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 our inaugural column, new SmokeLong Associate Editor Virgie Townsend traces her flash fiction roots through an early novel about cousin incest, back to her childhood growing up in a fundamental Baptist church. Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Virgie Townsend
When I started writing flash fiction a few years ago, I thought it was by accident. It wasn’t, of course, but it’s taken me almost a decade to see how the seeds of loving short short stories have been sown throughout my life.
I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to be a writer. I was shy and uncoordinated, but writing made sense to me in a way that little else did. I could hear a rhythm to language, and I wanted to put it to paper.
But short stories weren’t on my radar during my early writing years. My reading list was comprised entirely of longer works. As far as I knew, real writers wrote novels, and I was ambitious to be a ‘real’ writer, even at seven years old.
Between the ages of ten and fifteen, I wrote five novel-length projects, all of which are now humiliating. My first novel could best be described as Little Women meets Gone with the Wind meets accidental cousin incest. I titled it A Legacy of Passion.
Sadly, the world will be denied further gems like A Legacy of Passion. Short stories drew me away in high school. At first, it was because my creative writing teacher assigned them, and I perceived them as being easier to publish, which would bring me closer to my vision of being a ‘real’ writer. Over time, I fell for writing short stories. They were still garbage, but they were garbage I enjoyed rolling around in.
While working on one of those garbage short stories, I stumbled on flash fiction. That moment marks the beginning of my adult creative life.
For several months, I had been revising a short story about a teenage girl who grows up in an isolated religious community, and whose friend commits suicide after finding out she’s pregnant. The plot points were fictional, but it was inspired by my own upbringing in a fundamentalist church with cult-like qualities. I felt compelled to write it.
The problem was that it was a 12-page bloated mess, complete with a gratuitous exorcism scene. Frustrated that it wasn’t working, I began deleting everything that didn’t cut to the heart of my story. When I was done, only about 626 words remained. It was my first piece of flash, and it became my first published story, “Seventeen.”
Since then, I’ve written longer pieces and nonfiction, yet I come back to flash for reasons both practical and emotional. A practical benefit is that it makes me a better writer in every genre. Flash behooves writers to think critically about what’s essential to a story. It allows little room for our egos, or our fantasies about the mythical ‘real’ writer. It asks us to stay with it through every moment, tending each sentence.
Last year, I wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about the long-term effects of childhood trauma. Although it was generally unrelated to my literary work, flash made it possible because it helped teach me how to make tight arguments and convey my points in 1,200 words. Everything I write owes some fraction of its existence to my first piece of flash fiction.
But nature of the form also connects with me philosophically. I haven’t been a fundamental Baptist for fifteen years, but flash fiction reminds me of something that I still cherish from my religious upbringing—the powerful simplicity of Christ’s parables. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, which illustrates love across sectarian lines. The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which demonstrates the importance of forgiving others.
The first places where we find beauty and truth are the places to which we return repeatedly throughout our lives, searching for understanding. More than two decades before I wrote my first piece of flash and thought it was happenstance, I was learning to love little stories as a kid in Sunday school class, and that love has driven a lifetime of writing.
Virgie Townsend is an associate blog editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. Her short fiction has been featured various publications, including Tin House’s Flash Fridays, Gargoyle, and this one. Read her previous blog post about teaching flash fiction to high school students, and find her online at www.virgietownsend or @VirgieTownsend.