Craft Chat: Flash Fiction
With just under a week left in our Flash Fiction Contest, our editors decided to have a chat about just a few of the great finalists we’ve published in this contest in past years. Don’t miss out on your opportunity to be read by the great Stuart Dybek! Submit those stories today.
Cole Meyer: Flash fiction is form very near and dear to me personally. I love writing flash, reading flash, editing flash. And though flash isn’t the primary form we publish here, the work we do publish is, in my opinion, quite remarkable. Flash fiction we’ve published has been featured in Best Small Fictions a number of times, including Lydia Davis’s “The Visitor”, alongside a number of finalists from our flash fiction contest. And so with our annual contest closing this week, I thought it would be best if we look in this craft chat at some of those past finalists! Are there any finalists in particular that stand out for y’all?
Melissa Hinshaw: When I think of flash fiction I honestly think of high school creative writing class, where writing two double spaced pages felt like an accomplishment, a real story. There’s something so pure about that level of reaching to fill a short space—rather than stretching to cover a long space, as we do when we’re trying to submit twenty pages for a graduate workshop.
I think I love that feeling of reaching in a flash piece. A good flash piece is that famous art piece where the fingers are stretched out, almost touching. The Creation of Adam, is that what it’s called? It’s that moment, where everything is about to happen and has already happened. And somehow it’s not a vignette.
There are definitely a couple finalists that stand out to me. The one about the Antarctica—”Observation Tube–McMurdo Station, Antarctica” by Justin Herrmann— stands out to me just because I love reading stuff about Antarctica, and because when I talk about wanting people to put a spin on their relationship stories this is exactly what I mean. I also love “Heirlooms” by Amanda Jean Akers just because it’s so WEIRD, which is a challenge of its own. It’s easy to write and submit a weird little flash fiction piece. I guess it’s kind of like, we sit down to write flash and squeeze something out of us, and it kind of happens in this intense and breathless way because that’s how flash is designed, all compact. So the challenge is, with this weirdness we eke out of ourselves in this form, what’s a sneeze or a burp, what’s a little glob of paint from the tube, and what is a carefully sculpted little piece of expression?
I also remember “Rieb Kear (to Marry)” by Adam Joseph Nazaroff because of how much time it spans, and how it pulls off this little twist without feeling like a riddle or a punchline.
CM: I love the sense of longing that comes from well-written flash. I think that’s what you’re getting at too, Melissa, talking about The Creation of Adam. “Snow” by Ann Beattie, which I’ve written about before. “Bless this Home” by Rosie Forrest (seriously, every flash-lover should buy her chapbook which I reviewed for TMR back when I was a volunteer reader). “These are the Fables” by Amelia Gray. I always think about “How to Spot a Whale” by Jacqui Reiko Teruya, which was published also in Best Small Fictions or Kathryn Phalen’s “Homecoming,” which Kathy Fish picked as the winner in 2019 when I think about longing that flash can evoke. “How to Spot a Whale” in particular brings that for me. I remember reading this initially as we were going through the longlist for the contest and just thinking, Wow. The vantage point for this story is perfect, one of those great second-person POVs that starts off with the instructional: “Do not look impressed when Roberta tells you about narwhals,” which is just such a stellar opening line. The young You in this story is resisting the charm of her father’s research partner, while trying to manufacture this memorable moment with her parents. In “Homecoming,” there’s another of my personal favorite POVs, the first-person direct address. In the last paragraph we get hit with this phenomenal line: “The sky hasn’t claimed a color in weeks,” and there’s a great image at the end of fish out of water following a flood, which evokes that great longing.
Brandon Williams: I’ve been avoiding reading this because I was terrified I had nothing to say (I sometimes feel like I respond with either “I love it” or “I hate it” to flash pieces and can’t figure out what makes something land that way), but it’s interesting to come to this after some of the recent conversations we’ve had about uniqueness and the weird. Flash almost forces some level of uniquity onto the reader—there’s no opportunity to do any buildup, of course, which means that every moment in a flash piece is, if not discomfort, then at least uncertainty. Worldbuilding, and that whole conversation with the reader that happens in longer pieces to feel out the rules of the world, is almost a negative— if I get a little explanation, I find myself wanting more and asking for a longer piece; if I get none, I wouldn’t even know where to ask for it. It seems like the pieces which lean into that uncertainty, that explore it (“Observation Tube” was the first one I thought of here as well) or that need it, are where we end up gravitating.
MH: Yeah. There’s nothing more disappointing than when you start reading a flash piece and it feels the same as a twenty-page story starts. The opposite of that = the immediacy I think Brandon’s talking about! Do that!
CM: Immediacy and weirdness (and urgency!) are the big things I look for in flash. I don’t want a full story, usually. If you’re trying to tell a full story in under 1,000 words, it’s almost always going to be missing something, or not doing enough of something. And that’s not to say it can’t be done (and as always in these craft chats, I’d love for folks to challenge us on this— take what we say is hard to do well, and do it really well just to show us), but the flash that usually ends up speaking to me the most are the snapshots of stories. The characters who are right at that point in their story with the most to lose, the most at stake. The characters in precarious situations, on the threshold of something treacherous or of great magnitude. “Observation Tube” does this really well, like you’ve both pointed out. We get a familiar story in a fantastical unique and weird place: a pregnant girlfriend, a relationship at a crossroads, McMurdo Station and a flock (?) of jellyfish. It’s tense, it’s quiet, it’s claustrophobic in a lot of really good ways, and the situation, though familiar, feels unique and particular for these two characters.
That’s what I’m always looking for in great flash. An economical story that brings characters to life, even in their small spaces.