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!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
Like so many writers, I began writing as a child and then put it aside to work on what I thought were more serious and reasonable pursuits. Two things set me on the literary path: First was a writing workshop I signed up for when we were living in Australia and my fourth child was still just a baby. I needed something to keep me from going crazy and that workshop was just wonderful. It set me on fire, creatively. Then I joined an online site called Zoetrope, the creative brainchild of Francis Ford Coppola. It was loaded with writers and poets and screenwriters and photographers, etc. all under one “roof.” There I was able to share my work and get constructive feedback from writers further along than I was and I learned so much, so fast. It was then that I began pursuing writing seriously and sending my work out.
Years later, and you’ve published four collections of short fiction—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed?
My experience is a little unusual because I’ve never gone through the process of querying publishers and sending my work out. I’ve always been invited to submit. My first chapbook was published by Rose Metal Press and that was because it was a finalist in their contest and they wanted to create a book from the finalist chapbooks. So my experience has been pretty positive! If you go with a smaller press, you have much more creative control. The downside of a small press is that they really are doing it for the love, doing it in their free time, etc., and they often have to close down. But overall, yes, I’m happy with the books I’ve gotten out into the world.
That’s great to know because your stories are so good, so inventive—“Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” “Stop Dragging: A One-Act Play,” “I Have Not Pushed Back My Cuticles with an Orange Stick Since the Nixon Administration”— how do you come up with your ideas? How do you find a story’s structure when limited by word count?
Thank you! It’s the constraint of word count that opens flash fiction up to experimentation and innovation. Faced with so few words, you want to make the most impact that you can and sometimes playing with form helps you achieve maximum impact in the briefest of space. My ideas seem to come from simply scribbling in a notebook, dreaming on the page so to speak. Something just clicks. I “hear” the rhythm of a story before words really come to mind. For “Collective Nouns” I just kept hearing the refrain, “The word for (something) is (something).” I think I’d seen something the day before about collective nouns, so I just riffed off that idea. Then the shooting in Las Vegas happened and I was struck by the idea that these people had been so excited to go to that concert. They were gathered to have a fun night out and became targets. So my feelings about that and this refrain going through my head sort of coalesced into that piece. And so many of my stories seem to come together like that.
That process sounds so organic. What would you say are the most important elements of flash fiction? What are some of the common missteps that can happen in a flash fiction piece?
Flash fiction is its own unique form. People get derailed when they sit down to write a flash fiction that follows all the traditional rules. It can be done, but they often find themselves stymied. Something’s missing. They might as well go ahead and write a short story.
To me, flash fiction is a very fluid form, particularly suited to experimentation. I always tell my students there are really only three “essentials” to great flash fiction (and 2 out of 3 can work as well). They are: emotion, movement, and resonance. Movement is my stand-in for plot. Something must change in a meaningful way. Resonance, because you have so few words on the page, means the story must in some way “live” beyond the last word.
There are lots of delightful flash stories that are not particularly emotional. They are more quirky and clever. I love those! But I think greatness comes from tapping into some deep emotion at its core, something that makes the reader feel.
Let’s say you’ve finished editing a story and it’s ready to go. You’ve been published in so many journals. Is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different journals with your work?
If you love what a journal publishes, it’s likely you are writing something that fits their aesthetic. I say, send to the journals whose stories you read over and over again. I also look at where my favorite writers have published and submit to those journals.
Also, it’s important to me that a journal treats its writers well. Do they promote their issues on social media? Does the journal have a pleasing visual aesthetic? Is care taken with the words? Do they nominate for awards? These are all important to me when I look to send out my work.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
It would have to be that early chapbook getting published by Rose Metal Press. That is when I started doing my first readings and when I first began to feel like a legit writer. It gave me some visibility in our small lit world and gave me the confidence to keep at it.
You’ve kept at it and now you teach at an MFA program, and you run your own Flash Fiction workshops. What can you tell us about your experiences as a creative writing professor? Do you find that students today are taking more risks with their stories? Can you share one or two of the best writing exercises you use to get students to write outside of the box?
I love teaching. I never expected to, but I love it as much as I love writing. I think students today take more risks if they are allowed and encouraged to do so! I am clobbered by the new work I’m seeing.
My most effective writing exercises are those that are not prescriptive but aim more at getting the writer to find her own material. Not just to find it, but to honor it. Honor their experiences and their pains. Honor their memories and dreams and what makes them unique. Once they get to that point, all I need do is show them what they can do with it, and there’s so often an “ah-ha” moment when I give them that freedom. For example, I have an exercise that has the students weaving disparate types of writing into a mosaic. First, I hear, “this is really hard” and then, “I can’t believe I wrote that!” They find their way into material they previously hadn’t been able to access. It’s very cool to watch.
I love how you say you “show them what they can do with it.” To me, that’s a sign of a great teacher, just pointing the student in the right direction. What writers helped point you in the right direction? What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
So many. A lot of the writers I worked with on Zoetrope early on. Notably, Kim Chinquee and Pia Earhardt. I love Joy Williams, that strange, fearless brain of hers. Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Edward P. Jones, William Maxwell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx. Lots and lots of writers working now, like Amelia Gray, Amber Sparks, Lydia Copeland Gwyn, and Lindsay Hunter. I love the poetry of Khadijah Queen and Kaveh Akbar. Lately, I’ve been reading Sam Shepard’s plays, for that rhythm, just to see what action, gesture, and dialogue can do on their own.
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Oh the usual: Work hard. Keep showing up. Be generous and kind. Connect. Be a good literary citizen. Don’t wait until you have a book to promote to make connections. If someday you want others to buy and read and help promote your books, get started doing that now for other writers. Seize every opportunity to learn and get better.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
I want to keep trying new things. I’m actually at work on another play. I’m trying to write poems. I think they’re pretty bad, but I believe on some level dabbling in other art forms, risk-taking, and creative play, are all good for your soul if not your “career.”
And of course I’d love to publish lots more stories and books.
We’re so excited that Traci Mullins is going to be joining us in Costa Rica this coming January! Here Traci talks candidly about honoring the 8-year-old little girl inside of her that loved to play with words and how she is finally allowing HER to take the lead again.
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?