Flash as a Second Language
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from Mark Budman muses on his journey toward writing flash in a second language. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mark Budman
Everyone who ever put together the words “flash” and “fiction” knows that the resulting term describes a very short genre of literature. Even I, who was born in the former Soviet Union and came to this country as an adult, knew that when I was learning English as a second language. I figured that while my ambitions were gigantic, my vocabulary was small, my time limited, and my patience virtually non-existent, I still could write flash fiction.
Since I knew what a subordinate clause was and could use a semicolon and other punctuation marks correctly, I reasoned I could write something short—a relatively easy task even for a recent immigrant and a student of English.
I concocted my first flash, full of wisdom, punctuation marks (including a healthy dosage of semicolons), and long strings of subordinate clauses, but short on definite and indefinite articles that are absent in Russian, and promptly mailed the story to The Atlantic. They didn’t take it. I was offended. I called them and asked in my halting English, “vai not?” I don’t remember exactly what they said. It was an intern who answered the phone, so she may not have had much editorial wisdom to share. But I sat down and figured out what she was supposed to say.
She was supposed to say that while the renown writers like Dan Brown and the bestselling author of too Many Shades of Gray can and do sacrifice individual sentences on the altar of the plot, the flash writer cannot. Every word counts and every sentence is king. It’s like a stone arch where every stone is the keystone. If you remove one shade of gray, 49 will still hold its light-to-non-existent weight. If you remove the keystone from the flash, it will collapse.
So I listened to the intern, sat down and wrote “And Counting.” A story that is intense, concentrated and full of hope in the face of mortal danger.
The flash fiction I like is layered. First goes the simple, surface meaning. Boy loves girl but she loves another girl. Dig deeper and you discover allusions and clues. Words have multiple meanings that create hidden connections between the protagonists and actions. Maybe things or characters’ reaction to them are not what they seem or are open to interpretations? Maybe this love is far from what we expect? Maybe the boy and the girl are the same person? Maybe the boy loves the girl to death and maybe the other girl is death incarnated? Maybe the reader needs to cooperate with the author to resolve the story’s hidden mysteries? I sought to achieve this kind of effect in my own story, “All Points East.”
Even this short essay contains some word play. Is it complete without them? Probably. Can we have a garden without flowers? I guess so. Is it complete? I doubt it.
Flash fiction. If you don’t have time to read them, then fine literature is in trouble. Worse yet, you are. That can be said and understood in any language, from the first to infinity. So, do yourself a favor. Read flash. You have time for this.
Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His writing appeared in PEN, American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine, McSweeney’s, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou’wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction, and elsewhere. He publishes Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press, and he is at work on a novel about Lenin running for president of the United States.