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.
Also, segmented structure allows a flash to cover a broader expanse of time. See how masterfully Jeff Landon employs this structure in a tender/funny/sad story of a relationship spanning many years in “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace” published in Smokelong Quarterly.
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:
The result may be flash memoir or you may completely fictionalize your piece. If this gets your pen flowing, keep going with it. See where it takes you!
Hi Bill! You’re joining us in Costa Rica in January for our retreat. What has been your writing workshop/retreat experience in the past? How do you find ways to honor your writing in your day to day life?
I’ve attended the Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC and have taken some of their online workshops. Some of us from one of the online classes have stayed in touch and regularly read and critique each other’s work. I also took one of your Fast Flash classes and had a blast.
I mostly succeed at writing every day. It can be anything from a story to working on my novel to journal entries to writing exercises I set for myself. The exercises include things like sketches about ex-girlfriends, “letters never sent,” and writing down everything my dad ever told me about his life. The point is to keep writing. I’ve also slowly evolved into a morning person. I feel like I get more done in the early hours before the rest of the house wakes up.
Respond to this quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
Oh I love Kurt. I think Ray Bradbury said something similar, too. To me it means don’t over-think things, just jump in. I have to remind myself of that every time I start a new story. It also speaks to my going off to Costa Rica. I’ve never done anything like this, which seems as good a reason as any to do it.
What is your favorite story that you yourself have written (“favorite” doesn’t have to mean “best” or more successful or whatever). And why is it your favorite?
“Currents” is a favorite longer story that I’m still honing. It has some attempts at Vonnegut-like commentary and dark humor around climate change, and is also written for my father. He served in the Navy in World War II. He got very sick at one point and his ship had to leave without him. The ship was later sunk in battle with the loss of most of the crew. He always carried around a kind of survivor’s guilt about it. So in the story I try to give him some imagined closure, some absolution.
A favorite flash of mine is called “Portugal.” It’s my attempt at writing in second person. It got honorable mention in a Glimmer Train contest, but I have yet to find a home for it.
Oh wow. What a story about your father! That’s a great idea to write a story that gives that harrowing experience closure. And congratulations on your Glimmer Train nod!
Have you traveled to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to as a writer retreating to this beautiful place?
I’ve never been to Costa Rica, but have heard wonderful things.
I’ve made literary pilgrimages to Mark Twain’s house, Carson McCuller’s house, John Steinbeck’s house, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, Walden Pond, Indianapolis (Vonnegut), and Lowell, MA (Kerouac) hoping I would have these writing epiphanies. I once took a cross-country train trip for inspiration, thinking I would get all this writing done. It wound up being more of a four-day Disney ride through America (though it did become writing fodder later). I always come back to the line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that says the only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there. In other words, the location is not as important as just putting your ass in the chair wherever you are and writing.
I’m sure I will love Costa Rica, and I’m excited to be on such an extended retreat. What’s more important to me is being in the company of other writers, and the chance to work with you and Nancy.
Well, thank you! And I get that regarding: Zen. That makes a lot of sense. I think there’s something to be said for receptivity and for inspiration to line up at the confluence of the right time in the right place. I feel like the Peace Retreat in Costa Rica is such a place. Nancy and I are excited too!
Bill, your wife Lucy is joining you on this trip. How did you get her interested in flash fiction?
I talk about flash all the time, and there are collections all around the house. Oddly enough, I only read excerpts of my work to her — I never show her work in progress. She’s done a lot of corporate writing, and I said flash might be a good way to try out fiction writing. Now she’s coming to Costa Rica. Talk about jumping off cliffs…
I think that’s wonderful! We’re really looking forward to meeting you both! Tell us something we don’t know about you that you are happy to share. : )
In addition to really short stories, I also enjoy really short films and really short songs. I’ve got a collection of 3,000+ songs that are each under two minutes long. I see a lot of similarities between a well-written flash and a well-crafted song that clocks in at 1:32.
Oh I agree. I love short films too. Novellas. Art in miniature. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Bill! Here’s to Costa Rica in January!
Bill Merklee is a writer and graphic designer. His writing has appeared in Columbia, StoryBytes, New Jersey Monthly, and the HIV Here & Now project. He lives in the beautiful Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey with his wife and children and two very Zen cats. You can find some things of his at The Amber of the Moment and occasional outbursts on Twitter @bmerklee.
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.