The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘flash fiction

I haven’t been able to take a writing workshop in some time, so I was looking forward to taking a ‘flash fiction’ class from acclaimed poet and short story enthusiast, Ruth Moose. I am still doing daily writing and am moving various projects forward, but there is a deliciousness and spontaneity that comes with creating fresh writing in a workshop. Until the last few years, I didn’t even believe that I could write flash fiction or short fiction. Every time I tried to write a short story, it would come out as a novella. After a semester long class with Ruth and exploring the form of short stories, I started to understand the demands of the short form. I also started voraciously reading short fiction. One time Ruth described the short story as having the length and character of a lovely dinner party. I understood then that one of my problems was that in many of my stories the characters were staying much longer and making it a sleep over party!

The workshop last week was so invigorating. We explored a variety of short fiction that ranged in style and content. We read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s ‘The Hit Man’ that chronicles the life of a hit man in episodic moments. It is both abstract (the hit man is always described with a black bag over his head), yet chilling. The piece below is an excerpt:

Excerpt:

Father’s Death

At breakfast the Hit Man slaps the cornflakes from his father’s bowl. Then wastes him.

Mother’s Death

The Hit man is in his early twenties. He shoots pool, lifts weights and drinks milk from the carton. His mother is in the hospital, dying of cancer or heart disease. The priest wears black. So does the Hit Man.

Sylvia Mullen Tohill’s ‘The Unfaithful Wife’* is about a woman who slyly undresses from her pajamas each night while her husband sleeps. This is her first paragraph:

Under the covers, she sometimes slipped out of her pajamas and slept nude beside her husband. She waited until he was snoring, then eased out of the bottoms—one leg, then the other—slipped an arm out of one sleeve, the other sleeve, then a time of listening before she lifted the top over her head and slid both garments under her pillows.

In the stories, we looked for where things turned and in short fiction, that moment is usually well delineated. We also noted that many times the main characters aren’t named.

We also read Jamaica Kincaid’s well anthologized ‘Girl’ and Carolyn Foushee’s ‘The Colonel’.

Ruth said that she loves the short form because of its complexity and yet accessible nature. She also loves it because there is currently a strong market for micro fiction, flash fiction and very short stories (100-1,000 words). Although short fiction requires a beginning, middle and end, I find that it is possible to leave some questions lingering and resonating then having everything perfectly wrapped up. I now enjoy writing short fiction and writing more of it has also allowed me to enter contests and get my work published.

Here are some writing exercises to try; try to keep these in the 200-750 word range:

-Write a short piece that is based on giving advice. In Kincaid’s ‘Girl’, the narrator is a young girl who hears her mother’s voice in her her head interspersing sexual advice with everyday ‘ladylike’ ways of being in the world:

Excerpt: this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile at someone you like completely

-Write a short piece about someone who comes close to telling an important truth, but stops

-Write a short piece about a couple standing in front of a door about to go into a party who begin to argue

-Write a short piece about a character standing in someone’s home and being troubled by what they notice displayed on their friend’s refrigerator

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Limiting beliefs are often so hidden from our everyday awareness they feel more like inner immutable truths.

We all have a list of things we “know” we can’t do. It’s good to periodically examine a limiting belief and see if we can’t prove ourselves wrong and have fun while doing it.

For a long time, I believed that I couldn’t write short fiction, especially flash fiction. Flash fiction is a complete story that runs about 500 to 2,000 words. In a short number of words, flash fiction has to serve up all the traditional elements of fiction: interesting characters, a sensible plot, an engaging conflict, a setting and a resolution.

That’s a tall order. E-readers and shrinking attention spans have created a renaissance and hunger for high-quality short fiction.

I had good reason to believe that I couldn’t do it. I had never done it before.

As an academic writer, I’ve spent most of my time producing research and long scholarly books. As a creative writer, I’ve spent more than a decade of my time reading and analyzing novels, learning the craft of novel writing and working on a sprawling 800-page novel. The few times that I tried to write short fiction, I instead cranked out a novella (about 50,000 words).

Case closed, right?

After getting feedback from an editor at a small press that he liked my longer pieces, but wanted to see if I had short fiction, I was forced to confront my limiting belief. If I wanted to develop a relationship with this editor (always a good thing), it meant I’d actually have to create some short fiction. Also strategically, a publisher is more likely to take a chance on a new novelist if the writer has a lot of short fiction published, or a collection of short stories.

After a few moments of white-knuckled panic and some reflection, I realized that I had selectively chosen bits of evidence to support my belief and excluded others. In college, I was a dual major in political studies and creative writing. In my writing classes, I wrote tons of short fiction. I had totally discounted all that early writing. Our psyches are pretty clever, huh?

Scratching a bit deeper, I also knew that a fear of writing badly, in this genre, and hence rejection also had propped up my belief. Fear of the unknown keeps most people from attempting new things. It is very hard to “fail” in public. Matthew Fox, Episcopal priest and author of “Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet” says when we stop trying new things for fear of looking bad, we can suffer from a type of rigid “adultism.”

Although my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson (author of “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas”) encourages her students to think of claiming over 100 rejections as a path to mastery in the writing life, the thought of piling up more rejection letters didn’t make me feel wildly creative and rush to the computer.

However, once that memory from college surfaced and challenged my long-held belief, I took the next step.

I gave myself permission to try a new activity. I enrolled in writing classes devoted to flash fiction, read the New Yorker and subscribed to several literary journals. And, I wrote a lot of bad short fiction. I played and learned. I kept in mind the metaphor about short fiction that I learned from Ruth Moose, recently retired and beloved teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s like a well-paced dinner party. I stopped trying to get my characters to sleep over.

Although I’m light-years away from mastering the short form, I’ve gained an appreciation for flash fiction and hope to write more. This month, I saw my piece “Urban Wendy” published in Carolina Woman magazine. It won a prize in their annual spring writing contest.

Changing self-limiting beliefs requires a willingness to puncture the skin of deeply-held beliefs. It requires giving one’s self permission to take the next logical action. And, it also requires a recognition and tolerance for doing something badly or even face rejection.

Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s experience with rejection is instructive: 84 editors rejected his first novel before it was finally published as a paperback original – 84! In 1982, after selling 23 novels, the thriller “Stick” became a bestseller.

This piece originally appeared as a ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News on 7/22/2013

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You never know what’s in you until you start writing. I never thought I could write flash fiction. All my previous attempts at writing short stories resulted in novellas. But, over the past year and half, I have intensely studied the form. Last fall and early this year, I signed up for classes on writing short fiction.

Ironically, my two recent fiction publications are flash fiction. One of these two stories, ‘Family Line’ , was published last year by Ink Monkey Press.

And, now Carolina Woman magazine has just published ‘Urban Wendy’. This story took the third prize in their spring contest. And, as if I needed any more encouragement from the universe to keep writing, I got it-the prize I won was a year long membership to The North Carolina Writers’ Network. The NCWN is a fantastic organization that supports writers in all stages of development. They sponsor residencies, an annual fall and spring conference, and events around the state. I am always promoting NCWN to newbie writers (so much so, they sometimes think I have a financial stake in the organization–I don’t. I just love the services they provide). I’ve been a member for years and I am thrilled that another year’s membership is my prize .

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You can read ‘Urban Wendy’ here as well as see the other winners (I’m in honored to be in such great company). In the magazine, they put together a perfect selection of pictures to go with the story. Full disclosure–I worked at a Wendy’s in Spanish Harlem when I was sixteen, and at a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk in the Times Square Terminal when I was seventeen, and I have always loved the notion of urban legends. Enjoy!

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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