Tue 18 Mar 2014
by Randall Brown
I write flash fiction because, in 2003, Vermont College rejected my application for admission to their MFA program. I hadn’t written “creatively” in fifteen years, and maybe it took that long to miss it. My undergraduate workshops—and this is not an exaggeration—frequently ended with my professor asking me either “Are you okay?” or “What did you do to [fill in name of person(s) in class]?” Yes, I was okay—and nothing, there was nothing I could think of that I did to [name of person(s) in class].
After that rejection, instead of quitting, I took online classes, and during one of them with Terri Brown-Davidson (who gets my vote for the one of the great, great creative writing teachers in the world), I decided to make the weekly 500-word exercise complete pieces. She eventually sent me to Zoetrope Virtual Studio and there it was—flash fiction, this form I’d discovered on my own before knowing it existed. Maybe that’s what drew me to flash, this feeling that it had been mine before it was “theirs.”
I have to say that I do love writing rules; in fact, I kind of collect them. Before I discovered them, I thought writing had no boundaries, only existed in ways I could imagine it. So I don’t want to give the impression that I found flash as this boundless, undefined thing. I loved its simple rule, the simplest rule of all to follow: don’t write beyond this word count. The word-count would often change—25, 69, 100, 250, 500, 750, 999—but that rule never did.
It’s an easy rule to understand, isn’t it? It’s completely arbitrary—unless you think of 250 words as equaling a page and then maybe certain word counts begin to have some logic to them. I found that governing principle fascinating and freeing. I loved the constriction of time and space, how the anxiety of the blank page turned to the fear of a page too filled-up. I loved how, before the self-doubt could arise to stop me in mid-sentence, all the sentences were already there. I love that flash fiction, of all things, this most diminished of prose forms, re-defined me from the moment I found it, first in my self, then in the world. I love that most people in the world don’t know what it is, and when they do glimpse it, it doesn’t matter at all to them. I like that almost everyone misses it. I like that I didn’t.
I write flash fiction because that rejection from Vermont College, to me, said (once again) that I couldn’t write. I took the classes because I was tired of the world telling me their truths. They were never nice ones, you know. I write flash fiction because I discovered I could write. As long as I didn’t write too much.
Randall Brown teaches at Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press, 2008), 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 (W.W. Norton, 2010). He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print, including online at American Short Fiction, Tin House, and Mississippi Review; and in-print in Cream City Review, Lake Effect, and Harpur Palate.