The National Flash Fiction Day competition is open! Details are on the website.
Flash Frontier Editor Gail Ingram talked this month with the 2021 NFFD youth judge about their content and form, inspirations behind reading and writing, and tips for writing small fictions.
Kerry Lane: The boundaries between genres and forms aren’t immutable realities. Where are the lines between theatre, poetry, fiction? Can the same piece move from one to the other depending on how it is encountered? Defining a genre is a deliberate act of encirclement, and its motives should be questioned. That said, if taken as broad collections of techniques with necessarily fuzzy and overlapping boundaries, I do think we have a lot to learn from people who use language, voice and story in different ways. Writing in an unfamiliar form can feel a lot like learning a new language – it gives you a renewed understanding of how and why your native one works. How does a piece change if put on a stage, or taken off it? Why? What function do the line breaks serve, and how can I use that understanding?
To answer your question more specifically, an appreciation of physical space, interacting bodies and movement is an absence that I feel keenly in the work of many who have only ever written for the silent page. So much of human interaction and experience never makes it to language, a reality which can be hard to translate when moving out of that living, three-dimensional space. Both poetry and theatre give enormous weight to what is not said, and to tiny details that illuminate an entire world. Flash fiction also, perhaps to an even greater degree, requires surgical precision in choosing the right fragments of the implied whole.
KL: There’s fewer people involved in a written story. You have the feeling or idea, anchored in words, then it is read and translated into perception. Perhaps decisions about printing and layout could be discussed in some cases, or editing, but there are relatively few steps. What you see when watching a play is the cumulative product of the story passing through and around dozens of people. If you see the same play performed by two companies, the experience can be completely different. Theatre is fundamentally ephemeral. Each version of the story happens only once, and only for the people in the room. It’s a very different experience to writing something that’s intended to be published and reproduced just as you created it. Watching someone else speak almost-but-not-quite with ‘your voice’ is disorienting as hell, and it’s hard to release your writing for interpretation in that way. Some playwrights are notorious for their unwillingness to give up control; Oscar Wilde, for example, can almost be felt breathing down your neck when you read his scripts. At the other end of the spectrum, people have laid almost every conceivable interpretation of character and voice over the works of Shakespeare. ‘There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies’ (Oscar Wilde, funnily enough). I’m not sure that one writer’s voice is more memorable or real than the other; perhaps theatre is just more honest about the acts of translation required to take an idea from one person to another. If I form a different impression of a character from someone else who read the same book, is that really any different? More subtle, maybe.
‘Memorable’ is a remarkably nonjudgmental word. I appreciate that this question used it rather than something like ‘enjoyable’ or ‘good.’ There are many writers with recognisable and distinct voices whose work I dislike, but I would much rather the world be filled with such work than with hyper-sanitised stories carefully engineered to ensure the widest possible appeal and, ultimately, being utterly forgettable. You can learn a lot about yourself from the voices you struggle to listen to.
The first writer to come to my mind as a ‘memorable voice’ is Annie Proulx. She has a minimalist style of writing that creates scale to a degree I honestly find difficult to wrap my head around. The gaps between the details are made to work as hard as the details themselves, and her settings are characters, never just backdrop. Many of her characters speak very little but are vividly three-dimensional thanks to the precision of her writing. I have wondered if elements of this style can be traced back to her beginnings in journalism; as I mentioned earlier, moving from one form to another can bring new clarity to both. I tried a few times to list some other writers in further response to this question, but it turned over and over into a list longer than the rest of my answer and I felt guilty for leaving people off; suffice to say, there are many, and many more, I have not yet found.
KL: Like everything about my practice, this shifts a lot. I enjoy writing for projects with briefs; there’s something about getting the muscle moving that works well for me, without facing the introspection (of it being) a personal project. Writing to a brief will also frequently shake loose things that are stuck in my own writing. I’m often inspired by structure and form over character or story. Right now I’m playing around a lot with mask and puppetry, and the role of the audience in a piece. I like seeing how far I can bend rules, and if I can make seemingly disparate tools work together. I also have fun applying the rules and feeling the difference of one language to another. There’s an architectural quality to the French language that is very different from the organic patchwork of English, for example.
There is always an element of autobiography in my work (I would argue in everyone’s; your thoughts and perceptions are the only raw material you have), but I enjoy being able to abstract and dissect it. Engaging with your own experience through art lets you take out tiny pieces at a time, examine them and reassemble them in different ways. A preoccupation with accurate autobiography can be a dangerous thing. Strip-mining lived experience for content is not a healthy thing to do. Memoir and the confessional have their place in art, but they are not the whole of the thing and they are not owed to any audience. I keep coming back to The Torn-Up Road by Richard Siken: “I want to tell you this story without having to confess anything … I want to tell you this story without having to be in it.”
KL: The world is a pretty bleak place at the moment. There are common human themes – love, connection to each other and the world, identity – that show up throughout the history of literature, but the 21st century backdrop is undeniably dark. The younger you are, the less chance there seems that you and the people you care about will be able to squirm out of what’s coming. A sense of existential dread has suffused youth writing in recent years. There’s also a deep feeling of alienation from one another, from the land and from history. I like work that is able to engage with the fear and the anger while not falling completely into hopelessness. It’s often not something I can do myself. Someone somewhere can always find something beautiful, and writing allows us to share that with one another.
KL: My reading patterns shift with the wind. At the moment I’m reading a lot of nonfiction and sci-fi; what I read, watch and listen to generally reflects my preoccupations and projects of the moment. Currently in progress are Borne (Jeff Vandermeer), Manufacturing Consent (Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman) and The Magnus Archives (Rusty Quill).
What I’m writing and thinking about affects my reading more than the other way round. There are many, many (many, many) books in my house that I haven’t read yet because I’m waiting to be able to engage with them in the ‘right’ way for me. It feels disrespectful to force my way through something beautiful when I’m not in the right headspace to appreciate it. I don’t approach all reading with a mindset of deliberate, analytical engagement – there’s plenty of joy in reading and writing for entertainment and play. I make a conscious effort to surround myself with language being used in different ways.
KL: I want to read pieces that will stay with me, that will jump back into my mind unbidden after I’ve read them. Write something important to you. Revise, revise, revise. There is no room for the unnecessary in flash fiction. Which words are absolutely vital to your piece? Take out all the others. I love irreverent, creative use of the nuts and bolts of language, vivid sensory details, writing that gives me an immediate emotional response, but demands thought to figure out why. Above all, I want to feel that there is a reason for your piece to exist. This doesn’t mean that your story needs to have a moral or social commentary – beauty, craft, wonder, questions, preservation of a moment are all genuine and noble reasons to write – but the finished piece needs to capture something meaningful to you.
KL: – Stay curious across the entire breadth of your life. There is always, always more to discover.
– Reevaluate your writing goals and routines often. I struggle a lot with balance in this regard – swinging wildly between complete freeform chaos and stubborn, regimented commitment to long-term projects. It is important to let yourself experiment, play, jump between projects, start things and throw them away, or step away from writing entirely for a time. It is also important to cultivate discipline, persistence, and tolerance of the boring or frustrating times, especially if you want to develop longform projects or hone your craft. Think carefully about what you want from your writing as you grow and change. Don’t expect to work in the same way as someone else, or even in the same way as you did last year. Growing comfortable with flux, self-reflection, and adjusting your approach will serve you far better over time than beating yourself up for not meeting a daily word count.
– Learn another language! Not only does it open a bottomless well of lessons in persistence and humility, it will also give you access to new literature, new ways of thinking and talking about the world, new people and their stories. Understanding how a language fits together, how it feels, what pieces are needed and not needed, how it overlaps with or differs from languages you already know, is indescribably precious. Language is the tool of your trade; the better you understand it, the better you can use it.
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
– Mary Oliver