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.
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.
“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.
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.
What 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.
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.
We loved it so much we are going it again next year!
Our next Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat will happen March 21-27, 2020!
One 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?
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!
Many thanks to the amazing Karen Stefano, author of The Secret Games of Words and a forthcoming memoir, Vigilance, for inviting Nancy and me to take part in her wonderful podcast series. Here, we talked about all things flash fiction, about our flash fiction retreats, and did a “mini workshop” of our own flash stories. Have a listen!
Increasingly employed in flash fiction, the mosaic or fragmented form makes effective use of white space. It asks the reader to collaborate in a sense, filling in the gaps or making connections. There are jumps in time, jumps in point of view. It’s a story told in pieces that somehow form a cohesive whole. It’s useful when attempting to tell a larger story, rather than a moment in time. I love this structure because it feels the closest to how my mind works. Memories in snapshots. My own brain’s attempt to make sense of only particles, spread out over time.
So imagine a series of fragments or pieces that are loosely connected (by theme, character, image, story, etc.). The notion of time is very fluid. I believe that the mosaic is an even looser form than segmentation as the individual pieces in a mosaic can be, well, anything. A letter or list or a poem. Think of mosaics in the visual arts, how they often use different materials and textures.
But does segmenting always work? What is lost and what is gained by employing this structure in flash fiction?
The structure suits flash fiction very well in that it eliminates the use of transitions, bridges from scene to scene, and therefore results in fewer words–a goal of flash fiction.
The absence of transitions creates a snapshot effect. The reader has to engage with the writer to create story within the white space. The writer is playing with the reader’s subconscious, which of course differs from reader to reader. This, to me, is what makes flash so exciting to read and to write. The individual snapshots carry more weight, or ought to carry more weight, if they’re to be effective.
But what is lost when we write in fragments? I would say a gentle flow or build. Flash fiction doesn’t always need to be “punchy” or “sharp” (many would disagree with me on this!). There are times when you want something smoother, slower even. Or you want to stay in one particular moment or scene. Segmenting in this case would diffuse the moment and nothing, nothing in flash fiction should ever be diffused.
Here is a quick way to create your own flash mosaic:
First, write down 3 of your most vivid dreams. If you aren’t a person who remembers your dreams, switch this out for 3 quick descriptions of photographs (real or made up).
Now, write 3 real or made up incidents from your life (or a character’s life), from 3 different decades of their life.
You now have 6 brief vignettes. Take these and weave them, alternating dreams (or photographs) and memories.
See what happens if you write them all in present tense, effectively suspending all sense of the passage of time.
See what happens if you don’t identify the dreams as dreams, but write them “straight.” This will give your mosaic a sense of surreality.
See what happens if you give each vignette its own subtitle.
As an example of what can be achieved with this exercise, here is a piece of my own, published in Threadcount: