The novelist and short story writer, Jayne Anne Phillips, stated that flash fiction taught her how to write.
Phillips began as a poet but discovered through flash fiction what she describes as “the poem inside the paragraph.” In these “one-page fictions”, as she called likes to describe them, she unlocked the secret to the best of fiction writing: the way in which a paragraph, so common in form, so seemingly pedestrian and innocent in its undecorated form, can be “secretive and subversive.” Almost anything that a poem can do, a paragraph can do, too, without the adornment of the broken line or couplet. Short fiction is a powerful form and the shortest of it a good place to learn the might of that power.
There has been a lot written about the distinction between flash fiction and narrative poetry. Even so, it isn’t always clear what difference is. Obviously, in fiction we see paragraphs and dialogue while poetry is all about stanzas and broken lines. Those who care to categorize the two mostly settle on the idea that the primary goal of piece of flash fiction is to tell a story while the primary goal of a poem is to explore an idea.
I am not sure I agree. Plenty of poetry tells a story. Lots of short fiction, especially post-modern fiction, is more interested in ideas that narrative. Is it important that we know that a piece is a flash as opposed to narrative poetry? To me, no. We don’t have to diagnose a piece like a medical condition. We just have to read it and decide whether it was worth that effort.
To try to teach flash fiction is to try to teach quality, itself. I don’t know why I’ve agreed to such task but next week I will arrive to Oxford and give it my best. Like all good fiction, flash begins as though you are already reading it, the flow of the story launched with such smoothness and precision that you don’t realise you are even in the story until you are already away with it.
With my own fiction I aspire to make it seem both effortless to write. I don’t want it to be work. And while longer narratives require writers to attend to boring logistics—establishing names and ages and all sorts of information—as artfully as we can, a flash piece is free from such burdens. Flash should be pure pleasure, the words entering us, as Jayne Anne Phillips describes, “…right into the vein, into the blood, so to speak, of meaning…”
John Gardner speaks beautifully of the importance of maintaining the uninterrupted dream in fiction, this idea that we writers must provide the reader with an experience that takes them out of their reality and into our work’s reality with as little disruption as possible. Anything that interrupts the dream must be culled. Awkward sentences are not “bad” because they are awkward but because a reader has to labour in order to understand what is being said, which distracts from the fictional dream. Punctuation doesn’t matter because the teacher tells you so but because its use will contribute to the reader’s overall experience. We all know from Lynne Truss’s book, Eat, Shoots & Leaves, that commas can transform everything. Even a misspelled word makes us remember all over again that what we are writing is fiction. Punctuation is part of the overall delivery of the story in dreamlike form—that is why it matters.
What are the tools to writing good flash fiction, other than keen perception, a facility with language, excellent judgement, a sense of timing and narrative and the story inside the story? I can’t really give students any of these tools, though I can nudge them a little until they discover them for themselves. However, I can tell them to keep a notebook. So, in this blog I will reveal the first tool to writing good flash: use a notebook and keep track of small things.
Stuart Dybek explains how important a notebook is in a piece he wrote called “Great Thoughts.” A notebook captures “fragments of dreams, memories, which are usually only the fragments of events, and other fragments: images, lines of dialogue, quotations from books…”, a place to put all the little details we pick up that, upon closer examination, have meaning. These small fragments are so important.
I am currently reading a book called Family Life by Akhil Sharma. It is a wonderful book, has won all sorts of awards including the International Dublin Award for fiction. I’ve only just begun, but the first pages are so many of tiny fragments filled with meaning, I can’t wait to read more: how the narrator remembers his life in India in which his mother and he carefully sliced wooden matches in half to make them last longer, how they saved the cotton inside jars to make candlewicks. These details are gems, but if we look around in our ordinary lives, lives that doesn’t always feel very interesting, we can usually find something of note.
For example, as I am typing in a village cafe on this June morning, there is a blind woman in a wool coat, her labrador in a harness by her knee. She is speaking loudly to the cafeteria manager. “How did that dog get away then on the common?!” she begins. “People and their dogs! I’ll tell you it gets up my nose!” Every word is amplified, huge, as though being blind means she has to permeate a barrier with her other senses, which I guess is the case. What else is happening around me? A middle-aged man holds his phone at different angles, trying to read messages without glasses. Outside, a guy with crowded tattoos, a roll-up between his teeth, a coffee in his hand, parallel parks his goods van, then chucks the roll-up, still lit, out the open window onto the sidewalk.
Write it down, write it down. Not every detail is important but get in the habit of writing it down anyway. And remember this: when you are not writing, you are often still writing. When you attend to small matters, like matchsticks and cotton balls, the meaning often magnifies on the page.