Flash Fiction: Another Story About Me and Some Guy

Very happy to hear the news that one of my favorite litmags, Night Train, founded in 2002 and edited by Rusty Barnes, is back and looking for submissions here: http://www.nighttrainmagazine.com/. I’ve been lucky enough to publish a few stories in Night Train and this is a good way to introduce my next topic of flash fiction: the one paragraph story/prose poem. I love, love, love this form and use it a lot and lots of writers do it much better than I do. I will post their one paragraph stories here in the coming weeks (and if you have one, please post it in the comments section, I’d love to read it!) What I love about the one paragraph story is the tight encapsulation and breathlessness it achieves which suits a certain type of story to a T. Here is my one paragraph story, originally published in the great Night Train:

frost-378599_640 copyAnother Story About Me and Some Guy

 

We met because I hate the actor Bruce Willis. I knew he was in the movie, I thought I could manage, but eventually I had to excuse myself to the lobby. That’s when I saw Martin Ripley, blowing out his sinuses into a napkin. I squirted butter on my popcorn and said is there any chance you could do that outside? He gave me a destroyed look that, I confess, broke my heart. He was super tall and slightly malformed in a way that indicated possible chromosome damage. Do you like Bruce Willis? I asked, and he said sure, who doesn’t like Bruce Willis? And I said me, I can’t stand him and Martin Ripley said well… He tossed the napkin and asked if I’d like to go with him. Where, I said and he said anywhere. Jupiter. Cincinnati. He said first he had to take Maalox to his mother and there was the dry cleaning to pick up, a book to return. I thought about the guy, the other guy, I left in the theater, but here was Martin Ripley, smiling and introducing himself and shaking my hand. I looked up into his face, the asymmetry of his jaw like the asymmetry of my chest and I said let’s go. Spring was breathing puffs of steam out of the asphalt and the sun on the melting snow hurt my eyes and Martin Ripley drove as if the two of us were on a long trip, something important and urgent, as if someone far away had died and here we were, speeding to the wake.

Still writing…?

Here is Dani Shapiro’s answer to a question we writers get a lot and it has inspired the hell out of me this morning:

“I usually nod and smile, then quickly change the subject. But here is what I’d like to put my fork down and say: Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of my capacity to reason. Even if my fingers were to clench and wither, even if I were to grow deaf or blind, even if I were unable to move a muscle in my body save for the blink of one eye, I would still write. Writing saved my life. Writing has been my window–flung wide open to this magnificent, chaotic existence–my way of interpreting everything within my grasp. Writing has extended that grasp by pushing me beyond my comfort, beyond safety, past my self-perceived limits. It has softened my heart and hardened my intellect. It has been a privilege. It has whipped my ass. It has burned into me a valuable clarity. It has made me think about suffering, randomness, good will, luck, memory, responsibility, and kindness, on a daily basis–whether I feel like it or not. It has insisted that I grow up. That I evolve. It has pushed me to get better, to be better. It is my disease and my cure. It has allowed me not only to withstand the losses in my life but to alter those losses–to chip away at my own bewilderment until I find the pattern in it. Once in a great while, I look up at the sky and think that, if my father were alive, maybe he would be proud of me. That if my mother were alive, I might have come up with the words to make her understand. That I am changing what I can. I am reaching a hand out to the dead and to the living and the not yet born. So yes. Yes. Still writing.”~Dani Shapiro, from “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life”

Chiseling the Marble

All of my focus the last few weeks has been on the non-writing aspects of my life. Health issues, life issues, children issues are in the forefront and must be dealt with. At times like this, I feel it necessary to draw back from daily writing and networking on social media. I draw into myself a little, too. There is so much to think about, do, and simply feel. When things return to something a little closer to normal, I know I’ll resume my habit of settling myself every morning in my writing room. I’ll drink my coffee and look out my window awhile. I’ll take pen in hand and begin again. That is simply the nature of life and living. Beginning again. Over and over.

Still-Writing-by-Dani-ShapiroHowever, even when I’m not writing, I’m reading and thinking about writing. Right now I’m reading “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro. It’s marvelous. It reminds me quite a bit of Natalie Goldberg’s gently inspiring “Writing Down the Bones” (I have a story about that book and what it means to me that I’ll blog about someday). There are so many quotable passages in this book, but I’ll share just this one that really resonated with me this morning:

“Don’t think too much. There’ll be time to think later. Analysis won’t help. You’re chiseling now. You’re passing your hands over the wood. Now the page is no longer blank. There’s something there. It isn’t your business yet to know whether it’s going to be prize-worthy someday, or whether it will gather dust in a drawer. Now you’ve carved the tree. You’ve chiseled the marble. You’ve begun.”

So go and chisel something today. For me. I promise I’ll be back to join you soon.

Flash Fiction: Strings

kites-014

Strings

The aunt and uncle’s farm, early spring, the earth smell of unsown fields, and Sunday lunch. My uncle sprawled in the recliner, his work boots raised like an affront. Burning Camel stuck to his lower lip. Snoring. The aunts and my mother drinking coffee, my aunt whispers about strange things coming out of her when she goes to the bathroom. My mother spies us on the floor pretending to play crazy eights. She indicates with her cigarette the back door. All our lives we’ve been following that little point of fire. We are given kites to assemble. Rickety-ass kites. Balsa wood and paper. Balls and balls of string. We tromp down the path between the trees. The field opens up to us like something born. My older brother Bill and his girlfriend shy in the face of their molten horniness. They drop their kites and head for the barn. Bits of colored paper we tear halfway, straddle them on the strings, watch them race like children. My younger brother innovates with headlines he tears from the Press-Citizen: Local Boy Bowls 7-10 Split! Up, up it goes. The rogue German Shepherd is trying to bite everyone. Bit cousin Nancy in the face last month. Couple Wed 75 Years Die Fifteen Minutes Apart. Heavenward. O glorious day! The kites bob and weave, boxed by the wind. The German Shepherd running in circles. Planets Collide! Bill comes hopping out of the barn screaming. His knee wide open, dangling, meat falling off the bone (the way my aunt describes slow cooked pork ribs). The German Shepherd, insane over the blood. They’d been jumping from the hayloft, Bill and the girlfriend, his knee sliced by something under the straw. Some farm implement lying in wait, some menacing blade. Space Aliens Take Over House of Representatives! To the clouds! Bill, howling. Blood just everywhere. His knee inside the German Shepherd’s jaws. Nobody sees Uncle John until he’s there, taking aim. A blast. Bill on the ground alive and bleeding. The German Shepherd, dead. Little brother still tearing up the newspaper. Rickety Kites Survive Nuclear Blast! The kites, untethered, rise further, disappear. Our faces upturned like the best kind of prayer.

*Originally published in New World Writing.

Segmented Flash Fiction: “Abbreviated Glossary” by Gay Degani (with author comments)

Gay II(Readers, in talking about my previous post with my friend, Gay Degani, she linked a segmented flash of her own and it’s…amazing. So I asked if I could reprint the story here and get her to talk a little about the story and its structure. I was hugely moved to learn the origins of the story and I think you will be too. Thanks so much, Gay, for honoring my blog once again!)

~~~

I wrote “Abbreviated Glossary” around 2009 or 2010, and I’m trying to remember what prompted me to do it this way. I know I didn’t want the piece to be too complicated–emotional scenes with dialogue–because the inspiration for the story was real. One of those “what if” stories where you take something from your life, something big, and change most of the details to create–well, a story not quite your own.

Honestly almost everything I write comes from my life in one form or another. In this case, it felt like an offering, I suppose. It’s turning my life into something meaningful and it was cleansing. Perhaps this is how I forgive myself. Or perhaps it’s my way of writing memoir. I did lose a child to anencephaly back in 1980, but I didn’t want this piece to be about me.

So segmentation worked. It allowed me to reveal a difficult situation without delving into all the emotion, all the self-blame, all the loss. I can’t find a draft of this story with any other structure so I must have been exploring “form” at the time, read someone else’s piece using this technique, and had an “aha” moment–that’s the way to do this story.

The original version was done as chapters, each segment with its own Roman numeral. I called it “Five Chapters.” At some point, I decided to use words instead. This added another dimension and gave me a more distinctive title. That’s all I can remember about this, other than I work-shopped it twice, both times with male authors facilitating, and interestingly, neither liked it–at all. Thus Melusine seemed to me the perfect place to submit.

(And here is Gay’s gorgeous and delicately wrought segmented flash, originally published in Melusine):

Abbreviated Glossary

Want:

I slide my naked leg between his thighs. Dev is trying a case tomorrow; he’s tired. But he owes me his touch, and I know exactly how to use my tongue.

Pact:

His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.

Hope:

My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.

Thrill:

Dev can’t keep his hands off me, calls me sexy mama, but when he’s not around, I fret. Eight months along and my bump so small.

Rift:

Skull bones don’t always fuse together, the doctor tells me. I call Dev, but he’s in court, won’t request a recess, even when I beg. The hard part, I see, will be losing both.

Gay Degani lives in Southern California with her husband in an old Victorian house where parrots congregate at dusk in the oaks and camphors around her neighborhood.

She has published fiction online and in print, including her collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder and editor-emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at: Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found as well as her social media links.

Three times nominated for Pushcart consideration and winner of the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize, Gay has won or been a finalist in contests sponsored by Women On Writing, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Competition, and Bosque (The Magazine). Her novella, The Old Road, has been unfolding in Pure Slush’s 2014-A Year in Stories project. Her suspense novel, What Came Before, is now available at Barnes and Noble online and Amazon.com in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook formats.

To Segment or Not to Segment: “Baby, Baby” (flash fiction)

Today, writer Robyn Ryle told me she just had a segmented story accepted at Luna Luna Magazine. It was a story she’d changed to a segmented structure after reading my story, “Rodney & Chelsea” posted some while back here on my blog. I can’t wait to read her story and am so excited that my story inspired her to look at structure another way!

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 collaborate 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 my post about Jeff Landon’s “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace.”–although I wrote a one-sentence flash that covered a lifetime in my flash “The Stars of Ursa Major” published many years ago in New South).

But what is lost? 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. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a future post, but I will say now that segmenting something like this would diffuse the moment and nothing, nothing in flash fiction should be diffused.

Here is another of my segmented flash stories, published in an issue of FRiGG Magazine which was devoted to micro-fiction. I saw this story as a collection of micros and editor, Ellen Parker, agreed. I wanted to convey the frenetic, exhausting, exhilarating first weeks and months of motherhood, but only to focus on the sharp moments that force themselves out of the blur of it. Did the segmented structure serve my purpose? Let me know what you think…

Baby, Baby…

Everyone’s in a hurry. Especially the men, who run for the trains and sacrifice their briefcases to the doors. Men in seats, reading newspapers or paperbacks. Ling is weary of these men. She wants to stick her pregnant belly into their noses. She looks at herself in the window. She’s wearing a herringbone maternity suit with a large red bow at her neck. She looks angry and fat, but festive.

~~

Six weeks after giving birth, Ling goes back to work downtown. She pumps her breasts in the ladies room, sitting on the toilet. Co-workers come in to pee or brush their teeth and the pump squeaks and from the stall, Ling says sorry…I’m sorry.

~~

Before dawn, she buckles the baby into the Escort and sticks a bottle in its mouth. She leaves the car seat at the babysitter’s for her husband, who collects the baby when he gets off work and drives the baby home in his Toyota. The baby listens to Bruce Springsteen in the Toyota and Moonlight Sonata in the Escort.

~~

Ling hands the babysitter a half cup of frozen blue milk in a baggy. The babysitter shrugs. I’ll mix it with her formula, she says. You have a run in your stocking.

~~

Ling doesn’t sleep and becomes ineffectual in her job. She’d quit, but they are sort of broke. Suddenly, she doesn’t know what any of it means. What does it mean? She asks her co-workers. What are the codes? What are the procedures? She types a row of question marks, eats prodigiously from a bag on her desk. Sometimes she closes her eyes and dreams that the baby has been put back into her stomach. Only now, the baby is a monkey.

~~

On weekends, she takes the baby for long strolls. Once they’d gone as far as three miles and the baby got hungry and Ling had forgotten to pack a bottle. She ran all the way back, bumping over cracks in the sidewalk as the baby screamed.

~~

The husband arranges for a babysitter so they can go to a Christmas party. The party is a Vegas night and they gamble at tables and make small talk with the husband’s co-workers and their spouses. At the craps table, Ling whispers to the older woman next to her, I have a three month old. I can’t believe I’m here. The woman offers a sip of her screwdriver.

~~

Each working day at dusk, Ling runs into the house and kicks off her sneakers. She reaches up into her skirt and rolls down the band of her panty hose and takes the baby from her husband’s lap. She lies on her back, holding the baby overhead and flies the baby back and forth in her upstretched arms. She sings:

baby baby
flying all over the world
looking for toys and candy

and the baby smiles and the husband laughs. And the baby’s cheeks droop like water balloons. And the baby drops drool on Ling’s forehead.

Writing Process Blog Tour: James Tate Hill

jt-picture copyJames Tate Hill’s fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The South Carolina Review, and other outlets. He has been a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Hudson Prize, and in 2012 he was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. His book reviews and interviews can be found at Bookslut, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle. A native of Charleston, West Virginia, he teaches writing at North Carolina A & T State University.

First, let me thank the wonderful Kathy Fish, not only for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, but for allowing me, blogless and Tumblrless as I am, to post this on her blog. Her own responses from July 17 can and should be read further down the blog.

What are you working on?

I’m turning the last corner of line edits on a novel about child stars with mysterious talents. It charts the stardom and complicated romance between two orphans who grow up in an abandoned movie theater. As teenagers, their talents have faded, and the former stars struggle to pull themselves from downward spirals. Seeing similarities in their stories, they wonder if more than fate and their own bad choices are behind their demise.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The novel has speculative elements in the tradition of books like Geek Love and Never Let Me Go, but I don’t—I can’t—write prose like Katherine Dunn or Kazuo Ishiguro. In fact, the novel’s coming-of-age structure might place it as firmly in the category of Young Adult as so-called Literary Fiction. I’m certain the work of writers like Kevin Wilson, Stephen King, and Shirley Jackson, ostensibly writers for an adult audience, helped to shape this novel, and I hope my work has a fraction of the psychological complexity of theirs. But as I forge my own complicated romance with more and more Young Adult fiction, I’m finding complexity is more a function of writer and story than genre.

Why do you write what you do?

All my writing projects, or the ones that work, can be traced to an obsession. Since early childhood, I’ve been obsessed with fame, show business, celebrity of just about any stripe. Why I’ve been so interested in this topic is a question for another day—I have my theories—but as far back as my early twenties, I noticed the stories I enjoyed writing most invariably involved a character, not necessarily the main character, in the public eye. Inevitably any story about fame takes place in the gap, small or large, between perception and reality, a space every writer probably explores on some level.

How does your writing process work?

In the fabled showdown of tortoise v. hare, I’m definitely the tortoise, although I’ve yet to win any races. I began the first, altogether different version of this project eight years ago, a few days after the death of the novel that came before it. I had been fortunate enough to find an agent for a love story set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, a novel whose myriad shortcomings are better left unmentioned. But the rejection of that more traditional narrative led me pretty far in the other direction—a little too far, as it turned out. Fast-forward a few years. I had just completed a mystery and had written twenty-five pages of a new novel that weren’t bad, but sitting down to work on it felt like creating a human being, cell by cell. When I heard a faint heartbeat, it wasn’t coming from the new project; it was coming from the figurative drawer in which I had buried the child stars project years earlier. An idea took shape pretty quickly, a story that ran from page one all the way to the end, which is to say a genuine plot. Only the heartbeat, i.e. the central conceit, of the earlier drafts lives on, but after eight years the book seems to be what it wanted to be all along.

The following writers have generously agreed to continue the tour next Thursday:

Valerie Nieman is the author of three novels, the most recent being Blood Clay, winner of the Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Prize. Her 1988 novel Neena Gathering was returned to print last year by Permuted Press as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. Currently a North Carolina Arts Council Fellow, she has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her debut poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, will be joined by a new book, Hotel Worthy, forthcoming in 2015. Her poetry has been honored with the Greg Grummer Prize and the Nazim Hikmet Prize. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she was a newspaper reporter and editor for many years. She now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and is the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.
Find out more at http://www.valnieman.com

Ariell Cacciola is a writer based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies. She also translates from German to English and is finishing her first novel. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she received a merit fellowship and a literary translation fellowship in 2011-2012 to Leipzig, Germany.
Find out more at http://www.ariellcacciola.com

Robert Long Foreman is from Wheeling, West Virginia. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Hobart, Fourth Genre, the 2014 Pushcart Anthology, and Another Chicago Magazine. He teaches creative writing and literature at Rhode Island College.
Find out more at http://www.robertlongforeman.tumblr.com