There was a moment—a flash—when flash fiction became a part of my life, and a whole new world opened for me as a reader and a writer.
I was a late bloomer, earning my bachelor’s degree over a stretch of nine years because I had to primarily work to support myself. Education was frilly, secondary, luxurious—not at all a priority in my family.
And at the tail-end of that time, in the May-mester of 2004, I dropped Media History in the school of journalism and traded it for the class I really wanted to take: The Contemporary Short Story. That was also the day I subconsciously made a decision to switch majors—from the (slightly) more sensible journalism, back to English, where I started out. I followed my bliss.
It was a prime moment in my life to ditch sensibility and go with my gut. I had recently made the decision to go to Dublin, on a whim, to be there for the Bloomsday Centenary—the ultimate Trekkie convention for James Joyce addicts. It did not make sense—and I didn’t have much money—but I knew that if I didn’t go, if for no other reason than to just be there, I would regret it forever. I would grow old at a phenomenal rate; I would slink toward an unremarkable life.
So I was in a kind of flow, high on my unanticipated trip, full of hope, once again charmed by all things literary. I was about to graduate; I was about to buy my first house with my ex-husband. Why should I study journalism and look longingly toward the humanities building? Why not live?
I had to drop Media History first, so I came in late to the first class. The professor was reading aloud—“The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber, which is not a flash, but that’s beside the point. I sheepishly grabbed a syllabus. Every day over the course of this three-week class, we would read and study at least three short stories. It was a fast pace, but I was eager. I was fueled by something I can only describe as…ecstasy. The naturally-occurring kind.
There was a day dedicated to postmodernism, and there was Donald Barthelme, this guy whose name I had heard somewhere and was curious about. We would be reading “The Balloon.” But there was the oddest thing about this story: it was only a page-and-a-half long. This struck me as unusual. Could you really tell a story in that little space? You can just get away with that sort of thing?
Being a songwriter’s daughter, I knew it was possible—in song. I grew up hearing conversations about what worked and what didn’t in tunes on the radio, and I joined in when I was still a kid. My dad used words in his songs with great economy, managing to make words and phrases work overtime. I heard my dad write songs, heard his process, but I never really thought about it as writing.
Barthelme connected the dots. Yes, it appeared you could indeed write a story in that little space. There wasn’t much storyline in “The Balloon,” but there were characters and an arc, and it was interesting. Not to mention short. And short worked well for me, since that class required several hours of reading each night.
But it wasn’t just about the length; it was about the game, or at least it felt that way to me. I wrote my first flash the day after I first read “The Balloon,” and it was awful; I’m sure of it. I’m sure, because I remember thinking that I hadn’t used my word count as wisely as he had, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how to create a worthwhile reading experience under such a constraint. I called it: “Things That Won’t Kill Bob.” I don’t remember anything else about it.
Fast-forward a lot, past the graduate fiction workshops that taught me more about flash and encouraged me to write more of it, past my divorce when I soothed my soul by buying any book I wanted, and there’s my current husband. He had cool books that I didn’t have (and I had a lot of damn books). He wrote fun and funny stories. He criticized what I was writing and told me I could do better. He was right.
He tuned me into nuances in prose that I’d overlooked. He taught me by example, and he was honest with me about my work. He’s taught me more about writing than anyone else has, and I’m grateful I met him. We edit each other’s work, and, more often than not, we accept each other’s edits. It still amazes me to think that, only a few years after I was entirely intimidated by his Ph.D. in English, he trusts me to be his first reader.
He had been teaching English for about a year at the same university by the time my auspicious May-mester occurred, but we never met. We both went through gut-wrenching divorces in the following years and landed together after passing through the same halls, parking in the same lots. It was, by any fictional account, a badly written romance, with too many missed encounters, and timing too perfect to be believable.
Lame in fiction. But pretty sweet in real life.
To celebrate brief prose, I have fashioned a tweet to introduce you to each of the five flash fiction stories this week. The featured writers worked under a length constraint, so why shouldn’t I?
“An Equity Position In Coffee Spoons” – Robert Kaye: “3am is when the ghosts come out. Prufrock told me so and I believe him. If I keep this up, I will prove him right. My spoon is heaping.”
“Myoclonus of the Diaphragm” – Quentin Miller: “Hiccups as literary trope—how clever is that? Alcohol tastes good but frames an entire life with involuntary convulsions and white light.”
“If I Would Leave Myself Behind” – Lauren Becker: “These bats do not have Southern accents. Bats are always on the move and like beer. Girl bats wear boots. I may have something wrong here…”
“The Painting Boy” – Scott Carpenter: “Artists are unstoppable and misunderstood at any age. The rest of us are human. We can only take so much, give so much. Show your work.”
“Hologram” – Stacy Rollins: “Lammas, but not like Lorenzo, silly. My bones disappear, and the magician rehires me. You’re projecting again, but I am not your moon.”
The playlist includes the obvious, but also songs do especially good storytelling for about the length of a flash. And then there are the Crash Test Dummies, whom I’m including as an exclamation point to Robert Kaye’s fiction contribution. Peace, love, and Parliament, all you flashers.
Photo Source: Writing in Wonderland
© 2012 Katrina Gray. All rights reserved.