by Christopher Allen
Due to some recent life changes, I’ve had to limit my writing and editing time drastically; stories, though—characters’ situations, lines of dialogue, phrases and titles—keep flipping me around at night. I guess the simplest answer to the question “Why do I write?” is that the ideas keep coming. Brilliant or bollocks, they keep coming.
But why do I write flash fiction? It started at university—or it tried to. I was making up 16 hours of undergraduate English in a summer so that I could start a graduate program in English lit (I’d majored in music and music business as an undergrad). On one of my papers, my Victorian lit professor wrote that my essays were like tiny stories—I think she might have used the word “gems,” but my self-congratulatory memory might have sneaked this in. The papers were those 500-word ditties we’re all familiar with. Later in the semester when I told her I was writing a screenplay, her reaction was “You should write short stories.” This was 1992. I published one short story in the university’s journal in 1993, but between then and 2007 I wrote two screenplays and three novels—never another short story. Call me hard-headed. Go ahead.
Maybe I was resisting “tiny” and “short” and “ditty”—and not only because I’m relatively tiny myself. Maybe I was under the impression that “tiny” meant unimportant, that what I had to say wouldn’t fit into “tiny.” Maybe I’d read way too much Henry James and George Eliot. You are, after all, what you read. (And if this is true, I’m Bill Bryson and Virginia Woolf’s unlikely lovechild.) My love for other people’s words is another reason I write. And edit.
The often condensed syntax of sudden fiction represents a uniquely contemporary voice. Trimming syntax urges the eye along so that the reader experiences text almost in a single moment. Of course this is impossible, but it seems to be the goal. Technology keeps changing the way we read. It’d be dishonest to say some (many?) contemporary writers are not reacting to current tastes and reading formats when choosing to write shorter texts. In Internet writing workshops and communities you’re much more likely to get feedback on a 500-word piece than a whopping 5000-worder. Just have a look at a few litzines’ word-limit guidelines. Scrolling sucks, and it definitely contributes to carpal tunnel syndrome. Faster online fiction is healthier fiction.
As fast as it is to read, though, sudden fiction can take a long time to write (I don’t write sudden fiction because I like to write fast). It’s rare that I’ll sit down at my computer and whip out a 700-word story that I love at first read. It happens, but I usually come back to the story after a week with ideas that rip it apart. Then more ideas rip it apart two weeks later. And so on. Each ripping strips unnecessary bits, refines character—and sometimes completely screws the story to hell and back; yet more often the story evolves, becomes bigger and rounder as it grows smaller, tighter. Tight is, after all, the new big.
Each time I finish one of these tiny stories, I have to look at what I’ve created and ask myself. . .Is this whole? Is the reader’s eye urged along? Will the reader have the same visceral reaction to this moment as I do? Will these characters, whose visit was so brief, stay with the reader beyond the reading? Or is this just a ditty?
I hope other writers of sudden fiction will agree with me that we write sudden fiction because we have so many different moments of being to share: those particularly deep moments my mother Virginia Woolf talked about. In this way, we’re more like painters, songwriters and chefs than novelists.
You know, it might be as simple as feeling satisfaction in the completion of all those ideas that keep coming, the opportunity of plumbing, shaping and completing not just a few pieces of art but many—that’s why I write flash fiction.
Christopher Allen is grateful to have his sudden fiction in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly’s Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine and many other great places. His book reviews have been featured at [PANK], Word Riot, The Lit Pub and Necessary Fiction, among others. He’s won some awards and come close to winning others. He keeps trying, and so should you. He lives in Germany and blogs at www.imustbeoff.com about his slight travel obsession.