Choreographer Twyla Tharp in her book, The Creative Habit, encourages creatives to keep a journal of the things we see (hear, taste, smell, etc.), especially when they are juxtaposed in interesting ways that draw our attention, be they intentional or accidental.
It’s tremendously useful to keep a journal of the things that particularly draw your attention in your daily life. Maybe the idea of writing lots and lots of pages of your inner workings every day doesn’t appeal. But you can jot things down. And when you’re stuck, go back and look at them again. I have these odd notes on my phone: snippets of overheard conversation, a phrase from a song, peculiarities of the natural world (or of my neighbors down the street). Lots and lots of photos. Collect images and ideas you’re attracted to. Put them in your phone or folder or spiral notebook, whatever. Just don’t rely on memory!
Doing this, coupled with some daily “down time” (even if only for 15 minutes) will work magic on your creativity.
It’s about openness and receptivity to, well, a sort of creative alchemy.
Juxtaposition is defined as: “the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side often to compare or contrast or to create an interesting effect.” (Merriam-Webster)
Poets are great at juxtaposition. Haiku writers and mosaicists specialize in it. They jam two or more very different ideas or images together to create new meaning and associations. It’s why we so often get an “ah ha!” experience from reading poetry. Filmmakers and photographers and visual artists of all stripes also make powerful use of juxtaposition.
But flash writers can (and should) make this a part of their toolbox as well.
In Joy Williams’ collection Ninety-Nine Stories of God, (a book I highly recommend), there’s a flash called “Veracity” that manages, in a scant couple of hundred words, a brilliant juxtaposition of church pews, a birthday bounce house, a dog, and a ’64 Airstream Globetrotter. And every single one of these elements feels necessary and significant.
My flash, “Foundling” (below) uses a similar jamming together of elements in a very short space:
They discovered the baby in the grass, under the snapping cotton sheets. The clothesline spun and creaked, throwing light, then shadow, on his face, his wee head smooth and curved as a doorknob. The woman didn’t bend, only drew her hair from her eyes. He smells like Malt-o-Meal, the little girl said, hoisting him. Support his neck, the woman told her. It’ll snap like a pencil. Christmas Eve, her husband had packed and left for Cincinnati. Now, as raindrops dotted their arms, and the woman’s skirt flicked her calves, he came rushing through the gate, holding a newspaper over his head, calling Margaret! Margaret!
The exercise below will have you bumping together disparate objects / images / ideas in micro form to see where it takes you, what surprises you, what you unearth. You may discover new meaning is created when juxtaposing two disparate objects, ideas, or images. Forcing yourself to do this in a very small space actually serves to ramp up the power of juxtaposition. Very little room is left to “explain” yourself. You must allow what your unconscious delivers to you. The results are often delightful or disturbing, but always surprising.
Microfiction is variously defined by different word limits. For our purposes, let’s say 150 words or fewer. Microfiction often resembles prose poetry. The line between flash and prose poetry is wafer thin at times. But please set aside any need to categorize your work at this juncture. Allow whatever emerges.
So! Your prompt:
I want you to combine two or more disparate elements as compactly as you can, bump them up against each other, in as tiny a story as possible.
Don’t worry in this first draft about “making sense”…your unconscious has a tendency to make its own kind of beauty and sense. It’s what we are wired to do, after all. Find the patterns. And if we can’t find them, we create them.
Choose ONE from List A and ONE from List B and get to work!
Try to keep to just 150 words or fewer if you can.
This prompt will be easier if you allow whatever delightful or disturbing weirdness ensues and resist the urge to explain it. Enjoy!
Do you have a character, a story, a voice that won’t let you go? Likely this is for a reason! Lisa Trigg, who will be joining us in Yviers, France for our French Connection Retreat , shares with us just such a voice in her micro below:
Hazel Currie Asks Who is that Talking?
by Lisa Trigg
Here I am, falling in love with exactly the wrong woman wondering how I have let this happen. And the voice said, in parentheses (well, this is how it works. You don’t know. You just don’t know what you want until you have it in your arms, smiling up at you, cracking jokes at your books, all those shoes in your basement, how often your watch tells you to breathe and drink water, and how much you talk to Alexa. You start remembering things you never thought of or dreamt about or read in any of your books. Suck it up).
What I want to know is. Who is it that talks in parentheses? Just who is it?
Lisa has a whole series of “Hazel Currie” stories and explains her inspiration for them:
“Hazel Currie started talking in my head when I was about 20 years old. She tells me stories, points out things that I should pay attention to, remember. She reminds me of things that I have forgotten that might be important, useful, that I should write down. She reminds me if I already have notes on a subject. She does not usually know where those notes are. She is persistent and does not shut up until I write down what she says and I have done so since the beginning. It’s the only way I can get anything else done. I’ve been evaluated, and no, I do not need medication. To learn to make use of what she tells me, I regularly attend master writing workshops with writers that I admire, do close readings, work with a private writing coach, read craft books, other stuff that I have forgotten.”
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.
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.”
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
“Step right up and meet a woman so determined to be a star she’ll try anything, including spray on Instant Fame! Meet her reflection, who dreams of a life of her own and manages to find love on the Internet! See the man desperately trying to earn a world record in the most bizarre way possible! Learn the origins of the Four-Legged Woman and the Human Skeleton! Clown mothers, suicidal ringmasters, cult leader who teach the cha-cha and Alaska Jackson’s Traveling Medicine Show…each one takes center stage in this vaudeville of flash fiction. Flash fiction, microfiction, short-short stories… regardless of the name, it’s all the same—a compressed story that packs a punch. Enter a cabaret of the weird, the absurd, and the bizarre with this bold and bawdy new collection.”
Well, readers, I promise you this collection is like none other you’ve read and I’m thrilled that Nancy’s Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, published by Big Table Publishing, releases to the world October 26th. This latest is “pure Stohlman,” as Pamela Painter so aptly puts it.
Told in a series of connected flashes (actually microfictions, some as brief as one sentence), this book tells the story of circus clowns and sideshow performers, with Nancy’s inimitable style and wit and what James Thomas describes as “brilliant performance art on the printed page.”
The pieces are so inventive and daring, with a voice that leaps off the page. Nancy deals with deep truths in a way that bucks straight realism. As she puts it, she feels most comfortable telling her stories “slant.” One of my favorites is this mind bender:
I was backstage. The crowd was applauding. I peeked
through the heavy maroon curtains and there was my Future Self
in the spotlight. She saw me and her face opened like a flower to
I walked on stage and sat next to her. Then I noticed I was
sitting in a chair labeled “Before” as the audience clapped and
I love what Steven Dunn has to say about this collection:
“Nancy Stohlman’s writing is so damn sharp here. And each of these shards that make up Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities is connected by this silly-sad-hopeful-absurd-melancholic web that catches everything you do not want, and you’ll find yourself longing for what’s not caught. But you will end up caught in the web too, with all of that mess. I’ve never read a book like this, and I’m excited to hear all of the conversations surrounding it.” ~Steven Dunn, author of Water and Power and Potted Meat