Robert Vaughan was the second-place winner in FFC’s 2013 String of 10 Contest, with his story “A Gauze, A Medical Dressing, A Scrim”. The challenge was to use four of the ten prompt words in a 250 or fewer word story. The word choices were: EVENING – QUARRY – ACCENT – ROSE – TEAR – MINUTE –GRAVE – CLOSE – ENTRANCE – BOW. An aphorism was provided for inspiration, but not necessarily to be used in the story. This contest offered, “I want to put a ding in the universe” – Steve Job.
To find out more about the contest, go to the String-of-10 FIVE Guidelines. (http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/string-of-10-five-starts-feb-3/)
Here is Robert Vaughan’s award-winning story…
A Gauze, A Medical Dressing, A Scrim
When they converted the basement into his room, Billy was too young to know any differently. He just wanted his own space, didn’t want to share it with his five older siblings anymore. Then when he was around ten, he stopped eating dinner with the rest of the family. His mother placed his dinner plate on the top stair every evening. In exchange he only communicated by minute notes he’d send or receive by pulley-pails through the laundry drop.
A Medical Dressing
One time when Ethyl, the family dachshund, accidentally ventured downstairs, she was never seen again. Same for one sister, Darla, who thought she’d left a sweater atop the laundry machine. Disappeared. Eventually Billy was indistinguishable from any basement dweller, resembling the spider realm. Webs. Gossamer silver. Tears. Detecting vibrations, lurking toward eventual prey.
The family nearly forgot he existed.
Then one day while folding laundry, his mother noticed a note and she decided to read it aloud to the rest of the children at dinner that night: Here is your stormy day, the one with pressing clouds and chilling breeze. Here is your way you fall in step, synchronize laughs and moderate beliefs, acclimatize moods and medications. Here, then your last vestige of blue sky and fortitude. A mélange of mercurial designations. Bastion of sailboats emptying out horizons.
They all craned their necks toward the basement entrance.
Robert Vaughan leads writing roundtables at Redbird- Redoak Writing. His prose and poetry can be found in numerous journals. His short fiction, “10,000 Dollar Pyramid” was a finalist in the Micro-Fiction Awards 2012. ”Ten Notes to the Guy Studying Jujitsu” was a finalist in the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction 2013. He is senior flash fiction editor at JMWW, and Lost in Thought magazines. He was the head judge for Wisconsin People & Ideas 2012 Fiction contest. He hosts Flash Fiction Fridays for WUWM’s Lake Effect, and his book, Flash Fiction Fridays, is at Amazon. His prose & poetry chapbook, Microtones, is with Cervena Barva Press. His blog contains more fascinating facts at http://rgv7735.wordpress.com.
Karen Nelson: How did you approach the challenge of the writing prompt? Tell us how the story evolved.
Robert Vaughan: I wrote the first draft about four months ago. There were several personal things going on that went into this bizarre tale. The short list might include illnesses in extended family, year end holidays, a trip to Mexico, movies like “Lincoln,” and a chapbook section called Basement Tapes that I was creating (I’m currently shopping a new project called Amnesia in two parts: Absences and Basement Tapes.)
The last thing I did is to figure out how I could use the necessary words from the list that FFC provided with the contest rules.
There is a writing prompt called a word bank that I have done numerous times and I think this practice played into this last step. How could a word like grave, for example, be used as a verb or adverb? Mincing up words and their use is one of my favorite things to do as a writer. However, this question leaves me wondering if I can ever pinpoint exactly how any story evolves, or what goes into a first, a fifth, or a fifteenth draft?
KN: You have an unusual title. Explain how the title affects or explains elements of the story.
RV: I edit for two different magazines, so I read a lot of submissions. Too often titles give a story away all up front. I prefer suggestive titles that mystify, or give you pause, make you go, “hmm!” My title derives from the medical world on some literal plane, and the triptych, or three sections arrived in later drafts. I love to play with form, mix things up, and to challenge myself (and the reader possibly?) The use of three “sections” of this are akin to stanzas in poetry. They allow for breath, or time, and the reader can digest the dense paragraphs more easily. There is a consistent feeling in re-reading and assessing them that there might be a wound, or a filmy consistency to these that all add up to the strange and quirky essence of the overall character of the piece.
I like to write about characters in the shadows, down and out, homeless, in transition. Someone you might barely notice.
I write about what isn’t there, what’s missing, disappeared.
KN: The boy seems to metamorphose in an almost Kafka-esque way. Is this theme of change common in your work? What seems to be the familiar thread that readers can find in your writing?
RV: Kafka-esque! I like this, I also was very honored that Kathy Fish at the FFC site compared my work to Wes Anderson or David Lynch! Yes, there are some threads in this piece that are linked to other short fiction of mine. Humans morphing into other creatures, or shape- shifting into other forms, a la Kafka. Also the haunting or dark tone of “A Medical Dressing” then shifts with the lyrical prose-poetry of the note the boy leaves in “A Scrim.” Perhaps I am pushing the element of change (a given constant in life) to extremes. I relish surprises, and unsuspected twists in short condensed sentences. One interesting reader commented that he thought the boy (“Billy”) might be autistic. Certainly with a line like “The family nearly forgot he existed” I am inferring an outsider. I like to write about characters in the shadows, down and out, homeless, in transition. Someone you might barely notice. I write about what isn’t there, what’s missing, disappeared. Flights of fancy always comes to mind. Letting my imagination wander without limitation, then seeing where it needs to be sculpted, or shaped.
KN: The ending carries a sense of expectation. What do you believe is going to happen next? What is the boy communicating in his final note, and are we to determine that it IS his final message, or is it a lost message from some time ago?
RV: The ending does have an (hopeful? fatalistic?) open-ended quality. One aspect of flash fiction that is vital to me is use of “white space.” Knowing when to let the reader interpret for his or her own enjoyment, and the element of trust. So often an author is a little heavy handed, or guides the reader too much. In this story, I wanted the possibilities to be endless. As for the note he leaves, the repetition of the word Here brings about an immediacy yet one has to wonder Where does he mean exactly? The amorphous imagery, and the use of the word “bastion” in the sentence with “sailboats employing out horizons” is a paradox, which conjures the reader to wonder- is the entire note a seeming contradiction (tone, message, the way it is revealed?) So, we don’t know – is he “gone?” Was he “real?” It is disarming, and we are left to wonder the very same questions you’ve asked me here. Do we ever really know what happens when one leaves us? A child?
KN: Thank you for sharing your writing process with us. Are there any other tips or secrets you would like to share with those just getting started in flash fiction?
RV: Write every day, or at least as often as you can. I do recommend reading Flash Fiction also. Kathy Fish’s chapbook Laughter, Applause. Laughter, Music, Applause and in fact, the entire collection of A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness from Rose Metal Press is a fantastic place to start. I also recommend the same press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction by Tara Masih. Fantastic.
Read the online and print journals, like FFC, PANK, Wigleaf, JMWW. There is a world of flash fiction books from great writers available. My new book, Microtones, has just been released from Cervena Barva Press!
I also can honestly say I’d not be the same writer without writer’s groups. I lead two writing roundtables at Rebird-Redoak Writing and also bring in pages in another group. I do weekly prompts with local writers every Saturday and workshop in a small online group, also. Getting feedback on your work from those writers and readers you trust is vital. Don’t be afraid to edit your piece. This particular story morphed no less than ten times before submission for the FFC Contest. It’s one of the benefits of short fiction- you can fine-tune it, and please try! Each single word is vital to the overall story. Try to omit over-used words. Read it aloud, consider the aural effects. Is there unexpected tension(s)? Do you trust the reader?
These are all great questions! Thanks for this great opportunity, Flash Fiction Chronicles. I am deeply honored.
Karen Nelson is a writer in the Ozark mountains of Southwest Missouri. Her years of teaching in the public sector and interest in young adult literature have led her to write integrated theme units for some of today’s best YA authors, as well as a host of teaching aids and lessons for fellow educators.
Her historical and local interest articles have been published in The Ozarks Mountaineer Magazine, All Roads Lead to Branson, The Independent Scholar, and online news journals. She writes regularly on her blog (kbnelson.wordpress.com) and participates in weekly writing challenges with the Friday Fictioneers and Reason2Rhyme. She is currently the Technical Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles, and the Curriculum Coordinator for Goldminds Publishing. She homeschools her two children from their small hobby farm, where every day brings fresh eggs and fresh ideas.