Mon 24 Oct 2011
In “Heart,” Every Day Fiction‘s top story for September, Kyle McCarty takes us on a search in 150 words that begins with the following line: “His heart was not where he left it.” The poetic, lyrical piece left readers divided on whether it was a story, poem or overly metaphorical look at something complex that deserved more depth. What one reader found in “Heart,” another did not–and that is often the sign of a truly intriguing mix of words. In the end, “Heart” is a journey not just for the unnamed protagonist but for readers as well.
McCarty hosts a website in which he chronicles a series of 150-word stories like “Heart.” Flash Fiction Chronicles interviewed McCarty about his top story and his thoughts on flash fiction in general.
FFC: What compelled you to write this piece?
McCarty: I was reading Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King at the time and had fallen in love with Native American literature. Creation and the power of story are powerful themes. As a writer, how can you not be attracted to them? And in the end we’re all reduced to stories and maybe a headstone.
I liked the idea of a character picking up words to make something. Not write them out but actually pick them up and assemble them. Reading that book and ruminating on the power of creation stories, it had to be his heart. He was going to recreate himself.
FFC: “Heart” is only 150 words. How long did it take you to write it?
McCarty: It only took about half an hour to write. It was surprisingly quick. Even though the stuff I do is limited to 150 words, I’m sure writers can understand how long it takes sometimes to find the right 150 words. This piece came out fully formed, more or less, which usually isn’t the case.
FFC: Brevity, your blog, features several other stories that are told in no more than 150 words. Why 150?
McCarty: It was pretty arbitrary. Three hundred seemed too much. Fifty was way too short. I liked the sound of “150 by day” so I went with it. I probably should have Googled the phrase first because all the links that come up sound like investment sites. My blog is probably the worst financial site on the web.
The word count needed to be a small number. I wanted it to be a real challenge to fit something in there. I wanted to eliminate digressions. I wanted to force myself to cut things out. To not get needlessly word drunk. I can still get word drunk, but there has to be a need for it. There isn’t much room for wasted space and when I start writing longer pieces again the skill I’m learning in the blog should serve me well.
FFC: What do you find uniquely satisfying about writing flash fiction?
McCarty: Stephen King has a great quote comparing short stories with novels that I probably can’t repeat here. Novels are marriages and short stories are something more immediate and visceral. Flash fiction is even more so. It’s the first look that could lead to the marriage. Or to that other thing. It’s the shy first kiss filled with implication.
I love the implication. I have 150 words to work with so oftentimes I need to come up with a way to say something “off the page.” I don’t have the space to spell it all out. I can point to something and let the reader fill in the details but it’s only implication on my part. It was interesting to read the different takes people had on HEART. They took it in so many different directions. Being so spartan with the words makes that possible.
There are so many definitions of what flash fiction is and all of them seem too long to me. I’m sure the phrase “flash fiction” uses the word “flash” to mean “quick” but I think of flash in terms of the flash art you see hanging in tattoo shops. Those little drawings just ready to go. Almost doodles in a lot of cases. That term has probably has the same etymology but I think what’s coming out on my blog has more in common with that.
Flash forces an economy of words. It’s a sort of prose haiku.
FFC: What does the genre offer than others cannot?
McCarty: It adds a sense of play to the writing that usually isn’t there when you sit down to do The Big Work. With flash, you get the story down and then play a game of “What has to go?” Or more importantly, “What can’t go?”
Flash is more of a writer’s thing than a reader’s thing. A good story is a good story. If people are going to read, they’re going to read. It can be a hundred and fifty word story about a guy in a train station or it can be a billion word opus about a kid in wizard school. If it appeals to them, they’re going to do it.
That being said, flash is all first impression. You don’t win the reader over and then draw them into a larger story because if there’s a larger story, it’s all implied. You do your thing and, when it’s good, it sticks with the reader. It gets stuck in their head like a song. People don’t get novels stuck in their heads. If they do, they must have very, very big brains.