Archive for August, 2011

by Michelle Reale

Michelle Reale: I am so pleased to have you as the featured writer! I love your writing, and, as well, love the fact that you are so supportive of other writers, too. You maintain a blog, are the editor of a flash-fiction anthology, happily married, and the mother of three beautiful children AND a new puppy with the sweetest, velvety ears and soulful eyes that I have ever seen. Tell me how you balance writing/creativity with so many other responsibilities.
Nicole Scarpato Monaghan: Thanks, Michelle, for your kind words. I am a lucky girl, for sure, with many blessings. I so deeply love my husband and three children and ah, yes, the puppy, Valentine, her soulful eyes and velvety ears have “puppied” their way deep into my heart in just weeks.

As to the balancing of things, I have not figured that out yet. I often feel that when I’m doing one thing, I should perhaps be doing another. There is too much, always, in both my head and heart. I tend to be stressed and hard on myself internally. I think I somehow come off, both in person and in my online “presence” as together. I’m not. I’d like to think that I prioritize being an excellent mother and wife above all else, but the writing is infinitely important to me, and I’ve made much time for it these last few years, which of course, leaves less time to keep up on everything else. It took many years, but I’ve come to believe that my doing what I love will serve my family in the end. I want my children to value art, regardless of how the world might act as though it’s less important than, say, money or fashion or youth or physical beauty or on and on. I want them to peruse  fearlessly whatever they love. If I weren’t doing that, I couldn’t expect them to. I think every week and day and minute there’s a tiny decision to be made about what one should be focusing on. Balls drop all the time. Every time I write something new and feel good about it, at least I’ve got a smile on my face while I’m on the floor picking up balls.

MR: You are a wonderful flash fiction writer. How did you come to love and write in the form?

NSM:Thank you! What a wonderful compliment. I think a few years back when I was rediscovering my writer-self, I found myself addicted to reading the very short stories in online journals and feeling an appreciation for them as a pure and fearless art form. It was, and maybe still is, a bit of a selfish thing. I belonged to it somehow, felt home, like Ah, people write these raw and aggressive pieces and they resonate with me and, wait, I think I can write them too. I wrote many, many stories in my childhood and throughout my teenage years even, and they tended to be longish ones with endless introductions (“set-ups”) and descriptions and several layers of story throughout the narratives. But these small ones, they’re special. They stick you right where it hurts and leave you concave on the last line.

I still enjoy the whole gamut of forms, such as essays (probably my second favorite), poetry, longer short stories, but I feel the absolute sexiest writing and reading flash. That seems a silly thing to say, but it’s the truth. I like the pull and intimacy of it, how we’re thrust into something unsettling and human, something that needs uncovering right now. I am thrilled by its unflinching focus, the emotional intensity, the words needing to do so much so quickly, the unavoidable vulnerability and nakedness of it. When it gets down to it, that’s why I like it best: I feel hot and sexy writing (and reading) flash. I have no idea what this says about me.

Because the domestic scenes interest me in a very intense and personal way, I am drawn to your pieces that lift the curtain on family dramas. Tell me about your pieces that blast the notion of the happy family—talk about their genesis.

I think that my pieces which deal with uncovering troubled family dynamics are ones where I’m very much “mashing up” a multitude of realities I’ve witnessed or imagined rather than experienced. I was fortunate to have a very happy and secure childhood with loving parents and two older brothers who I adored so the family ones are not on any level autobiographical. As far as blasting the notion of happy families, I think I do actively attempt, with every piece, to reveal some underlying complication, tension, or wound in a character or two, so perhaps I create situations, often family ones, to account for such wounds. Even in the most functional and happiest of families, there are as many disappointments, frustrations, misunderstandings, and tiny hurts as there are days in a year. A good story, in my opinion, will reveal those tiny things.

MR: In your flash piece “New Age” a mother confronts the realities of her pregnant sixteen year old. There is a saying that we write about our preoccupations. Is this true, in this case?

NSM:This piece, which was my first published flash, began with an image that felt to me like it needed to become a story. I was putting away my girls’ (then approximately ages nine and seven) dress-up clothes in a trunk and I imagined a mother, instead, tossing them into the trash. These sentences wrote themselves into my head: “I threw out the bent wand, the mangled pompoms, the sparkly belts. I tossed the beaded purse, like I was taking a free-throw shot, and it went in.” I really liked the language and imagery and wanted to see where it might go story-wise. I think of this piece as a language/image inspired piece rather than a content one. Once I had that image on the page, I was interested in figuring out what grave thing might cause a mother to dispose of her daughter’s dress-up clothes besides just the child having grown out of them. I wrote to the sentence with no idea where I’d end up. The pregnancy surprised me but I liked that the mother had the brave acceptance and the stoic ability to say goodbye to her daughter’s childhood and liked juxtaposing that with the father’s very different reaction

I have had a preoccupation with pregnancy at varying times in my life, having had three of them. I have always felt deep compassion for women who experience teenage pregnancy, infertility, miscarriage, and abortion—all of the emotionally-fraught pregnancy related problems–so I might have had a need to write sympathetically about a character who experiences one of these things, and how it impacts the people who love her. I was also, in the writing, identifying with the mother, imagining the utter pain I might feel if one of my own daughters experienced teenage pregnancy and miscarriage, and how I might attempt to cope.

MR: Your piece “Spell” gets into the head of a young girl in a spelling bee, on the surface a pretty innocuous activity—one would think. The girl internalizes everything around her and the reader gets to see her “process” her world. Take us through the process of writing this story.

“Spell” also came about with a few sentences that wrote themselves: “She spells it: anesthesiologist. A n e s t h e s i o l o g i s t. She doesn’t need the definition, but she thinks of it. Makes one numb.”

The sentences sort of implored me to “story” them. I think I might have caught part of a kids’ movie featuring a spelling bee a few days prior. The more I wrote of that story, the more I realized I wanted this character to be something other than what one might expect her to be. Rather than be a hopeful contestant who perhaps lands second place, she’d be a winner who doesn’t feel satisfied. My parents were very doting and always praised me for my accomplishments, so I never thought of this girl as myself, but reading your question I realize that I have put myself into her. I was the kind of little girl to internalize absolutely everything, feeling everything too deeply, I think, for my own good. It is a very weighty thing to absorb so much. I think I was weighed down by my own perceptions of the world and myself in it. I am portraying myself as very serious and sad. If you hang out with me, I will be more fun than this. I promise. I like to laugh and drink wine. Sometimes I’m funny too.

MR: Your flash fiction is very succinct and often with killer titles and last lines which I am particularly interested in. For instance, your title “What Goes Above Our Heads Sometimes Does Not.” How did the title come about? How important are titles to you?

Thank you! I think titles are infinitely important. I’ve learned quite a bit from Randall Brown in this regard. I’ve long admired his titles, and what he’s said about titles, that they are best not when they’re simply “what the story is about” but rather when they inform it and add something entirely new to it. I definitely attempt to do that with every one of my titles.

With that piece, my grandmother had recently passed away. My kids, who hadn’t been super close to her, were greatly affected by her death, it being the first one they’d ever experienced. I told them we’d release balloons in her honor, feeling that would be a very tangible way for them to express their grief. Immediately when I heard myself say this, my writing voice spoke in my head the first line, a knowing and perhaps cynical young girl’s voice: “We floated balloons to our dead uncle for closure.” I had no idea whatsoever where this one was going but liked all that line implied about the character who would speak it. When I sat down to flesh it out, it became the voice of a girl who had lost a family member and who was perceptive beyond her years. It was my hope to create a situation which would be interesting and intense and complex and sad. I was pleased with the tininess of this piece. I never lost an uncle as a child, my father didn’t have a brother, there was no infidelity in my parents’ marriage, and I don’t have an older (or younger) sister (so wish I did!), but that perceptiveness in the young girl is probably straight from my own memory of childhood. The title came very quickly. I wanted it to both reflect that initial image of the balloons rising up above the family and also give the reader additional information, namely, that something which would typically be assumed not absorbed by a child, even the tiniest of gestures between parents was, in fact, understood.

MR: Your blog is a place I love to hang out at. What is the importance of keeping a blog, to you? You are so open and honest in your postings, and your “voice” is totally devoid of the sarcastic snark that has come to characterize writers’ blogs today.

NSM: Wow, thank you! I find that I like to hang out there too, Michelle, and I feel comfy and very much myself. At times it feels vulnerable to be as honest as I am on the blog. I’m human, so I sometimes want to recoil after putting myself so utterly “out there.” But when I don’t do that, I find the writing stale and uninteresting. It seems the more of myself I risk, the more I am rewarded by readers who enjoy and appreciate that I have said what perhaps they are unable to. I really have come to a place of putting the honesty of the writing over insecurities, privacies, or risk of criticism or not being liked or being whispered about. Let them whisper. I’ll be over here doing my thang, and at age 37, I accept that not everyone will like or “get” me, and that’s ok. The blog’s become very important to me. People poo-poo blogs, but I think they can be a wonderful “home-base” for a writer, a place to come back to again and again. I very much like having all things literary having to do with me in one place there.

MR:Talk about being the editor of your upcoming  collection Stripped-–the premise behind anonymity and gender is an intriguing one!

NSM:Thank you! Your story is an amazing and haunting one, which I’m so grateful to have.

It’s a collection of forty-seven stories by both established and emerging flash writers. Authors’ names won’t be matched to pieces but authors’ bios will be included in the back of the book. The idea is for the reader to read blindly and to wonder about the gender of the author. Solicited authors were asked to either embody the gender roles of the gender opposite their own or embrace their own gender identity in writing previously unpublished stories for the collection. It’s not as simple as women authors writing from the male perspective or vice versa. We’ve mixed things up. One year after publication, authors’ names will be matched to stories on my blog and people will, I hope, say “No way, he (she) wrote that one!”

I believe the stripping away of the authors’ names will have readers engaging in a new way. It’s been a joy and honor to solicit, read, and select for this collection. I am humbled by the talent of the Stripped contributors.
I think we have to remember to rediscover literature again and again in new ways. I really like that his project is a long-term experiment. I hope it will become a testament to the joy of literary wonder. Many professors have already said they’d use it in their MFA in Creative Writing and Literature courses as a jumping point for lively discussion. I like to imagine graduate writing and literature students hunched over with their noses in it, excited and curious and inspired. I think it will be far-reaching and fun. A sexy thrill. And flashy.

MR: Finally, what is in your writing future? What writing goals have you set for yourself?

Because the writing feels to me like breathing, something I do rather naturally and that I sort of “have” to do (to feel alive and good), I don’t necessarily set specific goals in the traditional sense. However, in my heart, writing goals beat and pump. I very much want to have some of my stories collected in a volume and hope, after I’ve submitted the Stripped manuscript to the publisher, to spend time on a manuscript of my own collected work for publication. I’m not prolific, only having been submitting work for a few years now, but I believe there is enough to string together meaningfully. There is a strong desire to see some of the little things I’ve written, sent out and had published together, cohesive, and bound. This is the only thing I know how to do (write) so I want to do it often and see it very tangibly in the world. I admire writers who simply write for their own pleasure and don’t have a need to publish books and see their names on gorgeous covers with their words inside (assuming those writers really exist). I’m not one of them.

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Nicole Scarpato Monaghan is editor of Stripped, a Collection of Anonymous Flash Fiction due out from PS Books in spring, 2012. She has been honored with several writing awards from both the 61st and 62nd Annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conferences for her literary short stories, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry including three first prizes in 2010. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Storyglossia, Foundling Review, PANK, Used Furniture Review, and many other venues. Visit her at www.writenic.wordpress.com, where her literary posts have become regular contributions to the Philadelphia Stories Weblog. She lives with her husband, three children, and Redbone Coonhound puppy outside of Philadelphia.

Read Nicole’s stories What Goes on Above Our Heads Sometimes Does Not and Spell.   Hang out at Nicole’s blog!

 

by Robert P. Kaye

Conventional wisdom attributes artistic achievement to the possession of innate talent, as if Mozart, the Beatles, and Picasso shared some mutant gene enabling them to produce works of a caliber we mortals cannot hope to approach with our own paltry doodling. Believing this takes the pressure off those of us not blessed with native genius. It lets us non-prodigies off the hook.

I’m one of those legions of undergrad English majors who wrote in school, but lost the thread while chasing gainful employment. I continued to scribble fitfully, suspecting I suffered from a talent deficit.

Eventually, I picked up a book on the science behind creativity and discovered that the Beatles were old pros by the time they appeared on Ed Sullivan, honing their skills by playing gigs in Hamburg strip clubs eight hours a day, seven days a week for a month at a time. Mozart’s father, the ultimate showbiz dad, had little Amadeus playing from the time he could sit. Examples of precocious genius are typically revealed to be the result of vast quantities of practice.

Research on creativity, as recapped by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, indicates that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a skill. Cello? 10,000. Hockey? 10K. Writing? Go ahead, take a guess. All those without mutant genes are required to pay their dues—and that turns out to be everybody. The conventional wisdom’s idea of “talent” becomes virtually meaningless.

Realizing that ability is a matter of practice somehow puts the goal in reach, or it did for me. But writing three hours a day for ten years, or its equivalent, is a daunting prospect, especially when staring at a blank page probably doesn’t count. Through a series of incremental steps I developed a writing practice that works for me and maybe the basics will be of use to others. Here it is in five not-so-easy pieces.

Make writing a habit. Writing is only possible for me if I don’t have to decide “if” or “when.” This means making it part of a daily routine like brushing my teeth. The first step involved getting up early to journal or write or stare at that blank page. Psychology shows that doing something 21 days in a row tends to cement a habit (again with the numbers). Starting was the hardest part. Thanks to Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones for this.

Things go better with flow. Ten thousand hours better not feel the equivalent of watching paint dry. Flow is the experience of total engagement which causes an hour to feel like ten minutes, according to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist famous for researching the concept. One technique for achieving flow is bait and switch, starting with a journal entry (for instance) to get rolling then switching to fiction. After some practice, flow becomes second nature, time flies past like nothing and you’re late for work. A side benefit is that flow seems to be a key ingredient in general happiness.

Revise endlessly. I’ve recently had several stories published that have been ‘in work’ for a decade or more, reclaimed repeatedly from my On Hold or Dead Junk subdirectories. Revisions go better with feedback and moral support, so seek out or organize a writing group, preferably with more advanced writers and/or join an online writing community (I recommend Zoetrope). Read work out loud for a different perspective. For me, the most important ingredient in a good revision is time in the drawer, where my subconscious (a much better writer) can do its thing.

Submit work, even when yet another form rejection threatens to drive you to violence. Publishing isn’t everything—maybe they’ll issue your work posthumously and you’ll be famous. Won’t that be fun? Having a story see ink (or electrons) is one of the best legal thrills and there is no better source of motivation. Submit a lot and often— success at publishing has much in common with being a spammer. Sure, rejection hurts, but we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and heroes must suffer. Best of all, submitting means you have to finish something first.

Learn to trust that you will be a better writer tomorrow. Perhaps the greatest thing about the 10,000 hours concept is that YOU IMPROVE. Ability is a continuum, not a destination. This explains why all my old stuff tends to read like crap to me now, but also why I have a shot at working the current crop of stories into something good.

I expect that all the accomplished writers out there will find these things obvious, but I wish I’d known them when I was sixteen or even thirty. Loopholes may exist in the 10,000 hour rule, and if you find one, I would appreciate an immediate email. If not, buckle up, because it’s a long, bumpy ride.

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Robert P. Kaye has published a couple dozen stories and counting (again with the numbers) in magazines like Monkeybicycle, Per Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains Review, decomP, Cicada, Danse Macabre and elsewhere, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web and Story South prizes. His novel Taking Candy from the Devil, about coffee, Bigfoot and trebuchets, is published online. Links to all appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with a blog about literature’s bipolar relationship with technology.

by Rumjhum Biswas

Most of us know Oonah V Joslin as the managing editor of Every Day Poets. She also has a straightforward bio somewhere in the Writewords website - Oonah was born in Ballymena, N. Ireland. After 28 years of teaching she returned to her first love – writing. That was 3 years ago. Oonah writes mostly Flash Fiction and Poetry. She is thrice winner of Micro Horror‘s Hallween Competition, Honoree in The Binnacle Poetry Contest 2009, and has work in the print anthologies of several magazines including The Very Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and 2009, The Shine Journal and Toe Tags. Oonah is Managing Editor at Every Day Poets and a reader for Bewildering Stories. She blogs at http://www.oonahs.blogspot.com and updates links to her latest online work there and on Facebook. A complete list of her published work is available in Facebook Notes and at The Vaults here http://oovj.wordpress.com/.

In reality there is a lot more to Oonah, a glimpse of which can be seen in Parallel Oonahverse. Here, Oonah is at her own pace and space, putting in things that interest her and are a part of her life, including cooking; yes her blog also includes her recipes – scroll under Categories on the left hand bar and you’ll end up in Foodyverse! Finally, when you get to interact with Oonah, apart from poetry, fiction and food, and also her photography, you find an incredibly warm yet refreshingly forthright person. Here in this interview, you get to taste some of that!

Rumjhum Biswas: Can you tell us about your writing process, as in a day in Oonah’s flash writing life?

Oonah V Joslin: When I first started writing Flash it was just for fun and if it wasn’t still fun I wouldn’t be doing it now. I know some people don’t like that attitude but if you don’t enjoy something, don’t do it – life’s too short. I don’t have daily deadlines. I have a weekly challenge that I do in an online forum. Sometimes I do two if I have time or if an idea snaps in my brain. I also have monthly goals that I set myself – a story for MicroHorror for instance. But recently, I find I don’t have the time to search around the Internet looking for places to send stuff. I like to work from a prompt and so mags like tweatthemeat and 5 x 5 Fiction or Doorknobs & Bodypaint really suit me. I tend to send to magazines that like my work because it’s more productive in the long run. I know it’s the line of least resistance too. I also attend a writer’s group in Newcastle whenever I can  – every few weeks on a Thursday. I have taken a lot of inspiration from that and the people there are very helpful but I’m not an easy person to encourage. I tend not to believe praise.

RB:  Flash seems to be clearly your favourite form (right now). What according to you are the advantages and also disadvantages in this form?

OJ: Right now, and probably always as far as prose is concerned. It’s more like a calling for me. Even my novella A Genie in a Jam was written as Flash – 17 separate stories. It developed into a cohesive plot about half way through but that was not my original intention. It began as Flash. It remained Flash until DJ met the love of his life. Then I needed a plot that resolved that situation but luckily I found I’d already inadvertently set it up.

For me the advantages of Flash as a writer are that it gets you writing. Setting out to write a novel would be way too daunting for me. Begin with a Flash and it can take you anywhere. It has taken me farther than I could ever have supposed. I am not one of those who use flash to hone my skills as a novelist. My chief skill was always précis. Writing at length is more difficult for me.

Disadvantages? I suppose it depends on what you want out of writing. It’s difficult to get anyone interested in a single author collection – at least so I’m told. I haven’t actually tried.

For the reader – Flash is ideal for people to read on Kindle, on trains etc or just for those who like to dip into a book. Not everyone likes tomes and pot boilers. And these little stories can stay with you in a very powerful and unique way. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the popular film – began life as a story written on a Christmas card just for friends. Who knows? Perhaps Hollywood awaits.

RB: You also write poetry and I understand you are working on a novel. How do you pace your writing? Do you switch when the mood strikes or do you follow a system, jotting down ideas to work on after you’re done with whatever form you are working on at that time?

OJ: I chiefly write poetry. I have about seven chapters of that novel done and I haven’t written any more of it for years. I’m too busy with flash and poetry and EDP. Poetry is my first love. A poem (or a series of poems) will always displace all other projects in my mind. I do switch when the mood strikes me. To my shame, I’m a very untidy creature in all my ways. I try to be organised but it just never works. Creativity and mess seem to go together with me. I have a messy mind. Suddenly something comes into my head and away I go, off at a tangent – the Flash I was writing turns into a poem. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it makes a mess. Sometimes it does both. A lot gets abandoned.

RB: Where do you most feel comfortable when you are writing? Do you have a favourite spot? Or a favourite thing or pet you like having around you when you work?

OJ: I just sit at the computer. I need quiet. No music. No distractions. I like a cup of tea beside me but often it goes cold. I get caught up when I’m writing and forget the time. If something’s not working I just go and do some housework or cooking instead or go for a swim or do some editing. I don’t sit there, blank and fretting. That serves no purpose.

(Alas my wee cat died this year but she had a tremendous obit in MicroHorror and so many messages on Face Book that I wondered whether anyone would miss me half so much? Anyway she could’ve told you – don’t mess with mummy when she’s writing!)

RB: What do you do when a great idea strikes you and you are away from your writing place?

OJ: I try to note it down – a line or phrase – Write the one about the rosehips. I’ve been known to get up at 4am to write something down. I have memorised an entire poem in bed too so I’d wake with it in my head. That works sometimes. I take a notepad to the pool so I can jot some idea when I get to the changing rooms. I quite often think of writing when I’m swimming or walking. Sometimes alas, I lose those moments. I think all writers do. Sometimes I lose the entire notepad.

RB: You are a superb cook. How do these two creative activities meld inside your mind? Are you still a writer when you’re in your kitchen and vice versa – as in coming up with a dish idea when you’re writing?

OJ: Superb? That would take discipline and I’d have to follow a recipe. I’m told my food is “top notch” but I have had my share of disasters, fallen cakes and scorched potatoes and I use convenience foods like anyone else – nothing like a tin of beans you know! I’m just as messy in the kitchen as I am in the office and just as irregular of habit. But yes I tend to think poetry/ food/ flash and I’ve combined them – A Genie in a Jam? I do make jam! And when poets Catherine Edmund’s and Amanda Baker came to lunch, we had a bread making session and picked herbs. The kitchen is my comfort zone. Somehow I always end up in the kitchen just as I always end up teaching. If it moves, teach it. If it doesn’t move, cook it.

RB: Who were/are your favourite authors?

OJ: Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke – the three kings :) C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien.

Michael Bywater, Bill Bryson – these are non-fiction writers. I prefer reading non-fiction. I love biographies and history. I just finished reading a fascinating book on  local history; how my nearest town came into being, it’s history to the present day.

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is my favourite book. I’m never sure how to classify that one. It doesn’t seem like a novel to me.

Jeannette Winterson is a poetic and intelligent writer. I don’t read novels as a rule but if the language is beautiful I can be persuaded.

There are more poets than I could mention but Browning, Hopkins, John Clare, Wilfred Owen, Simon Armitage, Leonard Cohen and if anyone doubts that, read The Book of Mercy, my friend Pippa Little – but you know, I read new poets every day as an editor and some of our poets at EDP are excellent and have become firm favourites of mine already, whose work I look forward to seeing in submissions.

RB: What genre in flash do you enjoy writing most?

OJ: I have written more horror than anything else – 44 stories in MicroHorror alone. I suppose that must speak for itself. But I don’t read horror – too scary! I like cross genre, quirky stuff like “On with the Motley” and “On Angel’s Wings”. Fantasy and Sci-Fi would be my preference both for reading and writing. I have a low threshold for sex or violence. I don’t want to read that stuff.

RB: What according to you makes up a great piece of flash fiction?

OJ: The art of précis. Knowing what to cut out is all important with both Flash and Poetry and it is that above all I think that attracted me to Flash – that it can have the density of poetry. These are short forms and so, like a good sauce, the secret lies in reduction. Last October Gay put up three versions of one of my stories to show how I go about that. I did another example recently on a forum and one person was so good as to say he liked all three but couldn’t decide which was best. I counted that as a very strong evidence of success because it means the shortest version lost nothing in the telling. It was merely distilled.

RB: In your opinion what is the worst thing a flash fiction writer can do and kill the story?

OJ: I confess I have a pet hate. My heart sinks when I see any sentence that is constructed:

Looking out the window, he saw Mrs Smith watering the garden.

Picking up the telephone, she said hello.

This seems to be very prevalent in much contemporary writing and it grates with me every time. Much better:

He looked out the window. Mrs Smith was watering the garden.

She picked up. ‘Hello.’

And, these are shorter too. Short sentences are key rather than convoluted clauses and a lot of gerunds.

RB: You are the managing editor at Every Day Poets and also read for Bewildering Stories. What compelling thing do you look for in a piece, whether poetry or flash, that can make you sit up and say, I want to publish this? How often does such a moment occur in your editing life?

OJ: I like a piece to be beautifully written. I like the subtle use of metaphor, thematic strands, alliterative language, use of rhythm even in prose and rhyme and form as appropriate in poetry. End rhyme can kill a poem stone dead. I like to be transported by the language of a poem but I also like it to be meaningful. If I get to the end and wonder what that was all about it’s no good. Similarly with fiction – it has to grab me and keep me reading.

How often does that happen? Not often but, if there is a grain of beauty, something worthwhile that I see running through a piece, that I think can be enhanced and brought out, then I’m pleased and I usually give the writer a chance to revise. Anyway EDP is a team effort and my opinion, thankfully is not paramount. I think most prose can benefit by being shorter.

RB: What are you cooking up now? :)

OJ: Surprisingly, I’ve been getting out and about this year. Making appearances. It began last September when I went to Baltimore and met writing pals there. I enjoyed myself. Then I met poet John Stocks and collaborated on a discussion of poetry in Bewildering Stories, (later reprinted in Every Day Poets’ Editor’s View). I did a launch for our Anthology and since then I’ve been performing (reading in my case) at a few venues locally and in Newcastle upon Tyne; Pink Lane Jazz Club in July, Trent House in August and I’ll be at The Cumberland Arms on 28th September. This is a big departure for me. I’d like a medal please. I’ll probably become very medieval and stay home all winter – hibernating to recover from the shock of all this contact with civilisation.

I feel I’ve really neglected my writing this year, though maybe this is just the change I needed. Perhaps I have been too much at my computer over the past several years. I’ve begun work on a series of poems which will take a bit of research. I hope I will get some more Flash published too. I’d really like to get a collection together of either flash or poetry.

At sometime in the future, I’m planning a trip to Minnesota meet my EDP friends in person! I’m sure life is cooking up a few things of its own though. It always has before. I’ll just take that as it comes. I’m happy being me doing what it is I do. Isn’t that a wonderful thing to be able to say. I’m happy. I could wish you all as happy as I am.

Thank you for your kind interest and thank all of you who read what I write.

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Rumjhum Biswas is a writer based in Chennai, India. She blogs at Writers and Writerisms.

by Erin Kelly

In Randall Brown’s “Shades,” Every Day Fiction‘s top story for July, readers are taken into the confined work space of an awning cutter as his demanding boss Mr. Watts struggles to determine why the awnings have come up short in spite of the cutter’s precise measurements. The awning cutter, who is also a philosophy student, travels with Mr. Watts to visit the seamstresses — described as “two old women, blind” — to solve the mystery.

It is a work of less than 1,000 words, but long and tireless novels have been written about the same subject that “Shades” lyrically addresses: the weakening of the human spirit as it operates within the confines of a lackluster, brow-beaten work-life. Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed Brown about “Shades” and his outlook on technique and flash fiction.

FFC: Some of the most compelling pieces of fiction have subtlety. They are the pieces that make you think; make you connect the dots. When I read “Shades,” that’s what I thought about. Although there is a place in fiction for blatancy, there is something truly unique about subtle undertones, yet many beginning writers struggle with achieving that. As both a writer and teacher of creative writing, why do you think it’s so difficult, especially for novice writers, to trust themselves and their readers to understand the story they’re trying to tell?

Brown: I think there are different aesthetics and philosophies regarding “showing & telling,” as well as differing views on how much of a story is/should be created by the writer and how much by the reader. For example, in writing a piece, I approach the creation of an image pattern by splintering words from some central ones, as in the idea of “shade” in this piece; that splintering takes the form of shade related to the awning itself, to darkness, light (watts), to shadow selves, to death, and so on. I’m not thinking that much about what that patterns means; I’m more focused on the pattern holding together, of finding interesting new connections, of creating a web of connected threads. However, a reader encountering the image pattern might be more focused on figuring out its meaning, on what it all adds up to, of the subtext, of the significance it all.

So, as a writer, I have the desire very much to control that construction, to have every single choice be purposeful and surprising and engaging, but I have less desire (none at all really) to control the reading of those choices. Definitely as a new writer (and I still feel like one more often than not), I wanted more to control the reading of the story, to have the same exactness in the process of creation be at work in the reading of that final product. But I let that go eventually, but still, isn’t it wonderful when someone gets it in a precise way, and isn’t it equally exciting when someone discovers something unexpected and surprising, too?

FFC: A compelling line: “He had asked me about philosophy of all things, as if that mattered here.” It’s an ironic phrase, which is what makes it so compelling. Do you think the awning cutter has made any connection to what he’s learning and what’s happening in his actual life?

Brown: There might be something existentialish going on in the story. Andy Warhol, according to the Internet, said, “Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.” What matters—those “twenty years of schoolin’ ” or the “day shift” (to quote Dylan)? The idea of “shade” conjures to me something that comes between the sun and the earth. There is something in “Shades” (perhaps) that comes between what he’s learning and what’s happening in his actual life. At the end of Frost’s “Birches,” there’s that image of the birch-boy swinging between heaven & earth; maybe there’s something of that in here too, a kind of balancing act.

FFC: Another fantastic line from the story: “He felt like shade turned to rock.” Metaphors, similes and analogies have long been a staple of good fiction, but they are far from fail safes. There are many strong examples of word usages in Shades (“…. strips dangling from her hand like tentacles” is another great one). In what ways can metaphors, etc., strengthen a story and what makes some work and not others?

Brown: My son’s love of rap has introduced me to the quite remarkable world of rap similes and metaphors, such as these two:  ”Call me Dwight Schrute the way that I eat beats” (Das Racist) & “I just knew that she was fine like a ticket on the dash” (Drake). And Lady GaGa: “Hot like Mexico.” “Bluffin’ with my muffin.” “Leather-studded kiss.” In flash fiction, I think there’s a lot of pressure to be original, to describe things in fresh, surprising ways. The simile/metaphor is one way to rise to this challenge; I think I often go a bit astray when the figurative language has a random feel to it, when there doesn’t seem to be some connective thread among the language choices.

FFC: What do you find uniquely satisfying about writing flash fiction versus other standards?

Brown: To say every word counts in flash fiction is a bit of an exaggeration, but I do like the extra weight of each word. I love the challenge of finding the perfect word for the perfect slot, word after word. I like the experience of writing it all down urgently, of the desire to end rather than (in longer forms)  to draw things out.

FFC: What will become of the awning cutter?

Brown: There’s something very appealing about certainty. I think that desire might cloud his thinking, that desire for endings, for periods rather than ellipses.

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Randall Brown teaches at and directs Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (now available as a reprinted deluxe edition from PS Books), his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He has been published widely, both online and in print, and blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

 By Tara L. Masih

When Amazon recommended The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction to me, I laughed. It happened this spring, two years after the book debuted. I found it amusing that they recommended it to the book’s own editor, and funny that it took two years to appear in my email inbox.

But perhaps that’s a testament to the continuing growth of flash fiction. In fact, the book sold more in its second year than in its first, and it’s now being used as a course text at more than 40 colleges and universities across the country, and even by some high schools. Thousands of copies have been printed, and more are on the way. Internationally, the press and I have heard from Germany, Macedonia, Sweden, the UK, Australia, India, and Canada.

What especially thrills me is that it is being taught in all communities, in metropolises as well as rural areas. Instructor and contributor Stace Budzko teaches the FF Guide at workshops and classes in and around Boston, to both college and inner-city high school students. “As much as I challenge my workshops with ideas and exercises,” he tells me, “The Field Guide has been far more successful by refusing to subscribe to any one vision.”

Katheryn Krotzer Laborde, an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, also relies on the exercises. She says:

The Guide was a good source for teaching ninth- and tenth-grade students enrolled in a summer creative writing program. It was particularly invaluable when I gave an afternoon workshop on “getting started” to adult participants in a small Louisiana town. In both cases, I was looking not so much for a long-term work for the students to develop and work on. . . . Rather, I was looking for exercises that started the spark that could lead to a strong flame. . . . Having access to exercises by writers whose work I know and enjoy—Robert Olen Butler, Jayne Anne Phillips—not only gave my sessions more depth (particularly important when working with adults who already write) but started a few fires of my own.

I also know of several roving instructors, such as  Katey Schultz who have used it to teach at workshops around this country and in others.

I like to think that this text, with its amazing contributors, has helped open the door to some minds that were previously closed to the idea of teaching flash, which is often looked down on as something like a warm-up for “real” writing, or as a fad or “circus act,” as one bellicose online correspondent once argued it was to me. I’ve heard stories of department heads and chairs still refusing to allow for a full course on flash fiction, or even flash being taught at all, in some cases because the decision maker felt that flash would be too hard to teach to students who already had writing problems. Though the situation has changed, for a long time, award-winning writer Pamela Painter from Emerson College in Boston was the only professor teaching a full class on the subject. She continues to have waiting lists for her classes and has mentored many successful flash writers.

Much credit for flash creeping into the curriculum must go to Robert Shapard and James Thomas, editors of the well-known Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction series. “Very short fiction was an academic phenomenon before it was even noticed in academia (at least critically),” says Shapard. He continues:

It was like an unannounced, unplanned rebellion by graduate student writers and young professors who liked the experimental writers of the seventies as an alternative to the established fare of longer stories. We expected only one small printing of our first anthology, Sudden Fiction, which was meant for bookstore readers, not academia; but right away, by word of mouth, it found its way into hundreds of university classes. Other volumes followed . . . and when the Internet took it up it became a much wider literary and cultural phenomenon. It’s interesting as a movement or as a form not only for its popularity but for how long it has actively lasted—far longer than some other academically recognized literary movements. It’s begun to get critical notice now, but not as much yet in the U.S. as in other countries.

All six of the Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction series are still in print; collectively, they’ve sold about a third of a million copies.

For my part, the FF Guide has opened some wonderful doors, and I’m grateful. I’ve taught flash to both experienced writers and students who struggle with writing. And I’ve seen even the latter produce special paragraphs of writing. Seeing their startled faces as they read their work aloud, realizing they have created something out of the ordinary for the first time, something their peers react to positively, is a special privilege. I see firsthand, as do other teachers, flash effectively break down the mental blocks these students have against writing—and writing rules—and watch them overcome some of their disabilities to produce writing they enjoy in a form that is attainable. My hope is that more schools will discover the use of flash to reach these groups in particular.

Another great outcome of being this book’s editor has been the people I have been introduced to who are passionate about the form, like Kent H. Dixon, a professor at Wittenberg University in Ohio. As mentioned in my introduction to the FF Guide, there were gaps in the history; some I knew of, some I didn’t. Later, I learned that Dixon had coedited with Robert Coover his own anthology in 1973, titled The Stone Wall Book of Short Fictions. He called them “ministories” back then, and he and Coover wanted work that was more teachable in the classroom. I’m thrilled Dixon uses the FF Guide, and he agrees with me on the effectiveness of teaching flash: “I feel behooved to teach them about this nifty little form, with ALL its benefits. . . . I have them write 10 to 20 before semester’s out, and guess what: 10 to 20 tries . . . you’re bound to outdo yourself in at least one of them. So, they’re proud, encouraged, and stay with it, and know how to use it to advantage.”  He feels this partly has to do with the fact that they will actually read the flash story examples because they are short; so possibly the examples “sink in better” than the longer, traditional-length stories. He finishes, “I’m constantly surprised by particular kids, that they can score with a short short, but sort of flounder with other things. So, I reach them . . .”

One creative writing instructor who teaches a full class in flash and uses the FF Guide is Tim Horvath, from Chester College of New England.

I think flash is amazing to teach because it gets students to try what they otherwise wouldn’t. Because they can’t do the same thing for fourteen weeks, can’t settle into ready ruts. Because in a flash class it is simultaneously raining and snowing and hailing and blisteringly sunny, a mix that is volatile and joyous. Because they can dispense with the pawns and lead with their bishops and rooks. Because they can lead with language. Because there is nowhere to hide from the choices one makes. Because we can spend ten minutes talking about a line, a word, a sentence, and no one thinks we are getting “sidetracked.” Because titles matter. More than usual. Because it is poetry without any of the baggage students sometimes bring to poetry. Because sometimes it is the starting point for a longer story. . . . Because it seems it should be easier than it is, and rediscovering its pangs is healthy. Because (very) occasionally it is easy, frictionless, a voice or a contraption that appears unbidden on your doorstep, fully-formed, splat, yours.

I’m not advocating giving up teaching the long form by any means. One aspect of teaching literature that is getting recent attention is, in fact, the lack of preparation that many writing students feel they get in novel writing. This needs to be addressed as well. But surely there should be room for all the genres to be taught, short versus long, and flash should get its due respect as the art form it is.

Randall Brown, Director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania, recounts:

 My favorite story about flash is the barber . . . who asked me, before I was to do to a reading, what I did, and I told him that I was a very short fiction writer. His response is the best one I’ve ever received: “You don’t look that short.” I still think that there are many writers still unclear about what flash is all about and many more readers who have never heard of flash fiction. That I think is the challenge: to find a way to bring flash fiction to the masses, to give it a life beyond the classroom and the small group of mainly literary fiction writers who work with these compressed forms. . . . Flash fiction is already being read by and/or to a very young audience in the form of the picture book. I think building upon that initial love of very short things in the elementary and middle schools might be something to think about for flash writers. . . .

Something not only for flash writers but also for writing instructors and writing departments to discuss and consider.

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Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year) and author of  Where the Dog Star Never Glows (a National Best Books Award finalist). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, The Pedestal, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer), and several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. Find out more about Tara at www.taramasih.com.