Thursday, December 9, 2010

Writing Flash Fiction: Take my story away before I wreck it.

I've been playing with flash fiction lately.  It's been an interesting exercise for me.  As a writer I tend to inject a lot of detail into my storytelling and when you are working with a form that allows you 500 words to tell the whole story, it makes you more linguistically frugal.

I like the idea of limitations in writing.  

Here's an unvarnished truth for you:  I am a terrible poet.  

But I enjoy poetry.  I like to read it and I like to write it.  I'm just not very good at writing it.  I can't really stand unstructured, moody free verse poetry.  My free verse quickly evolves into paragraphs and characters, and a story emerges.  But I do like poetic forms; sonnets and sestinas are particular favorites of mine.  They're like Sudoku or song lyrics, so defined that the words become critical.  Make a misstep in a long, free verse poem and the other words swirl around to mask the glaring problem, but add an extra syllable to a sonnet and it's no longer a sonnet.

I write sonnets by writing down fourteen lines of story and then playing with the words to make them fit the form.  Matching words to meter and rhyme without sounding stilted or pretentious is a challenge to which I can seldom do anything more than aspire.  As I said, I am a terrible poet. 

For the last few years I've written fiction in the same way, by throwing something down on the page and then working it over and over until I feel like I've managed to eke out all the excess.

But it hasn't always been that way.  I used to spend evenings sitting in front of a blank screen cursing my lack of creativity.  I tried to channel Natalie Goldberg (in Writing Down the Bones, she urges writers to "Write through the dross.") but in my heart of hearts I categorized her as a journal writer, not a fiction writer and, while I loved her and tried to do what she said, I could not really believe the process was relevant to fiction.

And then one night in 2001 or 2002 I was watching a marathon interview with Toni Morrison on C-SPAN and she said that was her process.  She would just sit down and write something--anything--and then go back and work the lines, aerating the roots and straightening the rows, coaxing the blooms to life, tangling or untangling the vines.   And I thought, "Well hell, maybe I need to try that."  And suddenly my fiction output increased exponentially.


So my first drafts ramble and wander, carrying trunks full of excess wording, unclear phrases, and misplaced emphasis.  By working with the material, editing and moving and shortening, I eventually arrive at the moment when it seems complete enough to submit.  To tell the truth, recognizing that moment is sometimes as hard as the actual writing and editing.  

Sometimes I wish there were someone else to read my work, someone to say, "Okay, we're done with this one.  Write some more about that gardener or maybe work on the one about the hospital."

So flash fiction seems like a good way to hone my skills, to polish my craft.  I mostly write the flash for myself, but on occasion I find someone who's interested in a piece of it.  Pill Hill Press contracted a zombie flash story called "Z-Day" for their anthology Daily Bites of Flesh, 2011, and another zombie story for Daily Frights 2012.  I've got a couple of other pieces out there floating around looking for homes, so maybe I'll have more flash fiction publication announcements soon.


I saw Six Degrees of Separation first on Broadway and then later as a movie (dozens of times).  It's one my favorite works dealing with the big questions about how and why we translate experience into memory or art or stories.  There is a scene in the movie where Flan Kittredge, a middle-aged art dealer, is talking about the process of painting and he has this to say:
I remembered asking my kids' second-grade teacher: 'Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade - blotches of green and black. The third grade - camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?' 'I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.'
-Flan Kittredge, Six Degrees of Separation

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