June 30, 2015 § 2 Comments
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.
March 3, 2012 § 5 Comments
F128 The Writer in the World: A Look at Immersion Writing / Robin Hemley, Melissa Pritchard, Joe Mackall, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Christopher Merrill
After the recent brouhaha over John D’Agata’s approach to creative nonfiction, I was amazed when not a word about it was mentioned in this session. Instead, Robin Hemley began by identifying earlier writers—Nellie Bly, James Agee, Barbara Ehrenreich and others—who have used themselves as a “conduit” for experiential, participatory writing. He then cited three types of immersion writing:
• Immersion Journalism
• Immersion Memoir
• Immersion Travel Writing
though he was quick to state that these categories are meant to be useful, not binding; the boundaries among them are permeable.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who has written about “life in the Communist Block after the Marxist meltdown,”—specifically, Russia, Beijing, and Mexico—was the first to present. She spoke of encountering a bias in publishers toward memoir over direct reportage, and as a result, had to alter her work to introduce more of herself into the narrative to attract publishers. She then addressed the ethical landmines involved in writing creative nonfiction, specifically exploiting and/or profiting from someone else’s story. As a sort of antidote to these landmines, Griest holds to five tenets:
1. Learn the language of the people you’re writing about. For her this meant intense study of Russian, Chinese, and Mexican, though she admits she still had to use interpreters to overcome the distance between the language she had learned and the colloquial/regional dialects.
2. Live the life of the people you’re writing about. You must have intimate contact; you must live among them as they live.
3. The “subjects” or people you are writing about are always right. This assumption grants the compassion and understanding you need to treat people with respect.
4. Share the work before it is published. You must give the people you’re writing about a chance to respond to the work.
5. Writing these stories is a privilege, not ownership. You must be clear on who owns the story—they do.
Joe Mackall was next, and though I’ve known Joe since at least 2001, I didn’t realize he was so drop-dead funny. He talked about writing about the Shettlers, an Amish family, in Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish, and said up front that his wife threatened, “If you screw up our friendship with these people, you are in deep trouble.” He also described being terrified of both Amish draft horses and riding in Amish buggies (“You people drive too damn fast around the Amish!” he declared to the audience). To Mackall, the “outsider” in his subtitle says it all: there was no way he could be anything other than an “infiltrator,” one who provides a window on what they allowed him to participate in, so that his role was more of a benevolent docent and a justifier of a misunderstood subculture. Mackall echoed Griest’s tenet of sharing the work with those being written about, though he was surprised at what the Stettlers took issue with. The things he worried about, they seemed to see as the provenance of the writer. But when he noted the shabby conditions of a brother-in-law’s barn, they asked for that part to be removed, and when he estimated a hog’s weight at 200 pounds, Samuel Stettler corrected him, saying it was closer to 300 pounds—and Mackall knew he was the better judge. According to Mackall, “Immersion is negotiation.”
Christopher Merrill gave perhaps the best—and most harrowing—example of true immersion, citing Christopher Hitchens’ willingness to undergo waterboarding to dispel the Bush Administration’s claim that it was not torture, but simply “extended interrogation.”
He then cited Elisabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” as the best template for the way active description should work—its tripartite structure of a faithful account of the details, then a reflection upon those details that finally allows the “true” meaning to emerge. As he explained, “Any moment, if you pay enough attention to it, will act as a hologram for meaning and truth.”
As another Brevity blogger bemoaned, I have overshot my 500-word limit, so I will conclude with two anecdotes I thought were quite resonant for different reasons. Griest underscored the “danger” of immersion writing by telling about a “blind date” she was supposed to have with a local in Mexico. He showed up drunk, after midnight, with several drunk friends in tow, inviting her to “come and party.” As she said, no one in her right mind would even consider going. But as a memoirist, she tended to think, “If I get out of this alive, this is going to be great!”
Then Melissa Pritchard spoke of walking through—I believe it was India’s—brothel district, where 12-15 years olds were on display and being sold for sex. And she thought she was “handling it all right” until she saw that some boys had a young brown bear on a leash and were torturing it to make it dance. In the middle of all of these children being sold, she cried at the dancing bear—though she realized later that it certainly wasn’t the only thing that made her cry.
Kate Fox is a writer/editor in Athens, OH