Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans


Flash Fiction: Grandmasters of Flash AWP Panel, 1

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?

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