You are the Executive Director of the hugely popular National Novel Writing Month. In what ways does it inspire or feed your own writing?
When I first did NaNoWriMo in 2009, I’d been writing for years, and I asked myself whether I chose my creative process or if it chose me? I felt like it was time to shake it all up and experiment.
Also, I had two young children at the time. I was frustrated that I didn’t have more time to write, and my list of novel ideas was growing faster than the pace of my words on the page. I thought it would be a great idea to just plunge in and write under different circumstances—to write with abandon, within the pressure of a constraint of time, and with speed.
I found that I took creative risks that I wouldn’t have ordinarily taken and learned new approaches to writing. Writing NaNoWriMo-style has also been an amazingly effective way to keep moving forward on a number of writing projects—kids’ soccer games and all!
Your collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, was published by Press 53. Can you tell us more about working within the confines of 100 words? Why did you select 100 words?
I’ve always been a closet poet, and these miniatures function almost as prose poems for me. I find all of the odd gaps and silences in life so entrancing. We live in the fissures, the interstices of life. Life isn’t a round, complete circle—it’s shaped with fragments, shards, snapshots, tiny gems, tickles, pinpricks, etc. The brevity of flash is perfect for capturing the small but telling moments when life pivots almost unnoticeably, yet profoundly.
As writers, we’re generally trained to write more—since the beginning, if you think about it, when a first-grade teacher tells students to add more detail to build a sentence into a paragraph, and then all the way through college when we’re taught to flesh out research papers, often proving our smarts through big words and big long sentences. I think writers tend to show their writerly muscles by focusing on the “more”—to fill a page with layers of details and florid descriptions. I don’t remember ever being taught to write less.
When I first started writing 100-word stories, I could never get them below 150 words. I’d trained myself to be a novelist, after all. It took a lot of practice, but what I learned was how the constraint of the tight little box of the form sparked a different kind of creativity. Writing miniatures allows me to focus on the white spaces, the gaps, in a story—to move a story through wisps of hints as opposed to the connective tissue a novel can demand. One hundred is an arbitrary number, but I always find that the story is better once I get it to 100 words. Unlike longer forms, I have to scrutinize every word, every sentence, and distill the story to its essentials. It still amazes me how often I find a flabby phrase or an unnecessary word when I’m carving these pieces down.
I think our memories work largely in disconnected snapshots that spin through our minds like a slide show. I think of life as more of a collage than a rising arc. The flash aesthetic is the best way for me to make collages of stories. I can create a mosaic with all of life’s shards and gems.
You wrote a book called Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. What is the most important piece of advice or insight (from the book or not from the book) you would give to writers of flash fiction specifically?
I actually wrote a chapter on the benefits of constraints for writers—time constraints and formal constraints. Here’s an excerpt:
“Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?” Roland Barthes asked in Pleasure of the Text. The erotic nature of the gape in a garment is an apt metaphor for a hundred-word story because these tiny stories flow from tantalizing glimpses that lure the reader forward. As much as a writer might want to tell the whole story, to achieve a comprehensive narrative, a good 100-word story draws readers forward best via hints and fleeting appearances. You might say the writer takes on the role of a flirt. The words and images of a short-short are akin to the lingering glance or the brush of a hand from a desired lover. Writing within a fixed space taught me how a poetic coyness on the page can titillate the reader to fill in the gaps, to essentially become a co-creator of the story.
The most haunting stories are those that don’t provide answers but open up questions. I pondered the writer Ku Ling’s words, which functioned as a Zen koan for me: “A good short-short is short but not small, light but not slight.” By writing in such a compressed space, I learned how to create spirals of suspense to make the story bigger. My stories began to move like a flashlight’s beam, as if the reader were following a series of luminous dots on a path through the night.
Deb Olin Unferth says, ‘The short makes us consider such questions as: What is the essential element of ‘story’? How much can the author leave out and still create a moving, complete narrative? If I remove all backstory, all exposition, all proper nouns, all dialogue—or if I write a story that consists only of dialogue— in what way is it still a story?’”
That’s the challenge of flash fiction: to find the essence of the story, its purity.
You’re co-founder of the literary journal 100 Word Stories, and you also edited Nothing Short of 100, a collection of stories from the journal. As an editor of micros, what do you think can make or break a story of this length?
In such a short form, you’ve got to nail the ending like a gymnast. If you waver, tip, or fall, you’ll ruin everything you’ve previously achieved. I read so many stories that are good … up until the last sentence. That last sentence matters far more than in a novel or a conventional short story. It can’t drop off in any way.
The writer Jayne Anne Phillips said that the last lines of a short short “should create a silence, a white space in which the reader breathes. The story enters that breath, and continues.” That’ a good metaphor to think of.
What kind of story would you love to find in the submission queue this week? Are there certain themes or styles you’re drawn to?
The thing I love about flash fiction is how it’s inherently experimental because brevity changes the contours of a conventional story. A flash piece can be a prose poem, a list, a letter, an overheard conversation—as well as a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
I think the best stories possess what Roland Barthes, in describing what makes a photograph arresting, called the punctum—“the sting, speck, cut, prick.” It’s difficult to describe, but a good story startles the reader in a similar manner.
I like stories that work with language and mood and move with a sense of what is left out of the story. Flash fiction is so much about absences and gaps, after all. There has to be a sense of escalation, though. Each sentence has to carry a symbolic weight forward and tell a story.