Flash, Back: Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time
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 The number of rejections for my first book of short stories titled Flashes of War—as of then unpublished—was somewhere in the upper twenties.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.