Fox Coats and Dictionaries: A History of My Flash Education
In SmokeLong’s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, flash fiction writers and editors explore what draws them to the form, from the first time they wrote a piece of flash to why flash resonates with them. In this column, writer Ursula Villarreal-Moura discusses how the form’s inscrutability put her off initially, and shares the stories that dispelled her preconceptions about flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Ursula Villarreal-Moura
It’s likely I became a flash writer because initially I found the form inscrutable. This is not the story of someone who started reading at age three and aspired to be a writer by age five. In fact, for most of elementary school I found phonics and reading as cryptic as hieroglyphics. I distinctly remember studying the word the on an index card at age seven and not having a clue how to shape my mouth to pronounce it.
Much like learning to read, my experience with flash fiction started with frustration. For years, I resisted flash as a literary form because of misconceptions I developed while trying to understand it. My first misconception was believing shorter pieces to be incomplete stories that resulted from quick, timed writing exercises. Another of my early theories was that there was little to no difference between a flash story and the first few pages of longer works. I would often read the beginning of a short story or novel and wonder if it could pass for flash. About 93% of the time, the answer was no. The remaining 7% when the first few pages did strike me as complete, I found myself even more perplexed.
During my first semester of graduate school, my workshop instructor assigned New Sudden Fiction, a flash anthology edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. When I realized all the work ranged between one and four pages, I wondered how much story could be conveyed in so few lines. I ignorantly believed that in order to engross a reader and build a universe, a writer required a minimum of fifteen pages. Then I read “The Red Fox Fur Coat” by Teolinda Gersão (translated by Margaret Jull Costa). The story overturned all my notions of short-form storytelling. Gersão is a master. She knows what to divulge, what to hint at, and what to withhold. Gersão successfully illustrates a social-economic class and culture in a matter of paragraphs. Her story confirms that plot, character, and arc can be developed and reach a satisfying conclusion in mere pages.
Three years after reading “The Red Fox Fur Coat” I attempted my hand at flash. At the time, I was struggling with longer narratives and perceived flash to be a one-or-two-drafts-type of art. This misconception proved advantageous. Had I known that I’d draft flashes that almost four years later continue to be works in progress, I might not have attempted the form.
The first flash story I wrote was about a double date. While revising, it became apparent that the strongest part centered on the character who’d won a middle school spelling bee. Killing darlings in a 600-word story terrified me more than killing darlings in a 6,000-word story. In my mind, fiction felt safer and somehow more insulated from criticism in longer form. The final product was a micro-fiction titled “Daily Dictionaries.”
Over the past few years, I’ve dispelled many of my early theories about flash. I’ve learned that not all flash requires a traditional arc in order to be successful or evocative. However, nearly all good flash manages to build a universe—a fact that will forever blow my mind.
As I mentioned earlier, I still have drafts that probably require skills and insight I don’t yet possess. History has taught me to be patient, though, because every flash I read, draft, publish, revise, share, admire, imitate, hate, or analyze is part of my education.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura’s writing has appeared in CutBank, New South, DOGZPLOT, Sundog Lit, LUMINA, The Toast, Gargoyle, Washington Square, and dozens of other journals. Her nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and one of her stories was longlisted in Best American Short Stories 2015.