Interviews, Kathy fish, Nancy Stohlman

Flash Fiction Retreats: Interview with Christopher Allen at Smokelong Quarterly

Nancy and I were delighted to meet up with Christopher Allen in Casperia when we were there for our Creative Renaissance Retreat at Palazzo Forani. Interested in what we’re doing with Flash Fiction Retreats, Chris kindly interviewed us for Smokelong Quarterly. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

Your latest retreat was at Palazzo Forani in Casperia, Italy. I just happened to be in the area on your free day, so I popped by and had lunch with you and your keen participants. We did a lot of eating and drinking. But what does a typical retreat day entail?

(Nancy): “Well, in Italy every day involved a lot of eating and drinking! But seriously, every location and every retreat has its own personality. The things that stay consistent is the general workshop schedule—most days we have a morning session with Kathy that is mostly generative and an afternoon session with me (Nancy) that focuses on revision and workshopping. We also have a final night “salon” where we all dress up and drink (more) wine and read our work. The salon ends up being one of our favorite parts and to prep for that I’ve been offering a performance class on the last day instead of a regular workshop session. So ideally by the end of the retreat participants write some new stuff, revise some old stuff, and read their work in public. You came on our free day (normally we will only have free half days) where participants can explore, take an extra long nap or dive more deeply into their writing. It IS a retreat after all—we want people resting and rejuvenating, not exhausted from classes all day.

But within that framework each retreat develops its own flavor. In Costa Rica we used the metaphor of the jungle as we designed our classes: “wild” writing, birdsong repetition, taking a machete to the overgrowth, etc. Last year in the high mountains of Colorado we were “mining” for silver and gold in our work; in Italy were drawing inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. We want our retreats to reflect and engage with the location. In Italy we were staying in a very old palace (palazzo) with all its creepy/romantic charm and Kathy did a special “ghost writing” session. In Costa Rica we were/will be staying in screened cabinas open to the tropical air and all the sounds of nature. In Grand Lake we will be in a big mountain lodge (think wood burning stove) overlooking a mountain lake.

One thing that remains consistent is that by the end of the week we have all bonded in a special way—writing partners and friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Many thanks to Chris! The rest of the interview may be found here at Smokelong Quarterly.

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Today you can’t talk about Love…

cropped-beach-writer11.jpgWe 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.

~Kathy

Kathy fish

“Just Read” (from an essay originally published in Lascaux Review)

I’m often asked my advice to writers. Mostly I say, just read.

Read Flannery O’Connor. Read Joy Williams. Read William Maxwell.  (Please read  William  Maxwell.)

Read about the universe. Read about neuroanatomy. Read “On the Origin of Species.”

Read “Nine Stories.” Read Tolstoy. Read Carson McCullers. Read Edward P. Jones. Read Willa Cather. Read Yasunari Kawabata. Study atlases and maps. Read E.B. White. Read fairy tales.

Remember that “fresh new voices” can come from people over forty. Find those writers and read them.

Read Shakespeare. Read Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis. Compare. At least once a week, read a book published by a small press. Read, read, read poetry.

Find a book on Entomology. Learn the names of all the insects that inhabit your backyard. (Or make up names for them.) Read Freud. Read graphic novels. Read prose poetry and flash fiction. Study the dictionary.

Read a book about a place you never been to from a writer whose name you can’t pronounce.

Read naked. But not in public.

Find and read a newspaper from the day you were born. Or any old newspaper. Learn another language, then read a novel or poetry in that language.

Read “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” out loud with no children present.

Read philosophy.

Buy a thick notebook and write “Sentences I Love” on the cover. Fill it up and buy another one.

Read collections of short stories and flash fiction.

Read the history of the town you grew up in.

Read Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and the Bronte sisters. Read Katherine Mansfield and Shirley Jackson and Kõbõ Abe. Read Grace Paley. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Read long into the night until the characters walk around in your dreams. Read “The Dead” at least one winter afternoon a year.

Or don’t read any of these and just read whatever the hell you want. Whatever books strike your fancy at any moment in time. The only mistake you can make as a writer is not reading.

But should your mother or your aunt or your grandmother or grandfather want to tell you their stories, close whatever book you’re reading and listen.

~Kathy

 

 

 

Kathy fish, Nancy Stohlman

Costa Rica Wrap Up and Announcement!

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Kathy’s thoughts:

“I wondered about the explorers who’d sailed their ships to the end of the world. How terrified they must have been when they risked falling over the edge; how amazed to discover, instead, places they had seen only in their dreams.” ~Jodi Picoult

I thought of this quote on the flight to Costa Rica, wondering what lie ahead for us. Though Costa Rica is hardly the “end of the world,” I’d never been there before. I’d only seen pictures. Pictures and descriptions of the country and of Peace Retreat. Nancy and I took a huge leap of faith for ourselves and our participants, hoping we’d chosen well. We really wanted this 2nd outing for Flash Fiction Retreats, and indeed, our first outing outside of the U.S., to be a success.

My impressions:

Costa Rica is wild. And although there are resort towns and luxury hotels, Peace Retreat was neither situated in a resort town, nor was it a luxury hotel. And we didn’t want that anyway. We wanted, well, peace. We wanted to retreat somewhere that our group felt like it largely had the place to themselves (except for a handful of yoga students and teachers and some volunteers, we did). We wanted to feel immersed in a peaceful, exotic setting surrounded by nature. We got that. Each day, I woke up just before dawn, to the sound of the birds and the howler monkeys. For the first few days, the wind was powerful. We were surrounded by trees. We spotted iguanas, bright green parrots, horses along the road. A young piglet even came up to greet us on our walk to the beach.

We were lucky enough that there was a full lunar eclipse during our retreat. We stayed up late to watch it, binoculars tilted to the sky, on a beautiful windswept night. Another night, we participated in a solemn and unforgettable cacao ceremony led by a local shaman. 

Definitely a slower pace. Incredibly delicious meals. Fruit so bright and juicy and sweet it was like eating candy. Fresh vegetables and salads, fish, goat-milk dairy, rice, beans, eggs, and freshly baked bread. All of the Peace Retreat staff were so wonderful and kind. 

We had a pretty swimming pool with deliciously cool water. Bugs? Yes, a few. We were told “this is their home” and indeed it was. Some ants. A scorpion. A few mosquitos (but not nearly as much as we’d expected). This part of Costa Rica (the northwestern coast) is HOT and dry and a bit dusty. Certain of the trees actually defoliate this time of year, so was surprised to see these bare trees, which had their own strange beauty. But there was also a proliferation of swaying palm trees and others, lush with green foliage. Flowers and flowering bushes.

Situated on the equator, the Costa Rican sunset occurs around 5:30 year-round. The sunsets on Playa Negra were breathtaking. Walking back to Peace Retreat at dusk with a fat full moon rising and surrounded by the new writer friends I’d made felt so special, auspicious. I feel so honored to have spent time with this incredible bunch who wrote their hearts out and were so generous and encouraging with each other. I can’t wait to go back. 

Green Iguana

 

Nancy’s Thoughts: 

sand 1What a wild adventure! We saw iguanas, parrots, scorpions, hermit crabs. We heard the eerie, hard-to-describe sounds of the howler monkeys, saw a lunar eclipse, and watched the sunset on the ocean almost every evening. We got to take part in a traditional cacao ceremony, walked along the beach looking for a bonfire (didn’t find it!), and met the locals who set up a spontaneous bazaar at the Peace Retreat. We ate wholesome and fresh food 3 times a day and some us us did yoga in the mornings. I slept like a baby in my screened-in cabina, immersed in the sounds of the jungle.

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“Editing Flash Fiction” photo by Laura Alexander

Oh–and we wrote! A lot. Oh yes, we found perfect, breezy nooks for writing, reading, and in the afternoons my editing class was such a hoot. We had both brand new writers and veterans, but the synergy of the group allowed everyone to get into that perfect workshop balance–a combination of praise, useful suggestions, and inspirational group think brainstorms.

Our final night salon, under the twinkly lights and palm trees with the blessed humidity warming up our winter bodies and the staff of Peace Retreat were our perfect audience.

Eco-friendly Peace Retreat is the perfect blend of authentic Costa Rica with just enough creature comforts to make it relaxing without sacrificing the true experience for the sanitized resort version. Simple, loving, comfortable, perfect. We are so grateful!

A huge THANK YOU to everyone that took that leap of faith with us! Our writer participants were amazing, creative, genuine, and brought their full game to the Costa Rican adventure. We became like family for a week and the Peace Retreat staff became part of that family. A perfect place for some warm, tropical inspiration, meeting new writing friends, mentors, and bonding in a jungle adventure.

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“Salon night” photo courtesy of Laura Alexander

We loved it so much we are going it again next year!

Drum roll….

Our next Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat will happen March 21-27, 2020!

Information and Registration opens March 1. 

Read what our participants had to say about our debut Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat and consider joining us for 2020!

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

A Remedy for When You’re Stuck: Inserting the Unexpected Detail

unexpectedOne of the many reasons we find ourselves getting “stuck” when drafting a new story is that we have unwittingly written ourselves into a very boring place. How did this happen? We had such a great idea!

The answer likely resides in your descriptions. 

Consider your “go-to” descriptions of settings and characters. What do you think of when you see the words “hospital room” for example?

“antiseptic” smells

the beeping monitors

a nurse in a “starched white uniform” (not sure they even wear those anymore!)

How about a waitress in a diner?

She’s wearing a name tag, of course. Maybe her name is Candy. She has a pencil behind her ear and she is chewing, no “smacking” a piece of gum. 

Do you see where I’m going with this? These descriptions write themselves. In the process of drafting, if you find yourself falling into these clichés, the rest of the writing will likely follow suit. You begin to bore yourself.

I urge you to make every single part of your flash fiction so fresh and new and interesting that your reader (or slush pile reader) sits up and takes notice from beginning to end. With fewer words at your disposal, the description you do include needs to be strong, palpable, and carry a lot of emotional or narrative weight.

With this in mind, you should also consider how you describe ordinary things. Can you look at those things with fresh eyes? In Susan Minot’s connected collection of stories, “Monkeys,” she shows a character plunking down a crumpled up napkin and saying that it “bloomed” on the table. Can you see that? I can and it’s perfect. What a thrilling, fresh description!

The following is an exercise I use in my online workshop, Fast Flash, and it always results in strong, fresh, original pieces of writing that surprise even the writers themselves. We writers need ways to overcome our natural tendency to write scenes in the way they have always been written. This exercise is designed to give you a new way in to your material.

I want you to imagine a scene in a commonplace setting. One you’ve seen in fiction many times. A hospital room, a bar, a dining room, a park, a school yard, whatever. No doubt your brain already conjures up certain images and descriptions just by reading those words.

Now, I want you to insert some unexpected detail. Don’t give this too much thought and don’t worry about making sense, just insert the strange detail.

Examples: a clown at the train station, a daisy growing out of the sidewalk, an old man walking backwards, an animal in a hospital room, etc. 

Perhaps the odd detail will drive the scene forward or perhaps it will remain in the background, but what this exercise does is trick your brain into writing a scene in that setting that has, I promise you, never been written before. You have given yourself permission to write outside the box. You have “primed the pump” of your subconscious and now all bets are off.

***Consider also describing something ordinary within your setting in an extraordinary way (like the napkin that “bloomed” in the Susan Minot story).

You might also try this on a story you’ve been stuck on! Have fun!

~Kathy