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.
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."
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?"
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.
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."
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
"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.
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.
About the Author
Todd 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.