Robert Shapard answers, “Why do I love writing flash fiction?”
In my case it should be why do I love collecting them in anthologies.
Before I forget, let me say I’m currently collecting for an anthology titled Flash Fiction International, with James Thomas and Christopher Merrill, who directs the U of Iowa International Writing Program. It will be published by W.W. Norton next year. We’re especially looking for suggestions, translations, international authors, etc.
As for why I love flash, I’m reminded of an old song with the line “I don’t know why I love you like I do, I don’t know why, I just do” (sung by Eddy Arnold, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, etc). From the first time I saw very short fiction, in literary magazines, I was fascinated. I can think of half a dozen reasons why, all true, and all inadequate. Maybe Irving Howe touched on the most important thing when he said that writers who write very short fiction “need to be especially bold. They stake everything on a stroke of inventiveness.”
Yet the stories I loved seemed to go even beyond “mere” inventiveness. They evoked lifetimes and worlds—as Mark Strand said, flashes could “do in a page what a novel does in two hundred.” They took many forms—I think of Isak Dinesen’s “Blue”(traditional tale), or John Cheever’s “Reunion” (classic realism in a coming of age story), or Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl” (magical realism), or Grace Paley’s personal essay fictions or Margaret Atwood’s metafictions, on and on.
Yet the word “form” hardly seems to apply to stories that speed up like Robert Fox’s “A Fable” (about a young man on the subway who is so, so happy going to his first day of work in the city that he falls in love with a pretty young woman seated across from him and they are married by the conductor before the next stop); or stories that run backwards, like Hannah Voskuil’s “Currents” (told not in flashbacks, which return to the present, but in short paragraphs that journey relentlessly farther and farther into the past); or stories like Raúl Brasca’s “The Hole,” which both shrinks and expands, its comforting voice taking us from a day at the beach to the disappearance of the world, the universe, and ultimately, us.
Stories like these seemed to me to be not just inventive ways of telling a story but trying to reinvent fiction altogether. Maybe that’s why, from the first time I saw them, I loved losing myself in flashes (as one might lose oneself in a novel, if only for the moment) at the same time as trying to figure them out. A writer friend, Margaret Bentley, has said, “Flash seems to invite consideration of the form simultaneous with the reading.” There’s a pleasure to that, and it’s another reason I love flash.
The truth, of course, is I wanted to write flashes. I have, but never so well as so many authors I have read, both well-known and unknown. In the lines of the old song, I don’t know why I love you, you never seem to want my romancing. We’ve all been rebuffed. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” Imagine him as the first flash philosopher! A philosopher friend of mine laughs at that. Nietzsche, he says, may have wanted to write short, but oh he just rambles and rambles.
Finally, I love hearing some people talk about flash. One of my favorites is Luisa Valenzuela, who says, “I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the microstory to an insect (iridescent in the best cases).” Flash as iridescence—I love that.
James Thomas’s story about how he got the idea for coining the title for the original Flash Fiction anthology, back in 1992:
I’d been using short-shorts or very-shorts in teaching at the Univeristy of Utah for a couple of years, not really calling them much of anything, cause they worked for that purpose—but it wasn’t until I found myself parked on a Greek Island (thanks to an NEA), trying to write a novel, day after day and having a hard time of it, that I decided to take a break for at least for at least a day and try writing one of those shorties myself. Never had before. To challenge myself a little more I decided that it should be exactly 1,000 words. Of course it took more than one day, for me, maybe because I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound (a completely different voice from the novel), and I knew everything that needed to happen (all but the actual ending, of course, which I figure always has to find/grow itself). So, third day, it’s hot and I’m sweating, figuratively and literally, counting words, conniving, the door’s open (I’d rented an apt. on a hill), coming down on what I think is an ending, as a thin windy storm is coming down on the sea below, and the sun is going down, setting, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, retsina maybe?, and yes by God I’m finding that last little situation, those last words and the storm situation is kicking up, thundering now and lightening, I’ve got denouement! I only need climax, God give me a last sentence of just the right sound and shape, the sun is gone now, about sixteen words, and as they (surprisingly) sort of suddenly slide out there is a total illumination of the sky outside, bifurcating explosive tendrils of light over the Med, and I swear to God (I personally go for Diana) that my period goes down somewhere in the blast and then rumble of thunder that follows a few seconds later. Flash? I don’t know but it was certainly cathartic.