We writers want so much to talk about the Big Things, the Important Things. But it’s daunting to address the big things like Love and Hate and Death and Loss and Injustice, especially for the flash fiction writer.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech novelist Kazuo Ishiguro said, “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”
Dear Writer, I want you to know this: You can talk about these things indirectly. By conveying as well as you can the small moments.
Emily Dickinson famously said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”
And Joy Williams said, “So many times in a single day we glimpse a view beyond the apparent. Write those moments down. They might not speak to you at first. But eventually they might. Everybody writes too long and too much anyway, sacrificing significance for story.”
Today, you can’t talk about Death, but you can write about the small, significant moments around Death.
Unable to fully process my father’s death and our complicated relationship, I instead wrote about an inebriated woman escaping her father’s funeral reception with a complete stranger in order to look at gaudy necklaces at Walgreen’s in my story, “Disassembly.”
Today, you can’t talk about Love, but you can find those moments that are emblematic of love and loss.
Today, you can’t talk about Loneliness, but you can write a scene involving a teenager standing outside the school dance, not joining in because he feels there is no one there to welcome him.
Today, you can’t talk about Yearning, but you can capture a moment of longing that will break your reader’s heart.
Today, you can’t talk about Evil, but maybe the best way to talk about Evil is to create monsters on the page. Maybe fairy tales are your way in. Or create an absurd story. Or a surreal one.
Give your readers the small, potent moments that vibrate with meaning and resonance and emotion. Give the world the story that only you can tell, dear writer. Use everything you’ve got.
Nancy and I are thrilled that accomplished writer and geneticist Margaret Nowaczyk will be joining us for our second Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat. Margaret graciously agreed to chat with me about the March, 2020 gathering, the writing life, and more.
Hi Margaret! What are you most looking forward to at Writing Wild in Costa Rica?
Learning how to craft flash fiction. In my writing, it seems that it takes me three quarters of the story to get to the beginning and another half to find the ending. Yes, I know it doesn’t add up—hence my problem. I adore pithy, punch-you-in-the-gut flash fiction yet writing that seems to be completely beyond my reach. And comprehension as to how it’s done. So far, I have written one short-short story (400 words) but nobody likes it enough to publish it. I have bought several books on writing flash and short fiction I had hoped would help, but no such luck. I wonder if I ever get the gist of things.
And, of course, I am looking forward to seeing the jungles of Costa Rica and swimming in the Pacific. But, wait! Are there snakes there?!
Flash fiction is definitely challenging to write well. Nancy and I feel really good about the program we’ve developed for our retreats. I’m confident you’ll come away from the retreat armed with some great new skills. And oh, I think there might be snakes but I never saw any. I did see a beautiful, shy, slow-moving green iguana though. : ) Margaret, could you tell us a little about your writing life?
Not sure that I have a writing life. I have a full-time job so my writing takes a back seat to that. I am also a mother to two almost grown sons (18 and 22). I write whenever I can: early mornings, evenings, weekends but there are days when I can’t seem to be able to pull myself together to put anything on paper. I have published several short stories and essays in literary magazines and, last year, defended my MFA thesis. Right now I am trying to finish and publish a memoir and oscillate between nice productivity and sheer, paralyzing terror. I am a sucker for writing retreats and how-to-write manuals: between the trips I have taken and the volumes on my shelf, my last name should be Atwood by now!
Ha! Well, I have to admit I’m a sucker for these things too. Favorite book or story?
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is my life-long favourite.
Oh I love that book. I read it in French in high school and was so moved. Is there something funny, unusual, interesting whatever about yourself that you’d like to share?
Nah. I’m just a little bit crazy, ehem, colourful.
Aw, I love that! Can’t wait to retreat with you in Costa Rica, Margaret. Thanks for chatting!
Margaret Nowaczyk MD, received her MFA from University of British Columbia in 2018. Her short stories have been published Numero Cinq, Broken Pencil, The New Quarterly, and Prairie Fire who nominated her short story “Cassandra” for the 2017 Journey Prize. Her non-fiction has appeared in Geist, The Antigonish Review, Grain Magazine and Pismo and, in translation, has twice won a national contest in Poland. She is a clinical geneticist and a professor of pediatrics and pathology at McMaster University. She is currently completing a collection of short stories and a memoir about her work as a pediatric geneticist. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and two sons.
Note: Spaces remain for Writing Wild in Costa Rica! (See the glowing praise for our past retreats.) Nancy and I are excited to return to lovely and exotic Peace Retreat in March and hope you can join us!
Writer Francine Witte will be joining Nancy and me in Grand Lake for our High Altitude Inspiration Retreat. We’re so excited to have her! Francine took some time to chat with me about all things flash.
Hi Francine! First off, I’m interested to know if you’ve ever visited Colorado before.
I have been in Colorado several times. The first time was when I hitchhiked cross country and stayed in a commune in Boulder for a few days. My boyfriend and I broke up there, and I certainly didn’t want to hitchhike back alone, so my parents wired me money, and I took my very first airplane ride. Most recently, I was in Denver for the 2010 AWP conference. Colorado is so beautiful, and I am looking forward to returning this summer.
You have a fascinating history with the state then. What do you hope to get from our upcoming retreat?
Living in New York City, I am seldom around nature and open sky. So there’s that. And I am really looking forward to having nothing to think about but flash, flash, flash for a couple of days. I am also going to welcome the community of other flash fiction writers. I know many poets in my not-virtual life, but most of the flash fiction writers I know are from Facebook and Twitter. It will be nice to speak in more than 140 characters. (Though with flash, who knows?)
What is a favorite flash of your own?
I like my flash “How to Teach Your Cat to Talk.” It appeared in Jellyfish on October 8, 2018.
Ooh, I love this flash, especially:
“Place his little cat paws against your throat. You don’t like anything touching your throat, but get over it. Your husband is hundreds of miles from here. Make sounds so that your cat can feel the vibrations. Tell him that this is what talking will feel like. Compare it to how the house felt, shaking like a fist.”
What lessons about writing did you learn from being a high school teacher for 20 years?
I learned to write quickly and in small bits. As a teacher, you learn to “monitor and adjust.” There’s a fire drill in fifth period, so your lesson has to change. Half the class is on a field trip, so your lesson has to change. Nobody understood what you were talking about yesterday, so… Well, I learned to apply that to my writing. Go with the flow. Your stories can change right there in the middle. You might only have ten minutes to write. You just always have to monitor and adjust. This is one of the things I like best about flash. You can do a lot in a short amount of time, and flash allows for sudden changes.
That’s so interesting about learning to “go with the flow.” Seems like that would transfer nicely to all aspects of life, including flash writing. Thanks so much for chatting, Francine. We look forward to seeing you in Grand Lake this summer!
Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks, two flash fiction chapbooks, and the full-length poetry collections Café Crazy (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books) Her play, Love is a Bad Neighborhood, was produced in NYC this past December. Her Novella-in-Flash, The Way of the Wind, is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Press. She lives in NYC.
Note: A (very) few spaces remain for our beautiful Grand Lake Retreat. We’d love to have you join us for four days of writing and workshopping and inspiration in the Colorado Rockies!
Nancy and I are excited that Chelsea Stickle will be joining us for our High Altitude Inspiration Retreat in Grand Lake this August! Thanks so much, Chelsea, for taking some time to chat with me. First, what attracted you to the idea of coming to the retreat in Grand Lake?
“I have an increasingly open sense of what a story is. Why not make room for more instead of being restrictive? There are so many kinds of stories! Any time you hear someone say, ‘That’s not a story,’ I think you should question the person, not the story.” ~Amy Hempel
I’ve been reading slush, so I have to admit that I’ve said, “That’s not a story” recently. Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be a story, but that it isn’t a story yet. There has to be something that differentiates it from an anecdote or a detail. A list of errands can be a story, but there has to be an emotional, core need pushing through. (For example, a post-breakup to-do list would be very revealing.) If you can do that, then anything can be a story.
Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Cleaver, The Nottingham Review, After the Pause, Five on the Fifth, Crack the Spine and others. She lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.
Note: A few spaces remain for our August High Altitude Inspiration Retreat in Grand Lake Consider joining us and allowing yourself to be inspired and energized in a gorgeous setting.