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Tuesday

Flash Review: Steve Almond’s THIS WON’T TAKE BUT A MINUTE, HONEY

Hav­ing
very much enjoyed, and even grown to rely upon, Steve Almond’s excel­lent essay
in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writ­ing Flash Fic­tion:
Tips from Edi­tors, Teach­ers, and Writ­ers in the Field
(see his pean to his own bad poetry here at The Rum­pus).
I was very inter­ested to read one of his lat­est projects. It is an inter­est­ing
one;  in But This Won’t Take
But A Min­ute, Honey
, Almond gives us essen­tially two chap­books in
one, a book of thirty flash fic­tion sto­ries and a book of thirty essays on
writ­ing, bound tête-bêche. I can imag­ine that one’s
expe­ri­ence of the book could vary con­sid­er­ably depend­ing sim­ply on which side
one reads first. 

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The
essay sec­tion of the work is thought­ful and very much to the point, embrac­ing
in essay form the ideas of com­pres­sion and pur­pose I think we look for in good
flash
. The essays (flash essays?) are arranged with care mov­ing from dis­cus­sion
of basics of writ­ing and struc­ture, to con­sid­er­a­tions of the more abstract
prob­lems of writ­ing, often lead­ing seam­lessly from one to the next. There are
cer­tainly, through­out these, many occa­sions where I found myself say­ing, “Hell yes, Steve Almond!” He has a real knack for tak­ing a
com­plex argu­ment on plot con­struc­tion, or point of view, and dis­till­ing it into
a bluntly use­ful assess­ment that still escapes com­ing off as one of the
“max­ims” or “rules” that writ­ers right­fully dis­trust. He puts out his own
the­sis fairly dis­tinctly in his sec­ond essay “Bull­shit Detec­tor” where he says,
“Writ­ing is deci­sion mak­ing. Noth­ing more and noth­ing less.”

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For the
rest of these essays, Almond focuses on what types of deci­sions we should make
as writ­ers, and comes down firmly on the side of sim­ple, straight­for­ward,
nar­ra­tive writ­ing
. He is fairly clear that he comes from the basic idea that,
“Read­ers come to fic­tion as wil­ing accom­plices to your lies. That’s the basic
con­tract: we’ll sus­pend our dis­be­lief in exchange for a good story.” The
virtues of what makes a good story also seem direct, char­ac­ter dri­ven,
emo­tion­ally mean­ing­ful, cog­nizant of the dif­fer­ence between sur­prise and
sus­pense, and with lan­guage that dis­ap­pears into the nar­ra­tive. This is not to
say that Almond is always entirely con­sis­tent, but is eas­ily more con­sis­tent
than most of those that ven­ture into the dif­fi­cult project of writ­ing advice.
He does stand out to me for the sheer direct­ness and util­ity of his advice. He
has obvi­ously asked him­self his own ques­tion (or per­haps Brecht’s), “What work
does it do?”

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With
this in mind it is almost tempt­ing to take Almond up on his implicit chal­lenge,
flip his book over, and ana­lyze thirty flash fic­tion sto­ries each in terms of
the virtues he lays out in the essay sec­tion
. It may be because I
(delib­er­ately) read the fic­tion first, but I do enjoy the extent to which this
col­lec­tion resists the need to do pre­cisely that. I like that the fic­tion
col­lec­tion, and I think this is helped out by the wise and inter­est­ing choice
to bind this head-to-toe, while obvi­ously using var­i­ous ideas of char­ac­ter,
point-of-view, and set­ting as a touch­stone, exists not as exem­plars for the
essays but as a project in its own right. 

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The
sto­ries are arranged into six sec­tions of five poems each, mov­ing from the
back­ward gaz­ing “i. an Imper­fect Com­mand of His­tory” in an arc that nearly
becomes cir­cu­lar with “vi. Major Amer­i­can Cities of Sad­ness,” which makes a
his­tory of the present. One of the cen­tral themes is how the indi­vid­ual
per­se­veres, or is sus­tained, against the con­text and flow of events. We
inter­est­ingly begin with a voice from WWII of a woman given Hitler’s teeth in a
box who says, “It is always the women who han­dle the dead. We allow his­tory to
pass through us, like a quiet wave, and we hold fast to the present.” By the
end of the work, in the fan­tas­ti­cally titled “Stop,” there is a dif­fer­ent kind
of requ­liary an unnamed girl, work­ing in a Roy Rogers by day, “[lays] a pink
bear before the marker and you per­sisted, you per­sist.”

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This theme of per­sis­tence, com­bined
with the direct and care­ful craft­ing of Almond’s prose, gives the nar­ra­tives
here a curi­ous patina of inevitabil­ity
. There’s a sense if right­ness about
these pieces, which allows them to at times encom­pass all kinds of dis­so­nant
and strange ele­ments, and still appear as if the story could never come out any
other way. When the reader, for instance, comes to the end of “Mor­gan­town
Waltz” where, 

Men did almost noth­ing
here. They scratched at black veins. They took wives. They swam in bot­tles. The
porches aren’t porches. There are no porches. No hol­low trunks of air. Only
but­ter­flies land­ing one by one on small yel­low blos­soms. Who wouldn’t wish to
die in such a place.”

the sense of per­sis­tence is tinged with an inevitabil­ity and
sure­ness I find very appeal­ing.

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This
work over­all works for me as a heart­felt argu­ment in essay and story for a
cer­tain kind of nar­ra­tive
. In Almond’s words, “My intent is always to reach
some unbear­able moment where time slows down and the sen­sual and psy­cho­log­i­cal
details com­press and the lan­guage rises.” By pre­sent­ing this argu­ment both
ways, Almond has cre­ated an inter­est­ing project. It’s one I don’t think that
would have suc­ceeded if Almond didn’t care­fully employ the val­ues he espouses,
brevity, direct­ness, and a will­ing­ness to meet the dif­fi­cult head on. We are
for­tu­nate as read­ers that Almond is able to do this with such grace. 

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About the Author

FlashTodd B. Stevens is cur­rently an MFA stu­dent at Rose­mont Col­lege. He has stud­ied Eng­lish at Cor­nell and Vil­lanova. Todd worked for many years as a book­seller. His poetry has recently been pub­lished in Mad Poets Review and Off the Coast and is fea­tured in the anthol­ogy Prompted:
Poems, Essays from Greater Philadel­phia Word­shop Stu­dio
, which will be pub­lished in late May, 2010.

For fur­ther read­ing, check out FlashFiction.Net’s sug­gested read­ings of flash fic­tion and prose poetry col­lec­tions, antholo­gies, and craft books, by click­ing here.

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