Flash Fiction as a Puzzle: Sarah Arantza Amador on Creative Confidence and Reclaiming Your Writing Time


Kathy Fish and I are THRILLED that Sarah Arantza Amador is joining us on our return to Costa Rica next spring! I chat with Sarah here about the reality of writing and having confidence in your work…oh and we talk about bugs, too!

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?

 Sarah Arantza Amador: This is such a tough one. When I was in college, I was dumbstruck by authors who detailed highly disciplined writing routines (“Up at 5am, write for four hours at a tiny desk in my bedroom, etc.). Back then I had the privilege of  youth and a lot of unstructured time day-to-day. Things have changed, as they tend to do, and I’m a busy lady with a full-time day job and other responsibilities and obligations, and I understand that need for discipline and routine more and more. These days, it takes me a combination of scheduled writing time (often when I take lunch at work, sitting at the little meeting table in my office) and being nimble and flexible, taking advantage of less structured time and “filler” time (commuting, walking, waiting in line at the post office, etc.) to “write” by recording audio notes and typing reminders to myself on my phone. I keep that writing time that I schedule for myself like I do time at the gym (better, even — not going to lie) or scheduled doctors appointments. Time is precious — and nobody is going to value your time more than yourself — so protect it!

Nancy: I can’t agree with you more–it’s so tempting to put our writing time last in a busy life. Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

Sarah: I’ve loved flash fiction for a long time — but I didn’t always know to call it that! When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry and then vignettes  (and even self-published a chapbook of vignettes inspired by Bob Dylan songs!). In my freshman year in college, my LIT 01 professor introduced my class to Augusto Monterroso’s “The Dinosaur,” a perfect, one-sentence short story. Look it up — it’s incredible! I was amazed by that story and how a single sentence could have so much traction and trouble. I loved that it operated like a puzzle — that it and the reader work together to build a world, a series of possibilities, outcomes. I’ve been a big fan of microfiction and flash fiction ever since.

Nancy: I just looked it up and read it–amazing! What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Sarah: “Have confidence in yourself and your work.” This is easier said than done — I know because I’ve spent decades so far trying to follow it! With time and experience and self-reflection and genuine curiosity, though, it’s gotten a lot easier for me to discern what critiques and criticism serve the work and what I’m going to choose to ignore. It feels really good, really satisfying, to receive feedback that *could* sting, feel unfair or misdirected, and then hear a little voice within me say: “nah, I’ll pass on that feedback.” So, the second best piece of writing advice: practice resiliency, in writing and in life. Oh wait: they’re two parts of the same piece of advice, aren’t they?

Nancy: Yes, they are! What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Sarah: It’s difficult for me to choose one piece. I have more pieces unpublished than published, and every work, regardless of whether or not it has an audience yet,  is like a miracle. Last year, I wrote and published a piece of historical flash that helped me stretch my voice and my imagination, too: “In Dead Waters,” selected for publication in the always excellent FlashBack Fiction. I’m really proud of that flash piece (this one came together for me on a long, solo car ride — I memorized it while reciting it to myself on the road!) and I’m so pleased to have had it published by FlashBack, a journal whose work I really, really admire. Big shout-out to FlashBack editor Ingrid Jendrzejewski, whose thoughtful and careful feedback really helped me tighten and strengthen this piece!

Nancy: I love Ingrid! Have you ever been to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to?

Sarah: No, I haven’t been to Costa Rica yet! I’ve never been to Central America and I’m excited to see this part of my hemisphere. What I most look forward to: run-ins with iguanas, monkeys, and tropical birds; (daily??) beach swims; and falling asleep at night listening to the night sounds outside of my jungle cabina. I can’t wait to embrace my inner tropicalia!

Nancy: You will definitely “hear” the howler monkeys! We saw quite a few iguanas last year too. So then react to this quote:  “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

― Marcel Proust

Sarah: I like this quote because it reminds me that the brain is like a muscle — it responds so quickly and so well to exercise, training, new stimuli. You can flex that “muscle” — your cognitive functions, your memory, your imagination — in all kinds of ways, and travel, experiencing and responding to new sights, sounds, smells, and textures in new settings and circumstances, can be a great way to make that exercise — that work — really exciting and generative. I can’t really grow new eyeballs, but I can push and challenge the ones I have to see things with newfound imagination and wonder! Too weird?

Nancy: Love that answer. Last thing: Tell us something we don’t know about you?

Sarah: I’m real squeamish around bugs. This may be my biggest challenge on this retreat, overcoming my tropi-spider fears.

Nancy: I promise it won’t be TOO bad–we aren’t deep in the jungle at least! Anything else you want to add?

Sarah: I am so looking forward to reclaiming my time (thank you, Maxine Waters!) with Nancy, Kathy, all my new flash friends (who still feel like mere twinkles in my eye?), and the exciting Costa Rican surprises in store for us in March!

Nancy: And we are so excited to meet you! Twinkle back!

Residing in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California with her dog Roscoe and person Richard, Sarah Arantza Amador writes about longing, ghost-making, the endearment of monsters, and the twists and turns of human loving kindness. Her work is featured in Best Microfiction 2019 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She tweets @ArantzaSarah and sometimes blogs from


Going with the Flow: A Conversation with Writer, Francine Witte

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!








Coming Home: Sarah Russell on Taming Words and Guarding Your Writing Time

Sarah Russell

I first worked with Sarah Russell in 2009 in the very first flash fiction course I ever taught (for real)! So much has happened since then, including many publications and much acclaim for Sarah’s work, so I was just thrilled to learn that she will be joining Kathy Fish and I in Grand Lake, Colorado this August!

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?

Sarah Russell: Everyone will groan when they hear my answer, because I’m a spoiled writer. Since I retired, I never plan any appointments or commitments before noon. That’s my time to write, rewrite, submit, rewrite, read, did I mention rewrite (?), and I guard it jealously. Plus, every morning my wonderful husband brings me breakfast in bed (which is also my desk and dog snuggling area) and then leaves the dog and me alone to work.

Nancy: That sounds dreamy! Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

Sarah: I write mostly poetry, but sometimes the words sneak off and become flash. No short stories or novels though. You gotta keep words in line or they start breeding like rabbits, and no one has time for that.

Nancy: Ha! Love it. What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Sarah: It was from Ernest Hemingway who told me one day as we were walking through the tall grass of the savannah back to camp, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Nancy: I love Hemingway. What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Sarah: I wrote a piece called “Mother’s Last Wishes,” in a class Nancy taught long ago that was published in the anthology The Incredible Shrinking Story and was also picked up for Flash Fiction Funny, edited by Tom Hazuka. It’s available at

Nancy: I remember the evolution of that story so vividly–it’s had quite a life! I still use it to teach found forms in my classes–such a good story. Now have you ever been to Grand Lake before? What are you most looking forward to?

Sarah: Yes, I’ve visited Grand Lake several times since I spend a lot of time in Colorado. It is one of Colorado’s gems — mountain views (and altitude) to take your breath away, a beautiful lake small enough to embrace, and even a funky little town to visit if you get an itch for coffee at a diner. A wonderful setting for the retreat.

Nancy: React to this quote:  “I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Sarah: That’s a great metaphor, certainly for my personal search during my restless early and mid-life, and for the peace I’ve found in recent years. I interpret Adichie’s coming home and finding yourself there as being unapologetically comfortable with who you are. I think I’m getting real close.

Nancy: Tell us something we don’t know about you? 

Sarah: I have a good friend coming to the retreat whom I’ve never met.

Nancy: That is so exciting! And I’m so excited to work with you again, Sarah!

Sarah Russell has returned to writing after a career teaching, writing and editing academic prose. Her work has been published in Third Wednesday, Kentucky Review, Red River Review, Misfit Magazine, and Psaltery and Lyre, among other print and online journals and anthologies. She was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her first poetry collection, I lost summer somewhere was recently published by Kelsay Books. She blogs at


We have 2 spots left in our Grand Lake retreat!

Registration is also open for Costa Rica 2020!


On the Expansion & Resonance of Flash & More: A Chat with Chelsea Stickle

Photo by Gail Werner

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 can get mired in the day-to-day and sometimes a shake-up is exactly what’s needed. I’ve only been writing flash seriously for about a year, so four days filled with writing and instruction sounds ideal.
What do you love and/or find challenging about flash fiction?
As a reader, I love feeling like I’ve experienced a whole life, a whole world in less than 1,000 words. There’s a feeling of completeness, expansion and resonance that hits harder. As a writer, I love getting to the point. You can’t mess around in flash fiction. You’re in it. How are you going to get out?
What piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where could we read it (if it’s available)?
I have a story called “Household Extractions” in Five on the Fifth. I spent years trying to tell this story and I kept failing to get it right. I took a Bending Genres class with Bud Smith that was about writing in short bursts, which forced me to stop over-thinking it. I ended up writing for much longer than I was supposed to, but I finally wrote the story I wanted.
Wow, I love this. You allow the strangeness of it to just be. You don’t pass judgment or editorialize for the reader. That makes it all the more effective to me. I’m so glad you linked it as I’d not seen it before. No wonder you’re proud of it! Very strong writing. 
I’d be interested in your thoughts on this Amy Hempel quote, Chelsea:

“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.

Totally agree and I bet Amy Hempel would too!
Is there anything strange/funny/quirky/odd/special about you that we wouldn’t know and that you’re happy to share? 
I have loose ligaments, which means the joints that hold my bones aren’t as firm as they could be. So my bones slip out of place. Something’s almost always partially dislocated. It’s not the kind of thing you can see when you look at me, but my joints can make a lot of noise. I could write a symphony with all the cracks, clicks and thunks. So hiking sounds cool, but I’m going to stay inside.
Ah, “somethings almost always partially dislocated.” We won’t make you hike then! But very much looking forward to working with you in lovely Grand Lake this summer, Chelsea.

Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish ReviewCleaver, 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. 

Nancy Stohlman, Uncategorized, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Flash From Scratch: A Revision Exercise

Sometimes we’ve nitpicked and tinkered our work to death and it still isn’t right. Anaïs Nin says, “Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy.”

Once our editing starts to feel like an autopsy, like a Frankenstein of parts stuck together (particularly if we have been working on it for a long time), then the best and quickest way to tackle revision is to write it over, from scratch, without looking.


If that sounds like a huge waste of time, then be grateful you’re writing flash fiction! I give this same advice to all writers, and I have rewritten entire novels from scratch. For real.

Rewriting without looking, while initially infuriating, works wonders, especially if you are stuck. Why? Because all the good stuff from that first draft will make it into the second draft. And all the stuff that was just so-so will improve in the rewrite. Almost magically.

Consider how it works in the visual arts There are often dozens of pre-sketches, studies, and “running starts” at an idea, maybe second, third and fourth attempts at a famous painting. In the Dali museum there are multiple renditions of the melting clocks, for instance; rather than obsessing over one single canvas he made dozens of attempts and filled dozens of canvases until he hit on the famous versions we recognize today.

I remember the first time I had to rewrite without looking. I had a creative writing teacher in college who liked us to compose drafts by hand in class, and then at the end of the class we had to rip out those pages in our notebooks, turn them in, go home and write it over again!



But because we had no choice, we’d all go home and rewrite our drafts from scratch. Surprisingly, the second version was almost always better. Once we quit resisting the process, we discovered that the rewritten drafts were an organic improvement, a maturation of our original ideas, containing all the best parts of the first draft. And all the stuff that was initially weak would automatically improve in the rewrite.

This process works especially well for flash because you can usually rewrite a draft in one sitting. But the process works for everything—poems, novel chapters, scenes, essays, as I said even a whole book at its most extreme. Jack Kerouac rewrote his book On the Road from scratch three times before he hit on the version we read today. A photographer will shoot the same subject hundreds of times to get just one perfect shot.

And as a bonus, when rewritten all at once, the narrative voice of a story will have a natural cohesion, something that may have been missing in a previous version, particularly if it was composed over a long stretch of time or at various intervals.

So for this reason, I suggest closing that document, opening a new one, and rewrite it from scratch, without looking or reading the first draft.

When Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times, he said, “To get the words right.”