What Metallica’s “Black Album” Teaches Us About Writing Briefly
October 22, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Brendan O’Meara
Thirty years ago, Metallica’s self-titled record Metallica, better known as ‘The Black Album,’ was released. It was Metallica’s fifth studio album and was a watershed moment for the band in terms of sound and, more important, brevity.
Metallica had made a name for itself with epic seven-, eight-, nine-minute-long songs, but it was ‘The Black Album’ where the four key players wanted to challenge themselves not by making increasingly epic songs with more intricate time signatures, but something more welterweight.
They wanted to reach more people, and in order to do so, they needed to cut the fat.
What can we, as writers, learn from this pivot?
Lars Ulrich, the band’s de facto spokesperson and drummer, said on the first episode of The Metallica Podcast, “Is it easier to write a short song or a long song? I would say it’s easier to write a long song. The hardest thing to do is edit yourself.”
It’s incumbent upon the writer to pen the shortest possible work, no matter the length. The editing down comes with constant rigor and self-questioning, self-reflection: Do I need this? Do I really need this? Aw, dammit, no!
We can’t fall in love with a great sentence or paragraph or guitar solo or lyric if it’s not in service of the piece. The floors of great artists are littered with masterpieces.
And even if you love a great turn of phrase, or an overly verbose exhibition of your lyrical pyrotechnics, you might be getting in the way of the message. Where are my footnote writers out there? You know who you are.
James Hetfield, lead singer and lyricist said on Episode 2 of The Metallica Podcast, “Drawing the listener in by not overplaying. Their ears get bigger to hear what you’re doing and it draws them in. Through subtlety, you can make more dynamics … Simplify stuff. Don’t be so fancy.”
This takes an incredible amount of restraint because if you can shred, why wouldn’t you shred? It means checking the ego and asking yourself, again, how does this serve the song, the essay, the book? Are you trying to be too funny? Are you undercutting your narrative with a gag, too much telling, a flourish better left on the bench? Ulrich said much of their earlier music, certainly on the album that preceded ‘The Black Album,’ was “self indulgent.” To get past this, strip it down and ask more and more of the words left behind to carry the day.
By keeping things as lean as possible, there’s nowhere for the message or the story to hide. If we surrender to the story, anything unnecessary melts off the skeleton and, as Hetfield says, the ear gets bigger, drawing them in.
And this isn’t to say iron out every wrinkle, every ounce of weirdness that you bring to the page. Part of what makes a piece snap, crackle, and pop is the you-ness you bring to a subject. That can be a unique take, your language, and even your ability to appear in the piece as a guide.
Hetfield managed to cut open his veins more from ‘The Black Album,’ and what he found was a greater connection to the audience. Again, it wasn’t self-indulgent, but in relaying a delicately worded personal trauma, it let the audience feel seen.
Matt Wardlaw of Ultimate Classic Rock writes, “The situations were getting vaguer and connecting with broader audiences. ‘I’ started showing up in Metallica’s lyrics more and staying. Hetfield’s characters weren’t getting strapped to an electric chair or chopping their breakfast on a mirror anymore, but the anger, aggression and fear were stronger than ever in the whipping boys and scapegoats that reached millions.”
For the memoir or personal essay writer, it’s not enough to have had this weird/quirky/traumatic experience. It has to serve the reader in some way. This way the reader can overlay her own experience on yours. You dissolve away, you become a vessel for the reader’s experience. You, in effect, become invisible, but all present.
In physics, we talk about density. A cube of lead the size of dice is heavier than an equal mass of aluminum that’s several times “bigger.” That’s packing a punch in a small package, and that’s the great lesson in Metallica’s ‘Black Album,’ that it sacrificed zero power in going shorter, finding freedom in tighter confines.
Brendan O’Meara hosts The Creative Nonfiction Podcast and is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter @CNFPod. Better yet, sign up for his newsletter at brendanomeara.com.
Flash Prose and the Virtues of Distillation
June 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Jenny Apostol
An editor friend and I were recently chatting about a short essay I’d sent her for feedback. She thought it wasn’t finished yet, pointed out places the story could go further. “It’s meant to be flash,” I replied, explaining that I’d submitted it to a couple of journals that publish short-form nonfiction up to 1,000 words in length. Yes, of course she understood, but wondered if readers really understand what is meant by the term “flash” in prose writing.
Perhaps not; but readers may come to a shorter piece of writing for all sorts or reasons, not least of which we peruse so much on our phones. The essay in question may need to expand beyond its current 923 word-count, but the conversation helped me to realize, this writer/editor aside, that most of my friends have very little idea of what the term creative nonfiction means, and the flash form, even less so. I am two years into a three-year low-residency MFA program; creative nonfiction is the genre I work in, but I don’t share or talk about my writing very often.
For many in my community, an essay recently published in Brevity was their first taste of anything personal I’ve written. Feedback poured in. “Muscular” “spare” “succinct” “poignant” “elegant” “beautiful” “authentic” “spacious” and “poetic” were the words my friends and family used to describe their reactions to the essay. One friend from college texted “that took me to some unexpected places, and yet captures how thoughts connect and jump around.” A filmmaker I’ve known for thirty years emailed: “Writers have to write whole novels to achieve what you achieved in a page.” Never underestimate the positive context that publication brings! But if I were to Venn diagram these responses, all of the accolades would flow from the word “spare.”
My readers were responding to the containment of narrative that feels complete in under 750 words. They focused on language that is “muscular” and “poetic” because each word reflects the weight of every other and can leap a great distance in emotion and time. They were honing in not just on the story and its characters, what and who the essay is about, but on how it is written; they had found the form. In some ways, this was the most gratifying feedback of all.
A few British friends referred to my “article,” which I associate with journalism that explores a specific subject. My essay is memoir, a series of moments and events experienced by members of my family, some of which I had only heard about. When these three episodes came together into three paragraphs, they created an alternative narrative that touches on aging and memory and the ways we experience grief. A kind of reportage, in fact. I knew the theme of suicide to be inherently shocking. But it wasn’t shock I was after; it is to feel our proximity to one another as living and dying beings who breath the same air, whether we’re related to one another or not.
Peggy Shumaker says “the elasticity and the complexity of the brief form intrigue me,” where “history, research, metaphor, immersion, imagination, sensuality, spontaneity, reflection, voice, expansion and compression of time all play a role.” This paradox intrigues me, too. Writing is an intuitive process, and for me works best when technique bubbles up with deliberation, yet from somewhere unconscious.
The comments were encouraging, precisely because they reinforce the virtues of distillation, its essential clarity, as well as its spaciousness, and the generative, even collaborative power of “concise literary nonfiction.” My friends finally understand what I’ve been up to, what I strive to create in my writing every day. Best of all, the brevity of my essay has left them hungry to read more. Now I just have to apply all those qualities to the other hundred plus pages of prose that make up the draft of my thesis. And all those articles I need to write.
Jenny Apostol is a writer, translator, and Emmy award-winning nonfiction television producer. Her work has appeared in Brevity, and in River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things.” Jenny is pursuing an MFA at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Mirrors and Microprose: Lauren Gillette’s “Things I Did” Project
October 15, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Nina Gaby
There’s an immediate familiarity to Lauren Gillette’s crisp and unsympathetic management of narrative despite the contrast to my own mixed-media micro-memoir exhibit one gallery over in the AVA Center for the Arts in Lebanon, NH. My work can be fussy – translucent porcelain sheets interleaved with text on rustic papers and old boxes of ephemera. Quite different from Gillette’s “Things I Did”– a collection of 12×12 inch mirrors mounted edge to edge, each with a five-line account of a life etched onto the glass, each written by a stranger from Craigslist who answered her call. Dozens of these mirrors surround the viewer at eye level on three sides of the exhibit space. The fourth wall is all window, adding street energy to the mix.
The exhibit, curated by AVA’s Mila Pinigin, involves four mixed-media artists projecting narrative in unique ways, talking about story, examining the interplay between the written word and the visual structure containing that word or object standing in for that word.
What was familiar to me was the simplicity of the project. I had run across Gillette’s earlier work, “Wish/Regret” in 2012, by chance on an artwalk in Portsmouth, NH. Once again spare and focused, Gillette’s small square book, beautifully produced by Plainspoke Press, accompanied the exhibit. I purchased it to use as a provocative template for the therapy groups I run.
In “Wish/Regret,” the Maine artist paired two mugshots taken with her Hasselblad. In the first image the subject states a wish, the second, a regret. It is up to the viewer to fill in the rest, which becomes the blank slate for projection of the viewer’s own story in the same way that viewing her mirrors, and her other projects, invite one in.
Gillette does not see herself as a writer, but echoes what so many writers say when they start a piece. “I start a project not knowing where it will go.” She states, “I put it out to the public and they never disappoint. They show me where to go. People–their poetic souls, their generosity. They always slay me. It’s amazing.”
On a brilliant October morning we dismantled our respective shows and went down the street for chai. I asked Gillette some questions:
Nina Gaby: Words are usually presented on the flat page, obviously you find shape in other materials. How did you make that jump?
Lauren Gillette: I’m a visual artist so the jump was taking the leap to ease more writing into the project, but to remind myself that if I go a little too far away from the visual I’ll need to make that leap sooner rather than later. I used to be a portrait painter and always thought there were stories but nobody knew them. Any way we can tell our stories is fine. I just hope to find that universal thread between people.
NG: It’s an intimate show. As the viewer gets close enough to read between the five lines of each story, they literally see themselves, in fragments, reading the story. What have people said to you about that experience?
LG: Good question. They start to make up their own list, they have their own thoughts. I don’t think much about what the viewer sees, once the exhibit is up, they see the pieces. I just hope some connection happens. In this world today any threads we can have between us helps. Our lack of connection is shows up even in children. Chronic illness, for instance, in pediatric cases earlier and earlier. Much of this can be attributed to how we distance ourselves.
NG: For those of us who work in microprose and flash, we would be interested in how you think about “less is more.” Does the visual replace the text?
LG: Visual is presentation, how you look at it. In this case more writing than visual went through a process to get to the simple vehicle of the mirror. Sometimes I just want to be married to everything I make or write but it goes against my nature to say, well that’s a nice sentence, why don’t I save it? If it doesn’t push the concept forward it has to go.
NG: So you edit.
LG: Yes. A lot. It takes me a long time to figure out I really don’t like something. “Things I Did” started out as embroidery. Very laborious, not that that’s bad, but it looked horrible and it just wasn’t pushing the arc forward. I never edit what anyone else gives me for the projects, not even the spelling. They edit themselves. But my own stuff, the visual, the writing, I edit a lot to make it smaller. More universal. That thread I keep talking about.
NG: Are you aware of the impact? I heard the Outreach Coordinator at the arts center had groups of young disadvantaged women in and this really got them thinking about how they would describe their own lives, led to some good conversation about how they want to look at their lives.
LG: I try to take ego out of it. I try to see it from someone else’s point of view. Like– is it interesting to people? Helpful to people? I’m thrilled if someone says something nice, but as we’re all trying to do as artists is let people be a witness to themselves. People respond to what they recognize. So that’s not about me. No one wants to be impressed, they just want to be moved.
To read more about Gillette’s work and how she came to this project, or to add your own five-line history, visit her blog at: thingsididproject.blogspot.com
Nina Gaby is a visual artist, writer and psychiatric nurse practitioner. She has exhibited widely over the past four decades, is published in a number of anthologies and journals and has been a frequent contributor to the Brevity blog. To see Gaby’s work go to www.ninagaby.com.
Sven Birkerts: On Writing, the Distractions of Technology, and Iota
May 9, 2018 § 3 Comments
An interview conducted by Sarah Einstein,
Essayist Sven Birkerts writes often and compellingly in defense of the artfulness of the essay and its ability to connect us to the sublime. He worries that we’re losing that artfulness to the pull of technologies that clamber for our attention; attention that we need if we are to create or experience art.
Nothing could better describe my own problems with writing at the moment. Even writing this, I’m pulled away by a New York Times “Breaking News Alert” that, really, isn’t particularly pressing. Just another pronouncement from Trump about the Stormy Daniels case, which I could well have waited to read until this evening and probably have gotten by with never reading at all. But everything feels so urgent right now, and so fragile, that it’s difficult to leave the constant demands of the 24-hour news cycle behind and do the quieter, more complex work of contemplation that fuels the personal essay. So I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with him about this very problem, and I’m anxious to (try) to implement his suggestions.
Einstein: I’ve been thinking about the essays in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age quite a bit lately. I first read it in 2015, when it seemed common-sensical to me that both to create and appreciate art, we must resist the temptation to let the internet train us to be gadflies. I read the essays with easy agreement, even if I sometimes checked Facebook between them. And then, of course, the world changed and it was possible not to know the state of the nation if one looked away for more than a few hours. I’ll admit I lost a good six months of productivity to the constant pull of this disaster and that outrage, so sure at first that each one must surely be the last one. It’s only lately that I’ve been able to pull myself away from what I like to imagine was deeply engaged citizenship, but which I am sure was more political rubbernecking, at the hourly pronouncements from the press.
I’m wondering if you think it’s less, or more, necessary now for us to unplug from the constant intrusion of technology, given that it often intrudes to tell us about some new degradation to our democracy? How do we consider carefully when it seems that what we consider is, right now, in such constant turmoil?
Birkerts: You ask the question of the hour, and it frets me daily. We can’t not tune in to crisis-time in the West, but neither can we let our already threatened inner independence get snuffed out. It seems important to distinguish between staying informed and—your good word—“rubbernecking.” Gawking at the “breaking news,” feeling full of dread but mildly titillated, too, we not only burn up huge amounts of time, but we get more deeply implicated in the system that brings us the spectacle—a system which jumps from network news to Facebook to Twitter, and keeps us in thrall with the promise of the resolving next thing. 19th century novels were often published in serial form and structured to the logic of the cliff-hanger, as were soaps and prime-time series after them. Now it’s “breaking news” and click-bait.
The more entangled we are, the less oxygen there is for the formerly free-standing “I.” And also the less content. If you spend much of the day free-styling between platforms, what do you have to work with in the soul-making department, and what will you use to make your art, if art is what you make?
What we need to do is regularly break the media spell. The hypnotist snaps her fingers and the guy on the stage stops acting like a duck. We break the spell not by weaning, but by suddenly stopping. Power failure—“where did you put the candles, hon?” And we need to do this as often as our reliance warrants. Which is something only we know—how deep in we are. By stopping we get an update on our addiction. By staying stopped for a while, we give unmediated existence—what used to be called “life”—a chance. You can’t just unplug and be reading your Knausgaard the next minute. You need some time to once again become the person who can do so.
Great advice, Sven—take it!
Einstein: In a letter to Poetry Magazine, you wrote that you’ve encountered a “withering away of a felt secular connection to something that might be called transcendent” in the culture of our time. I imagine this connection, itself, requires the sort of attention you argue for in Changing the Subject. How can we get this access to the sublime through art back, or do you think it’s lost to us for the time being? Are there writers today who you think are particularly good at fostering this connection?
Birkerts: I like Theodore Roethke’s words here. He wrote: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” I have to believe that for all the media saturation and distraction, that “means” is still viable. But it’s not an easy thing, is it? I will use the old word “soul” and say that our souls—our secular souls—need some saving. Art is a path of attention, of concentration, and in the process, both of making and of experiencing, we are taken out of the nervous percolation of the moment and immersed in the other time. Duration time—which is time during which we are unaware of time whirling by. Absorption. This is the natural habitat—it’s why we were allowed to be children once—and we do recognize this as soon as the immersion happens. But then we forget, need to be reminded again and again that it’s there. The hypnotist’s finger snap.
My big word for a long time now has been “attention.” It must be paid, as Arthur Miller wrote.
Einstein: What do you wish people were paying more attention to at this moment? Is there something you wish we’d pay less attention to?
Birkerts: The ordinary, just for starters. Life begins at home. The dust motes hanging in the light, the cat doing its yoga stretches. The thing registered is less important here than the registering itself. This kind of perception is at the same time a means of self-perception. It completes a circuit. It may not have a further end, and doesn’t need one. What we are doing when we watch or scroll and click is something different. The attention I’m talking about fixes on the real time/space existence of the thing, whatever it is. Scroll-attention happens in a separate time/space zone and it is, given the nature of electronic media, always asking us to lean toward the next thing.
Einstein: What advice do you have for essayists who want to find their way to artfulness in these distracted times?
Birkerts: Hmmmmm….Find ways to keep believing that what you feel needs to be said does need to be said. This means a regular checking in with the true origins of the impulse of the project. It also means keeping company with your kindred, the writers who move you to emulation. As you are writing ask yourself the simple question: “Am I having fun?” I mean this in the craft sense: “Is my sentence-making interesting and surprising to me?” Do not fear the digression—it may be your unconscious tugging at your sleeve.
Einstein: You’re one of the workshop leaders at the upcoming Iota Conference, which consists of four days spent on Campobello Island just over the Canadian border. I’ve been twice, once as a workshop leader and once as a participant, and one of the things I valued most about it was the opportunity to let go of distractions, to focus for a while on art with others of a similar bent. Can you tell us a little about what participants can expect in your workshop?
Birkerts: Given that I’ll have two days with each group of students, I hope to use exercises and conversation to help the writers get closer to the urgency and insistence of their respective projects. I won’t say more, but that is the teaching impulse I feel these days.
Want to study with Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir and Remnants of Passsion, and her essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, The Sun, Whitefish Review, and other literary journals. She is the founding editor of Signal Mountain Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her online course Memoir Writing for Happy People runs June 1 – August 31 at Iota Short Prose Online.
Superman on the Roof: Michael Martone with Lex Williford
September 26, 2016 § 2 Comments
Here on the Brevity blog, we limit ourselves to the world of nonfiction, except when we don’t. One of the times that we don’t is when we discuss the art of flash, and here one of the masters of that flash prose genre, Michael Martone, discusses the form (as well as tricksterism, academic idiocy, and the Texas state legislature) with his friend Lex Williford, author of the new Rose Metal Press novella-in-flash, Superman on the Roof.
Michael Martone: Are you a follower of Hermes, the thief, as are your flash fictions? That is to say: Do you regard flash fiction now as a genre or an anti-genre, a genre that resists, by design, generic description? Hermes could not play the lyre he invented. What he could do is see the category of dead animal parts—tortoise shell, sheep gut, horns of cattle—and transform them into a category of musical instruments, the lyre. Is it important that flash fiction have a fixed form or is flash fluid?
Lex Williford: I suppose I’ve been a follower of Hermes at least since 2005, when I met Lewis Hyde at MacDowell Colony.
I’d taught Hyde’s The Gift in several graduate workshops, a book that raised questions I’ve puzzled over for years about gift cultures (like the Trobrian Islanders’) and the place of art in a commodity culture (like ours). So, when I met Hyde at MacDowell, I also bought his new book, Trickster Makes This World, at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, and read it cover to cover.
The book—about the flip side of gift cultures (givers vs. takers)—is a fascinating treatise on tricksters, who cleverly steal back the power they probably should have never been denied in the first place.
In the chapter “Hermes Slips the Trap,” Hyde writes,
I read the Homeric Hymn as the story of how an outsider penetrates a group, or how marginalized insiders might alter a hierarchy that confines them. Hermes has a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action. He knows how to slip the trap of culture. (204). . . . [With] his stealing . . . and other cunning wiles [Hermes] unravels a particular cultural artifice and weaves a new one in its stead. (205)
When I read this quotation about Hermes, the Prince of Thieves, I also think about another quotation—variously attributed to other trickster-thieves like T. S. Elliot, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, et al—which goes something like this:
“Good [or mediocre] [or immature] writers borrow, and great writers steal.”
When students hear this quotation, they tend to hear a moral judgment, not the kind of thing Hyde writes about. Hyde’s concern with gift cultures—the notion that art comes from an impulse to give (or to keep the gift moving) rather than to take or hold on to or grasp or make a profit—runs into serious problems in societies like ours, when a huge chasm exists between those who have power and wealth and those who don’t.
To win, to get one’s power back, the loser must somehow trick the winner (rarely a giver), and in art that trick often involves stealing a form, “a particular cultural artifice,” as Hyde puts it, then unraveling it and weaving a new one to replace it.
In many ways, tricksters are born losers. When I talk about the history of the short story to my students, I sometimes say that modern and contemporary short stories—and many ancient ones—are about losers who lose big time, characters living on the fringes, the borders, las fronteras, of society; and telling their stories is a kind of corrective to history (always written by the winners) that allows those who have lost their humanity and dignity to have a voice about their losses and in some way take back their power.
Hermes, illegitimate son of that serial philanderer Zeus, is a loser big time, but not for long. A bastard child, a black sheep, an enfant terrible, he lives in a cave with dear old Mom, Maia, and his prospects aren’t good, but miraculously he turns his theft of Apollo’s (the “good” legitimate half-brother’s) cattle into an advantage that humiliates Zeus in front of all Olympus; then he plays the lyre he created to seduce Apollo. (Actually, Hermes could play the instrument he’d made. In the Homeric Hymn, he plays beautifully—a liar with a lyre; more important, he plays Apollo with his lies and his lyre, then turns the tables on him, offering the lyre to him in a kind of gift exchange for the cattle he’s already stolen.)
Elsewhere, I’ve compared flash fiction to cherries or cherry bombs, to safety pins or snakes swallowing their tails (tales), to wound-up strings that lead us out of labyrinths, etc., but the metaphors, mythical or otherwise, always fizzle. The form is much more fluid than that, than any other contemporary form that I know of, at least in part because so many tricksters—like Hermes, like you, Michael Martone—use the form to thumb their noses at the “rules” or constraints of traditional fiction.
Flash fiction, at least for me, is an exploration of surprise, reversals in character, power, reader expectations, etc., but anyone who tries to codify the form misses the point. The creators of the form and the form itself are tricksters, chameleons, shapeshifters, working in a vast valley between the lyric and narrative impulse, and the form has no secret set of rules except those that each writer must invent for each new piece of flash she writes.
If there’s a trick to flash, I suppose, it’s to become a trickster, to outwit the reader, to write about powerlessness, thereby taking one’s power back and giving it to others, but it’s also based upon the writer’s ability to pose impossible questions, worrying something one has stolen and obsessed over, often for years, until the stolen thing finally becomes one’s own, a gift to pass along.
Michael Martone: All very interesting but so studious, Lex. It is curious, isn’t it, that we live and work in this historical moment where many of us who are plying the trickster trade do so in the hyper-critical, genre obsessed, super-sorting machine that is the university or college—in a program within a department within a college within a school within a university. How does the institution “count” the making of a flash fiction or a prose poem on its annual reports? I am lucky enough to have an option of “other” on my pull down menu. But can the work even be “seen” by the critics? And is it fun to hang out at the crossroads being invisible in plain sight?
Lex Williford: Yeah, give me a tough question and I’ll get studious on you every time.
If we’re required to quantify everything—as the recent obsession with “metrics” at underfunded state universities like UTEP suggests—then I suppose flash writers could argue that we have a slight advantage, at least with the bean counters: We can write a lot of really short stories and count more of them in the vita. (At UTEP, no kidding, we upload our pubs to something called Digital Measures; I just uploaded my fall semester syllabus there today. It’s state law!) When you have legislators who believe god put fossils in the ground to test our faith or think that burning fossil fuels in our cars has nothing to do with global climate change—a hoax!—it’s a bit hard to have a reasonable discussion about something as immeasurable and subjective as quality. Better to focus on quantity, counting things—at least until the bean counters start counting pages.
Being invisible to state legislators and university administrators is something to aspire to, I think. I’m a teaching writer and a writing teacher—both gigs equally important to me. As universities have become just one more “beast” of government to starve, pushing us toward the brink of the so-called for-profit university—increasing the price of books and tuition and student loan debt—all we can hope for is to teach something useful, and there’s no more practical skill than writing a clear, readable sentence.
As long as we feed our students with a rich and nourishing fare of words and craft and give them the time to write what burns most brightly in their bellies, we’re not just doing our jobs; as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing our small part to save the world. Albert Camus writes, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” That works for me. I can only remain such an idealist because of my students, who, year after year, decade after decade, continue to reveal their miraculous, original gifts.
As for critics: There’s not a stronger argument for the burgeoning and slippery flash fiction form than the hybrid writing being published by Rose Metal Press or Tara Masih’s wonderful new annual, The Best Small Fictions, 2016. I got my copy of the second edition, guest edited by Stuart Dybek, yesterday, and I’ve not been able to put it down.
Michael Martone:: Here is something else to chew on. I have never liked the category of “experimental” writing. I like it even less when hooked up with the binary of “traditional” writing. Often the experimental gets applied to my flash fiction work, another kind of other, I guess. I am more comfortable with the notion of being a formalist, any form in a storm. I saw John Barth in a reading once respond to the question, “What are you reading now?” That standard question really is asking what “good” things are you reading now so I can get a shortcut to “good”. Barth responded by pulling out a cereal box, saying, “I read this this morning.” And then went on to produce letters and postcards; newspapers and magazines; student papers and stories; bills and adverts; freshman compositions; phonebooks; galleys and articles sent to him by his former students; ending with his own finished and published work as well as the writing he had written the day before. He was saying, of course, that all manner of writing might be ripe for one’s writing. Would you think about (now that we have destroyed the notion of ‘genre” when applied to flash fiction) the subspecies of the form and its application of all kinds of writing to the pliant template of the form, flash? Or to say it another way—flash fiction might be a corrosive form but is it also a formal chameleon, a voracious form that eats other forms for breakfast cereal?
Lex Williford: The category of “experimental” fiction mostly seems redundant to me. All writing is experimental—thought experiments with words—even “traditional” or “realist” fiction, which can be as innovative and as “experimental” as something more “post-modern.” I mostly ignore any impulse to quantify or categorize, but I do think that flash seems particularly amenable (amoeba-ble?) to “blended” or “hybrid” forms. I teach a graduate course called the The Prose Poem and Short-Short Story, and when we study the varying, and sometimes contradictory, definitions and examples of both forms, we soon come to consider them as almost interchangeable, prose poems mostly written by poets, flash by fiction writers, even when poets sometimes write the most dramatic stories, and fiction writers the most lyrical.
I had two influential teachers in grad school, James Whitehead (a poet and a novelist) and William Harrison (a novelist, short story and scriptwriter). They’re both gone now, but back in the mid-eighties, they were the Scylla and Charybdis of the writing program I went to. Bill—Uncle Bill, we called him—said, “I don’t give a damn about language; just give me story.” And Jim—we called him Big Jim—said, “I don’t give a damn about story; just give me language.” Such prescriptions were common in the boot-camp workshops we had in those days, and though I tend toward a descriptive kind of critique in my own workshops, thanks to you, Michael Martone, I do think that trying to make both Jim and Bill happy on some level—they were both on my thesis committee—was an interesting experiment in finding a balance between the lyric and dramatic sensibilities.
To put it another way, some flash writers see the form as an intellectual experiment—like trying to solve a new kind of Rubik’s Cube of their own invention—while others see the form as experiments in earning emotion. I’ve tried both, but for me writing is mostly about the latter: feeling along the edges of an intangible obsession in the dark until I can see its shape more clearly, then working hard to earn similar emotions for readers, who each may see a shape different from the one I saw, bringing the contents of their own inner lives to a completely different reading of the same story.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to write flash, only the way each of us can write it, some of it amoebic, swallowing and absorbing other forms, some of it corrosive, breaking the forms down into their component parts, then reconstructing something altogether new, a pastiche or a collage, like a story by Donald Barthelme. The point is, after all, to ring a bell in the reader’s head, right?
I’ll never forget the night you and I had dinner with John Barth at the Cypress Inn in Tuscaloosa, or the reading he gave later, bringing out a hotel clerk’s bell and ringing it whenever he’d reached a footnote in his fiction (some footnotes longer on the page than the actual story). Who’d ever think of putting a footnote into a short story? Dude, our students would say, can you even do that? Of course! Why the hell not? David Foster Wallace certainly did in Infinite Jest; so did Junot Díaz in the Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, and it wouldn’t surprise me if reading Barth had given each of them—and you, Michael, since you were his student—all the permission they needed to do exactly what they wanted to do in the first place.
What was it Barth said that night, looking out over the Black Warrior River, just as it was reaching flood stage? “Digress aggressively”? Or was that you, Michael?
Tricksters, all of us, stealing each other’s stuff, always causing trouble.
 Hyde was as generous as his books: He gave me a signed British edition of The Gift and bought me a double-dip ice cream cone at our favorite nearby dessert spot in Keene, New Hampshire, the Piazza Ice Cream Parlor—two-hundred flavors of ice cream! An August afternoon, eating ice cream and talking about tricksters.
 As he discusses Hermes’ thievery and cunning, Hyde also uses excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to illustrate Douglass’s “thievery” of literacy—and literature—from those who had enslaved him, using it as a gift to free himself and others.
 Clearly a plagiarized—or stolen—quotation since so many have claimed to say it first.
 “For the Tale to End . . .” Writers Ask, Glimmer Train Stories, Issue 73, 2016: 19.
 For readers: There’s a Michael Martone story in the anthology. Read it.
Lex Williford, winner of the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Flash Fiction Chapbook Award for Superman on the Roof, has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University, the University of Alabama and the University of Missouri, St. Louis. His book, Macauley’s Thumb, was co-winner of the 1993 Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Literary Review, Fiction, Glimmer Train Stories, Hayen’s Ferry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Laurel Review, Natural Bridge, The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market 2002, Poets & Writers, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Smokelong Quarterly, Southern Review, Sou’wester, StoryQuarterly, Tameme, Virginia Quarterly Review and have been widely anthologized. Coeditor, with Michael Martone, of the popular Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, now in its second edition, and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction, he is the founding director of the online MFA program and the current chair of the on-campus bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Michael Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Little else is known of his life.
Only So Much Air: A Flash Metaphor
January 16, 2015 § 4 Comments
As we count down to Brevity‘s upcoming January 2015 issue, here’s a brilliant new metaphor for flash prose from Brevity contributor Jill Talbot:
Think of the flash essay like a balloon. At the essay’s first line, that balloon begins to deflate and there’s only so much air, so we read with that movement, follow the elastic energy of escaping air until it runs out.
The air should move in one whooshing direction so that we feel the push down the page.
The flash can only hold so much—too many people crowd it, too much complexity weighs it down—and we’re left with that sad, half-inflated balloon limping along the floor. And if we alter the direction with a distraction, the balloon reverses its momentum and re-inflates. Too much air and the balloon pops, and we’re startled from our suspension.
[Experimental flash essayists let their deflating balloons go—creating a frenzy of zigzag, a mid-air dance of defiance.]
In the collapse—the last line—we want to be left with the echo of sudden air.
Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, Zone 3, and more.