Idea of the Sprawl
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.