A HOBART SYMPOSIUM
On Writing Flash Fiction
Authors from the U.S., Mexico, Israel, New Zealand, India,
Australia, and Brazil respond to questions:
How do you know your idea for a flash fiction is the right size? Why do readers like flash (besides it’s being short)? Could your flashes turn into something else—even novels? What must a flash fiction leave out, absolutely? Around the world flash fiction is literary freedom—or is it?
Rules for respondents:
1—You do not have to answer every question.
2—Keep your answers short.
3—You do not have to follow these rules.
Jensen Beach lives in Vermont. He is author of For Out of the Heart Proceed.
Alberto Chimal is one of Mexico’s most prolific, and best, writers of experimental fiction, including flash and Twitter fiction.
Avital Gad-Cykman is from Israel and lives in Brazil. Her collection of flash fiction is Life In, Life Out.
Etgar Keret lives in Israel. He is known for his very short stories, as well as his graphic novels and scriptwriting for film and television.
Tara Laskowski is the senior editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and author of Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons.
Kuzhali Manickavel has two collections of stories, both available from Blaft Publications, Chennai, India.
Frankie McMillan is the author of three books, one short story collection and two collections of poetry. In 2013 and 2015 she was the winner of the New Zealand National Flash Fiction award.
Meg Pokrass’s third full-length book of flash fiction is The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down; her award-winning flash novella is "Here, Where We Live.”
Bruce Holland Rogers’s stories and very short stories have won many awards, including the Pushcart and Micro awards.
Josephine Rowe is an Australian writer of flash and larger short fiction, poetry, and essays. She is a 2014–16 Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.
Irving Howe said, “Writers who do short shorts need to be especially bold. They stake everything on a stroke of inventiveness.”
Q: Does your approach to writing flash fictions—your initial ideas, your ways of beginning—differ from your approach to a novel or poem or longer story?
BRUCE: Absolutely. The aesthetic of flash fiction is not simply brevity, but noticed brevity, noticed efficiency. The idea, the techniques, have to suit the feeling of compression.
ALBERTO: Yes, because I think of an initial idea as the starting point to, conceivably, more than one flash story. I've written several projects that are basically groups of variations on a given theme. It's very unlikely that a writer would want (or get) to create more than one variation of a novel or even a conventional short story.
AVITAL: Quite often my story has the right extent of space it needs to occupy, and so my mind unfolds it the way you’d unroll a carpet: you’ll know its exact size only when it’s open, but a carpet is a carpet, so there’s not much chance it’ll cover a city.
FRANKIE: I usually approach flash fiction in a heightened state, as if I’m going to hold up a bank; I know I have to get in quick, do what I have to do, then get out of there.
JENSEN: Often when working on something long--a novel or a more traditional-length story, for instance--I spend a lot of time thinking about the shape and form of that particular piece of writing. Because flash fiction is so short, I find that the shape of a piece of very short fiction seems to render itself without my having to do much with it. It's at once more mysterious and more apparent to me; I find I can hold the thing in my head in its entirety without much difficulty. This isn't really true with longer fiction for me. But I tend to be motivated by sentences and their potential, either sonic or narrative, and so I think I tend to start writing flash fiction and longer fiction in much the same way. Very soon, the processes tend to become different, though.
MEG: Writing flash is like scratching a great itch. An idea is buzzing around inside my mind and must be let out onto the page. Often I don’t know what the idea looks like until it flies out. The flash fiction form, with its trademark acceptance of unconventional structure, invites un-self-conscious expression.
KUZHALI: I don’t really write anything else.
JOSEPHINE: It’s determined to some extent by the mode or the voice: there are those crowded, turbulent everything modes that would be unsustainable over too long a narrative distance. But there’s something thrilling about having a story spill over the sides of whatever form I’d intended to carry it in; a good sign that the story has autonomy. Of course, it goes the other way as well; an idea being furnished with the space of a longer story, when it might just as happily fit into fourteen sentences. And if that’s the case, why have it rattling around like a beetle in a shipping container?
Alex Epstein says, “When I start to write a very short story, I always imagine it as a novel.” (He adds, “In some parallel universe, there must be a crazy writer who is actually writing those novels.”)
Q: When you write a flash, do you sense its potential as a novel? Would you like to write that novel?
AVITAL: No and no. But when flashes start inspiring related flashes I get excited. Once, I wrote a set of interconnected flash-monologues with which I could happily go on and on, but at a certain point, when it seemed to be self-contained, I stopped and it was published as a story in McSweeney’s. I could probably enjoy another project like that and maybe stop later.
MEG: Many of my flashes want to be grouped and arranged to make something bigger. This is when they become a flash novel or novella.
BRUCE: Never. Flash fiction and novels are opposite forms not just in size, but in intensity. Novels are suns. Flash fictions are lasers.
TARA: Goodness no. The thought of that just stresses me out. I definitely see my characters as having pasts and futures, but I would not want to write them. I want to write this brief piece of time that changes them somehow, and that’s it.
JENSEN: I remember years ago reading a story by Claudia Smith Chen, though not which story, and having the thought that she must have written the story as a novel and then just taken out all the parts that didn't sing the loudest. Each line of the story suggested so much. I like that feeling.
FRANKIE: Sometimes I sense a filmic quality in flash fiction that suggests the story could have a larger frame, could be expanded on, but mostly it’s the gaps, the understated nature of flash that interests me. In this way it’s similar to poetry.
However, recently I enjoyed reading Meg Pokrass’s novella in flash, Here Where We Live, and could see the potential for developing a longer narrative arc for my own flash fiction.
ALBERTO: I believe the best very short stories could not be anything else. Many stories I've read could have been made as novels, yes, but I find they never interest me that much. I always end up thinking, why did they bother writing this as anything other than a novel?
Sure, people like flash because it’s short—but is there more to it than that? Dinty Moore says, “What I love about exceptionally brief stories is the way that they often bring me to a point of recognition in a paragraph or two then leave me there, absolutely suspended. There is no gentle letdown, no winding down, no expulsion of air—just that wonderful moment.”
Q: For what other reasons, besides length alone, do readers like flash fiction?
ALBERTO: That "wonderful moment" is key, of course. There is also, at least in Latin American flash fiction, the recognition of familiar themes or characters in new or surprising combinations (because we are very interested in intertextual play), and what I call the delayed effect: the moment of comprehension that comes a few seconds after one has finished reading a story, when one's mind catches up with it and understands all its implications and allusions.
TARA: I like the rhythm of a good flash piece. I also like the careful language you often find, the lovely turns of phrases, the great sentence, the spot-on metaphor. Short can be super satisfying.
MEG: Flash is often loved for its urgency and beauty—for what is left out more than what is brought in. It feels like magic, the way a reader becomes more interested in what the writer has not written.
KUZHALI: I remember some readers saying that the shortness of my pieces was a drawback for them. I can’t recall anyone saying it was a plus.
AVITAL: Flash fiction can sustain poetry and lyricism and still convey a story. Anne Carson does it beautifully in longer pieces, like Autobiography of Red, but in a general manner it characterizes flash fiction.
BRUCE: I can tell you about one reader, Bruce Holland Rogers. The motivations of other readers I can only guess at, based on my own motivations.
I wish I knew the source of this quotation I read forty years ago: "What mutilates a man is that he imagines ten thousand lives but lives only one." In spite of the cost on my psyche, I want to imagine at least those ten thousand lives, and I have a better chance of reading ten thousand flashes than ten thousand novels.
That's one answer. Another is that I own a windup watch with a glass case that lets me watch the tiny spring and the balance wheel and those little gears all interacting, and re-reading a good flash fiction gives me the same sensations of admiration and delight.
Then there's Emily Dickinson's answer: "If I read a page and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is flash fiction. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is flash fiction.”
FRANKIE: Flash fiction is sexy.
JOSEPHINE: Shorter fictions lend themselves to intrepidity, and I think readers are more willing to approach a flash piece on its own terms. While it’s as old a literary form as poetry or the more traditional-length short story, there are fewer fixed ideas out there about what it should be, what it should achieve. Perhaps owing to the fact that we have such a hard time naming it, this shadow-space between fiction and prose poetry—flash, vignette, short-short, etcetera—it’s somehow twisted free of any formal obligation.
To put it more simply: its dissidence.
Elmore Leonard is known for saying, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
Q: What do you skip in your flash fictions?
TARA: The yawning, the getting to-and-from, the hellos and goodbyes and how are yous, the getting ready for bed, all that came before and all that comes after.
AVITAL: Usually introductions are unnecessary, as are explanations and an end that goes over the exact point where the flash is at its strongest.
ETGAR: I try to skip everything I can. For me flash fiction is more of a motion than a body. It is less a tiny universe and more like skipping rocks on a lake.
It is all about keeping the tone. A flash story's equilibrium is for me its tone. It is much more essential to the story than its plot.
ALBERTO: Exposition and traditional denouements, mostly. It can be hard when one's not creating a realistic, conventional setting and is trying something else instead, but the trick in any case is to condense as much information as possible into that little space one has to work in. Also, I never write “morals.”
BRUCE: The brilliant Ray Vukcevich says that he composes by writing down the "constant linguistic rumbling" and "narrative mutterings" that offer themselves up, and then he throws out the boring parts. I'm not as good as Vukcevich at catching the constant linguistic rumbling, and so I plan more than he does, but I endorse the practice of throwing out the boring parts. Indeed, I try to throw out the boring parts before I write them down.
FRANKIE: In a short story I spend time exploring the psychological nature of the main character whereas in flash I skip the usual raft of character traits. Lately I’ve been experimenting with the “dispassionate narrator,” which lends itself to a philosophical tone.
MEG: Urgency is best accomplished through specification of detail and working carefully and honestly with sensory information. What should often be left out (and what most people skip) are the realities, the facts.
JOSEPHINE: Tacked above my friend’s desk is a sign: CAUSALITY IS A BITCH. And even in longer fiction, it’s best when causality is somewhat metabolized, suggested rather than plodded through, but flash necessarily does away with it to the greater extent.
(On this, I love John Edgar Wideman’s “Stories”: “Where is he coming from. Where is he going. Why is he eating a banana. How hard is the rain falling. Where did he get the banana. What is the banana’s name…”)
Talat Abbasi has said, “I am, on the whole, a person of few words. I studied in a convent in Karachi where the nuns said, ‘Economy in everything, including words.’”
Q: Who, or what, has influenced you in writing flash fiction?
MEG: The music of Joni Mitchell, John Darnielle. Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips. The prose poems of Russell Edson and Charles Simic.
ALBERTO: My greatest influences come from a few writers of the Latin languages branch of flash fiction: especially, Mario Levrero, Jorge Luis Borges, Edmundo Valadés, and Italo Calvino. Each of them used the form in his own way.
ETGAR: I majored in math in high school and kept studying it in university. The esthetic of a good proof has a lot to do with how short and intuitive it is.
I think I try to aim for that kind of story. One which gets you to a place in a totally surprising way which in hindsight seems almost inevitable.
JOSEPHINE: Who: Jayne Anne Phillips, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Clarice Lispector.
What: Something I’ve come to realize lately; being a rather frenetic thinker, there’s something reassuring about holding the entirety of a work within my field of vision. At least in the textual sense, there’s the illusion of control.
KUZHALI: I can’t really pinpoint any specific influences, I think everything has influenced me in some way, good or bad.
FRANKIE: Frankie McMillan is short in stature, walks fast and talks fast. She used to be a fire-breather in the Catz Pyjamas comedy show. She believes these qualities are of benefit when writing flash fiction.
Influences include Jayne Anne Phillips, Lydia Davis, Sandra Cisneros.
BRUCE: Who hasn’t influenced me? All of culture and all of literature belong to me in the sense that they are the common endeavors of my species, and I can't say that there is anything in my life that hasn't contributed something to my writing. We tend to cite the works of great writers as influences, but I know I've been influenced by writers whose work seems to have sunk without a trace. Here's to the writer who only published one damn-good story or one poem ever. Someone read it, found the spark in it, and was influenced by it.
If someone asks me, "How long did it take you to write that most recent flash fiction?" I'm not just being glib when I answer: "Fifty-six years.”
Flash fiction has been associated with freedom from government censorship (in some parts of the world), freedom to publish more easily and widely (via the Internet), and sometimes freedom from standard forms. Jayne Anne Phillips says she taught herself to write by writing one-page flash fictions, and although she began as a poet, “In the one-page form, I found the freedom of the paragraph. I learned to understand the paragraph as secretive and subversive. The poem in broken lines announces itself as a poem, but the paragraph seems innocent, workaday, invisible.”
Q: How do you see your own flash fiction—is it simply a length you like to work in, or a challenge? Do you find some kind of freedom in flash?
AVITAL: This length resonates with me. In fact, the first stories I wrote in English were flashes, though this term didn’t even exist at the time. When an emotion, a scene, or a fragment of life can be expressed without losing depth and intensity in a flash form, you need a really good reason to make it longer.
MEG: Flash is the only form in which my most silly and serious observations feel safe enough to live on the page. I think Jayne Anne Phillips hits the nail on its head. It feels as if there is no fanfare…no drumroll. The beauty is in how they are deceptively plain.
ETGAR: Flash fiction is like a trust fall. You close your eyes and fall back, trusting that a story will catch you. It doesn't always work, but when it does, for these brief two or three pages, the universe suddenly makes sense.
JOSEPHINE: Our understanding of others is never so linear or complete as longer fiction might have us hope. Interiors, along with the whys and from-wheres and what-afters, are so rarely granted. Flash—with its focus on the felt rather than the explicitly stated—begs (and perhaps engenders) a certain amount of intuition and emotional intelligence. A keener eye, in reader and writer both. We must gauge what we can see by what we have seen, which makes for highly subjective reading, and it’s this fluidity of interpretation that draws me.
So what I said a few questions back—about a very short story obediently holding its shape on the page—is something of a ruse. Beyond the textual shape of it, there are eventuations that I cannot possibly know.
JENSEN: Flash fiction is a form I'll always love and one I'm lucky to publish a lot in my various editorial positions. I haven't written it in a while, but I think I'll probably always return to it. I'd agree with Jayne Anne Phillips—writing flash fiction taught me a lot about how stories can work. So while I've spent the last few years trying to figure some of that out on larger canvases, I do think I'll return to writing flash fiction at some point.
FRANKIE: Often I feel in an emotionally charged state when I write flash fiction. I tend to trust the maxim first thought, best thought. I finish the story in one sitting then later edit, paying attention to the usual craft details, etc.
Re subversive nature of flash: Sometimes I feel like a kid again, shouting out something shocking, then running off before the adults can catch me.
Here’s my definition of flash: A rooster running this way and that, his red comb lighting small fires in the woods.
Overall, flash lends itself to a variety of approaches—sometimes I approach the story as I would a poem, never knowing where the line will lead me, but happy to be going on the journey.
BRUCE: I have always written science fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary, and experimental fiction. If I had experienced great commercial or critical success, particularly with novels, that success might have limited me to writing in only one tradition. Flash has allowed me the freedom to be a sui generis writer, which is the kind of writer I always wanted to be.
I look forward to reading the answers of the other writers. I enjoy being in such great company, though I wish we could all be sitting at the same table, answering these questions, drinking coffee, and eating pie.
TARA: Bruce, please pass the cherry pie.
I definitely feel a freedom in flash. It’s a chance to play around for me. It’s a chance to be really weird or really dark and not have to spend too much time in that place. I like the experimentation. I like the challenge of being economical—how few words can I use to describe this? But most of all I like being able to see the story as a whole right there in front of me. When I write longer stuff, I get lost. There’s a point in writing a novel where I’m bobbing in a really vast ocean and there’s no land in sight. It freaks me out. I prefer to splash around in the hotel’s hot tub where I can touch all sides at once and know I’m grounded.
ALBERTO: Jayne Anne Phillips is very right: flash fiction can be liberating in many ways. In my case, it lets me play—just play—and it also lets me explore more freely themes and ideas that my country's literary tradition finds unorthodox or even subversive. This is a challenge, but a welcome one.
KUZHALI: It’s just something I like to write. I don’t see it as anything else.