I’ve been seeing a rise of flash fiction, mostly online for the last five years. Some printed lit journals are featuring them as regular content and contests, and now, like your book, put into full-length collections. Why do you think readers have popularized and/or crave writers who keep stories brief?
My thoughts on this tend to go back and forth. The nervous part of me fears the rise in flash fiction stems from shorter attention spans, but the calmer, more thoughtful side knows the short attention thing is probably bullshit. I mean, honestly, Spencer Holst wrote flash fiction before I was born, and a slew of other writers experimented with shorter form, and people didn’t bite, and that was good stuff. People weren’t reading flash (despite it not being called that then) because they had such excellent reading stamina or because they were demanding greater, longer works. They weren’t encountering it—and if they did, it was in literary journal restricted by the whims of the postal service. There’s just more to it than that, though, right? The Internet, indie presses, people taking chances. Writing has more access than it’s ever had before—and that’s something. But still, it’s true, the medium hasn’t spiked in popularity until today. And maybe that’s the thing. To a certain degree, it could be readers and writers understanding that nowadays it’s okay to say, hey, I enjoy this piece despite it not being a thick tomb of exposition and intrigue. That’s probably part of it, that it takes time for something to catch on, and that there’s a comfort in numbers aspect where readers don’t have to be afraid of being the only one voicing their enjoyment of shorter work. The enjoyment of flash no longer equates to a lack of sophistication.
And then there is the want for more and more and more from readers, but not necessarily in a larger quantity. Think small plates, the trend to appreciate something exquisite in only a few bites. It’s a well-crafted experience, flash. And people are reading. They want to read on their phone, while waiting for the elevator, and yeah, they could read a novel, but some readers want different authors, different styles. We’re used to the Internet, limitless sources. There are so many great times to read, and then move on, and flash allows the reader the opportunity to experience art and skip to the next track. Maybe, it’s comparable to music listening?
What I do know is I’ve been enamored with the flash medium for a while, and it’s not because I want a quick read. It’s about appreciating the complexity of the writing art. I don’t need an entire novel for me to say, wow, this is powerful writing. It’s making something happen in a short amount of space that you can walk away from, but keeps you thinking. Moreover, it’s the style. Oh, man, it’s got style, flash. Good flash is dripping with it, stripped down to the best lines. It’s the idea that writing really is art—honest prose, beautiful in its thoughtfulness. There are some flash pieces that come out kicking and others that play with the economy of the word, letting loose a stream of tight sentences, each building off the other until the reader is left alone with just the end result of the story. In some ways, it seems like the popularity of flash stems not from a lack of attention, but from a more critical eye, examining language and effect. The story craft has to be so on point, so tight, and wonderful for it to be good flash. And the delivery needs to be something else, something more than traditional. Reading flash should be like taking in a great painting or an awesome photograph. It reveals and tells a whole story in a snapshot and leaves its audience contemplating everything that is left out, that could be, and that ought to be.
So, yeah, maybe the rise in popularity is a good thing, a change in our culture that acknowledges the subtle aspects of an author’s craft, valuing line over page.
In regards to craft and accentuating longer-form exposition and plot, when writers decide to go brief (in the much less than 500-word range), I often notice a sacrifice made that seems to omit the traditional mapping of a story, that is the rising conflict for the sake of climax, whereas evoked emotion is superior to a fading closure and resolution. In my mind, this creates two independent genres: the traditional short-short fiction and the single frame, Polaroid-like flash fiction. Do you have certain guidelines within your own work or notice in others’ that definitively categorize a piece as flash?
I love that you ask this, and that you see a distinction. At least, I think I do. The idea of sacrificing anything sounds kind of awful, but somewhere along the line I wrote an essay about this, so I’ll try to answer it honestly, even if I would rather lie. The Polaroid-like flash fiction (I call micro-flash), maybe a piece of 500 words or fewer, is a different approach, for sure. I hesitate to say it sacrifices anything, but readily admit (despite my writing typically in the 1000 + form) that it relies heavily on the reader to do much of the storytelling. When you look at a really good photo, it fuels the creation of a story. I’m careful not to say it alone creates the story because there’s more to it. For example, maybe it’s a powerful black and white photo; let’s say an isolated bathtub displaced by floodwaters; destruction surrounds it, a toy duck sits crushed underneath, and the kicker, a dirty water line rings the outside porcelain. That’s the photo—and the thing is it’s up to the audience to create the rising action, the conflict, and whatever else they want. But, in the end, it’s still powerful, I mean, if it’s a really good shot. So, maybe on one hand, micro-flash has to be really damn good, like it has to be just the right flash/snap/whatever that will evoke the rest of the story. But on the other hand, it depends a lot on the audience (in flash’s case, the reader). No one is lining up photos of what lead to the tub being displaced. There’s no photo of the family, no three-year-old crying and clutching her father’s leg as the floodwater pours in—but the reader can imagine it—if the reader wants to—it plays on what’s stored inside the reader. That’s the other thing with micro-flash, it seems to depend on how much storytelling ability the reader has—imagination and practice in craft—and that seems really important. Can the reader create the rest of the story and fill in the gaps?
Anyway, I agree. There’s a distinction between the short-short and the single frame, and it seems to be about 500 words. It’s the sweet spot, the 1,000 words. It’s somewhere around there that I find myself able to build a piece. And the building aspect is the big distinction I use to categorize between Polaroid-like flash (micro-flash) and good ole-fashioned flash, that is the short-short. The flash fiction I aim to produce uses the minimalist technique of “Horses” and Poe’s “Unity of Effect” to build toward an ending. And I like an ending that is a beginning. I think that’s really important in a piece of flash, that the piece end leaving the reader understanding that more is to come and that whatever happens is the start of some new chapter of the story. But, to focus on the technique that separates or categorizes the different styles of flash, it’s that the short-short still builds, introducing the audience/reader to a concept/character/idea, and then acts upon it. It doesn’t just drop the reader into a single frame or moment. It’s in the building that the rising action and exposition occurs. It’s just minimal, a compacted line packed with importance. It’s definitely not 19th century exposition, detailing a room for two pages followed by a slow reveal of the conflict via witty banter, but it’s not slamming the reader in media res, asking the reader to drum up all the particulars.
…that’s really important in a piece of flash, that the piece end leaving the reader understanding that more is to come and that whatever happens is the start of some new chapter of the story.
I think the last paragraph of flash (if not in the final line) holds the most weight, especially in your book—I return to “Sounds, Glorious,” and your title piece, “So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds.” Some flash writers say they will often write the last line first and place a story behind it. What is your process like, and do your stories usually turn out as you’d like, or does something unexpected emerge?
My stories build from the first line, so I’m definitely not one who starts with the last. I like an organic experience, and I think that’s the secret to my endings. They write themselves. That’s all. The technique I subscribe to happens to be let the story write itself, and build to an ending you’re not quite aware of until you’re there. And my stories absolutely do write themselves in that way; although, I suppose it’s really annoying to say that. Like, what does that mean? I’m clearly the one behind them, but at the same time, it’s much closer to a free association type writing where I see the word CAT and then write whatever comes to mind next. I’m building, line by line, to something, and I don’t usually know until I get there. I have an idea, sometimes even a want, but, in the end, it’s what has to happen, kind of thing, my endings. My process is all about the first line. The first few lines especially; in fact, it might be the first paragraph really. It starts the ball rolling, and then it picks up speed. My process is catalyst and reaction, stemming from the first line down. The ending, and I love a good ending (I mean, that’s what I’m trying for), comes as a natural result of what came before it. It’s the next step to something bigger, so it’s more like knowing where to cut. I want the ending to keep going long after the reader has finished the story.
And my stories absolutely stray from what I want. I typically don’t try to steer them in one direction or another. The direction I have in mind is there from the start, but I’ve learned to let go, and usually the story will find its own path, arriving at an ending that is most natural. Sometimes it’s different from what I imagined, but I’m okay with that.
I’m very intrigued by stories that surprise even the writer. Is it possible you could you expand on this and explain how one of your pieces that had strayed the most in your collection by comparing what you wanted versus what was written?
No problem . . . but where do I begin? I guess that’s the thing, I begin stories with concepts, not full-on plot arcs. I’ll often write down an idea that goes something like, a father has a son who keeps disappearing and reappearing in strange places. Then I’ll add a line or two of how I think it ought to sound in terms of narration. I know I’ll want the story to tackle the difficulty of parenting, maybe the confusion and absurdity of feeling disconnected to something (your baby) that you’re supposed to have this uncanny relationship with. I might want the father to learn that he can’t control his child and that no set schedule from a baby manual will be applicable—but what does that look like? The baby disappears a few times, the father freaks out each time and then what? Where does the story lead me? And even right now as I make this example up, it depends on what happens in those in between moments, in each line that builds from another. Like for instance, I keep thinking of the baby reappearing outside the nursery window high up in an oak tree, so the next line should be something depicting how the father learns to go with the flow, and how when the baby disappears, he quickly climbs up the tree in the afternoons, and sure enough, the baby appears in the high branches every afternoon; this way I can establish the baby has taught the father something instead of the other way around, as children often do, teaching the ebb and flow of life.
My point is the story comes from the seed of my concept. What comes next after the father has figured out the pattern, now that he’s comfortable? Probably the father holding the baby in a rocking chair, and the story ends with them both disappearing or maybe just the father, so the baby is left alone, rocking in the chair. Again, I’m not sure what will happen. I need the other lines to build to it. I don’t know if that makes any sense. But that’s how I write.
As for a story that did that . . . ha, all of them? I really only start with concepts and write. But that’s not completely true. Sometimes I have endings in mind or direction. Sometimes. Not often. I wanted “A New Religion for Fatherless Sons” to be a father coming back to life, for the father to be a miracle, and for it to be chronicled by the son. I thought it would be something like the father comes back to life and then has to go into hiding, so the son never gets to see him anyway (so it’s like the father might as well be dead). Instead, when I wrote it, the narration went kind of dark, and next thing I knew the boy ended up being the devil and tricking everyone into not believing. I didn’t really want that. Even I was upset. But that’s what I wrote. I probably messed up the intro, the first few lines, and set the tone too dark and messed up, and, like I said, I build to the ending.
You’re such a lit journal publishing machine that all but eleven of these stories haven’t been published. Aside from the regular “see what we publish” guideline, how did you know that these lit journals you did publish in were right for the work you were producing?
Well, first, I read the journals. I read a lot of them. I’m always checking out journals, reading their new issues. I enjoy that, and I like to see what other writers are doing. It’s interesting to me to watch a new journal develop, to see what they like and why. I freaking love how certain publications develop their aesthetic. You can watch editors steer their journals in the direction of their tastes, and it’s a really interesting experience to recognize a journal’s aesthetic while the journal itself is developing it. Take for example the journal Psychopomp who gathers off beat stories that border on the surreal and fairy tale format—I love that I can read one of their magazines and know that I’m getting my daily dose of weird. And I watched them do it. I got to read those weird stories and start noticing they accepted more and more with a fairly-tale bent or maybe it’s a fable one. Either way, in doing so, I knew I wanted to be a part of their journal, of what they were developing, so I sent them a story. That’s how I typically know if the journal is right for what I’m doing: I can read it and say we have similar taste and I want to be part of what they are doing in the literary community.
What was the process like bringing your book to life with Hypertophic Press?
The process was a lot of things for me, and l’ll mention specifics, but to look at in a general way, it was an incredibly affirming experience. To have someone believe in your work, that investment, that idea of bringing it to life—like someone breathing life into something you’ve created—it’s very inspiring, very rewarding. What Hypertrophic did was to make the process an amazing collaboration. That blew me away, honestly. Here are these people who have this knowledge and understanding of how to make a book, and they’re bothering to go the extra mile and explain what they’re doing or what it is they could do—and, moreover, they’re asking me what I’dlike to do. That completely floors me, their willingness to make me such a big part of the actual process. I was included in what felt like just about everything—that’s a lot of back-and-forth e-mails about editing (which I was expecting), but also major discussions about everything from story order, font and layout, all the way to promotion and changing a “the” to an “a” proposals. The cover alone was a huge collaboration, but the process was so much more than that. We shared literary theory with each other, and in doing so, we got to know each other on a personal level. I remember discussing poetic white space with them in relation to the titles and the first page of each story. It was awesome. It really felt like we made the book together, so much so, that I’m actually scared to make another with anyone else. It was the effing dream for me, to be included like that, so now I’m wondering what it’ll be like to not be included, to have someone who doesn’t explain what and why they’re doing things. Or worse, what if we don’t agree on most of the edits? That’s incredibly important to me, that my writing read a certain way. I’m really particular with how my lines sounds, especially in relation to preceding and later sentences. I said it before, that I build my stories line by line, and I really do, so when an editor wants to do something, it very well might cause a chain reaction, and I have to be okay with that and believe in that edit. Otherwise it’ll kill me. I mean, I guess it’s okay to die a little when making a book. Seems natural. Anyway, I think I’m getting stressed out just talking about this. Holy crap.
I noticed you went to Twitter to ask others about writing novels in flash. Is that what you’re working on next? Are you noticing any differences in the execution to the stories?
I am! I’m working on a novel in flash right now, and I’m loving it. It really feels like my best work. It’s a challenging project, but so far very rewarding, and yeah, there’s a difference in the process, but maybe not so much in the actual execution. What I mean is that I still compose very carefully and revise a lot during the actual writing of each story. I might write and re-write a single paragraph for a few hours, crafting away at it. It’s that whole read a line, then write a line, then read those lines, then write another. It’s a process, alright. Sometimes it goes pretty well though, if I’m reading and writing in such a way where I feel like it adds up in the way I want it to and sounds right to me. I read my stuff aloud a lot, and keep starting at the beginning. It’s probably a bit crazy, but luckily I write flash, right? So yeah, for just about every line I write, I start at the beginning of the story and read down until I write the next line. I often linger on a paragraph, reading it over and over until I nail the next line in it. Then, I’ll read it from the top down again to make sure. It has to sound right, and I’ll know it when I hear/see/write it. Okay, the big difference in crafting this: the larger picture comes into play and has to be in the back of my mind. That’s a huge difference for me, to write a story and have to consider the whole thing like I would a line in a normal piece. I mean, each story is a line in a bigger story and they have to add up in such a way that I build this thing. But at the same time, each story is its own story. There is an end and a beginning, a theme and a something happening, something important to itself out of the context of the entirety. But there it is again, this idea of an entirety, and it keeps coming back to that, connecting and reconnecting, and it’s really challenging, but when a piece feels like it works in the bigger picture, that’s very rewarding. I get to be excited about the story itself, and then I get to be excited about the novel it builds.
Anything else we should know?
Probably, but I won’t think of it until it’s too late. That’s the nature of these things, right? Wait! I want to mention a touch more about my current project because I’m, right now, excited about it. This novel in flash I’m working on follows the dynamics of a couple, Lynsey and Jeremy, who are exploring who they are individually and who they are as a couple in relation to the world around them—but I’m using tropes from fairy tales and folk tales to delve into that very real, every couple quest for identity. They’re looking at the things that define us, just with the help of bears and foxes and an occasional map.
Timston Johnston received his MFA from Northern Michigan University and is the founding editor of Little Presque Books. He sometimes Tweets candy bar reviews @TimstonJohnston.