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.