“Flash Fiction: Bounded in a Nutshell”

That effective fictional narratives have for ages arrived in assorted sizes –  including those small enough to whisper, “Brevity is the soul of wit” – comes as no surprise to anyone who’s read Maupassant, Kafka, Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Borges, Angela Carter, Oates, Hemingway’s In Our Time.  Many of the sub-genres on the margins of fiction – fables, parables, tales, chronicles – routinely come in miniature but potent receptacles, like the bottles of vodka and bourbon served on passenger planes, as do numerous other documents and oral presentations ripe for fictionalizing – job applications, confessions, courtroom speeches, love letters, advisory perorations (“that thou can’st not be false to any man”). Some, like the tale of the Prodigal Son, are embedded in orthodox contexts but carry on vital lives outside their original vessels and purpose.  Others, like “The Cask of Amontillado” (a little over 2000 words), are so lodged in the canon and in our minds that we are tempted to overlook their conciseness.  Size is relative, objective measurements not always the best assays of impact.  When Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space,” he reminds us that reason and spirit are not always in thrall to the empirical.  The mind has ways of making even the silences talk.

I don’t want terminology to become a distraction here, as many people hold strong and complex views about what makes a piece of prose “a story.”  Even some definitions as generous as “a character wants two things but can’t have them both,” “a yearning encounters an obstacle” or “stranger comes to town, uh-oh” can raise points of contention, and it would be easy to get sidetracked trying to defend a set of criteria and conventions.  One essential series of anthologies containing the kinds of prose narratives (another term that invites interrogation) I have in mind is Shapard and Thomas’s Sudden Fiction, which comes in several flavors and editions – American, International, New.  Others are Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction (An Anthology of Really Short Stories), Flash Fiction edited by James and Denise Thomas and Tom Hazunka, and Mark Mills’ Crafting the Very Short Story (An Anthology of 100 Masterpieces), which also includes plenty of critical machinery.  Tip of the iceberg.  I’ve chosen “fictions” and “flash fiction” as my preferred labels for the categories that I’m trying to summon into view. They seem serviceable and among the least divisive.

We now recognize many modes and quirks in fiction and realize that “story,” which for many readers depends largely upon shape and resolution, may not be the sine qua non.  How many pieces of string would it take to reach the moon?  One, if it’s long enough.  Or short enough.  How many words?  When Marianne Moore finished re-re-writing her already-famous poem “Poetry,” she excised 90% of the original lines, including the memorable phrase “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”  Sometimes I wish she’d retained more of what she calls the “fiddle,” but at others, I stand with her radically succinct version.  I’m equally sure that many of Lydia Davis’s fictions (like “The Sock”) are complete symphonies in the guise of etudes, though her stingier pieces haven’t all won me over yet.

Two flash fictions which have provided me with significant incentive and inspiration are Jane Martin’s “Twirler” and Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics,” two dissimilar performances comparible primarily for their emotional impact and their inclusion in the 1986 American Sudden Fiction.  I resisted Carver’s piece on first encounter because he was already known for minimalism in matters of setting and dialogue and somewhat at war with the dense and elaborate fiction I already loved, and as a poet (usually writing pared-down, rhetorically narrow poems) he irritated me as much as he interested me.  “Popular Mechanics,” however, is a flash fiction that unfolds one scene in a domestic dispute that goes violent gradually but quickly, and the shadow story behind this scene is spectacularly evident, the atmosphere deftly conjured, the outcome understated and inevitable.  Even the first sentence is loaded, as well as elegant:  “Early that day the weather had turned and the snow was melting into dirty water.”  About as emotionally edgy as a story can get, “PM” echoes the story of Solomon and the disputed baby but depicts the contemporary mode, setting and season vividly.  Everything in the story triggers a host of associations, and the repetition is grating, the volume palpable, the final sentence whip-cracking back to the title (which is both a magazine title and the knee-jerk insensitive mode of the characters).  The last sentence with its “the issue was decided” explodes with association – an issue of the old magazine, the emotional issue between husband and wife and, just to certify the Biblical precedent, “issue” as offspring.  It’s not fancy or funny weird, but it is wise, sorrowful and elegantly delivered, despite the raw emotions.  It can still leave me shivering.

Martin’s story (written for the stage) is much more elaborate, a dramatic monologue delivered by a teenaged baton twirler who desperately wants the audience to admire and envy her but who cannot quite stifle her feelings of superiority – racial, athletic and spiritual.  The narrative is hypnotic and unbelievable, but I keep being drawn in, as Martin’s threshold between the realistic and the magical is elastic and dangerous but wickedly delicious.  The details about twirling and the implications concerning adolescent aspiration and competition are completely convincing.  She also touches on that eerie sexuality that seethes in adolescent girls who get passionate about horses, and the imagined speaker’s effort at reconciling her excitement with the cunning of her intent is irresistible.  And here’s another ending that resonates like a plucked strand of new-strung wire.  When she has finished delivering her tragic message on stage to a silent assembly, she places the silver baton at her feet and says she will leave it for the audience to take up as “your burden.  It is the eye of the needle.  I leave it for you.”  The final line is a stage direction: [The lights fade.]  The reader has been left with an unspecified mission.  A mystery in an enigma in a riddle, but I will never forget the unnamed narrator or Miss Aurelia, Uncle Carbo, Charlotte Ann Morrison or the God throwers on winter solstice with their razor-embellished fire batons out there naked in the snow and throwing for the stars.   I won’t say that readers can’t find details in the piece to quibble about, but almost all my fiction, editing and lit students – whatever the course – read this story, and the few who don’t like it seem disturbed by it, so I think they get it (and get it and get it).

My own first forays into distilled prose pieces may have been influenced (at first unwittingly) by Hemingway, who alternates modes of fiction in In Our Time, and thus ends up with a wide variety of lengths, some of them definitely flashes. My first collection of stories, Faith, consisted of fourteen stories that fell within the 3500-6000 word length and, at least structurally, obeyed most of the conventions the fiction writing texts of the time recommended, as each narrative hinges upon a protagonist in a vividly rendered place who faces a conflict and makes a discovery.

In addition, I wrote a series of interval pieces – “vignettes,” I thought back then – about a particular boy-becoming-man, arranged in chronological sequence, each related thematically to the full-dress stories that preceded or followed it.  “Mischief and clueless puberty in the sweaty South” might have been a description of the whole clutch, so why did I do it?  The publisher wanted an additional story to extend the collection; I was deep into the composition of a long poem and couldn’t find the seed of another full-dress prose piece in me.  I say that I may have borrowed my strategy from Papa because, though I had read his book, I now have no idea if I thought of the kinship while writing my fragments or if I realized it only in revising the book.  I was looking for a short cut, fragments were in the ascendency, and a fragment is certainly one thing a flash fiction can be, though the ones which are “mere fragments” seldom find many lasting advocates.  Besides, I relished the sense of freedom they gave me.

Looking back, I think this was about the time that writing historical narrative poems (including dramatic monologues) about real people (Walter Anderson, Sam Watkins, Emily Dickinson, my neighbors) and literary characters (Huck, Melville’s Pip) became my heart’s work.  Since then, I’ve been drawn to the threshold between fiction and poetry, always looking at narratives and narrators as the crux of the enterprise.  Surprisingly, I have almost no interest in the prose poem and can only cite about ten that I’ve ever liked, including some like Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” and Hass’s “A Story About the Body,” that seem more like flash fiction or sudden fiction than poems, which probably means (beyond the absence of calculated lines) that their narrative-to-lyric ratio argues (to my ear) for prose.

A flash can also take the form and tone of a list, a questionnaire, a formal confession (either spiritual or legal), a speech, a parable, a business correspondence, a biographical note, an e.Harmony enticement.  If it can be a document or a transcription of an oral delivery, it can be the framework of a flash fiction.  One of my favorite convictions is that it can be an aria, which in the original Greek meant “atmosphere” but which we’ve come to think of as one distinctive voice rising above the rest of the instruments.  Sometimes that clear voice can be beautiful, and sometimes twisted and cruel, as in my flash “First Confession,” in which a less-than-sober veteran ne’er-do-well goes to an AA meeting but feels judged and condescended to.  In retaliation, he takes the floor and rips into a boasting confession that is abusive, cathartic, grimly funny and ugly.  At least, that was my aim.  One virtue of the flash fiction is that it allows me to commit unashamedly to a voice and an attitude I probably couldn’t sustain, couldn’t live with closely for an extended spell,  without great discomfort, whether it’s grotesque or just too lyrically intent to handle for long.  Some events, like a bronc ride, are more bearable for their concision.

A flash fiction can seem to blow in like a tornado, all improvisation and no calculation, but it can also be very cunning, like Arturo Vivante’s “Can-Can” and its indelible image of a betrayed wife’s smooth kicking legs.  It can be sorrowful but involute and demanding like Michael Martone’s “The Mayor of the Sister City Speaks to the Chamber of Commerce in Klamath Falls, Oregon, on a Night in December in 1976,” which is under 250 words but has stayed in my mind almost verbatim for over twenty years. Fred Chappell has remarked on the “inherent fragility and peculiar toughness” of this species of prose, and Martone’s piece is a resounding example of that, as are Mary Robison’s “Yours” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”

Compressed and restrained as they are, these and other good short shorts, flashes, sudden fictions depend upon a deliberate torque in the language, deft deployment of rationed details, meticulous awareness of syntax and diction, speed without haste and voice, subtext, subtext, voice.  I often wonder if most of the masters of this sub-genre or genre pare their work down from much longer drafts, as Pound did to excavate the single couplet that is his poem “In the Station of the Metro.”  That’s how it works for me – 2000 words become 1000 to become 700, but new candidates want in and must be denied or overcome their predecessors.

Whether Cicero, Pascal or Thoreau started it, it’s a commonplace now: Sorry for the long letter; I’d have written a shorter one if I had the time.  Lydia Davis points out that we are increasingly aware of the brevity in our lives and the compact story reflects that perspective.  In the age of texts and Instagram, which I won’t claim are inclined towards resonance, brevity takes on a new shine, as it did in the era of the telegraph.  Each time I open a book or a web site (including Shenandoah’s Submittable site) and see before me a flash fiction, I don’t really care if its tune is ecstatic, morose, hilarious, pensive, horrified, belligerent or serene.  I only hope it is tight, inventive, reverently wrought and vivid.  I hope it is playing for keeps.  That will be enough to serve me, to leave me feeling I’ve found something like the dangerous balloons at the end of Martone’s Klamath Falls story, each “a bright scrap of joy.”

My most recent flash fiction project is a series entitled Chinquapins, about a score of “stories” (my jargon resolve weakens, momentarily) located in the Appalachians, most about a century ago — “Mayhew,” “Syl Ponder,” “Caterwaul,” “Torrent,” “Coffin Dulcimer,” “Two Owls,” “Pretty Redbird.”  Halfway into the sequence I realized that they were all about love and death (or their shadows, lust and surrender).  Besides rural highland setting and cultural conventions, they’re drawn together by mountain diction and darkness – timbering accident, revenge murder, lifeless marriage, general transgressive behavior, thwarted yearning, birds fall from the sky.  I can see some of them now as possible poems looking for the discipline of line, others as the cores of stories whose people want to enact their conflicts explicitly more than repress and simmer with them, but my attempts at managing voice (both dialect and idiolect) and subtext give them a sense of kinship, and I think they have found their right scale and texture, which usually involves some linguistic quirk, kink, tic, freak, coil, something to make the narrator unique and memorable but not opaque.

I have to confess that my increasing fondness for flash fiction is tied to Shenandoah’s transformation to an on-line journal.  Though I understand that many younger readers – for optical, practical and psychological reasons – have little resistance to reading a 6000-word story on a screen, I’m an older model and don’t come equipped with their default settings.  I certainly intend to continue considering and accepting traditional stories for Shenandoah, but I also see the flash fiction as one of the ideal genres for internet presentation.  For that reason I’ve established the Bevel Summers (a little bow to O’Connor) Prize for the Short Short (under 1000) words and continue to feature the winners and other outstanding flash submissions as important items on our menu.  Our website (shenandoahliterary.org) is one place I’d send readers for the provocative surprises like those in Alyson Hagy’s “Self-Portrait as a Trailer Full of Mules,” Jim McDermott’s “The Pointer,” Seth Brady Tucker’s “Jigsaw,” Nick Ripatrazone’s “The Cribbing Collar,” Emily Pease’s moving “Church Retreat, 1975” and many more in our archives.

My affection for this genre (I’m ready to drop the “sub-genre” pretense.) doesn’t mean that I don’t want to return to “The Dead,” “Dry September,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” “The Rocking Horse Winner,” “The Things They Carried,” “Keelah the Outcast Indian Maiden,” “Guests of the Nation,” William Trevor, John Cheever, Annie Proulx and other longer story touchstones and artists.  The larger stories haven’t suffered under my new perspective any more than a love of sweet potatoes was diminished by my discovery of sushi; it’s just a more varied banquet now.  I wish I could remember where I read it, but I believe that James Alan MacPherson (Elbow Room) once wrote that his idea of paradise was “maximum exposure to stories unfolding.”  I think he’d go along with “fictions,” as well, and any time I can lean on him, I feel pretty steady, though the vertigo a good flash can spark is not bad either.

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About RT Smith

R. T. Smith’s flash fictions can be found on the following websites: Blackbird, Virginia Literary Journal, Prime, Sequestrum, Story/Houston, Better: Lit & Art and in the pages of Virginia Quarterly Review and Missouri Review. His longer stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, Zoetrope and others. He has edited Shenandoah since 1995.