The Expansiveness of Compressed Writing
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, SmokeLong Interviews Editor Karen Craigo explores how flash sharpens readers’ senses. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Karen Craigo
I’m the person at a reading who eyeballs the writer’s sheath of papers and tries to figure out how long I’ll be stuck in my folding chair.
I’m the one who tries hard to listen, but gets snagged on an image or idea and is off to the moon. When I come back, I have literally no idea what’s going on.
I’m the one who loves lyrical language, but who has a low tolerance for navel-gazing. Get to the point, I plead.
Where fiction is concerned, flash is my passion, and that’s why I love my role as interviews editor, along with Michael Czyzniejewski, of SmokeLong Quarterly. It’s always rewarding to examine a writer’s goals and inspirations and choices in the context of a very small piece of writing.
I write flash fiction, but I’m primarily a poet. I’m accustomed to devoting a lot of attention to small utterances. And why not? Each word is rich with connotation and texture, and each represents a choice—this word, rather than twenty close synonyms. Words are little time capsules, containing whole histories of civilization and war and peace and conquest. They merit some scrutiny. And flash invites us to scrutinize so many small decisions that produce a nuanced whole.
I not only assign and edit interviews for SmokeLong, I also read submissions. I can avouch as a rank-and-file screener that it’s a very well-run magazine; if I’m late in reading my assigned batch, someone is there to crack the whip. Work submitted to SmokeLong is given serious and efficient attention from a group of experienced and diverse readers. Each issue has many voices and styles of work—many moods, many artistic aims. Before I ever got involved in the magazine, I was smitten with it.
It may be the poet in me, but when I consider work, lyricism is my first concern. Wordy, dialogue-laden writing doesn’t make the cut with me; I want tight prose, wherein every word is necessary and every syllable has been vetted. I vote down the work that merely tells a small story in an ordinary way. Flash has a higher purpose: the meticulous use of language.
It’s not a short attention span that has me squirming in my seat at a reading; it’s a close attention span—too close, sometimes (and I spend most of my time listening the best I can while adjusting my attention dial, turning it up and down). A beautiful image arrests my attention almost every time, but it’s worth the distraction. Flash is so much less about this-happened-and-then-this-happened, so savoring beautiful or striking moments is a luxury the form allows.
I have a confession to make: I once won a very large prose fellowship based on a packet of work I had submitted. The deadline was upon me and I had a pretty good piece to send, but it was flash, and I was far from the page limit. What I did to fill up the submission was to take a few narrative poems and remove the line breaks. Not only did this strategy win me a recommendation for a big award ($10,000, in fact) in prose; it also resulted in some very cool micro-fictions, and a new way of looking at genre.
Truth is keener when it’s spare.
I also edited the literary journal Mid-American Review for a number of years, and during that time, we established a contest we called the Fineline Competition. Our goal was to explore the “fine line” between prose poetry and flash fiction and essays. The submissions to this contest were always my very favorite works to read, and many of them were very strong. (This was in marked difference to submissions to our regular poetry and fiction contests, which were always quite a bit weaker than general submissions; maybe those writers were playing it safe because of the submission fee.)
The strength of the writing I saw while doing initial judging of the Fineline Competition year after year was very telling. Flash is prose to which heat has been applied. It has burned away extraneous flourishes; it has condensed to an essential oil.
I used to think it odd that airports and airplanes weren’t packed full of people reading poetry and short fiction. It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? A story or two can get you from Knoxville to Chicago, from San Diego to Portland. We could devour a poetry chapbook in the distance from New York to Atlanta. But the most popular choice on an airplane seems to be a long novel in a genre like romance or mystery. I read mysteries myself when I’m looking to relax with a book. Give me fictional gumshoes Kinsey Millhone or Stephanie Plum—not Ishmael; not poor, dead Finnegan.
And not flash. Airplane books are meant to get our minds off of the height, the plummet; flash is meant to ensnare the mind and captivate our attention, so that we are fully present in our bodies and minds, feeling the weight of each noun, the energy of every verb.
I’m the woman in seat 3B with her nose in a Janet Evanovich novel. I’m the one trying hard not to think of turbulence or Tenerife, the one who can’t decide if she prefers Ranger or Joe Morelli. (Who am I kidding? I’m Team Lula all the way.)
But I have a collection of flash in my suitcase for when I get where I’m going and I’m ready to be serious about what it means—when I’m ready to handle the tight-packed tragedy or beauty or essence of it all.
Karen Craigo is the author of two forthcoming poetry collections, No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017), and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.