small thoughts on flash fiction
When I first dreamed up this newsletter in late summer, I had grand ambitions: I would read a novel just for this newsletter every month – and then write to you about how its structure invited or demanded or required reader participation. A scrawled list of possible titles is right now tucked into my work bag: a crumpled piece of yellow legal paper among the many envelopes, stray pens and hair ties, receipts and shopping lists.
Clearly this has not happened. My attention for reading novels – all reading, really – has dwindled since the summer. I am on the steep hillside of my own novel-creature and there aren’t enough hours in the day.
What I have been doing is listening to old lectures from the Eleventh Hour Series.
I appreciate the length of the podcasts (an hour, give or take), and the opportunity to hear one person – one thoughtful, experienced person – talk about one element of craft, with a depth that many other writing podcasts and videos lack. I am being a little snobby, perhaps.
I think what I like most about these lectures is that they are not necessarily about the mechanics of the work, but instead explore our orientation to the work. How do I position my mind, my heartbeat, my gaze so that I can meet the work more fully?
Today I listened to Robert Anthony Siegel talk about flash fiction. Flash fiction, he explains, isn’t the story: it is an arrow pointing towards the story. In the white space around a piece of flash fiction, the reader must construct the context, the larger meaning, the echoes. At the end of the talk, he offers a writing prompt: write a flash fiction in the form of footnotes for a text that does not exist.
Yes, I thought when I heard that.
Flash fiction has often been frustrating to me. Rarely does an epiphany land well in a piece as short as 500 or 1000 words. What am I supposed to take away from this glimpse? What is my role in a flash fiction text? These are the questions that have frustrated me – perhaps because I am not fond of epiphany-based fiction of any length.
I think what I am trying to say is that I am not interested in fiction-as-glimpse. I am interested in fiction-as-funhouse mirror and fiction-as-bridge and fiction-as-scalpel and fiction-as-comfort. All but the last of these requires the reader to step up, step in.
Siegel offers two “goals” of flash fiction beyond the epiphany
The image piece and joke-structured pieces. Both of these set aside plot and arc – even character – in favor of collaboration with the reader. Here, they say, is a bowl of bees, or perhaps a mirror in which everything turns backwards. There are also pieces that do both (in Hass’s “A Story About the Body” the final image becomes a mirror which changes our understanding of the painter or the composer – or both).
In an undergrad poetry class, Maria Hummel taught me that many good poems are like jokes, and jokes (humor in general) work through surprise. Here is a pattern, here is a pattern, here is a pattern so you think you know what is coming – and there is a raccoon doing interpretive dance. I hope you smiled just a little.
So flash fiction (or prose poetry, since it’s a blurry piece of the literary landscape) points towards the story (but it isn’t the story). Flash fiction – the kind I want to read – has at its heart an image or a mirror. The “goal” of the piece is to slip that image, that mirror, into the mind of the reader (often through pattern and surprise), and the reader creates around it a whole world. A world within the white space.
Here are some flash pieces that I think are particularly successful
Amy Hempel’s one-sentence “Housewife” turns on that last repetition: “French film, French film.” Our judgement is subverted – eclipsed – by the housewife’s self-image. She is making herself a life.
Amelia Grey’s “The Swan as Metaphor for Love” is very funny. You should read it for no other reason that it begs to be read aloud in a Daria voice. “The Swan…” follows the joke-structure of pattern and surprise – here, we think we’ve gotten the joke (haha, a swan is a filthy animal and it’s a cynical metaphor for love) but in the last paragraph, she breaks the metaphor and informs us that a 24-year old swan isn’t that impressive because “the swan was not even old enough to rent a car. The swan wasn't old enough to silently hyperventilate in bed. The swan didn't have a bed.” Instead of a swan, we picture the narrator – or perhaps ourselves – trapped and panicked by all the things that “love” (or its absence) summons. We complete the story without our own experience.
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid is one of my favorite pieces of flash; when I was a teacher, I assigned it and then asked my students to write their own version. Kincaid offers us no narrative context, no dialogue tags. As we read, we construct the speaker, the girl, and the world they inhabit. What will happen after the story is over? Those italicized moments of speech from the girl are the arrow pointing towards the real story – which lives in the white space beyond the text.
Deb Olin Unferth’s “Likable” is a classic – in the first two paragraphs, we wonder: is she actually unlikable? We imagine all the unlikable things the woman might be doing, the grating ways she might be speaking. And then we arrive at the third paragraph – ah, we think, yes.
Nibedita Sen’s “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” is a slightly longer (1400 words) flash piece — but it’s one I’ve pored over dozens of time. The form (bibliography) demands that the reader fill in the connective tissue between excerpts; we must imagine the untold parts of the story and hold together the subtext in what is said (and unsaid). Sen also challenges us to examine what is part of the “official” record and whose stories are silenced.
All this is good timing because I am working on trimming a 2400 word short story into a flash fiction piece. The story is high concept, but the concept doesn’t have enough heart to hold up all 2400 words. So trim trim trim – although really, it will be a from-scratch re-write, because the voice and framing are all different (as we’ve seen) at 500-700 words instead of 2000+. And then it will (hopefully) be off on submission to Baffling Magazine for their food themed issue.
The task in the re-write will be holding plot/event loosely (perhaps even letting them go!) and instead writing towards subversion, towards a mirror that turns everything backwards. To write the arrow pointing towards the story, and not feel beholden to telling the story itself.
Do you have favorite flash pieces? Share them in the comments!
Other flash stories worth reading:
Sticks George Saunders
Astronaut Maria Dahvana Headle
Taylor Swift Hugh Behm-Steinberg
Miracles Lucy Corin