June 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
In 1992, James Thomas concluded his introduction to the anthology Flash Fiction by wondering “whether ‘flash fiction’ will be an avid endeavor of the present literary generation.” Twenty-three years later, evidenced by the recently published Flash Fiction International edited by Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes, yes indeed. Representing six continents and roughly four dozen countries, the eighty-six stories collected in this anthology suggest that flash is not only alive but thriving.
Though the book’s title announces the anthology as “flash fiction,” the introduction often refers to the form simply as “flash”—not merely, I suspect, in the interest of brevity. Rather, by opting not to corral these works into the small pen of a specific genre, the suggestion is that flash transcends genre, that the best works are hybrids combining craft aspects of both prose and poetry. Indeed, what’s collected in this volume include not only fiction, but prose poems and brief nonfictions as well. So whether a story is fact or fiction seems of less interest to the anthology’s editors than the question “is this flash?” That ongoing conversation comprises the section at the end of the anthology, “Flash Theories,” in which practitioners offer up a feast of ideas ranging from the appeal of flash to nuts and bolts advice about craft.
Though diverse in form and varying in length, what these eighty-six pieces do share is an allegiance to the classic mode of storytelling in which conflict is introduced immediately—what Janet Burroway refers to in her book Imaginative Writing: The Element of Craft as “a state of unstable equilibrium.” Take “Lost,” by Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet, which opens, “In a country filled with missing people, disappearing is easy” (85). Or “The Snake” by Kenyan writer Eric Rugara with the ominous introductory sentence “The kid saw it first” (73). Or Cate McGowan’s “Arm, Clean Off,” which wastes no time getting down to the title’s nitty-gritty: “The irrigation machine took it, slashed his arm off, a thick gash and a click of bones as it sliced right through” (158). Read that sentence out loud and listen to how the assonant rhyme of the last three syllables demands that we slow down, linger on the horror of the opening image. It’s prose, but it’s poetry, too.
While the Internet has created a kind of borderless publishing house that has contributed to the flourishing of flash worldwide, these stories counter the notion that “brief” serves up literary fast food to be inhaled and forgotten. “Brief” here does not mean a quick nor easy read. Though short in compass, each of these stories is dense, rich in subtext. They require us to read and read again, to dig beyond the surface glitter of beautifully rendered images and sculpted sentences and go vertically in search of the vein of gold. As Richard Bausch suggests:
When a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size: that is, in order to make it work in so small a space its true subject must be proportionately larger (233).
Ultimately, these are stories that linger and haunt, that go on after the last sentence has ended. I think of “That Color” by British writer Jon McGregor, a deceptively simple story of an extended moment at home between a long-married couple, an unnamed, archetypal “he” and “she.” Told from the vantage point of the husband, the story accrues its quiet power in alternating narrative and dialogue that slowly pulls the curtain away to suggest the wife’s plight. The story ends as quietly as it begins, with two concluding sentences that land like punches: “I felt for her hand and held it. I said, But tell me again” (147).
Such is the power of story, of these stories: To tell us, again and again.
Sarah Freligh is the author of A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky. Sad Math, the winner of the Moon City Poetry Award, is forthcoming in November 2015. Recent work has been featured on Verse Daily, in The Sun Magazine, Brevity, Rattle, Barn Owl Review, and in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.
Writing the Unthinkable: An exploration of Charles Pierce’s Esquire column on the Charleston massacre
June 29, 2015 § 2 Comments
A guest post from Keysha Whitaker
When I digitally stumbled upon Charles Pierce’s essay “Charleston Shooting: Speaking the Unspeakable, Thinking the Unthinkable,” I almost didn’t read it. I am not the average reader of Esquire magazine, a 45-year-old affluent, likely white, male; I’m a 36-year-old brown woman with a negative net worth. However, I am a sucker for a good title, so I gave the piece a few minutes of my internet attention.
It only took a few seconds to understand why the essay has over 200,000 social media shares. Pierce hooked me at the first sentence: “What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is ‘unthinkable.’”
As a TV news junkie, I recognized the word. It’s one of the many clichéd responses in the human vocab bank, usually placeholders for more authentic thoughts. News anchors pin the sound-byte to segment intros and correspondents coax it out of sources:
“Did you ever think something like this would happen here?” Roving Reporter asks.
“No, not in a million years,” Barry Bystander says. “It’s unthinkable.”
But Pierce’s essay isn’t about overused language; it’s about hiding behind it. What happened, he argues, is quite thinkable. In rest of the paragraph, he parses the thoughtful and deliberate actions of the murderer, a play-by-play that leaves little wiggle-room for misunderstanding and ensures we arrive at the same point of reason. None of this is unthinkable, and as Pierce says next, unspeakable. He writes, “We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which it was.”
In the midst of a subject that is an emotional quagmire, Pierce’s piece rants not. Perhaps his use of repetition contributes to the steady pace that at times feels like an incantation – slow, repeated, deliberate, musical lines which seem to have a higher purpose. He writes,“It is not an isolated incident, not if you consider history as something alive that can live and breathe and bleed.”
When I arrived at this sentence, I had to re-read it. Not for clarity, but something in the lyricism of the “live and breathe and bleed” arrested me. Internal rhyme comes to mind, but alas, high school lessons on any pentameter were 20 years ago, so don’t quote me.
The personification of “history” also works a second job. It hearkens us to our universal humanity – whether we are penis or vagina, conservative or liberal, loaded or poverty-stricken – and begs us to consider how the past might dictate the future. History not only lives, breathes, and bleeds. It repeats.
And then, in the next sentence, something happens. The piece picks up speed and urgency with a series of exhortations reminiscent of the idealistic and sermony “Let freedom ring” refrain in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but still contemporary and even quirky .
He writes, “Let Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush, both of whom want to lead this troubled country, consider what it meant to absent themselves from campaign events in Charleston and think of these things and speak of them before they turn to their consultants about whether or not staying in a grieving city was what a leader should have done . . . Let Squint and the Meat Puppet think about these things and speak of these things before inviting Donald Trump, who is a clown and a fool, to come on national television and talk about his hair.” (I did have to Google “Squint and the Meat Puppet” and it appears to be a reference to Joe Scarborough on MSNBC in the morning, a nickname invented by Pierce himself. Also, the humor of “a clown and a fool” is not lost on me.)
The “let” passages are the essay’s peak, followed by Pierce’s resolutions which really are directives for getting ourselves out of the hole the founding forefathers dug. He argues, “Think about what happened. Think about why it happened. Talk about what happened” because ultimately “There is a timidity that the country can no longer afford.”
Before closing the essay with a classic full-circle move that returns to the idea in his intro and adds new insight, Pierce warns that those who refuse to talk and think about what happened “do not want to follow the story where it inevitably leads . . . all the way back to the mother of all American crimes.”
And here is where I and the Esquire writer, who I certainly will read again, part ways. I’m tempted to argue dehumanizing blacks and forcing them to work the land isn’t the mother of all American crimes; it’s swindling, sickening and slaughtering the Native Americans to steal the land in the first place.
Keysha Whitaker is a lecturer of English at Penn State Berks and host of Behind the Prose podcast for writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work recently appeared in The Forward, Full Grown People, and The Reject Pile.
June 24, 2015 § 2 Comments
Gulf Coast is now accepting entries for the 2015 Barthelme Prize for Short Prose. The contest is open to pieces of prose poetry, flash fiction, and micro-essays of 500 words or fewer. Established in 2008, the contest awards its winner $1,000 and publication in the journal. Two honorable mentions receive $250 and will also appear in issue 28.2, due out in April 2016. All entries will be considered for paid publication on the Gulf Coast website as online exclusives.
Steve Almond will judge this year’s contest. Almond is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His short stories have appeared in the Best American and Pushcart anthologies. His most recent collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize for Fiction and was short-listed for The Story Prize. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere.
Entries are due August 31, 2015. The $17 entry fee includes a year-long subscription to Gulf Coast.
The folks at Gulf Coast will accept submissions via an online submissions manager and via postal mail.
Visit https://gulfcoastmag.org/contests/barthelme-prize/ for more information.
June 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Though the final judge has not yet been announced, the River Teeth book prize has opened for submissions. They have published some fine books these past years, and likely will once again:
River Teeth‘s editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction. All manuscripts are screened by the head editors of River Teeth. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication by The University of New Mexico Press.
All entrants receive a one-year subscription to River Teeth with their submission fees.
Deadline for Submissions: October 15, 2015
June 22, 2015 § 13 Comments
A guest post from Jennifer Berney:
It sounds quaint to say it now, but a decade ago, before the internet took over the world of publishing, I used to get excited for the mailman’s arrival. Most afternoons, he left me nothing but bills and credit card offers, but sometimes I opened my mailbox and spotted one of the bright red self-addressed-stamped-envelopes that I’d been waiting for.
During that era, I printed short stories every Sunday afternoon, stuffed them into manila envelopes, and sent them off, several at a time, to various literary journals. I purchased red envelopes for my SASEs, in part because they were easy to spot in the mailbox, but also as a kindness to myself. I couldn’t control whether the SASE contained an acceptance or a rejection, but I could ensure that it was packaged in a way that pleased me.
In those days, the process of submitting and waiting for a response wasn’t so unlike the work of writing itself. There was a ritual to it, a set of superstitions. It took discipline to muster up the nerve to send out my work, just as it took discipline to sit down and write. Both the act of writing and the act of submitting required stores of patience—I often revised a story multiple times before deciding to abandon it, and it often took nearly a year for any given rejection notice to arrive. Neither the writing process nor the publication process ever offered instant gratification, and yet they both felt important, character-building, and mutually supportive—the rejections pushed me to try harder, and the occasional acceptance kept me from losing hope.
I took a long hiatus from submitting my work, and when I returned just over a year ago, I discovered that the world had moved online. I no longer need a stockpile of red envelopes, and I no longer wait for the postman. For the most part, this is convenient. Electronic submissions save me time and expense. However, I find that there’s a surprising emotional cost. Because news of publication might arrive in my inbox at any moment, that sense of anticipation—once confined to my thirty-second walk to the mailbox—must now spread itself over the course of the day. Furthermore, there is no rhythm or regularity to the replies I receive. When I submit to an editor these days sometimes I hear back hours later, or sometimes months, or sometimes never. I wonder constantly how to train my brain to bury that anticipation, that curiosity. It’s hard, I find, to focus on the writing itself when there might be news awaiting me just two clicks away.
The process of publishing no longer complements my writing; it competes with it. And, of course, it’s not just the submission process that has changed. Now that most of our work appears online, writers are now privy to all sorts of information that would have once been left to mystery.
When I published my first short story in a small literary journal in 2005, I assumed that some people subscribed to it, that it arrived in their mail and landed on their coffee table. Probably plenty of these copies went unread, or were read selectively, but it seemed likely that some people—a few of them at least—would read my story. I would never know how many, or who they were, or what they thought, or if they caught the typo on the second page of the story—an error I’d noticed too late. I would never know these things, and in some ways it was better that way.
Today, when an essay or story goes live, I have access to data that I can track from moment-to-moment. I can see how many people liked it, tweeted it, or otherwise shared it. I can track how many people clicked over to my blog. If I were bold enough, I could probably ask the editors how many visitors clicked on my story. I can read not only the comments that appear below, but comments on the website’s Facebook page which are often less kind. All of this information means that my readers are less imaginary, more immediate. When comments are kind, they are gratifying, but when they are critical they add yet another layer of chatter to my brain, more voices in my head that I must contend with every time I sit down to write. These voices are louder than the snail-mail rejections, which never contained any clues or explanations. The voices of internet critics speak in no uncertain terms; they carefully enumerate all of my sins.
I do not wish we could go backward. The digital age has offered writers so much—it has allowed us to find each other more easily, to build meaningful communities; it has brought more good work to more people. But while online publishing has undeniably enhanced our writing lives, it has also complicated them. All of the opportunities for submitting and promoting our work, for making connections, for tracking responses—all of this perpetual anticipation and over-stimulation can leave me feeling like an old rubber band stretched nearly to the point of breaking.
When I began writing in the first place, it was because it helped me avoid the constant feeling of being worn thin. And so, at the end of the day, writing itself turns out to be the only antidote I’ve found to the chaos of the information age. Now more than ever, the blank page provides a source of comfort and stillness and silence. The act of engaging with that page, of diving deep to fill it with words, has become the only way I know to quiet the voices of distraction, or ease the feeling of vulnerability that comes from sharing your stories, your truth, and your secrets with the internet.
Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in The Manifest Station and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.
June 12, 2015 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Vermont College Postgraduate Writers’ Conference director Ellen Lesser:
When Pamela Painter and I first brainstormed about adding Flash Fiction to the workshop lineup for this summer’s Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she noted that writers often imagine they don’t need to work at and study flash the way they do other genres. They think it’s easy because it’s short, I remember her telling me.
Painter, who’s been an ambassador for flash as both an award-winning author and revered teacher, will share her approaches to perfecting the form in her intensive small-group workshop in August. The Conference, held on VCFA’s Montpelier, VT campus August 10 – 16, still has a seat open at Painter’s table. Here’s her take on the experience awaiting her workshop participants:
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner said that when writers deal with particular small problems, the work can approach perfection. This is so true of Flash Fiction. I expect that many of the flash stories from the workshop will end up being publishable. Three-fourths of the students in my last class [in Emerson’s MFA Program] have published their stories. They have written and revised small gems that do not need another word, another scene, a double ending.
In this workshop you will be reading work submitted for the class, you will be introduced to exercises that consider interesting and tighter ways to execute character and conflict, texture and detail, and you will be given an exercise to help you finish each story after the workshop is over. I want you to be as excited about Flash Fiction as I am, and to consider Flash Fiction as something you will write the rest of your life.
In short, it’s going to be an invigorating and valuable work-out, as part of a week’s immersion in craft and community. Interested writers can visit the webpage at www.vcfa.edu/pwc for all the details, and email me, Ellen Lesser, at email@example.com, to see if we still have a spot for you.
Ellen Lesser is a fiction writer and member of the MFA in Writing Program faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also directs the annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. She aspires to write shorter stories.
June 11, 2015 § 13 Comments
When I was 30 I got a job mentoring public school students. Once a month I was supposed to choose a “Great Story” from my work experience and write it up for my boss, who would send it to his boss and on up the line in order to show that we were doing good things with our grant dollars. I had taught college writing for the previous seven years and have a master’s degree in fiction writing, so the expectation was that I would turn in the best and brightest great stories each month.
I didn’t write the best stories–my experiences were great, but my writing had the bland, brittle flavor of a saltine. Each of my essays was a series of short declarative sentences that summed up events and emotions as though it was a police report. In one staff meeting, my boss lauded a colleague’s colorful prose, commented on the value of a liberal arts education, then looked at me uncomfortably.
My most productive time as a writer was college. I had to write every day. If I didn’t I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake cursing myself for not sleeping, counting the hours until I needed to be awake until I gave in, booted up my computer, and let the words flow until I was able to melt into the pillow, completely at rest. I had stories I had to tell, and my body wouldn’t let me rest until I did.
Eight years transpired between my writerly insomnia and my struggle to spit a few sentences onto the page for a work assignment. In the interim, I’d been a not-so-productive MFA student and a writing instructor who drafted one story and one essay in three years. At any time during that era, I’d definitely have qualified for a diagnosis of writer’s block and strong scolding. “Just do it” or “If you really have to be a writer, you will be” are the most common tough-love admonitions for “blocked” writers. For me, tough love was not the solution. I’d taken the advice to “just do it” and I always hated whatever I forced myself to write.
It takes more than free time and discipline to write well. Good writing requires wit and emotional strength. I always understood writer’s block as having the desire to write but no ideas, or having ideas but no discipline to sit and write. No ideas is frustrating, but usually comes to an end. Inability to sit and write, for me, was a form of fear. Fear of not knowing where the story would go or if it would be good, and, more importantly, fear of the emotional depths that the writing would take me to. When we write we live each character’s life. It takes a firm foundation to go to those depths. As a college student, my foundation was as strong as could be. I was a privileged young woman with supportive, high-quality teachers. My parents paid the rent and tuition.
In the last months of my MFA program, anxiety about the future ruled my sleep. I would wake up and find the front door open, or that my shirt was inside out and backwards. That June, my mother had emergency surgery to remove a tumor and spent two weeks in the hospital fighting off infections. For almost four years, she tried chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I made her my first priority in life.
Months into the first round of chemo, I imagined a scene: two sisters climbing a mountain until they came to an orange tree with unusually large, bright fruit. When the fruit fell to the ground, it rotted immediately. When picked directly off the tree, it was perfectly delicious. This, I decided, was the seed of my new novel. I decided to move the scene from a mountain to my current location, eastern Indiana. I told friends about it. I was so excited to get started. But I never did. I wrote few pages of description and thought through the characters and their lives, but I didn’t do the sustained writing that’s required for completing a novel. What I did write during that time: a short story about a young woman living alone in a new town whose mother (a ghost) has come to live with her. It was me imagining my future life. I also participated in a non-fiction exercise with my students, writing an essay based on a list. Mine was a list of all the people who’d died in my life and all the ways my mother had influenced my experience of those deaths.
That’s it. For four years. I wanted desperately to write, beat up on myself for not writing, was humiliated by my lack of output while friends and peers celebrated fresh drafts and publications. That should be the definition of writers block, but it was something other than laziness or plain fear. I simply had nothing to give. I was, during that time, emotionally and physically exhausted. I was an empty husk. I did not go forth into fictions from a secure place. My life was plagued by fear and uncertainty. I felt no impulse to bring more of those things into my life via writing
I kept a journal of my insane dreams. I revised a story I’d written in grad school. None of these projects had the delicious “weight off my shoulders” feeling I’d always had after writing a fresh draft. My best moment came one Friday night alone in my apartment, when I sat on the couch with my laptop. For the first time in years, I wrote new fiction: a pivotal scene in the novel, when the protagonist hears a fall festival storyteller’s tale that leads her to believe she’s cursed. I held that moment and that scene in the back of my mind through the last months of my mother’s life. It was a tiny shred of evidence that I could write again someday.
My experiences in the elementary school and my mother’s death combined into material that I could only address from a non-fiction perspective. I hand wrote on legal pads, more pages of simple declarative sentences piled up on each other like bricks. A dear friend encouraged me to email her a paragraph a day of writing, and wrote back that she was moved, that they were beautiful. I bought a house and began to reestablish the sense of security I’d always found necessary for writing. Eventually I eased myself back into fiction by dabbling in a genre I’d never read much of. I saw it as a folly. It was fun. It got the proper muscles working again and gave me confidence.
I’m still not back to the can’t-sleep-if-I-haven’t-written level of writing practice, but I’ve written pieces to conclusion, published them, and received positive feedback. It is surreal after all those years of feeling writing was lost from my life. I will never again judge or wonder at a writer who has hit a fallow patch, or chosen to focus on another priority. We need a full inner well to write from. Sometimes life empties the well. That’s not failure, or the end. It’s a promise that there will be something new to write about when the well is refilled.
Rachel J. Mack is a fiction writer with an MFA from the University of Alabama. She’s recently published essays with The Billfold and Rappahannock Review.