Celebrating Flash Fiction

I’m so honored to join Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fiction 2017 Long List. Flash fiction’s popularity has soared in the last few years, with hundred’s of literary journals either popping up over night or realizing the poignant value of such short stories. This is largely good news for both reader and writer, but it does make it difficult to read everything and to promote work that stands out. I’m thankful for the work that went into creating both the top fifty list and the long list. I can’t imagine how many stories were read and vetted to make these lists. And true some worthy stories might not have gotten recognition this time around, but these lists give the reader and writer a window into the menagerie of what flash is and is becoming. I’m excited to dig into both lists and read old favorites and discover stories that I missed the first time around.

The original link to my story published by Split Lip magazine can be found at God’s Eye

Climbing the Slide

I’ve been thinking a lot about my 22 month old son and how he sees and interacts with the world. It’s not hard to compare him to my five year old daughter’s way of taking on the world at that age. Knowing that my memory is surely imperfect, and that I’ve either enlarged or shrunk her accomplishments and failures. (There is an almost minute by minute fluctuation in these two states when you’re a toddler.) So I’m not sure that being a boy makes him braver, but rather being a second child has lead to more modeling from the five year, challenging him to keep up. I, too, then have become a different parent while supervising his play than I was watching my daughter. I’m learning to embrace his bravado, his willingness to live life outside the normal physical boundaries of the under-two set. Nothing remarkable, really, no genius talents yet, but a sheer desire to explore the limits of his own strength, persistence, and imagination.

Because child only see or learn the boundary we establish for them. A toddler doesn’t question the possibility of falling off of a slide, doesn’t consider time and space, and doesn’t understand, no matter how many times we will tell them to be careful what that actually means or how they could act to ensure this careful nature.

And through it’s frightening for parents, it’s also kind of thrilling, too. When was the last time you did something not out of self-destruction, but out of true doe-eyed naiveté for the sure pleasure of trying something new? No, adults, though they make mistakes, often can calculate the risks involved, have a general good sense of time and space, and can act accordingly, especially when considering physical acts such as running, jumping, or going down a slide.

Some risks, are, rightly so, not worth taking, so this is the point where I refer to writing. That’s the place where calculation comes often at a higher cost than risk, where I’d love to find the remnants of my own toddler brain, too forget about falling off the slide, and just climb, word after word, happy for the adventure, knowing I can always try again.

Writing Life: The Persistence of a Child

I’m trying to re-frame my writing mindset to match my parenting mindset. In that I’m trying to have more patience, trying to allow both my children and my writing some room to explore their own worlds while my arms are ready to catch either if they fall.

I have a son who is a little over one year old and who is three and half years younger than his sister. Comparing the two was always inevitable and it does provide some conversation between my wife and I that is far safer than discussing the world’s other 4.5 and 1 year olds. My son has been slow to pick up most milestone aspects, except those involving motor skills. in this category he far outpaced my daughter. He can do some things that she still struggles with. But in the area of language, he reluctantly has picked up a few words, while my daughter was saying her own name by this point as well as some variations of the characters on Sesame Street. My son likes to say “dog” and “ball”, but in the last couple of months he has made great strides in learning how to communicate his wants and needs, employing a lot of pointing, a few pieces of sign language and saying something close to “this” and “that.” It’s amazing how persistent he is even though he can’t fully state what he wants. It’s this persistence and patience that i want to apply to my own writing.

One year olds both gratefully and frustratingly, don’t understand the concept of time. They want everything right this instance, but they also don’t understand the concept of falling behind, of not hitting each milestone precisely or early. I, on the other hand, have an anxious sense of time, thinking that I’ve missed my milestone for writing a novel, for having a writing career, for becoming better well known as a writer. My MFA director, informed my upon graduating that I had 3 years to write a novel or I’d be off track. It’s been 6 years since I’ve graduated and still the several “novels” I’ve started languish on my computer’s hard drive.  Just thinking about some of the time I’ve wasted makes my stomach clinch up, wondering might have been. None of this anxiety or thoughts help to shape a healthy mindset toward writing and are detrimental any time I look at the blank page.

So how can I be more like my son? Try, persist, ask for help, try again. Nothing put on a journal page or a word processor is permanent. No milestone has a true time table. What can I do in this instance to communicate? Because with this mindset, like that of 1 year old. I will move forward. I will make progress. If you find yourself stuck in any project, take the time to watch a child, marvel at their perseverance, their trust that their is always another opportunity. Be stubborn. Have joy. Make mistakes.

Have You Wrote Today?

Patience is a writer’s best friend. Not only the willingness to sit with sentences until the perfect word or syntax is achieved, but also the willingness to walk away from a story draft, so the mind can mull over the options before revising again. Like most people, which would include writers, I don’t like to wait. The constant push-pull relationship I have with writing is that my conscience likes to know when I sit down that I will have a finished product or will at least know where the draft is going. This, rationally, I know, is quite impossible. And yet my mind tries to trick me into believing that the only way to write is to dash out a draft in an hour. I like the feeling of completeness. I love the rush of understanding I get when I figure out what the story is about or what my character is likely to do over the next few paragraphs. Unfortunately there is a lot of wasted anxiety that goes into getting myself to sit down in front of the blank page or the half-finished first draft of a story. The fear of the unknown is an echo chamber that assaults with my own fears and inadequacies. In this I know I’m like most writers.

So where does all of this lead me? To a lot of wasted time trying to avoid the thing I truly do like to do, which is to write. I’ve gotten better in the last year of allowing myself to start lots of first drafts and allowing those stories to sit while I work on the story that offers the best chance for completion. I think this process is helping. I think my stories, my sense of plot and craft is improving. I’ve, I hope, wasted less time and have gotten more done.

But the biggest fear looms. I feel this urge not to have enjoyed crafting a novel, but the demand to not only write THE novel, but to also get it published. I’m going to turn 33 this year. (I know, still a young writer, by most standards) but I can feel these demands press down on my shoulders every time I start to write. I’ve given up trying to get them to go away. I’m starting to learn how to work alongside these feelings. I try to follow Richard Bausch’s advice to just ask yourself, Have you worked today? So I have. For today.

 

Some thoughts Generated by The End of the Tour

There’s a point in this film where the interviewer David Lipsky, at least according to the film, wants David Foster Wallace to live up to this idea of a glamorous, brilliant, yet generous author. A Hollywood prototype of our imagination. This author has, we feel, somehow portrayed their soul, their very essence on the page. They’ve moved us in ways not possible in regular social interactions. We feel we know them on a level that’s beyond the fleeting, “How are you doing?” Even when we rationally know that we’ve been bewitched into intimacy with character and literary devices, we ignore this reality in order to continue to live the dream of the novel, of the narrative that allowed us for 8-12 hours to feel closer to a human being, closer than most of us get on a daily basis with anyone really. Marriage and children, family, these are all portals to defeating the darkness of loneliness, but they reveal their secret depths in stages or moments, a tapestry of belonging that satisfies in their longevity. And yet the story, the novel especially due to it’s length, creates a larger depth of feeling, of stepping out of one’s life to see the mirage of connectivity, first through character, and then, usually quite mistakenly with the author.

 

Lipsky, as quoted in the movie says, “People don’t read a 1,000 page book unless they think the author is brilliant. They want that author to be brilliant.” I will confess that I have not read Infinite Jest and that I might be doing a bit of slight of hand, when I use Wallace as a stand-in for any author. Sure we want brilliance, but we also want understanding, a moment of holding this author to the highest regard, because they made us feel less alone, more understood, connected, yes to the larger world, but really to them, the author. We’d love to make them our best friend, our confidant, the person who understands us above anyone else. All because of their alchemy with words. With their story, they’ve touched a part of our consciousness that we’ve never given away to anyone. The reasons for this denial of self to those around us are varied and myriad, some justified, others not out of fear or selfishness. The writer holds up our coal of weakness and gives it the dignity and respect we think it deserves and because the writer has not asked anything from us, but rather has given us their own special consciousness, we want to thank them in ways that surely go beyond normal social interaction.

John Updike’s Style: An example Sentence

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with John Updike’s writing. On one hand, his maximalistic style is something to wonder at and revere for his sheer audacity to include everything his narrator’s mind chances upon. While at times his prose comes across as stodgy and pretentious, letting the reader know that he expects them to give up, and that he doesn’t mind if they do, because he’ll go on for pages waving his expository wit and keen observations until only he’s satisfied. It’s this willingness to go deeper, to observe more clearly, to write on the balance of enough already that Updike’s writing finds it’s beauty. Here finally, I give you an example:

“The high mountain sun gives a tinny thin coating of glory to the orange Rexall signs, the red tongues of the parking meters, the pink shorts of girls whose brown backs are delicately trussed by the strings of minimal halters, the rags of Army-surplus green being worn alike by overmuscled youths and squinting, bent geezers.”

I hope you didn’t give up reading through this brazen sentence that relies so much on the reader’s memory of the sun being used to form this dynamic and juxtaposed laundry list of visual images. Any one of these images would do the work for most mortal writers, but Updike stacks them together as if creating a painting, a Saturday Evening Post magazine cover of his own observed America. There’s “glory” and nostalgia and innocence in youth. But there’s menace in Army greens worn by punks and the elderly. For a moment, Can’t you imagine living here in this town, this picture of America?

At the very least, Updike, has provoked the reader into paying attention or quitting, either way, the reader will leave–gentle no more.

Use of Summary in Short Stories

I have a one track mind when it comes to writing short stories, which is that I usually have all my stories use one scene or one solid time frame. This type of narrow focus can work really well for Flash Fiction, where a narrow focus on time and scene creates even more tension. It keeps both reader and writer focused on a small, but intense action. These kind of stories can feel truncated for some and for others they can feel claustrophobic. The stories just don’t breathe and a full resonance between character action and theme is never created.

In Robert Boswell’s recent story at Triquarterly, he does a masterful job of using summary to move the characters forward in time to see how scenes knock against one another to create a larger resonance. His story, entitled “Sarah and Alexander: The Big Man,” is about how two character meet and how this affects the rest of their lives. If i were writing this story, i would have focused solely on the meeting and it’s resonance, but Boswell takes this meeting further, using it to show how lives are affected by the past.

Sarah imagines that the whole encounter was made up by her husband and while she likes the romanticism of it at first, she wonders if the set-up has skewed the entire way they’ve learned to interact with each, as if they are living inauthentic lives. “And if Alex is not the man who stood up for her, who is he?”

Again the use of summary, moves time forward quickly without bogging down the reader, but allows the reader to grow old with Sarah’s doubts, until finally Sarah has to ask her husband, because she can’t take not knowing if they are living a lie.

“In an instant she understands that what passes for courage in one person may be nothing special to another, which may mean that Alexander is not brave, merely a man who thinks nothing of physical encounters. She has given him credit for having the courage she would have to muster.”

And here at last is an example of Boswell’s use of summary to rocket us forward toward the climax: “From this point forward, time gathers momentum, hurtling along to arrive at a particular night in September—one week before the wedding, three weeks before her miscarriage. In the aftermath of sex, Alexander’s hand on her expanding belly, he says he has a confession to make.”

If any of this had been handled either too quickly, say in a 1 page Flash, or dramatized in a 40 page story, the reader would have lost their breathe and therefore their belief in the characters and situation or they would have lost their sense of tension. Summary creates this story, gives it room to breathe, while still holding us on the edge of our literary seats.

http://www.triquarterly.org/issues/sarah-and-alexander-big-man

Sarah and Alexander: The Big Man

Sarah and Alexander: The Big Man

Stories

“Arriving” @r.kv.r.y

“Oh hell, you know what I’d love?” she said. “I’d love to wake up tomorrow and look out the window and see them gone.”

http://rkvryquarterly.com/arriving/

“Baby, Alone” @ Watershed Review

It’s much too cold for a baby to be alone in a car. I tell this to myself, as though, there are a set of perfect conditions where a mother or father might be allowed to leave their child, an infant almost from the look of it’s tiny fingers, in a parked car in the parking lot of one of the largest shopping centers in town.

http://www.csuchico.edu/watershed/2013-fall/fiction/dean-baby-alone.shtml