I don’t get flash fiction.  500 words!  Good grief!   How can you even begin to tell a satisfactory story in the equivalent of six paragraphs?  By the end of the sixth paragraph, you’ve basically managed to introduce the unhappy family, the way the sea looks from the porch of their house in the summer, and the smell of the strawberry jam the little sister is making in the kitchen, without knowing how, because her mother is out on the ocean photographing sea life and her father isn’t paying attention to any of the children anymore.  

And texting!  Texting eludes me.  160 characters (for a long time I thought that was 160 WORDS.  I suppose I thought that because I found it unbelievable that any unit of writing could be measured in characters.  That messages are indeed measured that way breaks my heart.)  160 characters isn’t enough to do anything other than say no, an unsatisfactory no at that, because you can’t tell a joke after you say no, or explain your no, or make your no into a no-but-yes-to-you-because-I-really-like-you-even-though-I-can’t-go-to-that-thing-with-you.   

 Right now, all I know is that I don’t want to read 500 word stories.  If I’m going to read a  story, I want it in the conventional short form (say 4,000 words or more), or I’ll take it long.  I mean that.  I’ll take it Victorian, three volume long,   I’ll even take it Russian three million volumes long.  

As for the 160 character  no, I want my nos to  go on and on and end in yeses or at least devolve into something so interesting you forget about the no.  That takes more than 160 characters, I think we can all agree.  If I am going to get a message, I want it to come in a letter, a really good, long letter with lots of descriptions and funny stories.   In a pinch, an e-mail will do.  Okay — an e-mail will more than do.

And if I do want to read 500 words of meaning, then I want a poem.  A world can live in 500 words.  A no can become a yes in much less than 500 words — in half of 500 words, in fact.   That is what John Donne is expert at, for example.  

But here’s a thought:  What if there really is something wonderful about short shorts and I am missing the boat?  Yikes.   Could be that the problem isn’t the form at all.  I mean,  every form — whether it is a sonnet, or a short story, or who knows, even short-shorts and, what the heck, text messages — has its brilliant practitioners, artists who need the form to give birth to what’s in their heads.  Take the Shakespearean sonnet, for example — 14 lines.  A lot happens in those fourteen lines, but almost always at either the ninth line or in the couplet at the end of the sonnet there is a turn, and the thought that’s been extended through most of the sonnet is resolved, or turned on its head.  I think some people must think like this — in iambic rhythms, maybe even the rhyme scheme makes a kind of innate sense to them, and the way a sonnet reasons also is the way they like to think.  And this could be true of the short short (maybe even the text).  Maybe there is a sort of thought that really sings when it is placed in the short-short form.  And maybe the Shakespeare of Texting is out there right now, sending texts that are miracles of language.    

And so, today, I have resolved to work my way out of my aversion to flash fiction.  I mean, really, who am I to diss any written form?  After all, I am the woman who thought of the short story — for an embarrassingly long time — as a failed novel.  (I admit this because I am Catholic, and can only be absolved of my idiocy by confessing to it, except I don’t go to confession and I don’t think having bad ideas about literature is officially a sin….).   And I was very wrong about that.  Very wrong.  

 So, fortuitously, today I had tea with a lovely fellow blogger, who recommended I read Lydia Davis, which I’m going to do.  And then I had lunch, with another blogging friend, and I realized she writes 100 word pieces — so I’m going to look at some of hers.  

It might turn out that narrative is my thing, and that I will be unable to enjoy something that looks like it should be narrative, but isn’t.  But I will find out, and that will be fun to do.

33 thoughts on “Flash!

  1. I should have a go at that! Twittering has certainly taught me a lot about what can be squashed into 140 characters. With texting, it’s too easy to run straight on into another text and let the phone split them up and send them (and leave the unfortunately recipients of my mobile logorrhea to deal with the ensuing Burroughsian cut-up)

  2. All right, you’ve piqued my interest (despite the fact that I would take that three-million-volume-long Russian work over something shorter any day). After all, you’re right: certain genres have to be created to become so, and there must be at least a few brilliant people creating them. Off I go to check out your links…

  3. I’m with you. If it is worth saying, it is worth saying at length with descriptive passages and a few good jokes. I think I may be fundamentally incapable of Twittering because of this predilection for prose.

    That being said, however, there is a place for the micro story in this world outside of poetry. Analog Science Fact and Fiction Magazine has a regular feature called “Probability Zero” which is always a short story with a twisty end (frequently a horrible pun) that is no longer than a page and a half. These are a lot of fun to read and I have always been in awe of a person who can tell a story that succinctly.

  4. U-Dad — All I can say about twitter is wow. (Three characters!)

    Emily — I liked the interview with Lydia Davis a lot, and I’ve ordered Varieties of Disturbance on the strength of that and Jade Park’s recommendation. When I talked to Jade about her this morning, her name sounded so familiar, and then I realized, after I read this interview, that she translates Proust — hardly a short-short writer! I can’t wait to read this collection. Her writing doesn’t seem to be available online, but I have the feeling she’s wonderful, just from the things she says here.

    Ms. HMH — Microfiction! That’s another good name for the short-short. And I agree with you, I too admire those who can get to the point — or at least the pun — in a page and a half.

  5. My father, John M. Daniel, who is a writer, publisher, editor and teacher of writing, has written for a series of books called the “The World’s Shortest Stories.” Each of the stories is fifty five words long. He also co-edited a couple of the books in the series, one of which is called “The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death.”

    It’s a genre I like.

  6. I just looked at his website Ben! Those mysteries sound fun — and the book on short fiction, and his short story collection — enticing. One of the things that amazes me about blogging is all the stuff I discover that I never knew before. And so it goes today. I’m going to order my own autographed copy of his book on short fiction — for starters. I love this description: “THIS BOOK IS GUARANTEED TO HAND YOU A PULITZER PRIZE, A MILLION DOLLARS, AN OFFER FROM FARRAR STRAUS, A DISNEY OPTION, AND AN HOUR ON OPRAH—


    I’ll take any of the above, but mostly the last.

  7. I am one of the most verbose people I know (only on paper, though, I can shut up in real life when necessary) so short fiction is a risible thought. I’ve read a lot of bad stuff and only a little that’s good, but what works might have been more accurately described as fleshed-out poetry or something. Twitter’s the one that gets me. My brain just doesn’t work in that sort of brief comment fashion!

  8. Yay! I admire your willingness to be open and try something new. I’ve been interested in Lydia Davis for a while and would like to read Varieties of Disturbance at some point, so I’m curious what you will think — I hope you’ll share! I prefer long too, definitely, but I am also someone who likes Twitter and sees that people can be brilliant in short bursts. I think mostly I’ll stick with long, but I think it’s nice to stay open to other possibilities.

  9. bl–
    varieties of disturbance must be good…oakland public library has 2 copies, 1 stolen, the other checked out with 2 holds on it (one of them yours?)

    i’m getting a copy from CAL…

    race ya!

  10. Certainly we all have preferences, but it’s great to remain open, as our choice of fiction is often determined by circumstances. As an unattached student I enjoyed long long novels, but right now, when I can grab a few pages of a short story during my lunch break, I’m very happy too! That said, I can’t understand texting either. But I recently discovered Haibun, which is a combination of haiku and prose, in a short short version (about a page long or even less).

  11. A good friend who is a businessman by day and a creative writer in reality often writes flash fiction. The first time I heard about it was from him, and I had a similar reaction. “Who on earth wants to read something so short?” But I took a look, and although I still prefer longer prose (okay, not the three million volumes a la Russian style), I was really impressed with how well some writers can express themselves in so few words. Still want longer fiction, but I definitely have respect for good short shorts writers.

  12. I like big investments of time as well. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate poetry and short stories and even enjoy them very much, but my first love has always been novels, and looooong novels at that. And texting? Well, I’ve grown used to that over time BUT I have to twitter for work and I hate – HATE – it. Some of my coworkers honestly believe we live in a 140 character world and that the written word is dying and that breaks my heart a little bit every day too.

  13. I think you’re absolutely right, Lily — it’s a matter of looking at what makes the particular form effective…and even great…rather than focusing on what it can’t possibly achieve. And Lydia Davis is amazing — love her work.

    Another favorite book of mine is “Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life” by Abigail Thomas. Flash essays strung together to make a whole memoir…it’s gorgeous. I also love “The Balloonists” by Eula Biss, which is not quite flash essays, not quite poetry…a little of both.

    It was so wonderful to have lunch with you! I have a couple of photos up on Flickr, and one of them was my photo of the day for Friday: http://365genie2009.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/removing-the-puri/

    Let’s plan another outing soon!

  14. Oh dear Gentle Reader, I think twitter looks like it might be fun — but I’m sooo long-winded. I don’t think I could survive it.

    Genie, Thanks for the link and for the recommendations. I just got a Lydia Davis book in the mail today and I’ve requested two others. I can’t wait to sit down and read her. (Plus, I have vol. 1 of Remembrance of Things Past!) I loved our Indian lunch – I’ve wanted to go to Vik’s Chaat House for a really long time and I’m so glad I finally got to do it.

    That’s so interesting Courtney, that your work has you on twitter. Is it a way to make sure you’re working??? Hmm.

    Dear David, That looks like a lot of fun. I think I might even try it myself. After I read Lydia Davis, and you!

    Mari, I think that’s the same conclusion I’ve come to. It simply can’t be the case that you can conclude, simply because something’s written in a short form, that it won’t be interesting. I’m looking forward to becoming interested!

    Jacob! I can’t wait to go & see that. And to look at the Joyce. Thank you.

    Pauline, Haibun sound like the perfect lunch reading material. In fact, they sound a little like food, don’t you think?

    OP — Yes, isn’t it funny how if people are stealing your book it’s a sign that you totally rock as a writer? As for racing you — I’m going to have to slink along in your dust and hope you leave me something when you’re finished!

    Dear Dorothy, I’m looking forward to writing about Lydia Davis — I started reading her at lunch today (while I was eating something other than a haibun, but that is my fault, entirely). And what I especially love is that she is funny.

    Dearest litlove, I know this isn’t really a response to your comment, but I love that word “risible” — I’m going to see if I can work it into something, although maybe not a law something, because we’re not supposed to have a sense of humor there. Still…. As for twitter, well, every time I go over there to sign up I stop myself — I’m still incorporating facebook into my life. I think twitter will send me over the edge.

  15. You expressed my thoughts about flash fiction EXACTLY! I read fiction because I want to be swept away into another world, to be caught up in the characters and the setting and the plot and, if it’s different, the time period. Five hundred words, as you said, is merely an introduction to all of that. And, yes, poetry is different, because the best poetry captures and essence — a moment or a thought or an idea. NOT an entire plot. Poetry is a flower. A book is a garden. And flash fiction? I don’t know — a dandelion?

  16. I think you seriously understate the power of condensation in the hands of a competent writer. A piece of 500 words or so has to be more than a miniture, needs to discover in itself the possibilites of its form. While little of what I’ve seen of micro-fiction succeeds on any level, the challenge intrigues me and I can’t come up with any aesthetic argument for why it can’t be done.

    As for micro-fiction as poetry… what on earth does that mean? If a novel doesn’t approach poetry on some level I don’t find it worth reading–and I don’t mean by that, flowery overly ornate figurative prose; I mean, where language is employed as more than a means to an end, as is the case with most commeercial fiction.

  17. Caryn,

    “Poetry is a flower.”

    I have sitting on my desk Ron Siliman’s The Alphabet: a 1053 page poem… or perhaps, 24 linked poems?

    Some flower!

    I know you didn’t intend that, but I can’t think of a single poet I know who wouldn’t find it somewhat insulting (or at least, slightly rediculous) to liken poetry to a flower.

  18. Dear Jacob, You say just what I was trying to say which is that a “piece of 500 words or so has to be more than a miniature, needs to discover in itself the possibilities of its form.” Now, it’s fine to not LIKE that form because you want something other than what is possibile in that form, which I think is Caryn’s point. The form itself, though, is not the problem. I have been loving, and not so-loving, Lydia Davis this week, and I am looking forward to posting about her and this form. As for flowers and gardens and dandelions, I am always happy when people go for it in the comments language-wise. Far better than its tepid opposite! (Which neither you nor Caryn could ever be accused of producing.) As for the 1053 page poem, good heavens! I want to know more about that.

    Dear Caryn, I have long thought of short stories as existing on a continuum in which poetry is at one end and Russian novels are at the other — I think short stories are closer to poetry than to Russian novels (or at least I tentatively think that, because I’m not quite sure today) — and I agree with you that even shorter short stories would appear to be even closer to poetry. But my thoughts about this are in flux, partly because I haven’t yet read enough short-shorts to know what I think. That’s the subject for my NEXT blog post, and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.

  19. I have to take that back… if I think of the reality, what a flower is in its own right, and not as “a pretty thing.”

    A flower is the structure of a plant’s reproductive organs, its genatilia, botanical equivalents of uterus, ovary, penus, testicle–evolved to seduce insects and trick them into bringing about their reproductive union. Now a poem that emulates all of that: conjucating verbs, the sytactical rapure of noun clusters, propositional phrases seducing immoral apositives… there might be something to poetry as ‘flower’… ah, but what do we do with flowers? We spread them around caskets to mask the stench of death… and alas, those are the flowers that come to mind when I hear “flower” and “poetry” in the same breath.

  20. Jacob! Dude! (As we say in our house when someone does some particularly audacious thing, like catapult off the top of the car while eating a piece of toast) — that was a 99 WORD PIECE OF FLASH FICTION! As you well know. And so you win the He-Goes-For-It-In-The-Comments-Section Award which is, naturally, a lovely sprig of star jasmine from our blooming yard.

    Plus, we are all saying in unison, You rock, Jacob.

  21. I hope I’m not being the guest who overstayed his welcome here. But this is something I’ve been thinking about. In writing transport (the piece I linked several comments back), I wanted to counter the expectation that condensation need be fast paced, breathlessly rush to denouement and resolution. Is it possible, I wondered, to write as though there were all the time in the world–to spread out layer after layer, as one might do in beginning a novel, and yet, set a limit of 500 words?

    Emily Dickinson (our unsurpassed master of condensation) uses the word ‘transport’ that way–to layer the meaning of her subject each time she uses the word. Transport for Dickinson is everything from movement in space, in time, memory–to the idea of an altered state, a spiritual transport into another dimension. I took three journal entries, written while riding the Frankford El in Philly one summer, to see if I could use this idea–transit–disassociation–transport: three pieces that I set myself the task of writing in a leisurely paced descriptive style, but which might suggest thematic layers, each coming quickly to an end… like a change in a stream of associations, but just as quickly taking up the same idea again in a different setting. The idea being… that this might go on and on… not in the addition of new fictions, but in the reader carrying that mode of perception into the world… which is one of the things that gives us pleasure in long novels… that while we are engaged in them, we go about our lives as though it were somehow a continuum of that fictive universe.

    Micro fiction seems so perfectly suited for internet reading… something one might take a few minutes to read in the morning before going off into the work-a-day world… and have it cling to you, shaping perceptions the way dreams sometimes do.

  22. Try to find the book, “I Remember,” by Joe Brainard. A masterpiece, recommended to me by another blogger. I suppose you might call it “flash memoir.”

  23. I’m late coming to this string of comments, but as a haiku writer, I’ve come to believe most of the story is between the words, not in them. As your discussion of sonnets suggests, the choices writers make create distinct and different challenges. Anyone who can accept 50 words, 500 words, or 500 pages and find what’s perfect to that form has my respect.

  24. Oh, I don’t think you’re late to anything, Mr. Marshall — this is a Slow Blog. We could talk about flash fiction for a very long time. I like your idea of the story that lives between the words. And yes, you’re right, the trick as a writer is to figure out how to use the form properly.

    Tai, Flash memoir! That’s a terrific suggestion. Thank you very much. Your blog, by the way, does a huge amount in a few words — and a picture. It’s a model for short form blogging. I love visiting it. Some days it’s the perfect antitode to too much time spent writing about the law.

    U-Dad — The six word memoir is a lot of fun. For my friend C’s birthday a few years ago, everyone wrote six word stories of how they met her. That Hemingway six word story — For sale: baby shoes never used — sets the standard.

    Jacob, Nope. You haven’t overstayed anything. How could you? That’s a wonderful description of your microfiction project and the possibilities of this form. Thank you for that.

  25. I know what you mean about Twitter – I have yet to join, too, and have trouble enough coming up with my facebook status. But I have a writer friend who absolutely loves texting. She loves how whether you spell something out – just imagine the difference between getting the text “I love you” and “i luv u” – can change the meaning, but even better, the punctuation. Do you put periods at the end of your texts? They always seem so much more serious and final than without. And I think she takes pleasure in finding a way to clearly express an idea, a thought, or a feeling, in so few words. I think text and twitter and facebook can be good practice in writing succinctly for those of us who tend to write more.

  26. Right on! I felt the same way as a reader. As a writer though, I LOVE flash fiction. Maybe it’s because I just can’t stick it out to get a novel written, but a 500-word piece is so satisfying to write and polish. Check out Brevity & Echo, an anthology by creative writing grad students at Emerson College for a nice selection of quick but meaty reads.

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