Teaching Flash Fiction to Developing Writers: Insights and Stories from Three Students and Their Professor (Part One)
Part One: “What Short Short Stories Tell Us About Being Human”
Today on the blog, we are excited to feature the first post in a two-part series from guest blogger Virgie Townsend, who recently taught a two-week intensive course on flash fiction for American University’s Discover the World of Communication summer program. Here in Part One Virgie details her experiences working with her young students and provides examples of the work they produced. Be sure to check back next week for Part Two in which Virgie will detail specific tips and insights about teaching flash.
By Virgie Townsend
On my first day of teaching flash fiction writing to high school students, I overheard some of my students wonder aloud: What is flash fiction?
They exchanged theories. “It could be when you write a story in a few minutes,” one said.
Others thought flash fiction was another term for vignettes—descriptive prose pieces that offer a glimpse into a scene.
The American University, Discover the World of Communication flash fiction class is a two-week course that Kathy Fish founded 10 years ago. When Kathy asked me to teach it, I was thrilled and then intensely anxious. I had never taught before and never planned on doing so. Most of my high school career was spent trying to fly under the radar, not trying to lead the class.
Moreover, I don’t have an MFA. My knowledge about writing comes from (a) reading, (b) taking one fiction workshop with Mary Gaitskill a decade ago; and (c) staring into my laptop at midnight, debating whether to move a sentence down three paragraphs or delete it altogether, while the screen makes me increasingly myopic.
Fortunately, Kathy and Gay Degani, who also previously taught the class, shared their course materials with me, and encouraged me to adapt them. Kathy also provided a key piece of advice: “Blend lessons on the basics of storytelling with flash fiction.”
With their recommendations, I broke the two weeks into two sections. The first week was dedicated to introducing the form, building flash fiction storytelling skills, and writing time to draft their pieces. The second week was reserved for workshopping and revision, discussing publication, and practicing reading their work. My class had eleven students, ages 14-17.
On the first day, I tried to answer my students’ initial question by providing the basic definition of flash fiction: They are stories of a thousand words or fewer, though some publications put the mark as high as 2,000 words or as low as 300. The operative word in the definition is “stories.” Someone has to do something or experience something. A character’s world must shift, if only a fraction.
I told them that flash would serve them well personally and professionally.
“I’m sure some of you had a hard time convincing your parents or guardians to let you take this class because it’s not practical,” I said, recalling my own parents’ entreaties for my high-school incarnation to be more practical. “But you’ll use the skills you learn in flash fiction throughout your lives. You’ll use them to write college essays, or academic papers, and later when you write memos at work. You’ll use them to write love letters or notes to your sick grandmother. Good writing skills open doors.”
But my explanations felt incomplete. They didn’t describe what fascinates me about flash: The tension between what is said and unsaid, and the stunning language that emerges from the form’s roots in ancient fables and its kinship to poetry. These are flash’s ineffable qualities that the students must be shown, not told. The first step in that process was creating a reading list with representation from different genres, writers from diverse backgrounds, and various styles.
As an introduction to storytelling, the students deconstructed “Flowers for Clockwork Street” by Jennifer R. Fierro. I asked them to identify how Fierro used exposition, conflict, action, and dialogue to drive the story’s progression. The students picked out the obstacles the characters faced, what they did in their attempts to overcome them, and what qualities they possessed that allowed them to fail or succeed. “Flowers for Clockwork Street” was one of the class’ favorite stories, so they jumped into the literary analysis.
“You can never dig too deep. There is always meaning to be found, and a message to be uncovered,” said student Genesis Martin. “Analyzing the form and style of flash fiction stories really helped me in discovering the way in which I enjoy writing.”
To teach story meaning, I used Leesa Cross-Smith’s “Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars.” We talked about how the piece’s imagery, metaphors, and subtext bear out its themes, given that much of the conflict and action take place internally as the characters struggle with the things they cannot say to each other.
“I think the most interesting and probably also most useful thing I learned in the class for my own writing was the fact that story arc doesn’t have to be obvious,” said Doenja van der Veen. “The character doesn’t have to physically attain their goal; they can undergo any kind of change and it can become an arc.”
Students loved the line: “Sometimes we take bloody knives, carve our initials into thick, tall trees that haven’t been planted yet,” and how it shows that the characters are staking their hopes on an uncertain future. I noted the significance of the characters playing Two-handed Rook—a trick game between the narrator and her lover.
“After the class, I have a much greater appreciation of how difficult it is to get a story across in 1,000 words or less,” said student Sophie Johnson. “I found it really interesting to see how much thought writers put into each and every word in their stories, and how each word choice communicates something different.”
As we wrapped up the first week of class, I felt great about how well the students were doing. They excelled at literary analysis, and seemed productive during their writing time. I was excited to start workshopping their pieces on the following Monday.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, July 5, I felt a twinge on my right side.
“Oh, that doesn’t feel so good,” I said in surprise.
Fifteen minutes later, I was lying on the floor in pain, unable to talk. My husband gave me two Ibuprofen, which did nothing, and then called an ambulance.
My appendix was belatedly celebrating Independence Day by seceding from my body.
I underwent an emergency appendectomy the next morning. My TA, Anna Rutenbeck, had to sub for me and led the workshop, thanks to her expertise from previously serving as Gay’s TA and co-leading their workshops. Kathy Fish generously made time to Skype with the class from Denver.
My surgeon recommended planning for at least a week of recovery. I was housebound, but the students were sending their stories to the class for workshopping. I couldn’t resist reading them. The day after my surgery, I began reviewing their pieces. Abdominal surgery or no, I wanted to provide feedback on every story I received.
There were all the elements we had talked about: Rich imagery, details revealing the characters’ personalities and motivations, metaphors, dialogue with distinct voices, conflicts, sparing use of exposition, bits of truth. Without my spelling it out, they grasped what I most wanted to share with them about flash fiction: That the precision it requires allows writers to cut deep into the heart of what it means to be human. Flash fiction is a refraction of light on moving water—searing and momentary as it calls you to follow it out to sea.
Virgie’s students were generous enough to share their flash fiction. Here are three examples of their work from the class’ journal, The Green Room Review.
In Our Eyes
by Genesis Martin
Elizabeth is five years old. She’s fascinated with bubbles, and finger-paints masterpieces furiously. When on a swing set, she believes her heels can scrape the cotton-candy sky. “See how high I can go!” Her silvery tone rings in her father’s ear like the sound of a jar lid popping- present and new. Elizabeth’s mother is dedicated to their lazy Sunday mornings. She spends the better half of the day scrubbing the surfaces Elizabeth has stained with her pancake batter fingerprints. She’s too young to realize she nurtures her mother’s soul in her amber eyes, and her father’s will within her ribcage. Elizabeth is too young to realize she holds the world in her small yet strong palms.
Elizabeth is eleven now. She prefers to be called “El” because “Elizabeth is an old people name” she’ll say at the dinner table as she mashes her peas with the spires of her fork. She doesn’t fingerpaint anymore because she is “much too old to do little kid things.” She now takes the school bus in the morning and watches the tall oak trees bend at the wind’s command, as she daydreams of being a veterinarian, or novelist, or whatever she decides that day. Her mother watches her with solemn warmth as El stops asking her to tuck her in at night. When she was a littler girl, they’d make believe a palace of princes, and fantastical creatures that existed within the lavender walls of her room. El doesn’t ask for her father’s hand when thunderstorms wash over their home, and when rain distorts the transparency of the windows making her feel suffocated and small. She is too young to understand that her imagination is the food of life.
El is now eighteen. She knows how heartbreak can roll your soul between its iron fingers and spread it thin- like she remembers the pancake batter as it hits the inferno-ignited pan all those Sundays ago. The walls of her bedroom are navy blue like a night sky that leads to infinity. Strong cardboard boxes line the walls, securing her memories within their parameters. Her mother and father separated two years ago, leaving El’s heart sprinkled like dust across the surfaces of the people she loves. Swingsets are a dream behind her and may as well be folded neatly into one of the boxes in her room. She knows she can’t graze the sky with the soles of her feet. “Once you know the distance from here to the moon, the idea of space isn’t so interesting” she’ll say with a shrug as she grips her car keys in one hand, door handle in the other. Her mother’s eyes shed tears that run like salty streams down her face that spell out Elizabeth’s childhood when she arrives at university. Her father’s hair reminds El of the pepper shaker that remained on the counter in her kitchen back home. She is too old to see that while she gets older, they are too.
Over a decade has passed, and El is now thirty-two. She has a preoccupied, yet loving husband, a four-year-old son, and a small yet comfortable home. El has taken herself back as Elizabeth for “professional reasons” and is usually busy with her lively career as a pediatrician. She doesn’t take the time to wondrously watch cream as it swirls within the dark liquid of coffee, or how the newly risen sun is caught by the stain glass window and casts a radiant rainbow of pigments in her very own kitchen. But, she does notice the liveliness captured in her son’s lava shaded eyes that mirror her own, and how his heart beats thickly with the uncertainty of his imagination. Elizabeth watches him in wonderment as he pretends the bathtub is a bottomless ocean. She’s too old to understand him.
Elizabeth is now held between the weathered pages that she knows create the last chapter of her life. Both her mother and father have passed. The seconds begin to slow. She is always waiting. Always counting the seconds as they ooze through the narrow tunnel of time, like morphine drips into a bottomless IV bag. The stillness of her existence so quiet, she can almost hear the hands of a clock ticking between her ears. Her son is older now, and off with his own family like she once was. Her irises are still burning embers of orange and gold , but they are held with leathery skin and deep set wrinkles. She questions how children can be so amazed with a bottle of bubble soap. Elizabeth watches as children run with dirt smudged faces down streets until they pinch into nothingness. The days drag on as she anticipates the burning glow of the sun as it sets. One day, the next day doesn’t follow. She finds herself the way she began; with a little bit of nothing, and everything to create.
Brothers in Arms
By Sophie Johnson
“Hugo, darling,” said his mother, adjusting her earrings in the hall mirror, “Are you sure you don’t want to come with us, even for just an hour?” His cousin was getting engaged to an oil baron’s son with too-white teeth and a chateau in the south of France, and tonight’s party was the Event of the Year.
“I have to study. I keep getting the dates and names mixed up for history class. Tell Cordelia that I’m really sorry to miss it.”
Hugo gave her his best apologetic smile, shifting from one foot to the other. He knew he had studied all weekend, and Mother did as well, but she only leaned over and kissed his cheek goodbye, leaving a smear of red lipstick behind. He watched from the doorway as she took one final check in the mirror, and then waited with Father in the front hall, the chandelier above making the rubies at her throat look like drops of blood.
Xavier emerged from upstairs, scowling and pulling on his dinner jacket. Reaching over, Mother clasped his upper arm, her nails digging into his jacket as she steered him out of the ornate front door.
When it closed behind them with a click, Hugo sat on one of the couches in the library and looked out the window down onto the darkened grounds below. He could see himself reflected in the glass, black hair and pale skin standing out against the dark night.
The high cheekbones and grey eyes that made Xavier so striking sat oddly on his face, as if an amateur had tried to copy a master’s drawing of his older brother and lost something, some crucial spark that made Xavier elegant where Hugo was awkward.
Below, he could see the car driving down the road, its headlights cutting through the darkness. Sleek and black, he could almost picture Mother in the front, driving, while Father, probably on the phone to a business associate, sat next to her. Xavier would be in the back, sullen and hostile, staring out the window much like Hugo was looking out his own.
The house was unusually silent without the rest of his family, without the click of Mother’s heels on the marble floors and the sounds of the keyboard in Father’s office and without the thumping bass of Xavier’s ‘music’ emanating from his room. Hugo sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes. He could order take-out, eat it on the bedroom floor with his hands while watching television. There would be no need to shake hands and make polite small talk, no need to trip over his own feet while attempting to dance. He had a whole evening to himself, to do whatever he wanted.
Hugo was curled up reading next to the fire when he hear the creak of the door signaling his family’s arrival home.
“Darling, it’s a really a shame you missed the party. Cordelia was so disappointed not to have you there. Also, your brother somehow managed to lose his jacket.” Mother turned to Xavier, “I’m extremely disappointed in you. This is exactly the sort of disregard for your possessions that I talked to you about the other day.”
Last year, Hugo had lost a pair of expensive, antique cufflinks, and all his mother had said was “Don’t worry darling, they’re going out of style anyway. I’m not sure if we can trust the new cleaner though, I knew there was something suspicious about her.” She had fired the cleaner the next day, never mind that he had lost the cufflinks in another country three weeks before they had hired her.
Xavier didn’t reply to her comment, so Mother sighed and retreated upstairs to the bedroom, hanging her coat on the stand as she left. Father trailed behind her, still talking on his phone, but taking a moment to glare pointedly at his son.
Hugo looked up at Xavier, who was still standing in the front hall, glowering into the distance.
“How was it?”
Xavier snorted, a sound of glorious distain. “Dead boring. Cordy’s fiancé looks like a rodent.” He laughed at his own joke, and cocked his head to the side when Hugo didn’t join in.
“How did you manage to lose your jacket at a party that only lasted a few hours?”
“Oh God, not you too. I left it on the back of my chair when some girl asked me to dance for the thousandth time. I said yes just to get rid of her, and I forgot to get it before we left.”
No girls ever asked Hugo to dance.
“I didn’t even want to go,” Xavier kicked the wall, hard, but not hard enough for their parents to hear upstairs. “They made me. I have a maths test I need to study for but instead I got dragged to one of their stupid parties because they didn’t trust me home alone. When I fail the test I’ll get another lecture about responsibility.”
He kicked the wall again, harder his time. M other was down the stairs and into the hallway in an instant.
“Xavier Declan Terrance Saville-Henderson, I don’t know what you think you’re doing. You should be on your best behavior tonight after the incident with your jacket.
You’re lucky your father and I haven’t grounded you for your behavior.” She turned back to the stairs, and then stopped, a sly glint in her eye, “Oh, and Hugo, darling, let us know if you need any help studying. We know how hard you’ve worked, and we’re so proud of you.”
When Xavier turned and stormed to his room his hair fell in elegant disarray and
Hugo could see the lipstick mark on his neck only partially concealed by his collar. But for once he didn’t feel his usual twinge of resentment towards him. Instead, Hugo turned and looked towards the door of his parent’s room, cocking his head to the side, a perfect mirror of Xavier only minutes ago.
Rivers of Rock Lead Me Here
By Doenja van der Veen
Concrete surrounds you, rivers of asphalt with banks of pavement cement take twists and turns until your head is spinning.
“You okay there, lady?” A small boy tugs at your sleeve
“Yeah, thanks.” The answer seems to satisfy him and he runs off, sneakers breaking the surface of peaceful puddles.
It feels as though your insides could tumble out any seconds and send all your organs crashing to the street. The instigators of your nausea have left your body; all that’s left is the feeling, the one that’s lingered, subdued, since you came into the doctor’s office 3 weeks ago.
Your footfalls are lighter now but you still trace your fingers along the bright shop windows to keep you steady.
Tracing with your eyes the features of the crowd, the surrounding chaos, you find maroon and ochre, fall colors which you found so dull but now seem a relief after weeks of white on white on grey faces and bright lights.
The sounds of London, hissing of buses, scratching of a million feet on worn streets are a sweet symphony; no longer heard from your window or marred by a steady beeping noise or the scuffing of slippers on tiles.
You’re looking for her. For a face not covered in secondary sorrow who doesn’t have endless degrees and a million promises to her name.
She’s the first call they made. Her voice was tinny yet sounded realer from where she was in America than any noise you’d heard, in weeks, in Kensington.
“It’s gonna be okay,” she said then.
“I’ll be let out for a few days, they said that until the tests are back the symptoms aren’t bad enough to keep me here.”
“That’s good, I’m flying back tomorrow. You know where to find me.”
“See you Thursday.”
There’s a click and you’re back on a high street, the night sky colors reflected in ever-present clouds.
You do know where to find her but not when there’s an array of symptoms waging war on your body and all your senses are being tricked and tumbled and spun like cotton candy by lights and crowds.
Familiar brownstone finally brings her to you. Having walked for what feels like all night you lean against the door and ring the doorbell. The door, labelled 43 with bronze scratched lettering, opens. She’s wearing the mint sweater you gifted her, three autumns ago, heavy knit and soft against your hands when you hug her.
“It’s so good to see you,” she says when your hands are stuck in the rough denim of your jeans again.
“When do the tests come in?”
She frowns, her delicate complexion crumpled.
She takes you upstairs and both of you lay down and stare at the ceiling, where a fan spins around despite the tea she put on to warm you.
You fall asleep on her wooden floor.
When you wake, both of you get ready in silence surrounded by the art she’s collected over the years. Tacked above her mirror is a picture of both of you at the London Eye when she first moved here, underneath it you see your reflection quirk a smile. Light beams reach through the framed windows and reflects shadows through the plants on her window sill. The light comes to rest on her silverware and you eat eggs at her kitchen sink accompanied by her idle chatter.
Walking out of the living room you slip the dense knit sweater over your head without a word.
She leads you out onto the streets, light now, bouncing rays of sun across pools of water on the street. You follow her down the concrete waterfall and you trust her to guide you past the rocks at the bottom.
About the Author
Virgie Townsend is a fiction writer and essayist from Syracuse, New York. She has contributed flash fiction to such publications as Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and WhiskeyPaper, as well as the anthologies SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years and Best of Pif, Volume One. Her essays have been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and The Toast. She lives in the D.C. area with her husband and their moderately stinky dog. Find her online at www.virgietownsend.com or on Twitter @virgietownsend.