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!
Recently I was gifted the use of an empty condo in the Colorado mountains for the weekend, a glorious three days with just myself and my writing. I’d been looking forward to my own mini writers retreat for weeks!
I bet everyone here can relate: Having a retreat or vacation (of any length!) to look forward to gives you an instant dopamine hit–the body knows something is coming and it’s already happy, already excited.
Ah dopamine. It’s that chemical that makes us feel good. It’s released when we fall in love, ride a roller coaster, win a prize for that story we wrote, and it’s also the culprit in all sorts of addictions, from chocolate to sex to the constant “ping” of our text messages. When dopamine is released we get the message that “this feels good” and we keep coming back for more.
But here’s something interesting: Researchers have found that it’s the anticipation of pleasure, rather than the pleasure itself, that gets those feel-good chemicals in our brains going. Meaning we are already feeling good BEFORE we even get the reward.
According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, vacationers already “started experiencing a significant boost in happiness during the planning stages of the trip because they were looking forward to the good times ahead.”
Which means looking forward to pleasurable things is as good for your overall happiness and well-being as the actual experience of them. You are already getting that “hit” of pleasure every time you think about the exciting thing that’s coming.
Stanford biologist and neurologist Robert Sapolsky says from his studies with monkeys that “dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than the happiness itself.”
Want to geek out on the science a bit? Check out the 5-min clip fromRobert Sapolsky’s lecture on the Science of Pleasure below:
So what’s the takeaway here? The bottom line is that the anticipation of an upcoming vacation or artistic retreat is already releasing sweet, sweet dopamine into your system. Every time we think about it, talk about it, every time we look at pictures, every time we do research and tell others about it.
So…are you excited yet?
A graduate of the University of Denver’s Creative Writing program, Holly Lyn Walrath is returning to Colorado this August to join Kathy and I for our Rendezvous in the Rockies Retreat. And the retreat will serendipitously coincide with the release of her debut chapbook of illustrated poems, Glimmerglass Girl, from Finishing Line Press.
Bold yet delicate, sharp, intricate, and woven with fragile strength, there are many things to like in Glimmerglass Girl. The first a reader might notice is the interplay of words and images, something many writers attempt but not always with such success. Glimmerglass Girl uses classic and vintage fairy tale images to give the book an aura of innocence and nostalgia; I’m reminded of my early copies of Alice in Wonderland or my treasured illustrated Grimm’s Fairytales.
But this is not a children’s book, and the reader quickly understands that innocence and nostalgia is working to contrast darker, more serious subjects. Placed against this whimsical background we get a modern treatise on womanhood and femininity, the fragile image of woman distorted behind the glass. This idea of reflections–the ways that women are both seen and unseen by ourselves and others–is demonstrated skillfully in one of the opening poems:
Self Portrait through an iPhone
At first glance is surprise—is this what I look like to him—eyes down-shot—drifting left to right—the act of self-interrogation— and yet what redeems me to you—female recompenses mean nothing—the twinge of hair burned red by the sun—the lips on which fine lines of aging make deeper, harder—the smoothness of cheeks still pink with sylphen shock—in the background hangs a version of you—a younger interpretation—so little changes since the act of self-love—blackening her eyes—bruising her lips like throwing an apple at a wall—these things seem natural—but I still don’t recognize you like I should—I still don’t know how to love you like myself
Says Walrath about Glimmerglass Girl, “I wanted to shine light on the darker parts of my own personal history as a woman, while acknowledging that society expects us to be as delicate as a butterfly….Butterflies are actually incredibly strong creatures in the natural world. I think women are the capable of great acts of strength so I wanted to highlight that irony.”
And she does. This dichotomy of delicate and strong, girl and woman, power and power distorted comes through beautifully in this debut chapbook of illustrated poems.
Pre-order from Finishing Line Press now.
Read an interview between Kathy Fish and Holly Lyn Walrath here.
I met Bryan Jansing in Denver in 2001, when we began working together in a weekly writers group, but Bryan actually grew up in Italy, the son of an Italian mother and an American father. So Kathy and I are lucky that Bryan and the company he co-founded, Italy Beer Tours, will be lending a hand in Casperia next May, offering language skills, day trips to retreat participants and being, as I put it to Bryan, our “Italian best boy.” Ever good humored, he was up for the adventure!
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?
Bryan Jansing: Finding time to write, even as a full-time writer, is always the hardest task. Like most writers, I have to do other jobs to make a living while maintaining to be a writer by writing. Worse for me is that I’m not a very disciplined person. But I do find time to write; albeit, not every day as diligently as I wish. Mornings are my favorite time to write. I’m fresh, still in a dreamy state and the invigoration of waking up with a hot cup of coffee while my mind is not bogged down by the world keeps my mind loose, my emotions clear and my fingers take off. If all goes well, I will have written first thing before anybody is awake and the world clobbers me with chores, jobs, duties and responsibilities. This is hardest when I’m traveling. For this, I find having a notebook handy to at least scratch down thoughts and immediate phrases or quick snippets of stories is very helpful. But I’ve come to terms that the writing process isn’t all just about writing. Sounds like an oxymoron, or just moronic, I know. There are many moments when stepping away and just daydreaming, experiencing the world draw me deeper when I do get back to writing. In the end, if I don’t write, I’m not a very pleasant person to be around, so time will find me.
Nancy: Yes, I remember you once told me that you liked to take a nap “just so you could ‘wake up’ and write twice in one day.” I loved that. You were also the first person I knew who was writing flash fiction back in 2001, several years before I began writing it myself. Tell us about your discovery of flash fiction?
Bryan: I naturally loved the challenge of writing short-short pieces, but I loathed vignettes. What set me on my course was finding James Thomas and Robert Shapard’s Sudden Fiction American Short-Short Stories at the navy exchange while I was stationed in Norfolk, VA. I was 19 years old, but my dream to become a writer started when I was six. I think even sooner than that, to be honest. I’m a minimalist writer by nature, that also fed into becoming a flash fiction writer. While I was in college, after the navy, I was taking a creative writing course. One of my professors, Barbara Loren, who had graduated from Iowa’s writing program, told me this form of writing was called Flash Fiction. Once I understood the mechanics, that plot had to be laid into the small masterpiece, I was possessed. Unable to find professors who knew what I was talking about, I dropped out of school and set my own course by forming a writer’s group. Today, you can get an MFA in Flash Fiction, but in the early 90s, the genre was still unheard of. I used the creative writing class format taught to me by Barbara to form the critique group. I also was an early participant of Pam Casto’s online writers group. I got a lot of great feedback from her group. I eventually withdrew from Pam’s online group when Nancy made me feel guilty 🙂 She said, “Awe, you’re in another group? It’s like you’re cheating on us.” It struck a chord. Besides, at that point, we were so busy with about seven people that included Leah Roper, Kona Morris, Sally Reno, just to name a few, all working hard, diligently bringing in work every Wednesday that had to be critiqued, working on the edits you received that week as well as keeping a writing schedule. Those were amazing days, very fruitful. I’m proudest of all the accomplishments that I can say I converted Nancy Stohlman to Flash Fiction. I did the genre a great service.
Nancy: Aww, it’s the truth and I’m so grateful to YOU! You also co-founded Italy Beer Tours, which will be offering some excursions to our retreat participants. Tell us more about this endeavor?
Bryan: Once I had set upon my endeavor to become a Flash Fiction writer and having the awesome array of writers around me from my writers group (Write Club) I knew I couldn’t work a 9 to 5 job. For me, it killed my creativity. I wanted to work the least amount and make the biggest bang. I found that job working at a craft beer bar that had just opened called the Falling Rock. It was one of the first of its kind, had just opened, owned by three brothers. It was the furthest thing from real work and it paid handsomely. I only had to work three or four days a week. Nobody gave me flack when I needed time off and the setting was unorthodox. We were free to speak as we wished, drink all we wanted and above all, I was making connections, networking without realizing that it was going to pay off.
Amongst the regulars at the Falling Rock was a man named Paul Vismara. Paul is a dying breed, a professional artist and fulltime illustrator. In a time where graphic artists are taking over, Paul is definitely a dinosaur. He’s also extremely talented and open to art. He was one of the writers group’s first audience. We used to throw readings during the holidays, Paul was always present. Paul and I tried several times to find a project we could work together on. For 15 years we tried to find something. Then in 2012, I was off-handedly telling Paul that I had been in Italy visiting my parents. I grew up in Italy and my parents still live in Rome. While I was there, a friend of mine told me, since I loved craft beer, I should check out the Trastevere neighborhood. He said there I would find some interesting places that served craft beer. I was blown away. It looked just like 1997 when I had started at the Falling Rock. The next day, after our offhanded conversation, Paul called me and said, “We should write a book about the Italian craft beer movement.” After some research, we found nobody else had written this book. That’s how Italy: Beer Country was born. Here’s a lesson to you writers: books don’t make money! But, they are gigantic keys to gigantic doors. With a book, you can open many paths and avenues you wouldn’t even have a chance at without a book. We realized this, and soon after publishing Italy: Beer Country, we began working on tours. Thus, Italy Beer Tours was born in 2016. It was also a great way for me to get home to see my mother, get back home to a country I love, but couldn’t stay in because of the lack of jobs and few opportunities. Not able to return to Italy had been a large issue in my life and so had working at the bar, after 20 years. I freed myself, became a Tour Operator working with artisanal beer and food, which I am a huge believer in. It’s an industry so unique, especially in Italy, and a small historical niche. I love showing Americans an Italy they didn’t know existed. It’s not on the tourist’s beaten path, far from anything in photo albums or tour buses. We honestly sit at tables with Italians, speak Italian, eat and enjoy a day as Italians. And oh, yeah, there’s amazing artisanal beer too. In short, I have pioneered two events in my life: Flash Fiction and Italian craft beer. I might put that on my tombstone.
Nancy: I love Paul Vismara’s work as well–I was so happy when you two started working together. So what piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?
Bryan: I have to say, I’m proud of the work I’ve published in the now defunct Monkey Puzzle as well as in the first, all flash-fiction [print] journals Fast Forward Press. Of which, the 2010 publication was a finalist for the Colorado Literary Fiction Award. That publication was managed by Leah Roper, Kona Morris and Nancy Stohlman. It was an incredible collection of master works. I loved being published in that publication. It was another major milestone, the first all flash fiction journal. It gave me a high I still feel now writing this. I am also very proud of Italy: Beer Country. I’m proud of it because I didn’t submit to writing a boring, non-fiction beer book. Blahh. I wrote it like a fictional story with the characters of the movement playing out their roles as first-time, pioneering brewers in a wine culture. It’s an exciting book to read, and I used my creativity to write it. It’s also the first and still only book that tells the Italian craft beer story.
Nancy: Ah, long live Fast Forward Press! (I’ve been told you can still buy our books for hundreds of dollars on the black market–ha!) Okay, now react to this quote by Ernest Hemingway, ” You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done.”
Bryan: Yes! Hemingway, of course, was absolutely right. Writing is a lonely job, a loner’s work. You have to be happy to have accomplished an amazing endeavor by just having sat down and written something in a world stingy with its time to artists. My professor Barbara Loren once told me, “This is the hardest art form of them all. Because everybody can write.” Not everybody plays an instrument, or paints, but very few can write well and even fewer can write at the creative caliber necessary to be a fiction writer. What I’ve learned from running Italy Beer Tours is the lessons of being an entrepreneur. You have to become a problem solver, expect fires, work alone, without pay and nobody to motivate you but you. Sound familiar? Being a writer is a business. I know it’s a nasty word, but it is. You have to accept that if you want to do this. That said, the most important part of your job then is to write. Otherwise, there’s no product to sell. And you have to write a good product or it won’t sell. And running a business, as my accountant once put it, is a competition. You have to be the best, original, creative in your work. These are the skills of entrepreneurs. And you have to do it as a writer, a skill very few have at your level. Does this mean you should throw your hands up and quit? Never!! Never, ever quit! I know way better writers than me, but they quick and nobody will know. But be honest with yourself, brutally honest. Is this good work? If you’re not sure, got back to work. And no one is going to be there to applaud your work. The only step you need to take is to get that first draft done. The real work comes in the hundreds of hours, many months, sometimes years of rehashing that work, refining it to near perfection. Then, sit down, have a good beer and make sure to be proud of yourself. You are doing the work. That is all that is asked of you
Nancy: You’ve always been “doing the work” as long as I’ve known you. Now tell us something we don’t know about you?
Bryan: Tom Hazuka baptized me ‘the Godfather of the Denver Flash Fiction scene’. But really, I am a master at undermining my own endeavors. All my life, I mean, all of my life I’ve wanted to be a fiction writer but was too afraid to do so. When I was two or three, I had received one of those Mattel car garages with the wooden, pseudo-Lego figures that were like pegs you set into small holes in the cars. At the bottom of the garage ramp was a stop sign that lifted and a bell would ding when the car reached to the bottom. I remember copying the words STOP. I was just drawing. When I showed it to my father, he was amazed, “Stop! That’s great. You wrote, Stop.” He pointed to the stop sign at the end of the ramp. I will never forget how in awe I was that he knew where it came from. I always wanted to be a fiction writer. But I was always told, “what are you going to do to make money?” That phrase deflated me. I tried to find other jobs, other prospects, but there were none. I wasted so much time searching for “what was going to make me money”. In the end, I still wanted to be a fiction writer. It’s all I love. I love it more than I can even express, nearly more than my family. Ink is the blood in my veins. The rhythm and tones of language are my oxygen. If you don’t love writing this much, you better stop now. It’s hard work with little, if any credit. But man, I wouldn’t want to be known for anything else. It’s a beautiful art, a skill that never stops challenging you. And when somebody calls you a fiction writer, you know it’s something special.
Nancy: “If you don’t love writing this much, you better stop now.” I love that. It reminds me of the Bukowski poem, “So You Want to Be a Writer?” Yes and yes. Bryan, it’s been so fun to chat with you today. Anything else you want to add?
Bryan: The great John Coltrane was not always so great. He worked very hard at it. Very hard. When he finished playing in recording studios during the day, he played clubs all night. When he got home and laid in bed, he pulled out his flute and played till he went to sleep. A recording of him playing when he was in the navy band exposes him as barely mediocre. Incredible! With music, with the love of music, he beat all odds, including beating a heroin addiction. He found spirituality and pressed it into the knobs of his instrument to create some of the finest music ever. And yet, he was not very good at it at one time. Don’t ever give up. You know you have it in you. You’re here right?
Bryan Jansing’s Flash Fiction was included in Fast Forward Vol. 3, The Mix Tape (2010), which was the finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. He has also written for Beer Advocate, Celebrator, Primo and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His book Italy: Beer Country is the first and only book available about the Italian craft beer movement. Learn more at www.italybeertours.com.
Sometimes our stories fall flat, without that “pop” of tension. One great way to create urgency in a flash fiction story is by using another constraint: Time.
For almost a decade now, all my college classes have begun with a 10-minute timed writing. Timed writing is nothing new. We know that it helps us transition us into the writing space, like stretching before a workout. We know that it forces us to stay present and dig deeper—writing past where we might have naturally given up. And we know that keeping the pen moving quickly, without crossing things out or rereading, is a great way to evade the internal critic and uncover fresh ideas.
But I discovered something else through years of this practice: 10 minutes of writing without stopping is also the perfect amount of time to draft a flash fiction story idea from start to finish.
It makes sense: Flash fiction is defined by a (word) constraint, so why not create under a time constraint? Having that clock ticking while you furiously try to reach the end of an idea gives the piece a natural sense of urgency. And writing from the beginning to the end in one sitting also creates a sense of continuity—we see the end coming as we embark on the journey.
I do most of my timed writings longhand, scribbling. But it works with typing as well. And you can use a timed writing in many ways. For instance, you can:
- Set the timer while writing to a prompt.
- Set the timer when you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to write about.
- Set the timer and rewrite a “flat” story from scratch while the clock chases you to the finish line (my favorite)
And as a daily practice it’s even better.
Besides, you can do anything for 10 mins, right?
Regardless of how you use it, a 10-minute burst of writing can break you through resistance and lethargy. And creating something to push against allows inspiration to bulge and balloon in interesting and unexpected ways.
(How did it work for you? Share in the comments below!)