As part of a panel on flash at AWP in Portland, David Galef asked the three other panel members—Nancy Stohlman, John Dufresne, and me—five questions. I’ll be posting my answers to each for your enjoyment. Here’s the first.
How does your book teach flash fiction? How is it different from teaching good writing techniques in general?
I was struck by a prompt in John’s book that asked writers to look at a photograph and then prompted them along with a number of exercises and questions, including these:
Let’s consider plot. This central character must want something. What is that? Why does she want it? The motivation should be intense. There must be something at stake. Who or what is in conflict with the central character? In other words, what are the obstacles in the central character’s way? What will prevent her from getting what she wants? How will she struggle? Will she get what she wants? What are the moments of complication? Climax? Think and write.
It occurred to me that the difference between narrative writing or prose poetry or other forms has maybe less to do with what ends up on the page and maybe more or at least as much to do with what is going on inside the writer, what questions writers ask themselves to get the next word, the next thing that happens, the next detail. I realized after reading John’s book that when I wrote my book I tried to access some of that thinking, especially the kind of thinking that felt the most flash like. Examples might include the following:
- The desire to make the anxiety of writing, of the uncertainty of the next word, to go away urgently, and the only way to do that is to finish, before it’s too late and the anxiety stops you in mid-sentence.
- The translation of that urgency to the page, not necessarily in a messy, non-edited rush, but in a way that retains rawness. Consider the edit here. I originally wrote “in a way that retains some of that original rawness. That became “that retains rawness.”
- Kim Chinquee taught me about the thrill of editing predicates, so that say, an original ending line of “And the baby rattled the bars of her crib” might become “And the baby rattled.” What else might be sacrificed for the sake of compression?
- If indeed narrative follows a pattern of character in known world, inciting incident, series of conflicted, chaotic actions leading to resolution, then how might one write flash and write narrative. How might one deliver all of the backstory before the story begins, as in the title? Does a title such as “After the Break-Up” serve that function?
- Yes, literally, every word counts in flash, maybe desperately so as that 506 word story cannot find any more willing volunteers to get to the necessary 500. But I think it might be a myth, like the uniqueness of snowflakes, to believe every word counts equally. How might I write a flash whose weight rests all upon a single word? How might I weight words so that the heaviness and lightness fall where I wish?