Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Backwards and in High Heels: The Challenges of Writing (Really Good) Flash Fiction*

The quote, attributed to many, and paraphrased by Ann Richards, goes: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

So imagine this for flash fiction writers. We must do everything that longer form writers must do, only in a much tighter space. We are constrained by brevity.

Perhaps “constrained” is not the right word though. From a different perspective, perhaps the word limit is actually—liberating.

Hear me out.

With so few words at its disposal, flash fiction lends itself beautifully to innovation and experimentation. All those extra words we must do without force flash writers to find other ways to create a fully realized story, complete with emotion, movement, and resonance. The “constraints” imposed necessitate boldness, risk-taking, and originality.

But first let’s right dispense with the notion that since it’s so short, flash writing is easy. It is not. Nothing worthwhile is.

If you’re new to the form or struggling with it, here are a few things you might think about and try:

See what happens when you eliminate transitions and bridges from paragraph to paragraph. The result is a segmented or mosaic structure. Here, in a series of connected or very loosely connected very short pieces, the writer creates meaning in the jump cuts and the white spaces. In a sense, encouraging the reader to collaborate. (See my segmented flash, “A Room with Many Small Beds” published in Threadcount Magazine.) 

When you take disparate elements and bump them up against each other, you create new meaning. Poets do this all the time. Which takes me to my next tip.

Read poetry. Read lots and lots of poetry.

See what happens when you simply keep the pen moving. When you allow a story to spill out in one long exhale, not allowing yourself to editorialize or explain. Maybe you have a very emotional story you want to tell, but you keep stopping yourself, and the only way out is through. Maybe, for this particular story, you want to be all up in the reader’s face. Try writing what I call the “breathless one paragraph flash.” Read “Friday Night” by Gwen E. Kirby published in Wigleaf, a story that manages to be both funny and deeply moving.

OR cast aside all “rules” and borrow a completely different form to tell your story. See this innovative stunner, “Vagabond Mannequin” by K.B. Carle published in Jellyfish Review (and drafted in my Fast Flash workshop). 

It’s all about getting the words down. You can futz with it all later, but the best way to get better at this challenging form (to be a Ginger Rogers of the literary world) is to simply write it. Lots of it. Play. Experiment. Invent. Take the form and run with it. Make it your own. And read, read, read.

*(Note: This piece was written for Mslexia Magazine’s newsletter in advance of their 2019 Flash Fiction contest, which I am judging) There’s still time to enter! The deadline is Sept. 30th. Go here for more details.)

Kathy fish

Creativity & Connection in Grand Lake, CO: Reflections on Our Fourth Flash Fiction Retreat

“This retreat provided such a great learning experience with innovative lessons from some of the industry’s finest writers in a beautiful setting, and surrounded by a supportive bunch of friendly, like-minded people. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will remember fondly.” ~Ryan Stone, Melbourne, Australia

Hard to believe it was just over a week ago that Nancy and I were in Grand Lake, with a fabulous group of writers from both coasts of the U.S. and in between, and as far away as Canada and Australia. It truly was, as participant Ryan Stone put it, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” for us too!

Maybe it was the setting: Grand Lake, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park, is one of the prettiest places in an already gorgeous state. And Shadowcliff Lodge is so perfectly rustic and homey. Maybe it was the staff: Friendly, youthful, and energetic, from all over the country, most of them living and working at the lodge for the summer. So eager to help us out and answer questions or just chat about their favorite fictional characters. 

Mostly though, I have to say, it was the writers who carved out this time in their busy lives to come to Colorado and write with us. There was such easy camaraderie amongst this group of 13 plus Nancy and me. It’s what happens when writer/artist types “find their tribe” but especially when you get a bunch of flash fiction writers all in one place (I’m thinking, too, of the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol last June–same feeling)!

Highlights: The pre-retreat F-Bomb reading in Denver, featuring Randall Brown. All the wildlife: fox, moose, lots of cute chipmunks, hummingbirds flitting around the feeders and…one notable (but safe) encounter with a black bear. Thursday evening around the campfire on The Point, overlooking the town of Grand Lake and the lake itself, nestled amongst the mountain peaks. Talking and laughing and watching the sun go down and the full moon rise, illuminating the clouds. Whiskey and conversation late into the night in the top floor great room of Cliffside Lodge. The gentle sounds of water rushing over rocks in the creek that cuts through grounds of Shadowcliff. We ate and slept well, woke up to coffee brewing in the dining room of Rempel Lodge. Our writing sessions in the Chapel, with that stunning view. And our final night Salon/Reading in that same space, with everyone reading their work, champagne flowing, Nancy’s French pop songs playlist, and a cozy fire in the huge stone fireplace.

I loved that this group was so varied in their experience with flash fiction. Some had been writing and publishing it for years, some were very new to the form and excited to learn more. To a person, they were kind, warm, generous, and fun to be around. Everyone wrote their hearts out. I really believe Nancy and I get as much from these retreats as our participants. I came away feeling so inspired and grateful. 

 

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