The Temporal Art of Flash
This week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from April Bradley explains how her long-term memory loss influences her flash. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By April Bradley
Hematologists at Yale-New Haven Hospital discovered I had the genetic blood clotting disorder Factor V Leiden as they treated me for massive pulmonary emboli, pneumonia, and a collapsed lung just after the birth of my son, Henry. Since then, I cannot say now how many blood clots I’ve had—too many to track without reference to extensive medical records—but when I was 29, an MRI revealed evidence of several older, small ones in my brain. One lasting effect of those clots has been permanent long-term memory loss.
Much of my past remains vivid—enhanced even. Some memories have vanished, including relationships with others and the details of the experiences we shared. Some memories are entirely fiction—my mind has manufactured them to replace too much fractured time. Some of what I’m left with are ephemeral flashes of multi-sensory recall, a different sense of memory than what I possessed before, strong emotional responses to those of whom little to no recollection exists beyond a brilliant, few moments. I grieve this loss and am grateful for those who are my memory-keepers, who tell me about shared histories and make sense of what’s missing or confabulated. Flash is how I convey this sense of memory and time.
Narrative is time, and “[F]iction is a temporal art form,” Robert Olen Butler tells us in my well-worn copy of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Compelling fictive narratives typically contain time’s duration by introducing a reader to characters in situations who change and grow over an interval in a fulfilling dramatic arc. Characters are beholden to and act in time. They move in a recognizable sequence in a demarcated narrative to achieve momentum within a plot: a beginning, middle, and end.
Flash narratives, especially flash fiction, allow for more elastic experiences of time, and its porous boundaries permit more temporal fluidity and slippage. This impermanence of time in flash is a unique feature of the genre. More so than any other form, flash is a wonderful physics of narrative due to its simultaneous contraction and dilatation with its layered condensation. As I wrote in a blog for Words in Place, “…various elements of flash each influence the way time is re-ordered internally and externally.” We change time; we change everything. Flash provokes writers, readers, editors, pedagogues, and critics to reconsider what is good writing.
When I write, flash is what ends up on the page. When I read, flash is what intrigues and excites me the most. It’s an achievement when I write long, and although I’m writing a novel-length work, the chapters resemble flash. After working intensely with flash as both a writer and an editor, I noticed that the longer-form works I cherish contain flash narratives, worlds within worlds, flashes of stories within stories. I’ve been marking up texts for decades, unaware at the time that what I found fascinating within them was flash.
Flash is not a diminutive short story; it’s a genre with many subgenres. While long-form narratives demonstrate how to accomplish elegant, masterful craft, flash calls for far fewer requirements. What is essential to creative and fictive forms of flash endure in long-form narratives: momentum, resonance, immediacy, emotion, weight, pace, tension, language, effect, setting, character, theme, voice, subtext, force, but not necessarily all at once and certainly not in a hierarchy. Compression, concentration, and brevity work in tension to unfold a sense of story that endures beyond the flash, a literary Big Bang. The rules of shifting perspective, time and tense, character arc, plot, and setting, aren’t merely flexible in flash, they are different. Flash resists confinement beyond its forms and structures while challenging our vocabularies and aesthetics to describe and define it.
One evening when I was first hospitalized for the clots in my lungs after Henry was born, my physician told my then-husband, Peter, not to leave the ward because she was uncertain I would make it through the night. She spoke, he tells me, in terms of “if April gets through this,” not “when.” I recall only brief moments from a morphine haze and wasn’t aware of how ill I was: a coven of doctors in white coats surrounding me; my friend Allison sitting next to the bed; my neighbor, a med student, talking to me in an elevator while I was going to radiology; speaking with my sister on the telephone; a mercury thermometer reading 106 degrees; my grandmother holding my hand. For years I thought Peter and I stopped for Thai at my favorite place on York Street after I was released. The memory of our meal there is especially detailed but brief. However, it did not happen. When I mentioned the meal a few years ago, Peter was floored that I thought he would do anything but take me directly home: “You nearly died!” All the more reason to eat Thai food, my mind must have determined. A flash fiction of my own.
My experience, my own narrative—my life, my writing—especially regarding memory and time, is flash. The numerous clotting from Factor V Leiden altered my body, mind, history, and relationships. The unexpected and fearsome gave way to something marvelous: I discovered flash.
April Bradley is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Literary Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Narratively, and Thrice Fiction, among others. Find her at aprilbradley.net and at @april_bradley.