Writer and professor, Jacqueline Doyle, is the first in this series. She introduces the column by revisiting Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets and Sweethearts, and evaluating their subliminal influence on her writing. Submit your own “Flashback” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Jacqueline Doyle
The spine of my mass-market Laurel paperback of Jayne Anne Phillips’ Black Tickets is broken, whole sections falling out, the paper brittle and yellow. A price sticker on the blue cover reads $3.95. On the flyleaf: my name and “Ithaca, July 1983.” I was back in graduate school at Cornell then, following a hiatus from my studies after my divorce. It was humid and hot. I had a summer scholarship and I was in love, spending a lot of time at my new boyfriend’s studio apartment downtown, long lazy days when I could read for fun. I don’t know how I described the very short stories in Black Tickets to myself at the time. It would be years before the term “flash” meant anything to me. My boyfriend was a writer in the MFA program, but I was working on a PhD, where we barely touched on contemporary literature. It would be years before I became a writer myself.
That summer I was also reading Edgar Allan Poe for my dissertation, who favored compression, the “short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal,” cautioning against “undue brevity” but even more against “undue length” (his own tales requiring less than half an hour to read). I was reading and re-reading “The Waste Land,” beguiled by T.S. Eliot’s juxtapositions of glittering fragments. I was reading Virginia Woolf, who predicted that women writers of the coming century would engage in new experimentation, introduce new subjects (particularly the unrecorded lives of women), produce books “adapted to the body” (“at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work”). I was reading Adrienne Rich, who was “diving into the wreck” of old forms and outworn myths and emerging with new ones, and Audre Lorde, who proclaimed that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Everything I was reading prepared me for what I was going to teach, and write about, and write myself in years to come, but I didn’t know that, stretched out on the green cotton blanket on my boyfriend’s double bed in front of the oscillating fan. Everything was fertile ground for my understanding of Jayne Anne Phillips, but I wasn’t thinking about that either. I only knew that her words jumped off the page and stayed with me.
I might have called the opening story an ekphrastic vignette, if I’d been asked to classify it, though the word vignette suggests a marginal literary form, something slight. Not a portrait as powerful as “Wedding Picture,” which dives below the surface of the photograph it describes to explore the body “under the cloth” of the bride’s white wedding suit, what we can’t see or hear (“Her heart makes a sound that no one hears”), along with the history we can’t know. When “Wedding Picture” was included in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction in 2009, Phillips voiced her objections to the term “flash” (“there’s nothing flashy or spangled or shiny (superficial) about a great one-page fiction”), but also expressed her conviction that such fiction rivals other genres in importance. “The successful one-page fiction is a whole story in a paragraph or three: just as strong, tensile, and whole as the well-written story, novella, novel.”
I didn’t know at the time that Black Tickets originated in a flash chapbook (Sweethearts, from Truck Press, which I’ve miraculously unearthed in the Special Collections of my university library). But I did sense that the 16 very short stories were somehow primary in Black Tickets, not just secondary to the 11 longer ones. John Irving in his New York Times review didn’t agree. He called them “miniatures” (descriptive, but also dismissive), and “ditties” (not descriptive at all, and derogatory). His largely positive review was suffused with sexist condescension, starting with repeated references to “Miss Phillips.” (Surely not all female writers in 1979 were called Miss X? Or maybe they were. The first volume of the Norton Anthology of American Literature back then included only one woman, Emily Dickinson, whom the critics all called Emily, though male writers were referred to by surname.) Irving opened his review: “Of the almost 30 short fictions collected here, there are about 10 beauties and 10 that are perfectly satisfying and then there are 10 ditties—some of them, single paragraphs—that are so small, isolated and mere exercises in ‘good writing’ that they detract from the way the best of this book glows.” He didn’t discount all of Phillips’ short fictions (“I don’t want to suggest that all of her smaller pieces are ‘ditties’”), but expressed the hope that she’d write a novel.
The Great American Novel, the bigger the better! Phillips has obliged by writing a number of great long novels, but no female writers have been credited with writing the Great American Novel, which is surely a male provenance, even a reflection of the expansive imperialism of American manifest destiny. In a craft essay in Brevity, Joy Castro echoes A Room of One’s Own and Tillie Olsen’s Silences when she draws attention to privilege and the Great American Novel: “Every time we praise a literary book for its heft, we contribute to a kind of aesthetic confusion. The sheer length of a text is not a mark of its literary excellence or worth. Rather, it’s a reflection of the material conditions of the author’s life.” She herself began writing flash, she says, when she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, living below the poverty line, overwhelmed by student loans and the demands of childcare. “Short forms,” Castro writes, “especially flash forms—are particularly amenable to writers snatching time from obligations. Such writers by definition include family caregivers, who continue to be mostly women, and people from poverty and the working class.”
This time around I’m reading Black Tickets as a writer, and paying particular attention to the flash. The narrative point of view varies (first person, third person, first person plural), but all of the narrators and protagonists in the flash fictions are female, most of them below the poverty line, most of them adolescent and preadolescent girls, “white an dewy an tickin like a time bomb.” They sleep together, drink together, read movie magazines together, go to matinees, tell pornographic and scary stories, sing along with the radio, flee boys, take care of their fathers. A stripper gives her fifteen-year-old cousin advice about appealing to the clientele. “With that long blond hair you can’t lose. An don’t you paint your face till you have to, every daddy wants his daughter.” A junior high girl pregnant by her brother, ostracized at school and at home, dismembers her unwanted newborn. “Next morning she sits in the house alone while the others shout and sweat at a revival in Clinger’s Field. The dogs come in with pieces in their mouths.” In “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive,” a girl with a summer job at a theme park watches as a body is carried out of her dormitory: “One day they carried a girl out of the barracks wrapped in an army blanket. They found her in the showers. Sue saw her rounded buttocks sag the olive wool. Inside there she was sticky.” The collection ends with a longer story narrated by a male serial killer. What does it take to keep a young girl alive?
The flash are both spare and rich, image-driven and rhythmically complex, the language lyrical, but also raw and visceral. In her Field Guide essay, Phillips draws attention to the radical compression and subversive potential of flash: “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I taught myself to write by writing one-page fictions. I found in the form the density I needed, the attention to the line, the syllable. I began writing as a poet. In the one-page form, I found the freedom of the paragraph. I learned to understand the paragraph as secretive and subversive. The poem in broken lines announces itself as a poem, but the paragraph seems innocent, workaday, invisible.”
Irving let his critical guard down and unwittingly exposed himself when he wrapped up his New York Times review with the line, “This is a sweetheart of a book.” The context makes his compliment potentially comic. He’d even quoted the relevant passage from Phillips’ flash “Sweetheart,” undaunted by the fact that it’s a dirty old man who hugs the preteen girls and calls them sweethearts: “Stained fingers kneading our chests, he wrapped us in old tobacco and called us his little girls. I felt his wrinkled heart wheeze like a dog on a leash. Sweethearts, he whispered.”
It’s a warm hazy day in September when I drive into campus to look at Phillips’ chapbook Sweethearts, by appointment, in the Special Collections Room at our library. A California State University campus with overtaxed faculty, low income students, and a drastically waning budget, we don’t have the kind of library that houses special collections, or even many books published in the last couple of decades, so I’m surprised and gratified to discover Sweethearts, long out of print. Classes don’t start for a week, and the campus is deserted, apart from workers in hard hats drilling in the parking lots and raising dust in the library courtyard.
The 1976 chapbook from Truck Press in North Carolina is off white, yellowed at the top and bottom, with the sepia wedding photo described in “Wedding Picture” on the cover. I sit down and read the entire collection, 24 flash, none more than a page, 13 of which made their way into Black Tickets in 1979. It takes me a bit over half an hour, well within Poe’s parameters for the ideal prose narrative. In Black Tickets, the flash are amplified by the longer stories, which explore male as well as female characters (often pairs of middle class daughters and mothers). The men are sad and divorced, old and sick, angry and violent. Reading Sweethearts is a different experience, focused more on the private world of young girls. “Chloe likes Olivia,” Woolf observed of the fictional Mary Carmichael’s experimental novel, imagining fiction in the future that would focus on women in relation to each other and not solely in relation to men. “We lay on a cot pretending we were Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, touching each other’s stomachs and never pulling our pants down,” Phillips writes in “Stars.” “The Lettermen did billowing movie themes. There’s a summer place, they sang. Where our hearts. Will know. All our hopes. She put her face on my chest. You be the boy now, she whispered.” Summer over, the other girl writes letters to the ten-year-old narrator. “Just because you’re a year older than me, her last one said, is no reason not to answer.” Sweethearts vibrates with the energy of the girls’ intimacies and betrayals. I love reading the flash gathered together on their own.
Rereading Black Tickets and reading Sweethearts for the first time has been a revelation. I’ve kept up with Phillips’ novels, even taught Machine Dreams, but I haven’t thought about Black Tickets for years, or about the graduate student lounging in front of the fan during that hot Ithaca summer, innocent of her future. Pressed to name a literary influence on my upcoming flash chapbook The Missing Girl, I might have said Joyce Carol Oates, maybe Sherwood Anderson. But now I wonder whether Jayne Anne Phillips played a greater role, both her formal innovations and her themes and sensibility, even though I was unconscious of it. The effects of my first introduction to flash may have lingered and reverberated for over thirty years.
The one-page story continues after the last line, according to Phillips. “Fast, precise, over. And not over.”
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash chapbook The Missing Girl (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2017) won the Black River Chapbook Competition. She has published flash in Quarter After Eight, [PANK], Monkeybicycle, Sweet, Café Irreal, The Pinch, Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence (White Pine Press, 2016), and many online journals. Her creative nonfiction and fiction have earned two Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and two Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband (the MFA with the studio apartment) and their son.
September 22, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
September 15, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
September 13, 2016 Reviews
By Eshani Surya
Joy Williams gives her Antigone Bookstore reading with sunglasses perched on her face, though it is evening and we are inside. Perhaps this is enough to give a sense of the confidence that Williams exudes and lends to her collection of stories. Outside, Tucson rumbles on a Friday night—I can hear the streetcar honking, music blaring from the cars that whiz by a little too fast, patrons making their way to the bars on 4th Ave. This is the land of college students back from summer break just a few weeks ago. But Williams’s voice keeps a steady, calm pace as she reads the micro-fictions that make up Ninety-Nine Stories of God.
She ends her reading with one of my favorite stories, number 98. In it, the Lord—a recurring character throughout the volume—tries to adopt a tortoise. The Lord asks, “May I have two?” He is denied for fear that the tortoises will breed. He is told to find a square of grass from Home Depot. On the way home, both the Lord and the tortoise brood about “this adoption business.” The title, “A New Arrangement,” comes at the end of the story, as all the titles in this collection do.
How ridiculous this premise sounds, and yet what Williams achieves in one succinct story is mighty. In this story and throughout the book, Williams considers human institutions/social niceties, benevolence, and control. She asks what constitutes as God’s intervention? What makes up a story of God? Where is God in stories of tragedy?
Even with the heavier questions, the stories—ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages—are funny, even funnier when read aloud, as evidenced by the raucous laughter in the bookstore, where Williams is able to make every line a joke just by the weight she gives each word. And she likes making people laugh—I can tell, because when they laugh, she smiles a little below the sunglasses. Humor is integral to this collection; it keeps the stories fun and allows them to explore strangeness, like the Lord never being able to come up with twelve guests for His dinner parties (from number 31). Williams’s descent into peculiarity heightens some of her thematic preoccupations: loneliness, discomfort, imperfection.
This isn’t to say all the stories work. Some don’t quite come together, like 18, which includes drawing of a rolled up tarpaulin and explains that the drawing is not a maze. These are the stories that read like good beginnings or witty one-off observations. With these, the title, which often works as a punch line, doesn’t seem to add much. One might be left asking, “Well, so what?” And sometimes the perfection of each line feels too manufactured, too measured. The distance does make sense for a collection that is about looking at faith, miracles, and the relationship humans have with God and the natural world, but it can also lack energy. Generally, the best stories are the ones that include the Lord, a grounding character who is puzzled by his own creations. The detached tone—one of matter-of-fact confusion—serves these stories the best, by giving a satirical edge to anything the Lord observes.
Still, Joy Williams is a master of language and sentence construction, and for that reason alone it would be worth picking up this collection. Past that, one can enjoy the challenge of encountering the divine in the mundane and the mundane in the divine. Though the book could easily be read in one sitting, a better reading experience would likely be reading a few of the stories at a time, as a sort of amuse-bouche before sleep.
Eshani Surya is a current MFA student in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she also teaches undergraduates. A former Associate Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, her writing has appeared in Ninth Letter Online, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, First Class Lit, and Minetta Review. Eshani also serves as a reader of fiction at Sonora Review. Find her on Twitter @__eshani.
September 7, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong is pleased to announce the addition of two editors and two readers to its staff. Please join us in welcoming them.
Tyrese Coleman is SmokeLong’s new associate blog editor. Tyrese is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and fiction editor for District Lit, an online journal of writing and art. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a nonfiction scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review’s 2016 Writers’ Conference, her prose has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Buzzfeed, The Rumpus, Hobart, Washingtonian Magazine, and listed in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (very) short fictions. More information on her and her writing can be found at tyresecoleman.com. A story Tyrese loves: “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid.
Sherrie Flick is a SmokeLong staff reader. Sherrie is a long-time contributor to SmokeLong and the author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness, the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting, and the short story collection Whiskey, Etc. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction Forward, New Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction Funny, Flashed: Sudden Stories in Prose and Comics, You Have Time For This, Sudden Stories: The Mammoth Book of Minuscule Fiction, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the MFA and Food Studies programs at Chatham University. A story Sherrie loves: “The Coat” by Lex Williford.
Huan Hsu is a SmokeLong staff reader. Born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, Huan is the author of The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China. As a staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly, he won two Society of Professional Journalists awards and received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Literary Review, and Lucky Peach. He received his MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and currently lives in Amsterdam where he teaches journalism and creative writing at Amsterdam University College. A story Huan loves: “Fish Were Drowning” by Zeynep Ozakat.
Meghan Phillips joins SmokeLong as the associate editor for social media and marketing. Her flash has appeared or is forthcoming in Corium Magazine, Maudlin House, Chicago Literati, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and WhiskeyPaper. Meghan is the fiction editor for Third Point Press. She lives in Lancaster, PA, and tweets @mcarphil. A story Meghan loves: “This Whole Majestic Thing” by Anna Lea Jancewicz.
September 6, 2016 Reviews
By Marie Schutt
My first unwitting introduction to flash fiction, or something like it, was when I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories as a bored teenager. Though he’s best known for his novels—Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, Beauty and Sadness, among others—Kawabata wrote his “palm-of-the-hand” stories (a term he coined) over fifty-odd years. They span his writing career and are, as is written in the introduction of my edition of the collection, where the “essence of his art was to be found.”
That book changed what little I understood then about reading and writing fiction, and has continued to shape my approach to writing more than ten years later. Most importantly, it showed me how much of a story can live off of the page, even when its printed attachment to this world counts for less than 1,000 words.
Some of the stories are surreal (“Goldfish on the Roof,” haunts with its carp-invaded mirrors and mothers) some are quick “slice of life” vignettes (the autumnal “The Silverberry Thief” is a personal favorite) and others span months or years of characters’ lives (“The White Flower”). They all, in only so many words, project entire worlds of hope, curiosity, dread, regret, and nostalgia, populated by complex and familiar characters.
“Goldfish on the Roof,” written in 1926, is one story I’ve revisited, and grappled with, multiple times in the years since I first read it.
The story’s protagonist is Chiyoko, a young woman whose father is Japanese and whose mother was a “concubine in Peking.” She is haunted by her heritage and an expressive mirror hanging opposite her bed. Distressing visions appear there: apparitions of the goldfish her father raises in tubs on the roof. “Her mind was worn down like a phonograph needle because of the clarity of these visions.”
Those goldfish become a family obsession. Initially a hobby of her father’s, they eventually become Chiyoko’s responsibility. “Growing more and more melancholy by the day, she did nothing but gaze at them.” Suitors come and go, but all Chiyoko asks of them is to fetch her some water fleas to feed the fish:
“‘Where can I find them?’
“‘You might look around in a ditch.’”
When she is twenty-six, Chiyoko’s father dies and disowns her in his will. Upon hearing the news, a few things happen to her in rapid succession. She sees her mother in the mirror, and then runs to the roof to confront her.
“Where had she come from? And when? Her mother was standing by the fish tank, her face dark. Her mouth was full of lionhead fish. The tail of one of them dangled from her mouth like a tongue. Though the woman saw her daughter, she ignored her as she ate the fish.”
What happens next disturbs and disappoints me on two levels: 1. Chiyoko pushes her mother to her death, and 2. Kawabata abruptly follows that powerful passage up with a literal “and then she lived happily ever after” to end the piece:
“With this, Chiyoko was freed from her mother and father. She regained her youth and set out on a life of happiness.”
This tightly written and emotionally complex story deserves a much more effective ending than that. The reader is shunted from a potent and lingering image – “Her mother tumbled against the glazed brick and died with the goldfish in her mouth” – to this bland and unconvincing non-ending, which feels as though it was tacked on as an afterthought. As though, what the hell, maybe Chiyoko deserves a little something for all her suffering, after all.
This is why I love and hate “Goldfish on the Roof.”
I love it for its weirdness, for its tense layering of family dynamics, for its dreamlike descriptions, for allowing Chiyoko and her world to be formed out of a masterful give and take of dark and light rather than hard-drawn lines and character clichés – and for accomplishing all of this in a little over 1,000 words. The same things that I love about many of Kawabata’s stories.
I hate it for that ending. An ending, I feel, that betrays the reader, and undermines everything that the story had achieved leading up to those last few lines.
Kawabata’s stories were my first lessons in economy of language. The “palm-of-the-hand stories” occupy small spaces, but possess limitless expansive power, and that unexpected power of evocation blew open my early notions of how storytelling could—and should—be achieved. This was a precious thing for a young aspiring writer to discover.
But, no artist is perfect. Everyone misses the mark sometimes, and I think the reason that “Goldfish on the Roof” has remained important to me is that it embodies both the best and the worst of what I’ve encountered in flash fiction: captivating storytelling with the power to thoroughly immerse the reader in a small space, and an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to give closure to that story within the same space.
Compressing the space and the time in which we get to tell a story magnifies every stylistic choice, forces us to whittle the story down to its essentials. That is, ultimately, the thing that pulls me to flash fiction: it demands the essentials. Kawabata’s stories make their own demands, and sometimes they aren’t met. But I have learned to value those stories as much as any other, because their imperfection offers a glimpse into the workings of a great author’s craft that no engaged writer can afford to ignore.
Marie Schutt is a writer and editor based in Chicago. She edits Liminoid Magazine, which is launching its fifth issue in October 2016. Her fiction can be found in Sundog Lit. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
August 25, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
August 18, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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
August 12, 2016 Fridge Flash
This week’s Fridge Flash from Aubrey Reiter features illustrations, story, and loads of lovely alliteration from a talented budding writer! Remember to watch out for lethal lake snakes!
By Aubrey Reiter
Aubrey Reiter spends almost all of her free time with a book in her lap. She wrote and illustrated this alliterative story when she was eight years old. Aubrey lives by an estuary and hopes to become a marine biologist one day.
August 11, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
August 4, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
July 28, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
July 21, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
July 14, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
July 7, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
June 30, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
June 23, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
June 21, 2016 Interviews
Writing prompts are nothing new, but they can always be helpful in sparking the imagination and generating new content. SmokeLong editor Tara Laskowski recently stumbled across a casual Facebook microfiction writing project that intrigued her—The Tool Project, started by horror writers and editors Ellen Datlow and Kaaron Warren.
The concept? Ellen sends Kaaron a photo of an old and obscure tool (she’s a collector of them) and Kaaron has to write a story about it, without doing any research about its original purpose. They’ve published seven tool stories so far.
Tara caught up with both of them recently for an email Q&A.
How did all this start?
ED: Kaaron and I started chatting on Twitter about my collection of weird tools. She volunteered to write a micro-story about each one I photographed. And so it began.
Tell me more about the tools? Where do you find them?
ED: I have been collecting them for many years. I have no idea why I began. I think I was at a flea market in London’s Covent Garden market and saw a tool that neither I nor the dealer could identify, but it was so pretty I bought it. My rules for buying tools are that they must be interesting looking, cheap, and small.
How many of these weird tools do you have? And where on Earth do you keep them?
ED: I have no idea how many tools I’ve got. They’re spread all over my apartment, displayed on cabinets, windowsills, on my kitchen wall grid (where one hangs pots and pans and other kitchen items that I use regularly). I’m always looking for new, strange (small) tools and objects. They’re not all tools—for example, the metal teeth that Kaaron wrote about.
To me, the most interesting are those that I have no idea of their purpose.
What has surprised you all most about the exercise?
ED: How inventive Kaaron is with her fictions
KW: How many fascinating items Ellen owns.
Kaaron, do you write a lot of flash fiction? Was is it that draws you to this form?
KW: I do write a bit! For my last year of high school, my major project was a series of micro stories. I love that you can be precise and very focussed in this format, and that you don’t always have to have all the answers. I love working to the restraints, as well. For the high school project, each story had to be exactly 50 words.
How many of these tools did you know or could guess their purpose? Did you find it mattered when writing the stories?
KW: Most of them I have a good, if not specific, idea of their purpose, given their design. I tried not to think too hard about their actual purpose, though. I wanted to find the story behind them.
Many of the stories seem to end on these sort of dark, hopeless moments. I especially enjoy the bleakness of the ending of Tool 5. It reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode, and is quite haunting. Do you think the bleakness of the look of the tools themselves lend themselves to bleak stories? Or is that kind of theme/feel what you’re normally drawn to when writing?
KW: I’m definitely drawn to the darker stories in my writing. And, given I’m writing these stories for (with!) Ellen, who is drawn to the same stories, they were always going to be quite bleak.
Any old object carries a certain sadness with it, I think. A reminder that things change, are lost. Each tool has a story behind it and in these stories I’m imagining the past (and, with Tool 5, the future as well). Imagining the people who owned and used these tools. So that brings a bleakness, in a way, because those people are long since dead and gone. Maybe they’ve left behind memories, family, friends. But someone, at some stage, decided the tool (and, we can assume, many of the other belongings) were no longer needed. No longer important.
How many tool stories are you planning on writing?
ED: Depends on time and energy (mostly Kaaron’s). It’s easy for me to photograph each tool, and I doubt I’ll ever run out before her time and energy does :-)
KW: I’m still enjoying doing them, and I’m finding they are helping me work on other, commissioned stories that I am on deadline for. If ever I’m stuck in a story, I’ll go for a walk, or I’ll sit down and write a bunch of tiny stories like these, because it’s a way for the subconscious to be freed. If you don’t have to worry so much about long plot lines, deep character development, back stories, all that kind of thing, then the idea itself comes to the fore.
I’ve heard people say that it’s hard to write really good funny flash fiction and really good scary flash fiction. Do you agree? What common mistakes do you think people make when trying to write horror flash?
KW: It is tricky, because you don’t have much time for the ‘set-up’, so vital in both funny and scary stories. It can be done, though. You just have to choose your words more wisely.
The most common mistake is people thinking that because they don’t have many words, all they can do is describe something. So they spend the whole 100 words or whatever in a descriptive piece that isn’t actually a story. They’ll use MORE words to describe something than they usually would! I reckon you can tell a story in a short space, but you can’t indulge in descriptive words. You need to be specific, rather.
Ellen Datlow has been editing sf/f/h short fiction for over thirty-five years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and currently acquires and edits stories for Tor.com. She has edited almost one hundred anthologies and won multiple awards for her work, including the 2012 Il Posto Nero Black Spot Award for Excellence as Best Foreign Editor. Datlow was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre”; has been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career, and the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award for 2014, which is presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to the fantasy field. She lives in New York.
Award-winning author Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold more than 200 short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and six short story collections including the multi-award-winning Through Splintered Walls. Her latest novel is The Grief Hole (IFWG Publishing Australia, coming out in August) and her latest short story collection is Cemetery Dance Select: Kaaron Warren. She Tweets @KaaronWarren.
June 16, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
June 10, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is looking for an Associate Editor/Copy Editor to join our team. We are an award-winning online flash fiction publication founded in 2003. This is virtual and is an unpaid volunteer position.
Read and proofread accepted stories and interviews for SmokeLong Weekly and SmokeLong Quarterly.
Inspect accepted stories for instances of plagiarism, as well as other violations of publishing terms.
Proofread content for SmokeLong’s blog, including craft essays, interviews, news stories, and other additional features.
Read submissions for the Kathy Fish Fellowship.
Will work with Senior Editors to establish in-house style rules.
Offer feedback and critiques to our Kathy Fish Fellow.
Read approximately 7-20 stories per week for possible publication.
Time commitment is a rough estimate of 3-9 hours per week and will vary based on number of submissions, as well as when quarterly issue deadlines fall.
We want someone who is interested in and passionate about flash fiction, literary fiction, small presses and online publishing. We need you to be extremely comfortable proofreading stories for spelling and grammatical issues. The ideal candidate will be able to balance correctness with respecting an author’s voice and style.
You will also check stories for potential plagiarism. Strong analytical skills and a willingness to handle sensitive situations are needed.
The ideal candidate will have some familiarity with Submittable, Google Drive, WordPress, Microsoft Word, and Slack.
Bonus if you’ve had previous experience at a literary magazine or blog. We want someone extremely organized, with a keen eye for good fiction, a good sense of humor and easy-going personality. We are also looking for someone who responds quickly and efficiently to email and online group discussions.
Most of all, we need someone who is excited about proofreading. If you’re the kind of writer-editor who wants to rid the world of comma splices, keep stories from wandering across tenses, and is ready and willing to correct dangling modifiers please apply.
No pay, but you will get:
Hands-on experience with a thriving, reputable literary publication
Networking opportunities with writers, editors, and publishers
Our undying love and devotion
To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: SLQ Copy Editor Position. In your cover letter, be sure to address why you’re interested in working with SmokeLong any copyediting experience you have/had, as well as how much time per week you have to devote to volunteering with us. We will accept applications until the position has been filled.
Thank you for your interest!
June 9, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
June 2, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
May 27, 2016 News Digests
Flash fiction publication Wigleaf released its hotly-anticipated annual Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions lists last week. The top 50 included two SmokeLong stories: “Puberty” by Kat Gonso and “Broken Bird” by Debbie Kinsey.
The longlist featured eight more SmokeLong pieces: SmokeLong blog editor Annie Bilancini’s “Two Truths and One Lie about Marian ‘Lady Tyger’ Trimiar, Former Women’s Lightweight Champion of the World,” Daniel DiFranco’s “The Moon is a Wasteland,” Kathryn Kulpa’s “Bricolage,” Alexander Lumans’ “Bird of Paradise,” Angela Palm’s “Ways to Make Money in Prison,” Aimee Pogson’s “The Sadness of Spirits,” Rolli’s “A Window,” and Andrew F. Sullivan’s “Laura Palmer’s Bar and Grill.”
In addition to her SmokeLong piece, Bilancini’s story “The House of Schiaparelli,” which was published in The Collagist, made the longlist. Other longlisted SmokeLong staff include executive editor Megan Giddings for “Reunion” in PANK and reader Erin Fitzgerald for “Amazing” in Okey-Panky.
Congratulations to all these amazing writers!
May 26, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
May 20, 2016 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash comes from sixth grader Coleman Davidson, who expertly captures the chaos and drama of the final moments of the big game.
By Coleman G. Davidson
Today, I played awesome in goalie. I even saved a penalty kick. The other team was pushing, kicking, elbowing, and even kneed one of our players in the “boys.” The ref never called a foul against the opposing team. Like when one of the other players pushed Ethan to the ground during a dead ball. But, somehow Kadin was called for a foul inside the penalty box. What happened was Kadin finally got tired of all the pushing and extended his arm to try to clear the ball. The player tripped over the ball, and the ref called a foul against us! Crazy, right? Our whole team was shouting at the ref. Even my coach was screaming at the top of his lungs. One of our parents threw their chair onto the field.
I say to my team, “Calm down, I got this.”
I waited for the ref to put the ball down. I stared at the player’s eyes to see if he has a target… he does! Left corner. In my mind I say to myself left corner, left corner, left corner. I’m shaking, jumping, and can’t stop moving. I stand on my line.
I nodded to the ref.
Here we go. I am confident he will kick it on the left side. The player runs forward. He kicks it to the left. I dive. The ball hits my hands. I bounce up. I’m sprinting to go collect the live ball, and I look around to see a bunch of other players racing to pounce the ball. I feel nervous about diving on the ball, but I have to, because the other team could obtain it and try to score. I finally dive on it. I’m on the ground. I can’t see anything because everybody piles on top of me. The ref’s whistle freed me from the pile.
I finally spring up and say to myself, “awesome save!”
Coleman G. Davidson is an eleven-year-old sixth grader from South Carolina. He plays goalie for Discoveries Soccer Club. In his spare time, Coleman likes to practice soccer, play video games, and fingerboard. He is also a wonderful big brother.
May 19, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
May 12, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
“Catch These Little Gifts”: Flash Interviews with Dan Nielsen, Robert Scotellaro, and Nancy Stohlman
May 6, 2016 Guest BloggerInterviews
by Jonathan Cardew
Like a shot of whiskey, or a plunge into cold water, or a breeze on a hot summer’s day, good flash recalibrates the senses. It does it swiftly. It knows what it’s doing.
Dan Nielsen, Robert Scotellaro, and Nancy Stohlman know what they’re doing.
I asked these fantastic flash writers a straightforward, possibly infuriating, and definitely several-barreled question: Describe, elaborate on, or riff about a recent flash story you have had published. Keep your response to around 150-ish words. Give us a link to the work.
Luckily, they said, “Ok, Jonathan, fine.”
I figured if they could write flash so well, they’d be able to get to the point.
Dan Nielsen is no stranger to keeping things simple. A Wisconsin native, his flash stories and poetry can be found in many fabulous venues. His pared prose style lulls and then startles you with its honesty and strange humor. You’ll be glad when you’ve read a Nielson story.
Dan on “Monster Truck” at Bird’s Thumb:
“I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.” ―Franz Kafka
That Kafka quote is funny because it’s true.
(in my opinion)
Stories need named characters who move about and say things aloud.
A writer is omniscient, but doesn’t brag about it.
Second person present is best left to hypnotists. “You are a chicken.”
“Monster Truck” takes place in my house so that imagined Dave can look out a real window and see an imagined panel truck pull up to a real curb. There is imagined snow on my real sidewalk. When imagined Preston says, “They say eight to twelve tonight, the worst toward morning,” imagined Dave really hears it and feels comforted that imagined Preston is a real person. The basement and dryer are real and the dryer was broken and repaired, but that was at least ten years ago and I remember nothing about it except that the real repair guy mentioned a Monster Truck.
I just reread the story. It’s real funny. I hope you agree.
Robert Scotellaro needs no introduction. What comes out of the Scotellaro Compression Machine is pure gold, finely pressed and polished, with an extra buff for good measure. “Fun House” is masterful work, filled with smoke and mirrors and “wobbly globes.”
Robert on “Fun House” at New Flash Fiction Review and reprinted in Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton):
Writing this story, I inhabited a place both familiar and unexpectedly surreal. Our daughter had not so long before left for college (the familiar). “Fun house mirrors” was something I’d jotted in a notebook years earlier. Just those words. I extrapolated, framing the idea of two “empty-nesters” cutting loose in a spare bedroom covered, wall to ceiling, with fun house mirrors acquired at an auction. And discovered I was exploring a bizarre, yet fundamental kind of safe infidelity, where my characters were having sex in a room filled with the strange strangers they became—(the unexpectedly surreal). Their experience (its oddness notwithstanding) allowed them a certain kind of adventurism in contrast to their prior, buttoned-down, predictable lives.
It was great fun writing this piece, seeing where it might lead me, how far they/I would take it. I am ever drawn to the little surprises that rise up from that deeper (sometimes darker) mind we all carry.
Nancy Stohlman is many things: performer, singer, writer, shark-petter. Her stories bound across the page in whatever outfit she chooses. She hosts a number of flash fiction events in the Denver-area, sings in the lounge metal group Kinky Mink, and dreams up stories like this one…
Nancy on “The Morning After” at nancystohlman.com and forthcoming at Woven Tales Press:
There are few scenarios more frightening than waking up next to Donald Trump. In my case I panicked, rolled over, grabbed a pen and wrote this story down almost fully formed in the notebook by my bed. Over the years I’ve probably gotten at least half my ideas from dreaming—I always tell people that the dream world is like an all-night diner of free inspiration. Sometimes I only get a wisp or an image or a setting, but sometimes the whole story just rises out of the dream ether in one piece, usually in that transition time between asleep and awake when the muse is still whispering in my ear but I’m not awake enough to sabotage her yet. I think dream material only works if you learn to speak its language and approach it on its own territory. The key is to be vigilant, to catch these little gifts and write them down before they’re gone, and don’t ask yourself “is this idea crazy?” because it probably is.
READ IT HERE: “The Morning After,” by Nancy Stohlman, March 2016
Dan Nielsen drinks bourbon and plays Ping-Pong. Old credits include Random House and University of Iowa Press anthologies. Recent work in: Jellyfish Review, Bird’s Thumb, Minor Literature[s], Storm Cellar, Random Sample, and Pidgeonholes. Dan has a website: Preponderous and you can follow him @DanNielsenFIVES
Robert Scotellaro has been published widely in national and international books, journals, and anthologies including: W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, NANO Fiction, Gargoyle, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Best Small Fictions 2016 (forthcoming), and others. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and two full-length flash and micro fiction collections by Blue Light Press: Measuring the Distance and What We Know So Far. The latter was the winner of The 2015 Blue Light Book Award. Bad Motel, a collection of his 100-word stories, is due out by Big Table Publishing later this year. Robert currently lives with his wife and daughter in San Francisco. Visit him at www.rsflashfiction.com
Nancy Stohlman’s books include Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (forthcoming), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories (2014), The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi: a flash novel (2009), and four anthologies including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series in Denver, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find out more about her at www.nancystohlman.com
Jonathan Cardew’s short [and very short] stories appear in Atticus Review, Blink Ink Quarterly, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Flash Frontier, KYSO Flash, Segue, and Spelk, among others. He was a finalist in The Best Small Fictions 2016. He lives in Milwaukee. https://jonathancardew.wordpress.com/
Have an idea for a blog post? Submit your own interviews, reviews, or flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
May 5, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
April 28, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
April 21, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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 the Continuum of Art and Science: An Interview with the Winner of Africa’s Etisalat Prize for Flash Fiction
April 15, 2016 Interviews
The Etisalat Prize for Literature is a pan-African award that strives to nurture emerging writers on the continent and support the African publishing industry. Although the prize began with a focus on books, it also now includes a flash fiction award for stories of 300 words or fewer.
Virgie Townsend recently had the pleasure of interviewing the winner of the 2015 Etisalat Prize for flash fiction, Kuti Ojuolape Modupe. Ojuola, a writer and medical student in Nigeria, shared how she wrote the winning story “Gone,” her literary influences, and how she balances creative work with a career in medicine.
Congratulations on winning the Etisalat Prize for Literature for Flash Fiction! What inspired “Gone”?
Thank you for your kind words. I wish I could say there was some epic backstory to “Gone,” but there really isn’t. “Gone” was me trying to push myself to write something I had never tried before. It was me writing from a man’s point of view. It really was my way of saying, men feel things and get heartbroken too and that’s okay.
I love that the Etisalat has a special category for flash fiction. How did you learn about it and decide to enter your piece?
I learnt about the Etisalat Flash Fiction category via Twitter methinks. That was two years ago and I found out when it was too late and entries were closed. So I tried again last year after my friends encouraged me to go for it. I remember thinking, what are the odds my story gets anywhere? I wrote a piece to send in after many days of being blank and really just hoped for the best.
You’re a medical student as well as a creative writer, which some people might find surprising. How do you balance your creative writing with your work in medicine? Do you feel like the two fields complement or conflict with each other at times?
Medical school is quite the challenge, I’ll admit. Truth is there are moments in there where I barely have time for myself but there are also freer times. So it’s really about knowing when to put in all the work and when to relax. Writing calms me, especially when I’m overwhelmed. I’ve been writing since I was about 11 so even medical school can’t separate me from it. And honestly, I see science and art as a continuum. It doesn’t end somewhere and pick up somewhere else for me. Even in the science, I see the art. And I’m grateful for that gift.
Who have been your biggest influences as a writer? Do you have any reading recommendations for us?
I’ve been heavily influenced by a wide variety of writers, starting from Mary Higgins Clark who got me interested in writing at all to Stephen King who made me realise there really are no rules to writing. I was about 16 when I started to focus more on African writers and I have a lot of respect for Teju Cole and Taiye Selasi. They made me see writing in an entirely different way. I absolutely recommend Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and Margot Dalton’s Tangled Lives.
Tell us a little about your writing process. How do you approach writing a piece of flash?
I think writing flash comes easier to me because I like to think I’m a simple person. Haha. I feel like there’s so much more in saying less. My writing process is usually triggered by something I see or hear. And a sentence plays around in my head. So I write it down somewhere so I can come back to it when I’m not so busy. It’s a visual process for me where I see the characters in my mind and the story slowly plays out in my head as I write. I think it’s important to visualise your characters because if you can’t, how will the reader be able to as well? There’s also a lot of soul-pouring.
Now that you’ve won the Etisalat for flash, where do you want to take your writing next?
The big question. What next? I’ll keep writing, definitely. I have a blog that keeps me writing. Writing a book is definitely on my bucket list and hopefully, I’ll get around to it.
April 14, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
April 8, 2016 Artist Spotlight
SmokeLong’s Art Director Ashley Inguanta sat down with artist and illustrator Jessica Gawinski to discuss the creative process and visual narratives.
Tell me about your beginnings as an artist. The pull to create, what did it feel like? How did you nurture it?
Throughout childhood I loved to draw and create, but back then I never thought I’d choose it as a career. Art was always just a part of my life that I enjoyed and never got tired of. The art of storytelling has always been particularly influential to me, and probably what led me down my creative path. I wanted to be a part of that world, to help create a narrative visually, and bring the world of imagination to life. It wasn’t just the finished product that interested me, but also the creative process, how different artists approached problem solving with various techniques and ideas. I owe a lot to my family, especially my parents, because they really nurtured my creativity. They have always supported me as an artist, even if they didn’t always understand my choices at the time. I’m truly blessed that they saw I had a passion for art and encouraged me to follow it.
As you grow with your art, how does creating help you move through the world?
Creating is my response to the environment around me, and often reflects what interests me at that moment. My time at art school has definitely exposed me to many other art practices, and has led me to appreciate different types of art, from the fine art that history venerates to “commercial” art that influences us every day. It’s a wonderful world of inspiration. Sometimes I just get the itch to paint something specific or try out a new technique or style. Even if the result is terrible, I have to get it out of my system, and I always learn something that I can apply to the next piece I create.
Tell me about the most difficult piece you’ve ever created. How did it change you?
The first thing that comes to mind is a watercolor painting I did entitled “Bloom” [the cover art for Issue Fifty-One]. I think from the beginning I was afraid because I wasn’t that experienced with the medium and was scared of its permanence. I couldn’t just erase a mistake or hit that convenient undo button like you can digitally. At first I was really timid when applying my paint. Slowly proceeding with very light washes seemed the safest way to go, but I knew I wanted to create rich jewel tones and dark waters, which would require bold painting and confident brushstrokes. Once I got over my fears and began to paint with more confidence, I realized the medium was more forgiving than I thought, and my hesitant painting style was really hindering any emotive quality the painting had. That piece challenged how I handled anxiety before starting something new, and taught me how to be more confident painting expressively; which I believe is reflected in my more current pieces.
“Witch” is an extraordinary piece–it’s playful, and in that playfulness we have a story. Maybe it’s one of rebellion (it looks like she’s sneaking out of her room at night), or one of freedom. What inspired this piece?
That piece was actually for an inking class I recently took at school. The only parameters were that it had to include a figure. I hadn’t done anything playful in a while and wanted to do something fun. I have to admit I was most influenced by the season as far as the theme, as it was around Halloween time. While I would encourage viewers to create their own story based on what they see in this piece, my own personal backstory for my characters is more or less one of coming of age. I imagined a young witch went out one night with the intention of finding her very own companion (as she had noted that most respectable witches had one). And to the bewilderment of the little black cat, she decided she found the perfect comrade!
If you could collaborate with one person, who would it be and why?
John Howe has always been a personal hero of mine, and if not collaborate with, I would love to be able to see him work in person. While laboring to create works of fantasy and imagination, he takes great care to anchor fantasy with authenticity. He’s not only an amazingly skilled artist, but he also has an incredible knowledge of the medieval world and Norse mythology, both of which I find fascinating. He is a high-energy designer and that is reflected in his work. Fantasy and mythology are subject matter I enjoy and want to incorporate into my future career as an artist. His work has greatly influenced me and I would love to learn from him in person.
Jessica Gawinski is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration at Kendall College of Art and Design in Michigan. Her artwork has been displayed in various exhibitions, including the Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship Exhibition, has been auctioned off at charity events, and can be found in several private collections.
April 7, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
April 4, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
April 1, 2016 News Digests
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
SmokeLong Quarterly is no more. The online flash fiction journal with the problematic name has changed its official name to SipLong Quarterly, in response to pressure from readers.
The change is effective April 1, 2016. A new logo is also in the works.
SmokeLong‘s former name comes from the Chinese, who noted that reading a piece of flash takes about the same length of time as smoking a cigarette. “Our name spoke more to the length of our stories rather than trying to encourage cancer-inducing activities, but I can understand how some folks, especially if they’ve never read SmokeLong Quarterly or know what flash fiction is, could have interpreted that wrong,” says Tara Laskowski, editor of SLQ.
When SmokeLong underwent an extensive web site redesign last year, the new look raised suspicions from random Twitter users who saw the name of the publication flicking through their newsfeed. “The new design looks slick—maybe too slick,” Laskowski says. “One or two people thought we were sponsored by the tobacco industry, and that’s when we realized we had to do something about it.”
SipLong Quarterly keeps the same spirit as SmokeLong—readers can enjoy a story on the site in the time that it takes to delight in a small cup of tea—but without the nicotine-stained implications of the former name. “We considered naming it SipOfGreenTeaLong Quarterly, because green tea has less caffeine in it than other types, but the logo design was too tricky,” Laskowski adds.
She does, however, warn of the dangers of too much caffeine, and suggests that readers who are really enjoying the latest issue of SLQ should maybe switch to water about halfway through.
Founding Editor Dave Clapper could not be reached for comment. He was last seen face down in a pile of submissions covered in cocaine, conducting quality assurance for a possible name change to SnortLong Quarterly.
March 28, 2016 News Digests
This week, we’ve got the details on where and when you can catch some of our contributors and staff reading, panel-ing, and signing during AWP in LA.
Aubrey Hirsch will take part in the panel “In Case You Think You Don’t Belong Here: Imposter Syndrome and AWP” with Margaret LaFleur, Samantha Dunn, Jessie Carty, and Carmen Maria Machado on Thursday from 10:30-11:45am in Room 403 A.
Katy Resch George’s new short story collection will be available at AWP, published by Kore Press. The title story of the collection is her SmokeLong story, “Exposure.”
Alexander Lumans will take part in two panels: “There and Back Again: Writing from the Road” with Erika Krouse, Kai Carlson-Wee, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, and Maggie Shipstead on Thursday from 10:30-11:45am in Room 410; and “The New Atlantis: Readings by Five Eco-Fabulist Writers” with Rose Bunch, Christian Moody, Peter Grimes, Tessa Mellas on Friday from 1:30-2:45pm in Room 510.
Kendra Fortmeyer will be be reading in the Black Warrior Review/Bennington Review offsite reading at R. Bar on Friday, April 1 from 6-8pm.
Kara Vernor will be reading at two offsite events: a book release party for John Jodzio’s new short story collection Knockout w/special guests Catie Disabato, Amy Silverberg and Kara Vernor. Wednesday, March 30 at 7pm at Book Soup; and the Split Lip Press + Little Fiction/Big Truths reading featuring Liz Harmer, Amanda Leduc, Katie Schmid, Jared Yates Sexton, Andrew Sullivan on Friday at 7pm at Wolf & Crane.
Kate Berson is part of the team behind the FC2 offsite reading featuring Karen Brennan, Lucy Corin, Stanley Crawford, Matthew Kirkpatrick, Jessica Lee Richardson, Steve Tomasula, and Angela Woodward. It will be held on Thursday at 7pm at PYO Gallery.
James R. Gapinski will be exhibiting for The Conium Review (table 1238). He will also be moderating the panel “What the Heck Does Innovative Fiction Actually Mean?” on Friday from 3:00-4:15pm on the Scott James Bookfair Stage.
Megan Louise Rowe will be representing Willow Springs in the bookfair. Be sure to say hello!
Tara Laskowski will be signing copies of her new book Bystanders and Brandon Wicks will be signing American Fallout from 1-3pm Friday at the Santa Fe Writers Project table. Tara and Brandon are also doing an off-site at Barcito on Thursday from 5-7 pm.
Megan Giddings will be part of two offsite readings: “Switchback / No, Dear / Gazing Grain / Atlas: an AWP off-site” with Cynthia Arrieu-King, Mahogany L. Browne, Marisa Crawford, Tafisha Edwards, Christine Kanownik, Alyse Knorr, and Anne Lesley Selcer on Thursday at 7pm at City Tavern; and “North/South Short-Shorts Reading” with Zach Doss, Kathy Fish, Kelly Magee, and Michael Martone at 4:30pm at PYO Gallery.
Christopher Allen will be part of the panel “Limited Resources, Big Dreams: How to Mine the Rush of Online Lit Journals” on Thursday from 3:00-4:15pm in Room 511.
Ashley Inguanta will be signing For the Woman Alone from 3:00-5:00pm on Friday at The Florida Review table (931). She will be signing copies of Rough Magick with Francesca Lia Block, Logan Brendt, Laura Bennett, Tracy DeBrincat, Manny Chavarria, and Mary Pauline Lowry at table 1660.
Gay Degani, author of the suspense novel, What Came Before, and the collection, Rattle of Want, will be at the bookfair with copies of both to sell and sign. Check www.gaydegani.com for her AWP schedule.
And join us at SmokeLong Quarterly’s table (831) on Thursday at 4:30pm where we’ll be signing copies of our anthology, The Best of the First 10 Years. We hope to see you there!
March 25, 2016 Fridge Flash
This week’s Fridge Flash from sixth grader Maddie Silver includes what might just be our new favorite onomatopoeic word. Read on to find out what it is!
By Maddie Silver
I was at the beach at the time, walking along the hot sand, not too far from the water. I happened to stumble and looked down.
“Why, it’s a conch!” I exclaimed as I picked it up. “Can I hear the ocean?” I put it up to my ear and heard nothing. I sighed and started to put it down.
“Wait!” Whispered a small voice that seem to be coming from the conch. “ I am stuck in this shell! please, can you come back at midnight to free me?”
“Hmmm… Well, I can try, but why midnight? Because I could always do it now.” I offered.
“I can only be freed at midnight.” The voice murmured. “So don’t do it now.”
“Alright. I will be back at the spot.” I declared.
What a strange little shell. But – wow! Someone trapped in the shell! I thought.
I left my motel room at 11: 50 P.M. and took the short 5 – minute walk on the beach.
I came to the place where I had found the conch.
“I am here.” I announced. “What do I do?”
“Oh, oh! Just stand, mortal! I am BACK!” The voice boomed out over the beach.
“What is happening?!” I shouted.
“I am NOT like you, mortal. Time for you to serve your time!”
“AAAAAHHHH!” I screamed as I started getting sucked into the shell.
I was in the shell.
And, to this day, I am waiting, waiting for my turn. For my victim to come at midnight.
Madeleine Silver is an 11-year-old 6th grader from Portland, Oregon. She lives with her parents, brothers, and her chihuahua named Bunny. She enjoys reading, writing, sleeping, and hiking. She aspires to be a lawyer one day and describes herself as determined, stubborn, and passionate. Maddie got her idea for this story whilst daydreaming in Humanities class, looking at a picture of the beach on the wall. She hopes you enjoy!
March 24, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
March 21, 2016 Guest BloggerNews Digests
Creative writing professors Wade Geary and Huan Hsu teach at Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands. This week, their students will be reading the SmokeLong queue, discussing the stories, and ultimately picking a favorite for us to publish in our next issue. We talked with Wade and Huan about their class and what they hope their students get out of such an exercise.
What can you tell us about your college?
Wade: Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a fairly new liberal arts and science program; this year will mark its seventh in existence. It’s part of an expansion of university colleges within the Netherlands. Like the city of Amsterdam, the institution is quite international—close to 50 percent of the students are from outside of the Netherlands.
I feel pretty lucky to be teaching at AUC, especially to be teaching Creative Writing at the school. There aren’t many places on the European continent where students can take creative writing courses at the university level, especially in English. Many countries rely on art academies for these sorts of studies.
What is the creative writing course structure?
Wade: I’ve taught the course at AUC for four years now. Some of the students are studying literature, but there are several that are in other areas of the humanities or even in the sciences. This means the students view writing creatively in pretty diverse ways. And the course structure itself—split into three sections (Romance, Exposure, and Refining)—tries to celebrate a variety of writing practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the structure is borrowed from a math education researcher who studied how to get students interested in mathematics.
Huan: I think you’re being a bit modest here about the course structure, which I think is really effective in addressing the tyranny that genre can have on a creative writing syllabus. So rather than a rigid trudge through fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, we start reading (and writing) all three genres from the start, and put the focus on allowing students to explore, engage, and fall in love, hence the Romance. The upshot of this is that when we do get into the genres in the Exposure section there’s already a foundation.
Tell us about your students.
Huan: This is my second year teaching the course and I think my class composition is pretty typical of the creative writing sections: 20 students, mostly women (only 4 guys), comprised of second and third years (AUC is a three-year program). I have 6 exchange students (3 American, 1 South Korean, 1 British, and 1 Australian). The rest of the class is half from the Netherlands and half from the rest of Europe. They are well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, and far more sophisticated than I was as their age. They are sharp, motivated, and empathetic. All have excellent spoken and written English. They are so fluent that I have to constantly remind myself how marvelous it is that so many students are writing creatively in their non-native languages.
The writing backgrounds of the students vary widely, as do their ambitions. Some are just beginning to engage with creative writing in a structured environment; some know the New Yorker inside and out and have taken writing workshops before. Some are likely curious to explore the limits of their abilities—how far can they go with writing? Some seem to simply wish to scratch an itch. All of them do share the common trait among writers of feeling the urge to write—to say something—even if they aren’t yet sure what to say or how to say it. Many of them keep writing journals. I’m pleased that very few, if any, appear to be taking this course just because they think it will be easy. They all seem quite invested in getting the most from the class, and stretch themselves accordingly on the assignments. They are strong critical readers when it comes to other people’s work.
How familiar are they with SmokeLong?
We assigned them an exercise early in the semester in which they had to go explore SmokeLong and find at least one story that they really loved and explain why. Most found more than one, and there was actually quite a bit of overlap both in terms of stories they loved and also stories they disliked, and the subsequent discussion in class about why they loved their favorite story and why they didn’t love other stories was so lively and critical and helped to convince me that they were up for the responsibility of selecting a winning submission.
What do you hope they’ll learn from reading submissions from the slush pile?
Wade: An activity like this makes the act of writing more tangible. They’ll see that writing doesn’t exist within a bubble and isn’t only discussed in a classroom. And that the world of writing is multi-faceted, where editing is equally important.
Huan: Exactly. I think teachers naturally teach in reaction to their own experiences as students, and one of the things I disliked about my creative writing education was the sense that professors were gatekeepers for the larger writing world and thus enforced a hierarchy that turned established writers into celebrities beyond reproach and kept writing students (and their opinions) at the bottom. Questions about, say, how literary journals worked or which you should read were dealt with in a way that discouraged curiosity, punished inexperience, and suggested that students had to first be deemed “ready” to engage this larger world. Often this anointment could only be attained by gaining the favor of the instructor, which often meant hammering away at a story until it became “good” (whatever the instructor meant by that). This might be how that oft-maligned “workshop story” comes into being. I completely agree with the reasoning at the heart of this philosophy, that too many young writers get caught up on publication and that all writers should focus on process and not outcome. But the orthodoxy in practice was annoying (and counterproductive to developing writers, in my opinion) then and completely outdated now—it’s about as tone deaf as journals that still forbid simultaneous submissions.
So all this was in my mind while I was guest editing for SmokeLong in December, which, first and foremost, was just a lot of fun. There was a sense of falling in love with reading and writing again (Romance!), and a reminder of how a great piece of writing can inspire by making it all seem so easy and natural and possible. And that’s what we want our students to feel. Likewise, many submissions also affirm by not being great. In fact, it might be more helpful for young writers—who can struggle with confidence and courage and often get paralyzed by some imagined gulf between them and “real” writers—to see bad or mediocre writing to remind them that there’s nothing to fear. And it occurred to me as I was reading and deliberating over my selections that I was doing what we ask of our creative writing students when it comes to fiction: considering narrative and storytelling and voice and character and completeness, to name a few.
Given that the process of guest editing practices all the skills we are trying to build, and given my belief that writing should be demystified and democratic, why shouldn’t a group of bright young writers—and SmokeLong readers themselves—be trusted with determining the most worthy journal submission? In my experience, students—like all people who want to be successful—thrive when challenged, when trusted with responsibility, and when they feel their work is meaningful. Finally, it’s logistically more feasible to ask our students, who have little time between academics and extra-curriculars, to read 60 flash pieces in a week than full short stories.
Born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, Huan Hsu is the author of The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China. As a staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly, he won two Society of Professional Journalists awards and received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Literary Review, and Lucky Peach. He received his MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and currently lives in Amsterdam where he teaches journalism and creative writing at Amsterdam University College.
March 17, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is pleased to announce that the 2016 edition of Best Small Fictions from Queen’s Ferry Press will feature three SLQ stories, the most of any publication. The SLQ winners are “World’s Worst Clown” by James Kennedy, “Parting” by Elizabeth Morton, and “Natural Disaster” by Jessica Plante.
“We are always amazed at the level of talent that comes through our submission queue. We know our writers are the best, and it’s always lovely when that validation comes from the outside,” says SLQ Editor Tara Laskowski.
Past SLQ contributors who are also featured in the collection include Justin Lawrence Daugherty, Kathy Fish, Rosie Forrest, SLQ Executive Editor Megan Giddings, Laird Hunt, Nathan Leslie, Paul Lisicky, Sophie Rosenblum, Vincent Scarpa, and Curtis Smith.
To see the full list of featured writers, visit the Queen’s Ferry Press website. Congratulations to the Best Small Fictions 2016 winners, finalists, and semifinalists!
March 17, 2016 Guest BloggerWhy Flash Fiction Series
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.
March 11, 2016 News Digests
Here’s the latest good news from contributors and staff!
Matt Rowan’s story “No Me Say It” was published in the latest issue of Timber Journal, 6.1. Rowan’s story “Bad Traffic” was published in Issue Thirty-Seven. In addition to that, he’s also guest edited and interviewed contributors for SmokeLong.
Marisela Navarro won third place and publication in The Masters Review Fall Fiction Contest judged by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer for her story “Animalizing“, published January 2016. Her flash story “Melissa at the Mall” was published in Hobart, January 2016. Her story “My Escape” is in issue #6 of Tahoma Literary Review, out March 28th, 2016. Navarro’s story “Reset” appeared in Issue Forty-Six.
Simon Han’s story, “The Tale of the Hag,” has been published in Guernica. Han’s story, “First Story,” was published in Issue Forty-Five.
Julienne Grey‘s story, “Migration,” was published by The Brooklyn Review in February. Her story, “Womb Viewer,” appeared in Issue Forty-Three.
ELJ Publications has accepted Karen Craigo’s second poetry collection, Passing Through Humansville, which due out in April 2017. Karen also recently published her first story “Delivering the Courier” at Hermeneutic Chaos.
Check out Christopher Allen’s interview with Kathy Fish at r.kv.r.y quarterly. Christopher’s chapbook, The Raging Melting Space Between, was a finalist in the 2015 Gertrude Press fiction chapbook competition.
Megan Giddings’ chapbook, The Most Dangerous Game, will be in be in The Lettered Streets Press‘s Split Series Vol 3. The poetry half of the series is The Romances by Lo Kwa Mei-en. Megan was a finalist for Mid-American Review‘s Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, and had three flash stories in Passages North Issue 37.
Gay Degani launched a feature at Words in Place called “Journey to Planet Write.” Gay also has three 50-word flashes coming out in Blink-Ink, a story, “Vagabond” in Pure Slush’s FIVE which is out in paperback and another story, “Unsuited,” was published at Pure Slush on March 9.
Ashley Inguanta’s piece “County Line Poem” is forthcoming in The Good Men Project, and she recently published a short memoir in The Rumpus called “A House, A Girl.” Ashley also has art in Reservoir Journal‘s first issue.
Shasta Grant’s essay “One Night Stand” is in the current issue of Gargoyle.
If you’ve contributed to SmokeLong in the past, keep in touch! Tell us about your latest pubs and awards here.
March 10, 2016 Why Flash Fiction Series
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.
February 20, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong is pleased to announce two new staff editors.
Eshani Surya is the new associate editor for social media and marketing. She is based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, Publishing Trendsetter, Minetta Review, and First Class Lit. She also works in publishing at Bloomsbury USA, marketing both children’s and adult trade books. Her Twitter handle is @__eshani.
Virgie Townsend is our new associate editor for blog content. Virgie’s story “The Freeze” was included in SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First 10 Years anthology and she has been a guest editor for us. Recently, she wrote a post for the SLQ blog about her experience teaching a flash fiction writing course to high school students. Virgie is from Syracuse, New York, and will be based there as of end of March. Her flash fiction has been featured in such publications as Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and Bartleby Snopes, as well as the anthology Best of Pif, Volume One. Find her online at http://virgietownsend.com, or on Twitter @virgietownsend.
February 19, 2016 Fridge Flash
On Thursday morning at the zoo, all the animals stretched and yawned their wide mouths and munched up their breakfast. Then, Marty the zebra found a curious orange egg and wondered what was inside. He thought, if that’s a real egg, I’ll have it for lunch. He wondered if the zookeeper knew what it was. A gazelle came along at that moment.
‘You’re wild,’ gasped all the animals.
‘Yes, I am, so just shut your big mouths.’
‘That’s a bit rude,’ said the tiger, who always said everything was rude.
‘Well, if you say one more word about me, I’m gonna eat all your food,’ said the gazelle.
‘First of all, we’d like to know your name,’ said the elephant.
‘My name is Antla and I don’t like being called Ant.’
‘Where are you from?’ asked the rhinoceros.
‘I’m from Kenya,’ she said.
‘So, why aren’t you talking to us in Kenyan language then?’ said the bear.
‘My mummy was English and taught me English, so I don’t like speaking Kenyan. By the way, if you even touch my baby with one paw you’ll know all about it!’
So, one dark and dusky night, they decided to look for her baby and find out if she was telling lies or not. That night, the zookeeper let the animals out of their cages because he trusted them and knew they would not escape.
The tiger said, ‘Quickly! Over here – there’s Antla curled up.’
‘But who’s that with the big horns cuddled up beside her?’ said Bella the cheetah. ‘That’s her baby, so it’s true.’
Then Antla woke up and yawned. ‘What are you doing here?’ she said.
‘Well, we wanted to see if it’s true that you have a baby,’ said Bella.
‘Leave now or I’m butting you with my big horns and he’ll hold you up with his.’
Quickly they fled, wondering what would happen next. They told the zookeeper everything and later something frightening happened. A giant dinosaur appeared.
‘I am the guard of Antla,’ he said, baring his fangs. ‘Antla is your friend now, I’m afraid.’
‘We will be friends with her,’ the animals all said together. ‘And she can live with us for as long as she likes.’
Marty the zebra remembered the orange egg and he gave it to Antla’s baby to play with.
Layla Gouhar is an Irish-Egyptian seven year-old third grader who loves animals, reading, drawing and making up stories whilst playing with her large collection of small animals. She also likes swimming, riding her bicycle, ice-skating, making cakes, shopping for books, and libraries. Layla has a cat called Stevie and wants to be a Vet when she grows up. “One Morning At The Zoo” was influenced by one of Layla’s favourite movies, Madagascar.
February 12, 2016 News Digests
Here’s some of the latest good news from our wonderful contributors!
Bud Smith has been busy these days! Check out his story, “Jant,” up at Monkeybicycle. Or head to his website to catch up on all his good publication news there. His story, “Junior in the Tunnels,” was published in Issue Forty-Four.
Laura Ellen Scott just received a multi-book deal for her New Royal Mysteries from Pandamoon Publishing. The first book is entitled The Mean Bone in Her Body and is scheduled for a Winter 2016 release. Her story, “Last Seen Leaving,” was published in Issue Twenty-Eight.
We love getting good news! If you’ve been a SmokeLong contributor in the past, feel free to send us updates about your recent pubs and general literary awesomeness, and we’ll include it upcoming news round-ups!
February 4, 2016 Reviews
This week Matt Weinkam shares his unabashed love for Judith Schalansky’s beautiful book Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will and its recent Pocket Atlas reissue.
By Matt Weinkam
I’m in love with a book. Can I say that? There is a book that I love like a person. I think it is intelligent, funny at times, independent in spirit, honest. This book delights me but also challenges me. It takes me new places, teaches me new things. I’m attracted to it, I’ll admit. It is quite beautiful. When I spy it from across the room peeking out from my bookshelf or lying seductively open on my bedside table I feel things. Maybe you have a book like this, a book that glows when you touch it, that you think about when it’s not around, the book that you’d run back into a burning building to save. For me that book is Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will written, designed, and typeset by Judith Schalansky, and translated from German by Christine Lo.
The book is exactly what it says it is: a collection of fifty remote islands from around the globe. For each island Schalansky drew a detailed map, collected information about its location and history and inhabitants, and wrote stories essays prose poems difficult-to-categorize pieces to reveal something of the island’s essence. You are likely familiar with some of the islands already: Easter Island, Iwo Jima, Christmas Island, St Helena where Napoleon was exiled, Howland Island where Amelia Earhart was set to refuel before she disappeared into the Pacific. Others will feel like a discovery. There’s Napuka, also known as Disappointment Islands, where Ferdinand Magellan and his starving crew stopped briefly while circling the globe only to find it devoid of food or fresh water. Norfold Island, site of the most feared penal colony of the British Empire. And Tikopia, where the local inhabitants enforce a strict population limit in order to survive sustainably.
It’s no accident the stories that accompany many of these islands are grim. Schalansky’s introduction is titled “Paradise is an island, but so is hell.” Anyone looking for idyllic descriptions of pristine beaches or exotic plants will be deeply disappointed by this book. “What I found,” Schalansky writes about the research process, “were not models of romantic, alternative ways of living, but islands one might wish had remained undiscovered: unsettlingly barren places whose riches lay in the multitude of terrible events that had befallen them.” A majority of the islands come with descriptions of desolation and disease, horror stories of what humans do to one another and to the earth when no one is looking. The most haunting story to me is of St Kilda, an island off the coast of the UK where two-thirds of newborn babies die within the first week of their lives due to a mysterious illness. “The islanders whisper that it is the will of the Almighty. But these are the words of pious men. The women who endure so many pregnancies and bear so few children who survive the eight-day sickness remain silent.”
Dark, I know. So why do I love it? Partly for Schalansky’s prose. In just a few hundred words she brings each island to life while also asking big questions about the history of colonialism, the future of climate change, the effects of science and religion, and the assumptions and ideologies that trap those of us on these big islands called continents. Even if the book didn’t contain any images the words alone would make it worth your time.
But the images? The design? It’s no accident Atlas of Remote Islands won a prize for the most beautiful German book—the whole thing is a work of art. The maps of each island are intricate yet clear. The typeface and page layout engage without distracting. And I love how the orange highlights in the text compliment the blue of the ocean in each image. You will spend as much time studying the map of each island as you will spend reading the text that accompanies it. Each detail contains a story. How far is it from the nearest bodies of land? How many people live on the island? What country owns it? What are the names of its mountains and coves and streams and settlements? I’m particularly fond of the miniature globe graphic that accompanies each island. Schalansky places the island in the center of the map so that we view the earth from the point of view of those who live there. Such a simple design choice provides a revolutionary perspective of the planet. It can spark your imagination.
Atlas of Remote Islands could have been just another regular coffee table book: big on pictures, small on ideas. Instead it’s a complex, evocative, insightful, and challenging work of literature and art. It is, in other words, worthy of love. In an introduction to the new paperback edition, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, Schalansky writes, “Now that it is possible to travel right round the globe, the real challenge lies in staying at home and discovering the world from there.” Get a copy of this book. Fall in love with it. Go on an adventure.
Matt Weinkam’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, New South, Midwestern Gothic, Sonora Review, and Covered w/ Fur. He is currently in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University where he is co-managing editor at Passages North and a founding editor of Threadcount, an online journal of hybrid prose.
January 28, 2016 Interviews
We’re so excited for you to get to know our 2016 Kathy Fish Fellow, Shasta Grant. Recently, we took a little time to ask her about her writing habits, her life abroad, and her big reading goals for 2016.
Interview by Annie Bilancini
Your bio mentions that you split time between Indianapolis and Singapore. Can you talk about what that’s like and how that might influence your writing?
I live in Singapore during the academic year because husband teaches at an international school there. We return home to Indianapolis during the summer and winter breaks. It can be exciting living abroad—we get to travel and learn about other cultures. But I’m a homebody so I’m just as happy staying home in my sweatpants with coffee and books. It’s difficult to be away from friends and family for so much of the year. We try to make the most of our time at home – lots of good food, beer and long conversations.
Living abroad and going back and forth to the U.S. several times a year has definitely influenced my writing. A sense of place had never been of primary importance to me in my fiction and while I’ll probably never write rambling descriptions of landscapes, my stories are now firmly rooted in place and time. Maybe in the opposite way I would have expected. I’ve been writing about a town loosely based on my New Hampshire hometown. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to move away. Now that I’m literally halfway around the world, I spend a lot of time thinking about where I come from. I’m interested in writing about people who remain in their hometowns. I know what it’s like to leave, so that perspective is less interesting to me.
With that in mind, what impulse most often drives your writing? That need to explore other perspectives? A particular question? A singular image?
The impulse varies from story to story. I’ll write in search of an answer but I may not even know the question when I start. Usually a story begins from something concrete: a line of dialogue or an object or a place. If the idea takes enough shape, then I start writing. For example: yesterday I remembered my high school had a senior lounge that got shut down at some point, for a reason I can’t remember, before I became a senior. I wrote “senior lounge” in my notebook and I’ve been thinking about it for two days, wondering if there’s a story there. If there is, I don’t currently have any idea what it’s about or what the larger question is beyond that room. I wish I knew where these initial ideas or inspirations come from and how to control them – it would make writing a lot easier.
So it starts with the notebook. What comes next? Are you a longhand drafter? Or is your next step a Word document?
My notebook is where I gather ideas, keep reading and submission lists, make workshop notes, etc. Drafting usually happens in a Word document although occasionally I’ll write short sections in a notebook. Once I have a working draft, I print it and revise on the page by longhand. I go through this process several times, using different colored pens and highlighters for each draft, until it’s finished. I keep an “in progress” folder on my desk for first drafts. Once a story or essay has a revision or two, it gets its own folder. That is the point I know I’m committed to the piece—when it gets its own folder.
I love that process. Each story goes through its own private ritual. That lends so much more weight to a project. On the subject of writerly rituals: are there any touchstone texts you return to for guidance, a novel or collection that acts as your literary yardstick?
My answer to this is always changing. It depends what I’ve been writing at the time and which books speak to the work I’m trying to do. Years ago I probably would have named a collection by Lorrie Moore, or maybe an Ann Patchett novel. My current literary yardstick books are Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, and Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell. So three books—one collection of connected stories and two trim novels—about girlhood/womanhood/motherhood. These are the books guiding me in my work right now.
Ferrante is on my list. I’ve been Ferrante Fever-adjacent for a while now. I need to take the leap this year! Do you have any specific reading goals for 2016? Any books you really want to get your hands on?
I hear Ferrante Fever is going around! I read the first novel in the Neapolitan series last fall and loved it. My husband gave me the remaining three books for Christmas. As far as reading goals for 2016, my plan is to read all the un-read books in my office. Because books are so expensive in Singapore, we tend to buy a lot when we are home. We’ll check a box full of books on each trip. The problem is that, of course, I go out and buy other books in the ensuing months and then I end up with piles of books waiting to be read.
Here are some books I’m really excited to read soon:
Winesberg, Indiana edited by Michael Martone and Bryan Furuness. It’s an anthology about the mythical town of Winesburg, Indiana with stories by some great writers, including Roxane Gay and Claire Vaye Watkins.
The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship by Paul Lisicky. I was lucky to study with Paul at Sarah Lawrence and he’s one of the warmest, most generous teachers I’ve ever met. He’s also incredibly talented and I was thrilled to see that his new memoir got a wonderful review in The New York Times.
On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover by Tess Slesinger. I first read about this collection of stories in the Lost and Found section of Tin House. Katie Arnold-Ratliff wrote that she found the book at a flea market and that it is “a once-in-a-lifetime book: the sort that I knew, even then, would become a kind of mnemonic device. I would remember this time in my life as the era in which I met Tess Slesinger.” Between that recommendation and the title, I’ve been dying to get my hands on it.
Shasta Grant is the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. She is also the winner of the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her story, “Most Likely To,” was selected by final judge, Ann Patchett. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her stories and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Epiphany, Gargoyle, cream city review, Jelly Bucket, Wigleaf, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere. She is a prose editor for Storyscape Journal and has presented at several conferences including The Indiana Gathering of Writers, and Winter Wheat: The Mid-American Review Festival of Writing. Shasta Grant received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005 and was a 2007 Writer-in-Residence at Hedgebrook. She taught composition and creative writing for seven years for Ball State University. She has also taught creative writing at The Writers’ Center of Indiana and several women’s correctional facilities, including the Right-to-Write program in Valhalla, New York. Shasta grew up in New Hampshire. She currently lives in Singapore and Indianapolis with her husband, Chris Huntington, and their son.
January 26, 2016 News Digests
SmokeLong Quarterly is looking for an associate editor, social media and marketing, to join our team. We are an award-winning online flash fiction publication founded in 2003. This is virtual and is an unpaid volunteer position.
Read and comment on submissions.
Handle SLQ’s social media accounts, including, but not limited to, posting about new stories and blog posts each week, responding to and interacting with our followers, generating ideas about new content, giveaways or other promotions, identifying new social media opportunities, and monitoring analytics.
Promote and market SmokeLong to new audiences and identify partnerships to increase SmokeLong‘s traffic and readership.
Offer feedback and critiques to our Kathy Fish Fellow.
Time commitment is a rough estimate of 2-5 hours per week and will vary based on number of submissions.
We want someone who is interested in and passionate about flash fiction, literary fiction, small presses and online publishing. We need you to use and be comfortable with social media, mostly Twitter and Facebook (bonus if you’ve already got a good network, but not necessary). Bonus also if you’ve had previous experience at a literary magazine or blog. We want someone with a keen eye for good fiction, a good sense of humor and easy-going personality. We are also looking for someone who responds quickly and efficiently to email and online group discussions.
Most of all, we need someone who is excited about reading submissions and has the time and interest in committing to regular check-ins to vote and comment on stories in our queue. Yes, this includes the slush pile. Some weeks we will only have a handful of stories to read, but other weeks you might find 50-60 in the queue, so some flexibility is needed.
No pay, but you will get:
Hands-on experience with a thriving, reputable literary publication
Networking opportunities with writers, editors, and publishers
Our undying love and devotion
To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to email@example.com with the subject line: SLQ Associate Editor Position. In your cover letter, be sure to address why you’re interested in working with SmokeLong as well as how much time per week you have to devote to volunteering with us. We will accept applications until the position has been filled.
Thank you for your interest!
January 18, 2016 News Digests
We launched a newly designed site in April 2015, and you all responded kindly by actually visiting it! From April to December, SmokeLong Quarterly had more than 62,000 site visits and more than 147,000 page views. Our June 2015 issue (Issue 48) was the most read issue of the year.
Following are the most popular stories, blog posts, and author and guest editor interviews for the year. Check ’em out if you missed any of them:
Top Five Most Read Stories:
Bait by Amy Sayre Baptista (guest editor Christen Aragoni)
Old Man Falling Off of Stool by Timur Jonathan Karaca (guest editor Margaret Luongo)
The Moon Is a Wasteland by Daniel DiFranco (guest editor Ryan Bloom)
Puberty by Kat Gonso (guest editor Beth Cox Thomas)
Things You Won’t Tell Your Therapist by Colleen Kearney Rich (staff guest reader Isaac Boone Davis)
Top Five Blog Posts:
Part I of Teaching Flash Fiction by Virgie Townsend
Back to the Future: A Sestina by Angie Mazakis
The Excess of the Short-Short by Rachel Levy
Top Five Author Interviews:
Top Five Guest Editor Interviews:
January 14, 2016 Guest Blogger
This week on the blog, Dan Cafaro, the founder of Atticus Books, makes a case for recapturing the fiery spirit of small press publishing.
By Dan Cafaro
“No artist tolerates reality.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I try not to take this thing we do too seriously. I remember starting out in the used book business (1995-1999). I sold secondhand and out-of-print books from a small storefront in a quaint northeast Philadelphia suburb. I romanticized about the stimulating conversations I was bound to have with writers and artists who frequented the shop. I envisioned us talking late into the evening hours about the philosophies of Nietzsche and Sartre, waxing poetically about the nimble acrobatics of Wordsworth and Ferlinghetti, discussing the vulgarity of Bukowski, the elegance of Gwendolyn Brooks …
But no, it hardly ever went down that way. The first thing many people asked me was how much money I made selling books. It was shorthand for “small talk” in the book business. And the question always confounded me. I had left behind a paltry full-time sportswriter’s salary to try my hand at writing and selling literature. I was young and naïve, on a quest for authenticity. I had never asked my newsroom peers how much money they made. It was a rude, baffling non sequitur. Everyone in the arts was broke, weren’t they? Why belabor the point?
I channeled the disgruntled spirit of poet-bookseller Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I sat behind my shop’s long antique oak checkout counter and wrote bad poetry and dialogue on my word processor. I looked at every customer interaction as material for my next poem or play. I saw the inevitable money question posed by proverbial grazing sheeple as a relentless flea on my backside. Who in his right mind squanders an adequate living wage with health benefits and a retirement pension for the uncertainty of a new state and enterprise? A raging idealist and lover of the arts, that’s who.
I was miserable and yet never so unencumbered. Sure, a used bookstore’s income barely kept the lights on, and sure, I grossly underestimated how hard it would be to make ends meet … but I didn’t let the notoriously high percentage of failed startups discourage me.
I subsidized expenses by covering criminal trials at the courthouse up the street. I filed stories three times a week through an assignment editor at the Bucks County Courier Times. It was a decent freelance gig—complemented by the daily nourishment of Italian ices from Nat’s Pizza three doors down—except the courtroom beat reduced open shop hours because I could ill afford a reliable part-timer to watch the all-too-often empty store while I was away.
And so started my pattern of rotating in and out of Corporate America, and so too began my struggle of figuring out how to compensate staff to help me bring literature into the world.
This Thing We Do
When I owned Chapters Revisited, I stayed awake at night thinking about the buying and selling of assorted printed matter including collectible first editions. These days I lose sleep over the purveying and dissemination of new literature produced by writers who solicit my press, Atticus Books (1,000+ full-length manuscript submissions in 2014-2015), and its sister journal, Atticus Review (an average of 2,100 annual submissions for the last three years, excluding writers we solicit).
Moreover, I’m revved by the challenge of educating the public about indie literature and the vibrancy of the small press scene.
It’s a precious gift, this thing we do. And I don’t, for one lousy minute, take it for granted. In fact, I would like nothing better than to talk about the stellar work of our weekly contributors—both editors and writers—at Atticus Review.
The themed issues and departments (e.g., The Feast Issue, The Transit Issue, More Than Sports Talk, Atticus On The Trail, Tales from the VFW) that each journal editor so carefully conceives and compiles and …
Hold on, Dan! We know you want to talk about great literature, but there’s a question hanging over this essay like a black cloud:
How do we monetize this thing … you know, so we can eat, and like, pay our staff and the writers who provide us work?
That’s the question I’m supposed to answer, right?
God, I hope not. I’m seriously finished with trying to somehow economically justify the “how” and “how much” behind what small presses do. I loathe tallying book sales like they’re cans of soup. Andy Warhol certainly was onto something with his “art as commodity” concept.
Independent presses and literary journals exist because many of us desperately desire (and perhaps even need) to be part of something more meaningful than a 9-to-5 for-profit business of widget and service superiority.
Indie presses and lit mags are on their own uneven playing field because most have come to learn that once they attach “commercial product” to a creative project, it no longer feels like art.
Once writers and editors strain to think of the “positioning” and “marketability” of a character or work in progress, it impedes the work’s natural flow. Words dissipate. The work’s original meaning washes away.
The same holds true with the well-meaning press that has one eye on the cash register and the other on Google Analytics. Each decision you make, every move, begins to feel constrained and contrived.
Once you turn your back on art, you risk gutting the words for sport instead of sustenance. The original mission of your press washes away.
We must stop talking about money.
Artfully crafted creations are a kink in the chain of commerce. Big business doesn’t know what the hell to make of us literary types, this thing we do—this living, fire-breathing organism we call “small press.” Whether it’s poetry, flash fiction, long-form narrative, experimental, or creative nonfiction, what we do is purposeful. It is art.
Chains—both physically and metaphorically—may act as a mechanism for connection, but when our small press conversations steer toward “sales projections” and we get hung up on “audience size and demographics,” we’ve tripped the wire and lost our footing. We’ve let the chains of commerce stifle our innovation and redirect our fiery spirit.
Mini-Capitalists Left Holding the Towel
If we are not going to talk about money (thank you), then I’d like to break my self-imposed rule and close with a recollection. Two years ago, I got into a Facebook debate with a seasoned writer and writer’s coach who admonished me for not paying Atticus Review editors or writers. She couldn’t understand how I’d be willing to pay for cover/interior designers, editors, and proofreaders for the books Atticus published, but didn’t pay our free online journal contributors.
She accused me of “screwing writers” and devaluing their words by not paying them. She found it “appalling” and “insulting” that so many journals and magazines don’t pay.
Instead of telling her to take a long, leisurely barefoot stroll off a short, splintered pier, I responded with something like:
It may be hard for a successful writer to remember or relate to how brutally cold it is for unknown, unproven creative writers who can’t get the time of day from mainstream publishers.
Small presses serve this rather large constituency of writers by offering them: (1) moral support; (2) affiliation; (3) credibility; (4) affirmation; and (5) creative latitude in a noisy marketplace that has zero tolerance for writers without a platform or marketable idea that fits neatly into a category so that commercial publishers and booksellers know how to spin and merchandise their work.
A primary mission of Atticus is to discover misfit/debut literary writers whose works cannot be easily classified or placed squarely in a genre. Our goal is to help advance the artful craft by providing a venue for experimentation by bold, distinct voices.
We are enthused by quirky, inventive works and have very little interest in formulaic narrative that does not challenge a reader.
Some may consider this kind of literary publishing as elitist or snobbish or senseless because it typically doesn’t make money or appeal to the mainstream.
I think it’s okay to disagree on this point. Most of us like the view from here and know that we benefit society by elevating the visibility of writers who may have otherwise walked off a ledge or thrown in the towel.
I try my best not to take this thing we do too seriously. After all we’re merely players between the covers of a book imitating life.
Dan Cafaro is the founder and chief imagination officer of Atticus Books, a fiery multimedia press based in Madison, N.J. Dan is a rabble-rousing old swordsman with a penchant for satire and sun-dried tomatoes. Despite his eternal hunt for meticulous prose, he is an untrained metaphor grifter and frequent abuser——Strunk & White, take that——of the closed em dash. Atticus Review is his celestial firstborn. Dan tweets with great inconsistency @AtticusBooks.
December 30, 2015 News Digests
With 273 submissions, the most we’ve ever received for the Kathy Fish Fellowship, SmokeLong Quarterly is pleased to announce that Shasta Grant is the winner of the 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship award. Shasta will be our writer-in-residence for our quarterly issues in 2016, and we are thrilled to get to work with her.
In addition, thanks to the generosity of those applicants that added a $5 donation to their submission packet, we are ELATED to say that we’ve raised enough funds to host the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship! Look for more details on that award later in summer 2016.
Shasta won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, judged by Ann Patchett. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in cream city review, Epiphany, Gargoyle, Kenyon Review, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a prose editor for Storyscape Journal. She also loves coffee, so she’ll fit right in with our staff.
Our editors thought Shasta’s stories had a consistent voice and a readable style. We liked how she takes the familiar themes of parenting and family to a new level. Her stories have a strong emotional quality to them and are surprising and original.
You can read Shasta’s SLQ stories starting in our March issue.
In addition, we want to recognize the following finalists. Their work was brilliant, and the competition was very tough this year. Congratulations to these 12 finalists:
Thank you to all our applicants. It was a pleasure to read your work.
And Happy New Year to all!
December 29, 2015 News Digests
In 2015, SmokeLong received 3,930 submissions and published 74 stories. We read a lot of flash fiction, and see a lot of trends. Many of the stories our editors receive come close, but they just don’t fit with the vibe of the issue. Or sometimes we just didn’t fall in love. Or sometimes, the story feels too similar to one we’ve just accepted.
The stories that grab our attention the fastest are ones that stand out from the pack because the subject matter is unique, or the form is different, or it’s just something, for whatever reason, that we rarely see or are craving more of.
With that in mind, we thought we’d share some story topics, styles, and themes that we would love to see more of in 2016, and some story topics and trends that, frankly, we’re a little sick of.*
*The disclaimer, of course, is that there are never any true deal-breakers. Just when we think we’ll never publish a story about dead dogs ever again, here comes the dead dog story that knocks our bedroom slippers off.
We want to see more:
Stories from international writers or set in places other than the U.S. Enough said. International writers, send us your stuff! We want to publish flash from all around the world. We’ll consider translations as well, as long as you have permission from the original author.
Stories about older people who don’t act stereotypically old and who aren’t super depressing. We see many stories about old people who just sit around waiting to die, or who are losing their memory as the story progresses. If you’re going to write about older people, make them as complex and dynamic as any other character. Check out Margot Taylor’s “A Question of Balance.”
Stories about sex that aren’t written like bad porn. There’s got to be compelling writing out there that looks at sex in interesting ways, right? Why don’t you send it our way?
Stories that hover the line between genre and literary fiction. We’re happy to consider science fiction, fantasy, crime, romance, western, and other genres, but we’re interested in genre-based flash that is rooted in language, imagery, character. No punchlines. Ground us in the world and make us care. We love “The Drive” by Gabrielle Sierra.
Stories that take huge leaps in time. It’s tough to do this in the word count restraints of flash fiction, but it’s so divine when it works. We like “Of Mice and Indians” by Toni Jensen, for example.
We want to see less:
Stories in which some sort of animal is inside someone’s body or body part. This one has been trending in our inbox for quite some time, believe it or not.
Stories about twentysomethings going through some kind of breakup or heartache. We get it. It’s good fodder for stories. But we’ve seen this subject so many times that it’s got to do something fresh and unusual to stand out.
Stories that use dead babies or animals as shock value.
Dialogue-heavy pieces that don’t develop into a story (only a scene). Stories with just dialogue always feel like they are floating in space, like the characters are speaking from a great black void.
Above all, what we’re always looking for, regardless of subject matter, form, or theme, are stories that, as our managing editor Christopher Allen says, use “thoughtful, breathtaking prose that astounds and frightens and makes you a bit angry that you didn’t write it.”
December 11, 2015 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash from three-year-old Gretl Spikes-Gilbert is here to get you in the holiday spirit complete with Legos, lions, and quite the twist ending.
By Gretl Spikes-Gilbert
One time there was a little lion named Lambert. He was a cute little lion and he said,“RAWR!” He liked to jump on the trampoline and he said, “Come on dad, come jump on the trampoline with me!” He had a nice daddy lion and then the daddy lion died. And then Lambert died.
Then there was a little boy named Finnie and he wanted toys for Christmas. He asked Santa for toys and for Legos and Star Wars and Santa brought him all the toys. And it was Christmas! And then Santa died.
Gretl Spikes-Gilbert is three years old. She was born in San Antonio, Texas and now lives inLubbock, Texas with her parents, two older brothers (one of which is the family dog), and her baby sister. She loves animals, reading, investigating the nuances of family relationships and friendships, dancing outside, and candy. Gretl plans to be a medical doctor for mommies and daddies when she grows up. She loves telling stories and frequently “converses” with her parents in narrative. Gretl keeps all of her birthday cards and carries them around calling them “birthday books.” She frequently recites improvised poetry and short stories about her birthday books and has a poem forthcoming in her mother’s iPhone notes (if she can be pinned down to consistent wording).
December 10, 2015 News Digests
Here’s an update on what some of SmokeLong‘s contributors and staff have been up to lately.
From our contributors:
Ashley Hutson‘s fiction piece, “I Am Going to Write a Poem Titled ‘The Mercy of Geography,’ and It’s Going to Be About How Unmerciful Geography Is” was published at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency on October 27th. On October 26th, her short story, “Treatment,” was featured at Enclave. She also had a triptych titled “Excoriation” published at The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts on November 9th, and her poem, “By the Abelia,s” was published in Pankhearst‘s print anthology, This Body I Live In on November 17th. Her story, “At Night, By the Creek,” appeared in Issue Forty-Seven.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam has just signed with Ann Collette of Rees Literary. Ann will represent Bonnie’s first novel, The Last Siren. Bonnie has also had four short stories appear in October 2015: “A Careful Fire” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, “Sleeping With Spirits” in Mothership Zeta, “Husband Wife Lover” in PRISM International , and “The Centaur’s Daughter” in A cappella Zoo. Her story, “Six Ways to Break Her,” appeared in Issue Forty-Seven.
From our staff:
Chris Allen’s story, “One for Rainbow,” appears in Change Seven Magazine 1.3, and his story, “Fred’s Massive Sorrow,” appears in Eclectica Magazine 19.4 and will be included in Eclectica Magazine’s 20th anniversary speculative anthology to be released spring 2016. Congrats to Eclectica on 20 years of fabulous work!
Isaac Boone Davis’ flash story, “Pictionary,” is live at Bartleby Snopes.
Gay Degani’s collection of 46 shorts stories and a novella, Rattle of Want, came out on November 25th from Pure Slush Press.
Ashley Inguanta also had work come out in Bartleby Snopes, a flash piece entitled “The Edge of the World.” Corium Magazine nominated her for Best of the Net in Poetry. And her story “Paradise” was included in Francesca Lia Block & Jessa Mendez’s anthology, Rough Magick.
November 24, 2015 News Digests
We are always thrilled to have such fine work in our issues, and 2015 was an especially great year. The following stories have been selected by SmokeLong for nomination for the newest Pushcart Prize anthology. Good luck to all the writers!
Our 2015 nominations:
The Pool Guy by Jessica Alexander
Aquarium by Elaine Chiew
The Moon is a Wasteland by Daniel DiFranco
Puberty by Kat Gonzo
Beethoven’s Fifth in C Minor by Pete Stevens
Stone, Well, Girl by Benito Vergara
November 19, 2015 Interviews
This past month, SmokeLong‘s associate content editor, Annie Bilancini, had the pleasure of talking form and inspiration with Mary Rickert, whose newest short story collection You Have Never Been Here debuts November 24th from Small Beer Press. The stories in Rickert’s collection are hued by the uncanny, but there is never a question that the chiefest concern of Rickert’s prose is to convey and explore a deeply felt sense of humanity. These are stories that will stick with you for quite some time.
SmokeLong Quarterly is dedicated to publishing flash fiction. We’re especially attuned to form when we sit down to read submissions. To borrow a phrase from our Executive Editor, Megan Giddings: “Flash forces people to innovate and consider the different ways a story can be told.” And it’s clear in You Have Never Been Here that your stories often engage with innovation, both in form and in content. For example, in your collection there are stories within stories (“Cold Fires”) and stories are framed as memoirs (“Memoir of a Deer Woman”). How does form figure into your own writing and writing process?
I began my writing life in poetry where “form” can be as large as the shape of the poem, or as small as the words; even as infinitesimal as the relationship between the sounds of words and the sounds within words. In poetry, even space carries matter that informs the shape of the thing and the experience of its reading. While I eventually came to the conclusion that I am not a poet, I never lost my deep appreciation for the beauty inherent in a close engagement with form and its opportunities. Sometimes I will give myself an “assignment” of sorts, which is what I did with “Cold Fires,” setting out to write a story within a story. Other times, the form arrives through the content, as it did in “Memoir of a Deer Woman.”
I’d love to hear about some other assignments or constraints you’ve set up for a project.
When I was writing “The Chambered Fruit,” which is a retelling of the myth of Persephone and therefore imbued with its own constraints, I decided I wanted to write a horror story, basically, with no gore. Much later, when I wrote my novel, The Memory Garden, I decided to see how much light I could shed on darkness, therefore hiding it in plain sight, which was meant to be reflective of the way the elderly women, who populate that story, might be looked at by the general population as simple, or “cute.” “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece” was also a similar study in bringing beauty to a form usually considered devoid of it.
I love these answers because they’re all concerned with exploring oppositions (whether explicit or implicit) in story. I’m so interested in hearing more about this. Where does that impulse come from? Can you talk about what models you’ve learned from or your own writerly origin story?
I suspect that my cross-eyed childhood, composed of a world I saw that others did not see, was an important factor in the development of my fascination with doubles. As an American, I have plenty of material for this obsession since polarity is so integral to our culture; built into our subject/predicate sentence structure, our political system, and our ideas of good and evil. My personal query, formulated in a childhood where I learned not everything that appears to exist does, is how to develop a way of being human that is not severed by division, but expanded by the possibilities that exist in that space between opposites. This, it turns out, defines the reach of the Gothic sensibilities I write within. Gothic literature, diluted, over time, into its architecture of moors and castles, is actually an exploration of the human experience as cohesion of the beast and the divine.
This idea of the cohesion of the beast and the divine makes me think of your story, “Holiday” in the collection, which deals with the dynamic between a writer who is the son of a pedophile and the ghost of a murdered child beauty queen (possibly JonBenét Ramsey). The story explores the complications of innocence and family legacy. Did you set out to write this story with those Gothic themes in mind?
I never approach writing a story with an agenda beyond trying to find the fiction there. In other words, I do have ideas, and I do approach my work with intelligence, but the story is formed from a different source — hopefully a more organic source –than what I believe, desire, know or want. Once I have a draft, I basically take notes on my own story, highlighting recurring elements or themes. Then I sort of squint at all that and try to get a sense of what that particular story is saying both consciously, and sub-consciously. Once that’s done, I delete and amend to support what I believe are the elements that create a whole I might not have known was there. Only after doing this for years did I begin to recognize the Gothic arc that exists between, and within, most of my work.
Can you talk a bit more about the organic sources you draw your work from? You’ve already mentioned your interest in polarities. I’m so fascinated with the concept of inspiration and the genesis of creative ideas. I’d love to year your take.
I’ve always thought of my creative process as photosynthesis; whatever I observe, partake and intake becomes material for production. Years ago, I regularly “walked the stacks’ of non-fiction in the library, assembling big piles of books I enjoyed and read arbitrarily; butterflies, mythology, the history of opera all became sources of inspiration for my work. While I live a fairly quiet, sedentary lifestyle, it has been important for me to cultivate a wild mind. I have never felt I needed to have a big life in order to find stories but that I did need to know how to pay attention. I find screens tedious which, yes, is probably partly reflective of my age, but even as a young woman writer, well before the computer age, I spent years living without a television because I felt it was important for me to cultivate a heightened awareness of language. Within the genre community we have the saying, “Find your weird.” Unfortunately, this is a lot more difficult than it might seem to be. Even weird has standards within which weirdness is assessed. The writing community, in general, is disappointingly elitist. I try to remember that in every culture, in every age, there were things believed as universally true that later were proven false. We are all victims of the illusion of our time. I try to look beyond the veil, and I’m sure I fail. I try to remember the veil exists. When I sit down to write, I try to see what I’ve written and not just what I think I’ve written. Everything is inspiration, even my own ignorance, which is one of the beautiful aspects of a writing life; nothing is wasted.
Mary Rickert has published numerous short stories and two collections: Map of Dreams and Holiday. Her first novel, The Memory Garden was published in 2014, and won the Locus award for best first novel, which made her very happy. Her novella, The Mothers of Voorhisville, was also published in 2014. She now lives in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a small city of candy shops and beautiful gardens.
November 6, 2015 Guest Blogger
This week we’re over the moon to have Rachel Levy, author of the novel A Book So Red, guest blogging for us. Levy is here to set the record slant regarding the hedonistic capability of short-short prose.
By Rachel Levy
Writing about flash fiction is tricky. I feel compelled to stumble through a course of predictable if not unproductive questions. What do I call these things? Am I talking about flash-, sudden-, short-short-, nano-, or micro-fictions? Why are there so many labels? Some call short-shorts “sparks” or “blasters,” others “fragments” or “vignettes.” There are those who describe the short-short as if it were simply excerpted from the “conventional” short story like Eve from Adam’s ribcage. Length, of course, is the cited convention here, which brings to mind additional, tired questions. Which stories count? Those under 1,000 words? 700 words? 500 words? In any case, which side am I on? Am I for or against flash fiction?
The critics are divided. As if the short-short were a campaign or a cause, some push for legitimization, standardization, and canonization. Others dismiss flash fiction by predicting its going out of style. Detractors diagnose the short-short to be a passing blight upon the corpus of literature—it’ll go away when we discover the cures for internet addiction, ADHD, and youthful frivolity. Or maybe when Jesus Christ comes back to earth he’ll send all the perverts, deviants, and short-shorts to Hell. In the meantime, some suggest we hedge our bets by partially and pragmatically buying in. For example, Harvey Stanbrough declares, “Flash fiction is not only enjoyable to write, but it’s also a good learning tool for improving your work.” By “work” Stanbrough presumably means long-form fiction. The real deal. Serious stuff. Because short-short stories “appeal to young people” and their “one-byte-and-go culture,” Aidan Chambers proposes we grant flash fiction a provisional pedagogical advantage: “Many professional authors agree [the story of conventional length] is one of the most difficult of all the literary forms to tackle. … Flash fiction, on the other hand, seems … to be what comes naturally to late childhood and teenage writers.” Except for Etgar Keret, the “master” of flash fictions, critic Jacob Silverman suggests we can safely ignore the genre’s practitioners:
The problem with flash fiction, is that much of it isn’t very good. Boosters like to say that So-and-so packs more into a thousand words than most writers do into a novel, but that’s almost never true—particularly when you consider that time spent with a novel, and all of the mental and emotional investment that that requires, is one of its principle features.
For Silverman, the reader is a mental/emotional banker, and flash fictions aren’t sound investments. Fair enough. Short-shorts don’t pay.
Big-big fictions are another story. They’re worth it. The time and effort it takes to read them pays off. Our language suggests that even though reading can be an arduous, trying, or painful experience, compensation awaits for those who finish the job. The bigger the book, the better the reward. A reader needs to feel like he’s exerting himself. Every effort counts. The discernable effort it takes to physically lift, carry, or hold a big book counts. Difficulty counts. With extremely long fictions, there comes a point in the reading experience when sheer tedium is most likely a formidable wellspring of difficulty. But not all tedium is sublime. It’s best if the tedium is intentional, so the reader has only herself to blame if she quits. Can she really blame the book about boredom for being boring? If an endless fiction is actually about the agony of ennui, then that fiction is probably difficult in a way that matters and pays off—and is spiritually purifying, too, no?
Dave Eggers thinks so. If you find investment banking too craven a metaphor, then look no further than Eggers’s foreword to the tenth anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s critically acclaimed big-big story, Infinite Jest. Eggers describes a “reader-mechanic” who labors on a book like he does on “a car or an Ikea shelving unit.” The job might be difficult, not to mention archaically gendered, but the pay, Eggers vouches, is as sweet as salvation. Infinite Jest is “a book that gives so much,” Eggers preaches, “that required such sacrifice and dedication.” Like a modern-day Puritan, Eggers assures you that it is through extended textual toil that you fortify your “brain” and your “heart,” and bear witness to the fact of your predestination: “When you exit these pages after that month of reading,” Eggers testifies, “you are a better person.”
Perhaps it’s the devil in me—or the witch, the whore, and the girl—or maybe I’m just lazy, but even talking about this holy work ethic makes me want to don the shortest short-shorts I can find and run through the stacks of the library, shrieking. Praise Satan! All hail the short-short! Down with hard work! … What. I won’t work. No work, no apologies.
Who wears writes short-shorts?
Yes, we still can’t decide what to call short-short stories, or which texts count. We know short-shorts only by their lack: they are that which is shorter than. Which is why, of all the labels, I like “short-short” best. It’s a name that signifies an excess of lack, a disruptive potentiality. Though some may try to assimilate short-shorts into their good old economy of labor—they’re great practice, a productive use of time between masterpieces—length is still a final frontier in our system of value. But we don’t have to believe the critics when they reduce the short-short to a byproduct of our one-byte, MTV, ADHD culture. We know the world is big, and Culture’s a beast. Short-shorts dash through. Dispossessed, they disinvest. This is their pleasure—and it is defiant, disturbing, deviant.
Since its 1953 publication, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha has received a multitude of labels. Some say it’s a novella. Others call it a series of vignettes, ideograms, or prose poems. Today, some readers might call Maud Martha a “novel in short-short stories.” Critic Mary Helen Washington notes how early reviewers gave Brooks’ book “the kind of ladylike treatment that assured its dismissal” by focusing largely on Maud Martha’s lyrical prose style, light comedic tone, and brief episodic structure. Washington writes:
In 1953 no one seemed prepared to call Maud Martha a novel about bitterness, rage, self-hatred and the silence that results from suppressed anger. No one recognized it as a novel dealing with the very sexism and racism that these reviews enshrined. What the reviewers saw as exquisite lyricism was actually the truncated stuttering of a woman whose rage makes her literally unable to speak.
Consider the following excerpt in which Brooks’ protagonist, Maud Martha, silently and unhappily works to prepare a chicken.
People could do this! could cut a chicken open, take out the mess with bare hands … feel that insinuating slipping bone, survey that soft, that headless death. … The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy.
Though Maud Martha seems optimistic that she too is a person who can easily “cut a chicken open,” she identifies increasingly with the chicken as she handles “the mess” and feels “that slipping bone.” The “difference” may be “in the knowing,” but Brooks shows us that knowledge is constructed sensually and spatially. In this way, Brooks relocates the production of meaning from linguistic difference to the reality of gender and racial segregation. Feeling trumps thinking, and by the close of this short-short chapter, eating trumps speaking: “Maud Martha smacked her lips at the thought of her meal.”
Roland Barthes claims there are texts in which meaning is “sensually produced.” Is the short-short such a text? And there are “some perverts,” Barthes notes, for whom “the sentence is a body.”
Maybe one of Barthes’ perverts appears as the narrator of Diane Williams’s short-short, “The Care of Myself.” The narrator’s story opens with a brief encounter: a fireman rings her doorbell, and she mistakes his helmet for a bandage. “Do you have a wound,” she asks. Hers might have been a love story were it of a larger ilk—but no. “The days and years pass so swiftly,” the narrator states, and she swiftly brings her tale to a climax and a close:
Now, what I am doing for my wound is this: I stick any old rag or balled up old sock I can find as close to it as I can get. Belly-down on the floor, with my reading glasses on, I’ve also got some filler sticking almost into my asshole. With my bawdy book here to comfort me right in front of my nose—we are both, the book and I, products of a great civilization—I take the plunge. I am thrusting mightily, and sometimes I manage to get hurt again.
Bedding down with the “products of a great civilization,” Williams’ narrator reads with her body. She fucks the culture that wounds her. And what does that mean? What does she gain? I don’t know. She pleasures herself.
Short-shorts don’t work. They come.
Who wears writes short-shorts? What is a short-short? Of course there’s no one answer. You have your mutable list, and me mine. But I’m always looking for them, no matter the text I’m reading. A short-short: an exit for dashing through: an occasion to clock out and to get off.
I think there’s a short-short in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. Yes, Tamburlaine is a drama in verse, but there’s a moment (a short-short?) in the fifth act where the text breaks out in prose. Zabina and her husband, Bajazeth, have been captured by the mighty Tamburlaine. Bajazeth is held like a pet in a cage, but he commits suicide by ramming himself headfirst into the bars. Zabina finds his body and then brains herself, too. She says:
O Bajazeth, O Turk, O emperor—give him his liquor? Not I. Bring milk and fire, and my blood I bring him again; tear me in pieces, give me the sword with a ball of wildfire upon it. Down with him, down with him! Go to my child. Away, away, away! Ah, save that infant, save him, save him! I, even I, speak to her. The sun was down. Streamers white, red, black, here, here, here. Fling the meat in his face. Tamburlaine, Tamburlaine! Let the soldiers be buried. Hell, death, Tamburlaine, hell! Make ready my coach, my chair, my jewels. I come, I come, I come!
Zabina’s final speech is a shredding of Tamburlaine’s discourse. But is she going or coming? Her rage is both a perversion and a pleasure. “I come, I come, I come!” Her voice reaches an orgiastic pitch.
Or maybe my favorite short-short occurs in the fifth chapter of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There’s a moment when the page is empty. There’s a break in the text, a barren swath, in which two lovers are presumably conversing. Woolf’s narrator explains how “it would profit little to write down what they said, … For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.”
That space: a carnal filling feeling. And also: a carnal falling? Yes, I fall into Woolf’s page, but upon my exiting I am not a better person. I am beyond that economy for now. Unburdened of brain and heart, I am perverted, hedonistic.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha. 1953. Chicago: Third World Press, 1993.
Chambers, Aidan. “Sparks of fiction.” The Horn Book Magazine 88.2 (2012): 55-9.
Eggers, Dave. Foreword. Infinite Jest: A Novel. By David Foster Wallace. 1996. Back Bay 10th Anniversary
Pbk. ed. New York: Back Bay Books, 2006. xi-xvi.
Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine The Great, Part One. The Complete Plays. New York: Penguin Classics, 69-153.
Silverman, Jacob. “Why flash fiction is an overrated genre, and why Etgar Keret is a master of it.” POLITICO. New York. 27 Mar. 2012.
Stanbrough, Harvey. “Sharpen your skills with flash fiction: flash fiction is not only enjoyable to write, but a good learning tool for improving your work.” The Writer 120.1 (2007): 34-7.
Washington, Mary Helen. “Taming All that Anger Down: Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha.” Massachusetts Review 24.2 (1983): 453-466.
Williams, Diane. “The Care of Myself.” Excitability: Selected Stories 1986-1996. Normal: Dalkey Archive, 136-7.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. 1928. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Rachel Levy teaches and studies at the University of Utah. Her fictions appear or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Fence, Tarpaulin Sky, and Two Serious Ladies. Her first novel, A Book So Red, is recently out with Caketrain. Along with Lily Duffy, she is co-founder and co-editor of DREGINALD.
October 30, 2015
In honor of the spookiest of holidays, we’ve scared up a little Halloween-themed Mad Lib for all you ghosts and ghouls out there, care of a fright-tastic classic, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Check Irving’s original, lib-less version here, and be sure to share your results with us! Give us your spookiest, your creepiest and kookiest!
October 29, 2015 Fridge Flash
Six-year-old Jasper penned the crime thriller below to tell the story of the Bad Guy in his chalk art. We’re so excited to debut what is sure to be the first of many thrilling stories from the talented Jasper.
The Bad Guy
So: this is a man inside of jail, and then he breaks out, steals the money, and then the police cars come after him. They shoot a taser at him, and then he’s captured, then they take the money back. The end.
Jasper is a six-year-old who spends a lot of his time making up stories and has recently started illustrating his ideas (and clearly he might have an interest in crime novels). He also really wants his Batman costume to come in the mail (This last sentence is from the dude himself! He also had strong opinions on the photo of him that was used).
October 21, 2015 News Digests
We here at SmokeLong don’t normally do poetry, as you know. And yet…when a Back to the Future poem slides under our noses on the very day that Marty goes back to the future, well….it’s like density…I mean, destiny.
Angie Mazakis was kind enough to share this amazing sestina with us so we could share it with you.
Enjoy, Hill Valley friends. Enjoy.
May the power of love be with you.
Back to the Future Sestina
And I feel so much depends on the weather~Stone Temple Pilots
Back in the deadpan town where I grew up, it appears
that I’m alone. No one actually is home, McFly.
I’m on the clock, hanging by the long hand,
old blues riff I’d known, irresolute as the sound of the future.
I am the second you, burning the Sports Almanac before the rain,
the first you, who we liked better, invisibly home, we trust. I feel
like I’m in an alternate 1985, in this paradox Hill Valley, feeling
lonely without the Doc, however unlikely he was a peer,
my notion of time capricious as all the versions of Lorraine.
This town is freely, fourth-dimensionally, aloofly
unchanged as a note from a friend in the past sent to the future,
all of time happening at once, contingent as a guitarist’s sliced hand.
Fix the miscalculations, Calvin, connect the cables by hand
at the last minute, the time continuum continuing till all our life feels
like an old taped-together letter, whole though darkened at each suture.
I need 1.21 gigawatts of power to surge till a few years disappear,
pulsing into my flux capacitor, each incongruous moment flying
at eighty-eight miles per hour through my brain,
as chaotic as future cars flying through the rain,
dangerous as a time machine fallen into the wrong hands,
precarious as a 1955 with two teenaged, yet-unborn Marty McFlys.
I’m trying not to run into my other self– our unfinished, portions feeling
our way in time around each other, a dance around my past peers,
slowly, under the sea, a life-preserving vest to save myself from a future
I can’t see. Each day I retrieve just the dust jacket of the future.
You want it to depend upon all sentences starting with “Biff”. Lorraine
saying, “Biff, why don’t you take a long walk off a short pier?”
And George, divergent, aesopian, saying “Biff get your damn hands
off her.” We make others resilient by mistake. Don’t you ever feel
you’re always leaving just when you’ve arrived? You’d say you did in 1955, fly-
by-night I found my way back to the beginning. Time flies
when you’re pummeling through several years at once toward a fitful future.
Each of us has nearly unraveled the fabric of destiny with desire, but you can feel
the density of it all gone back to fine. You’ve saved Marty Jr.; Griff is arraigned.
After the TKO, there’s George looking incredulously at his own hand.
I’m here in my hometown, had to leave the place I was before; it appeared
that I altered some significant event, without flying on a time-travelling train
to some future rumored prequel where I held the wrong lover’s disappearing hand.
No, I was just there to feel it in mine when his hand appeared again.
Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets, New Ohio Review, Smartish Pace, Drunken Boat, and other journals. She has an MFA from George Mason University.
October 15, 2015 InterviewsReviews
Here’s a genius idea: take a creepy gothic story about a family living in a possibly haunted house and break it up and put the pieces on playing cards. Jedediah Berry and the folks at Ninepin Press did just that with “The Family Arcana: A Story in Cards” and the results are brilliant and wonderful.
The instructions are simple: shuffle the deck however you want and start reading. You can read this story in any direction, but no matter which direction you read the cards, the different micro-flashes illuminate the odd but charming family that Berry has portrayed here.
Each card reads like it’s own micro-flash—some dark and creepy:
“A man comes around, offering to sharpen our knives. We offer to show him how it’s really done.”
And some with a lighter charming sense of humor:
“In a part of the attic that no one knows but us, we sit on the floor and on the rafters and on old broken chairs, and movements are made and seconded, and votes are cast, and in this way decisions are made. You probably want to know what we’re voting on now, but that isn’t how this goes.”
It’s hard to keep track of all the family members here—endless aunts and uncles, it seems—but after awhile it’s more about the quirky logic and rituals of these people. The true delight is getting lost in this house for a time, then being able to shuffle your deck and do it all over again.
I was so fascinated with both the story itself and its form that I had to catch up with Berry via email to ask him more about the behind-the-scenes. Here’s our chat:
I wrote “The Family Arcana” by hand on index cards, limiting myself to one side of one card for each section. For the few years that I worked on the story, I always kept a little stack of index cards handy, and I’d take them out whenever a new snippet of language occurred to me. Sometimes I’d write a few cards in a sitting, sometimes just one. Once or twice, I wrote a dozen in quick succession.
Do you have a favorite or preferred way to read the text?
I’ve heard of people getting interesting results by playing games of solitaire and reading the stacks, or playing poker and reading their hands. These days, what I most enjoy is getting to shuffle and read it in front of an audience. Not because I’m a natural performer by any means, but because I enjoy the tension of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to being a magician.
How did you choose which fragments ended up on which card?
Toward the end of the revision process, I did start assigning the texts to specific suits and ranks. There’s a system to it—the hearts, for example, are all about Mother and Father, and the diamonds all have to do with the setting—but it’s a purposefully imperfect system. I wanted to achieve a certain kind of balance without making the structure too rigid.
I love how the characters have this creepiness about them but also have a really great dark sense of humor. How did they develop for you as people as you wrote this?
I think of them as both playful and wounded. The story they tell comes from a place of suffering, but they delight in the telling. They’re scoundrels and tricksters, but there’s a fierceness in their love for one another and for their home. I felt a real sense of urgency while writing of this story, and I think it has everything to do with that balance of hurt and humor.
What other alternative-text or hybrid projects are you working on now? What’s next?
I just finished work on an interactive science fiction story called “Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World.” It’s freely available online, and it uses a branching structure to tell a story with more than one possible ending. Also, as an editor at Ninepin Press, I’m looking forward to publishing works in unusual forms by other writers. We have one new project in the works, with more on the way soon.
Tara Laskowski has been the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010.
September 18, 2015
We’re always happy to share good news. Here’s some of the latest.
From our contributors:
Matt Bell’s second novel Scrapper was released by Soho Press this week. His stories, “How the Broken Lead the Blind Until They Both Become Something Else Entirely” and “The Folk Singer Dreams of Time Machines,” were featured in Issue Fifteen and Issue Twenty-One respectively.
Art Taylor‘s debut novel On the Road with Del and Louise was published by Henery Press this month. His story, “Up, Up and Away,” was featured in Issue Thirty. He has also served as a weekly guest reader.
From our staff:
Megan Giddings’ chapbook Arcade Seventeen will be published by The Atlas Review’s TAR Chapbook Series in 2016. Her story, “Every Bump, Every Stone,” was published in Amazon’s Day One, a weekly literary journal dedicated to short fiction and poetry from emerging writers. And her story, “I Invented Longing,” is featured in Vol. 20 of Crab Orchard Review.
As always, keep the good news coming, friends.
September 3, 2015 Fridge Flash
Today’s Fridge Flash by 13-year-old Annie Lee explores the pressures of school and friendship in the digital age with clear, vivid prose.
It was the last question.
Graph! Tangent! Trigonometry! Simultaneous equations! Pi! E! WHAT IS DIS? DOS? Dominant operating system or… what?
She wondered what Elaine had written or if she were even on this question. Maybe she’d already fin-
The timer exploded. A few of the other girls held up their yellow exercise books, muttering “Ngo yiu zhen ti mu!”
It was no good. Timer was God.
She scribbled 42 and put down her pen.
The next day, she was walking back to that very 42, back to her answer sheet, back to school.
“I so flunked this math test…” Elaine rolled her eyes and sat down on the stone steps outside Miss H’s Music Room. “My mom is gonna kill me!”
It was Elaine’s absolute favorite place. No matter what season, it was always at a perfect temperature of …well, room temperature.
“I barely scraped a twenty four.”
“I think I should seek help.” Elaine hugged her knees against her chest.
“How? Not the school psychologist?”
“I don’t know…”
“Miss H? Miss C? Miss K?”
Elaine tapped her fingers against her chin, “Miss H, maybe?”
Nadine made a mental note to talk to Miss H about it next time she saw her.
“Eh.” Elaine stared at her shoes. “Whatever.”
Elaine fled in a flurry of rustles and tears out of the classroom as she received her test score. Nadine half stood up, but was stopped by the teacher’s “Nadine.”
At lunch, Nadine walked to the staffroom. “May I see Miss D Huey please?” She asked in her Queen Margaret voice.
“Just a minute.”
The butterflies in Nadine’s stomach could rival the particle movement in oxygen as she mentally prepared herself for the confrontation. Elaine didn’t know she was doing this. Would she be mad?
After ten minutes, she was kindly informed that Miss H was not in the staffroom and it might be better if she came back the next day. She left, ignoring the Samaritans poster on the wall.
The sight of Elaine screaming at Cadenza greeted Nadine the moment she stepped into the classroom. Nadine tried her best to talk to Elaine, but quickly realized she was too caught up in the fight. I’ll talk to her after school, she thought.
A day passed then a school week, then a regular week, then a month before Nadine finally got hold of Miss H.
By that time Elaine had huge eye bags and was spending almost all her time near the Music Room.
“Good afternoon Miss H, I’m a friend of Elaine…”
“I wonder if you’d mind if I asked a favor?”
“Well…it’s hard to explain, but…Elaine…she’s been a bit…weird… depressed…I’m not sure how to say it exactly but she’s been having a hard time. I’d greatly appreciate it if you could help her…nudge her in the right direction maybe,” Nadine said, her heart pounding in sync with every word spoken.
“Yes, yes, of course. Just ask her to look for me in staffroom C whenever,” Miss H said, doing finger cartwheels on the desk. Was she bored? Or ADHD? Or both?
“I’ve arranged a meeting for you with Miss H.”
Elaine threw her calculator in the air (and didn’t catch it) “After school, right?”
Nadine nodded. “But I can’t stay, I have computer science class.
“Not even for a bit?” Elaine said. “I’m sure it won’t take long.”
“Okay. I’ll try.”
After school, they went down to the staffroom to ask for Miss Huey.
Thankfully, she was in the staffroom and they settled at a round table with chairs the color of fire engines.
“So, what is it?”
Elaine started talking about everything but her problems.
Four minutes of the keyboard family, five minutes of the film 1900 and seven minutes about the family dog.
This isn’t going well, Nadine thought as her watch struck 4. Maybe she’ll open up when I’m gone.
Silently excusing herself, she stopped at the railing and turned back, seeing only the back of Elaine’s head.
She spent the rest of the afternoon on App Inventor. To be frank, she preferred C++, for C was her native language, and though she often got the syntax mixed up, she could still construct fluent sentences.
App Inventor was about as hard as HQ9+, though she was the only one who thought so.
Elaine didn’t wait for her after school.
She wasn’t outside the Music Room either.
Nadine walked home alone, strategizing.
If I could get the source code of Elaine’s brain maybe I could execute a program to make her happy, or execute an algorithm.
Maybe it’d get her away from the Music Room too.
The next day came and went, and soon it was a week. A week of loneliness and sitting at the lunch table on her own, while Elaine and Cadenza chatted in the far corner about Beethoven and Pie.
Another week died.
Soon she stopped counting.
The sun was out but so were the clouds.
Nadine sat on the grass, though it said no sitting, staring across at the deserted music room.
There was a tree near the window, but that was empty too.
The birds had all died.
Nadine ambushed Elaine as she went to the vending machine for her daily chocolate milk. “You’ve been so distant lately.”
“Yeah, well…I have other friends that I have to make time for…” Elaine answered, pressing the button for lemon tea.
“I gotta go.”
“Those music people?”
Nadine wasn’t in math class that afternoon.
She wasn’t in computer class either.
A week later, when Elaine saw her again, she was black and white on the back of the newspaper.
‘Girl found hanged, no note left behind.’
Annie Lee is a thirteen-year-old student studying in Hong Kong. This is her first time being published in a journal online. Her first language is Cantonese, however she enjoys writing stories and fan fictions in English.
August 28, 2015 Interviews
This week on the SmokeLong Blog, in honor of the 2016 Kathy Fish Fellowship, we’re catching up with former SLQ Fish Fellows Tara Laskowski, Adam Peterson, Megan Giddings, Beth Cox Thomas, and Stefanie Freele. Read on for sage advice from our former fellows and some of their top picks for the distinction of “Honorary Fish Fellow.”
SmokeLong: How did you decide what to submit for the Fellowship?
Tara: I honestly don’t remember—I think at that point, I wasn’t really writing flash all that much, so I just submitted the only stories I had of that length! One funny thing I do remember—I found out I won on the same day as Obama’s first inauguration day, and when I read the email about winning, I gasped really loud. My husband came running in, really concerned. He thought that the president had gotten shot or something terrible! He was really, really happy to hear the news after that.
Adam: I looked for commonalities and tried to think of the pieces I chose as a cohesive series. Like a pamphlet. Like a pamphlet you hopefully wouldn’t immediately drop onto the street. Like a pamphlet you would politely recycle later.
Megan: Honestly, I only had four stories that were a thousand words or less at the time that I thought I could turn into something worth reading. I knew everything else I had was either not right for SmokeLong (I’d been reading the magazine pretty regularly) or were just junk pieces that I needed to write to learn how to write flash, but shouldn’t be sent out. Having such a small amount helped to keep me focused. I also remember thinking while I was working on them that I was never going to win, but it was nice to have a purpose while revising. I was just happy at the time that there was this fellowship out there pushing me toward revision.
Beth: I mostly just tried to pick my best stories. At that point, I didn’t have a ton of stories to choose from, so it wasn’t too hard. I also tried to lean toward stories that I thought fit both the SmokeLong and the Kathy Fish kind of vibe. I had been a fan of Kathy’s for years, so it was fun to try to pick stories that might mesh well.
Stefanie: The stories I submitted for the Fellowship felt like the ones that seemed the most indicative of the style of writing I wanted to keep playing with. I searched through my stories and found a group that seemed to have in common: unpredictability and a slight sense of magical realism.
SmokeLong: What was the most unexpected result of the winning the Fellowship?
Tara: Getting to stay on staff at SLQ after the fellowship was over, and then taking the helm! I would never have dreamed of that—and it’s been so totally amazing.
Adam: Finding out how great and committed the entire SLQ community is. Not just your editors and artists and writers, but everyone who reads the site.
Megan: Winning the fellowship led to me becoming a reader for SmokeLong, which led to me becoming the Executive Editor last year.
Beth: I’d say 100% the most unexpected PART of winning was actually winning. I was completely shocked. The most unexpected result of winning was joining the SmokeLong Quarterly staff as a staff member after my year mentorship was up, then working with Tara as a senior editor for a year or so after that. Just being on the masthead of such a great publication was unexpected and wonderful.
Stefanie: I did not expect the group to help me get those stories so finely tuned. It was amazing. Randall Brown and team were forthcoming and helpful. They worked hard to get the stories tight.
SmokeLong: What was the best part of the Fellowship for you?
Tara: The best part for me was networking with so many writers and editors, and experimenting with my fiction for that year. I had so much fun focusing on flash.
Megan: About six months in, Tara started having me read for SmokeLong. I think the most helpful thing for my writing was getting to read a lot of submissions and learning how to think about writing not just in line with what I like or don’t like, but what’s a good fit for the magazine. Doing that also helped me become a stronger judge of where to submit.
Beth: The best part was working with writers I had admired for years. They gave me some wonderful advice and helped me rework stories until they were publishable. Just having a sounding board like that, people throwing out ideas and suggestions, gave me confidence to try new things.
Stefanie: Not only was it an honor to have my stories published in SLQ, but I had the opportunity to read lots of submissions and help choose some for publication. Finding stories to accept turned out to be unexpectedly fulfilling.
SmokeLong: How did your writing or your writing identity change if at all as a result of the Fellowship?
Adam: It got me back into writing short shorts. I hadn’t done many for the year or so prior while I worked on other projects, and apparently I really missed it. I made a goal to write all new stories for posting on SLQ, and I not only managed that but to write a lot more as well.
Megan: I don’t know if I would’ve been writing much flash today if it weren’t for the fellowship. It started right around the time I started my MFA. In my first workshop, I was expected to turn in a minimum of sixty pages spread across three stories. I guess I could’ve asked my workshop instructor if I could’ve turned in twenty to sixty flash fiction pieces, but I doubt that would’ve gone over well. Anyway, having the fellowship helped me continue developing and thinking about how quickly unique, clear details could establish character, stakes, and setting.
Beth: Mainly, just feeling good about myself and my writing is what changed. Until the fellowship, I felt like I was just experimenting (and failing a lot). I was struggling to complete stories and to be happy with them, and even more to get them published. I didn’t believe that I knew what I was doing. The fellowship gave me the confidence I needed to keep working and keep trying.
SmokeLong: What advice do you have for Fellowship hopefuls and other writers at this stage?
Tara: Publish your flash fiction online. I love print, I do, but I think you can build an audience and a reputation easier by publishing online. Also, like others here have said, volunteer for a journal if you can–reading the slush pile can really help you understand what’s out there and how you can set yourself apart from the pack.
Adam: Speak with your own voice. Choose pieces that prove that voice is yours and yours alone. Avoid extended pamphlet-based metaphors.
Megan: The cover letter actually does matter. One of the things Tara cited in my acceptance letter is how specific I was in what I would gain from having a year of writing workshops and publications.
Beth: As cheesy as it sounds, just be true to yourself and your own voice. It shows and is appreciated. Take chances. Most importantly (some advice I should take, also) is to just keep at it. Keep practicing and improving. Read and read. If you get a chance to be a reader/editor at a magazine, take it. You’ll learn so much by seeing what everyone else is doing – both what works and what doesn’t.
Stefanie: The same advice I always give: Read. Read. Read.
SmokeLong: Who are your favorite flash writers these days, your nominations for “Honorary Fish Fellows?”
Adam: O, man, I wish I would have just been an “Honorary Fish Fellow” instead. That’s way cooler on a business card. Did I successfully avoid the question? Because my honest answer is that my favorite thing about short-short fiction is how authorless and fleeting it is. No piece is an opus. And that’s good because opuses are dumb. You can just read it. You should just read it.
Megan: A lot of the people who’ve read for SmokeLong Weekly over the past months (and in the future). I’ve also read some great stories not on SmokeLong recently that if they were in a Fish application packet, I would be voting for them. Some of them are: “The Spread” by Jennifer Howard; “Swearing in January 20, 2009” by Meron Hadero; and “3 Fictions” by Siel Ju.
Stefanie: Well, could we resurrect Russell Edson? I admire Lydia Davis, Bruce Holland Rogers, and Kathy Fish herself. Could she be a Fish fellow? There are a bunch of talented FF writers: Sherrie Flick, Avital Gad-Cykman, Tara Laskowski, Stefani Nellen, Ray Vukcevich, Kyle Hemmings, Tania Hershman…and many, many more.
SmokeLong is accepting submissions for the 2016 Fellowship until October 15, 2015. Send us your best!
August 20, 2015
Matchbook Stories Issue 3, out now from Book Ex Machina is, in some ways, the perfect complement to the mission of SmokeLong Quarterly both in name and intention. But thematic similarity (and some predictable but incredibly satisfying punning) isn’t the only reason to love Matchbook Stories. The issue contains four tiny but breathtaking stories, each encased in its own matchbook, and boasts an international set of celebrated writers: Etgar Keret, J. Robert Lennon, Tara L. Masih, and Yorgos Trillidis. Of course, at first glance, the most striking (pun so intended) aspect of the Matchbook Stories is its unique make-up. Yes, these stories are contained within actual matchbooks, and yes they are absolutely adorable, and yes your friends will squee with delight when they bear witness to such tiny cuteness. But Matchbook Stories isn’t just a gimmick. The stories are equally as compelling as their packaging. Book Ex Machina has created an art object that assures both style and substance. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go think of some more match-related puns.