Interviews

Nicholas Cook on Flash Fiction, Writing Retreats, & Creative Inspiration

Nancy and I are absolutely thrilled  that Nicholas Cook will be joining us in the French countryside for our French Connection Retreat in June. Nicholas took a few moments to chat with me about writing and writers, creativity, and flash fiction.

Hi Nicholas! Have you ever done a writing retreat before? And what are you most looking forward to in France?

I did a workshop in Taos, NM last year with Robert Vaughan and Meg Tuite. It was a blast, and I made some good friends and even managed to get a story from the workshop published. As for France, I’ve never been before so I’m looking forward to all of it, but mostly the chance to work with Kathy and Nancy, especially as I am interested in flash novel(la)s.

What inspires you creatively?

I find reading other peoples works inspires me the most. Otherwise, music, walking the dog, traveling, re-reading books.

Aw, I love this photo of you and your dog. I get the same creative boost when I’m out with my dog as well. Can you share a piece of writing of your own that you especially love and/or feel most proud of (and talk a bit about why?)

“The Eclipse” which was published in Lost Balloon in 2017. This story was a finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions and a Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction contest honorable mention. This is still one of my favorite stories of mine and one of the few I can go back and read and not cringe over. The story came together easily and was inspired heavily by the story Pool Night by Amy Hempel, who I was re-reading for the hundredth time. I like it because the voice and character are very different than what I usually write.

I love this story, Nicholas. I remember reading it when it came out. It does remind me of Amy Hempel’s work, quiet but powerful. No wonder it was recognized. What books or short stories have you read many times, and what draws you back to these works?

I will re-read every piece of flash written by Claudia Smith until the day I die. She was one of the first flash authors I really “got” over a decade ago, and her work still resonates with me (the voice, simplicity and economy of words, and emotion). Other flash authors I love are Cathy Ulrich, Kathy Fish, Kim Chinquee, Meg Pokrass, Tiff Holland, Casey Hannan, Robert Scotellaro, and so many more. As for novels, “Why Did I Ever” and “One D.O.A…” by Mary Robison are essential reads and I re-read them in some form once a year. Mary Robison has one of the most distinct and captivating voices and is a huge inspiration to me. I find I think like a lot of her characters (although maybe not so exaggerated, I hope).

Thank you for the mention! I feel the same way about Claudia Smith Chen’s, work and Mary Robison is an all-time favorite writer of mine, too.

Forgive me, but I always ask this question: Is there something funny / interesting / weird / wonderful about you that you’d like to share? 

I’ll have been traveling around Europe prior to and after the workshop as I’ll be on a twelve week sabbatical from my job. I’m excited to see what inspiration that brings! Maybe I will stop writing about the southwest and deserts.

Nicholas Cook’s fiction has appeared in Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review, Unbroken Journal, Bath Flash Fiction Award, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for Best Small Fictions 2018. He lives in Texas.

Note: Our French Connection Retreat sold out very quickly (you may get on the wait list for it though!) Check out our other upcoming retreats in Costa Rica (there’s a VERY special limited time discount you might want to jump on) and Grand Lake, Colorado. 

Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

“How is Crafting Microfiction Like Getting a Boat Inside a Bottle?” by Jayne Martin

The lovely and talented flash / micro writer, Jayne Martin, will be joining Nancy and me (again!) this summer for our French Connection retreat outside of Bordeaux, France. She also took part in our retreat in Italy last May AND our debut retreat in Breckenridge in 2018! We love Jayne and we love her writing and are so excited about her new collection, Tender Cuts , which comes out November 4th (pre-order from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.)

Jayne graciously agreed to share her microfiction wisdom in the guest post below. Enjoy!

How is Crafting Microfiction Like Getting a Boat Inside a Bottle?

I have no idea how anyone gets a boat inside a bottle. I’m still trying to figure out how all those people get inside my television. But I do know a bit about writing microfiction. And a touch of mystery is a big part of it.

“It’s what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power” – Toni Morrison

When writing micro, what I describe as stories under 300 words, leaving room for the reader to participate is crucial. To do this, the writer needs to think like a painter, encompassing strong imagery. Our brains are wired to respond emotionally to sensory details.

As a child, I enjoyed lying on my back on the lawn and staring at the clouds as they morphed into angels, butterflies, even sharks. Look! There are his teeth. That’s not a shark, a friend might dispute. That’s a wolf! And who’s to say who was right? Imagination, interpretation – they’re as unique as our DNA.

Tender Cuts (Vine Leaves Press, 2019)

When crafting microfiction, whether it’s a 25-word story or 300 words, the writer needs to engage the reader’s imagination, encourage their interpretation, and give them a fully realized character whose life continues far beyond the constraints of the story. Here is one of the shorter pieces from my new collection of micro, “Tender Cuts.”

Working Girl

Found upright at the curb in the chill of dawn, the single blush-tinted stiletto was the last footprint she would leave on this earth, its mate too quick to step into the car of another faceless stranger. Tiny hands press against a window and wait for her return.

Only 48 words, but what can we gather about this character? Consider the color of the stiletto. It’s not black or red, it’s blush. She still has a softness about her. She was snatched in a way that indicates violence. Likely, she hasn’t yet developed the street instinct to tell the harmless from the harmful. She hasn’t been doing this for long. Consider the “tiny hands” waiting for her return. She’s a mother. Consider the circumstances that could have led her to this state of desperation in order to provide for her child.

I could have written that all out, but doing so would have stripped you of having your own experience of the piece. A micro, even more so than longer literary forms, must leave the reader having had an emotional experience. Otherwise, it risks being just clever. And in writing microfiction, clever is the booby prize.

Jayne Martin lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time. She is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Her debut collection of microfiction, “Tender Cuts,” from Vine Leaves Press, is available November 4th. Visit her website at:  www.jaynemartin-writer.com

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

Poetry & Journaling One’s Way into Story: A Conversation with Lisa Trigg

Nancy and I are delighted that Lisa Trigg will be joining us for our Writing in the Blue Zone retreat in Costa Rica this March. I enjoyed Lisa’s responses to my questions below:

Lisa, thanks for your time! Have you ever visited Costa Rica before? And what attracts you to Costa Rica?

Never been to Costa Rica but it’s been on my list for years.  I’m attracted to the geography, the people and their politics.  If I can learn Spanish,  I will consider retiring there. If I retire.

What are you most looking forward to in our upcoming retreat?

Learning something new about writing/flash.  Getting inspiration, tips. Sight seeing/R & R, meeting new and interesting people.

What do you find yourself writing about? What themes and/or writerly obsessions? 

I’m presently engaged in planning/writing a series of “cycle stories” in the fashion of Ellen Gilchrist about the life and times of a young to elderly lesbian named Hazel Currie whom I’ve been collecting notes about since I was about 20.  I have drafts of 2 stories from that series and notes on more.  I think there might actually be 2 books worth of short stories, but one never knows how these things turn out.   I dictate notes on Hazel in a Day One journal throughout the day as I have thoughts about her.

I have a small series of flash stories that come to me as I do my work with people with serious mental illness in crisis.  These have social justice themes and are about hurt, broken people making their way in this world.   I’m very careful about writing these stories because I do not want to turn their lives in to entertainment, and because some of the stories are so distinctive that I have to be careful about violating HIPAA laws.  I work with a writer/writing coach who is also a trauma expert/therapist, Kay Morgan, PhD, to help me navigate these issues. So far, I’m more worried about it than she is. The best of those stories, “A Day’s Work,” I had published in a little ezine junoesq which is  now defunct, It’s about a homeless mentally ill man, Janik Muro, who works various strategies to get off the street for a few days because someone is killing homeless people in the camps around the city.  It has morphed into a not bad short story that needs more work and gave me ideas for a novel based on the main character in the story. That project is fermenting and I’m not actively working on him right now except for the little notes I dictate about him into my Day One journal when thoughts occur to me.

I might be obsessed with using technology to organize my very busy thoughts about my characters.

Your works in progress sound so compelling! And I’m going to look into Day One. I’m eager to read more of it when we gather at Peace Retreat. Please respond to this quote?

“When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity. They turn away from the minutiae of their lives-and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by the desire to explore the unfamiliar. They are drawn toward what they don’t understand.”  Dani Shapiro 

Great quote and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I hope someone says this about me someday!

Would you like to share something about yourself that is interesting, moving, weird, funny, unusual?

I’m a lifelong writer/journaler, having focused on poetry in the past, but for the last 1-2 years exploring fiction, which was my original goal.  I was derailed into poetry after a Centrum Workshop where 7 beautiful woman poets performed their work each morning back in the days when they held the performances first thing in the morning.  When I got home, I was thinking in verse and wrote poetry for many years.  I think that writing poetry improved my language and has made me a better fiction writer.  I have many pets, am an avid ballroom dancer, and my idea of camping is Motel 6.  Still wake up excited to get to my job every morning and don’t plan to ever retire.  I once had a dream where I was disembodied, out among the stars, with a spotlight on me, and a deep voice boomed “And Lisa Trigg is the Homecoming Queen of the Universe!”  I’m pretty sure that Hazel is going to have this precise dream sometime during the travails of her 20s.

Love all of this, especially that dream! And I have found that the best flash writers have some background in poetry. We’re so eager to meet you in Costa Rica, Lisa, and getting to know you and your writing better. Thanks so much for your time!

Note: Some spaces remain for our Writing in the Blue Zone retreat in Costa Rica this March! Please consider joining us. We’d love to have you!