The best short-short stories are either cherries or cherry bombs, and the truly great ones are both.
The intersection of compelling drama and plain, yet beautiful language is the main goal for me as a writer of flash fiction, a goal I too often fall short — very short — of when I write, and a strong blend of both is what I look for most as a co-editor of anthologies for both contemporary short fiction and creative nonfiction.
On some levels, the Is-it-flash-or-is-it-a-prose-poem? argument plays itself out almost as soon as one tries to define the difference between the two forms, but frankly I think the argument is irresolvable, probably moot. It is possible, even preferable, to call the best both.
Take Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” or Robert Hass’ “A Story about the Body,” for example. These pieces, usually anthologized as prose poems because poets wrote them, are remarkably dramatic short-short stories, too. I also think of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” a mostly one-sided monologue from mother to daughter packed with soul-crushing advice guaranteed to carry shame over into the next generation, or Rick Moody’s “Boys,” a story that starts with a seemingly innocuous chorus of sorts, the repetition of a single opening line which then grows both dramatically and lyrically in countless, increasingly devastating variations.
Or I think of my anthology co-editor Michael Martone’s short-short stories, “The Mayor of the Sister City Talks to the Chamber of Commerce in Klamath Falls, Oregon” or “Blue Hair,” both stories deceptively static-seeming dramatic monologues that Martone has set with impossible-to-disarm time-delay fuses. Ultimately, these short-shorts accumulate their understated lyrical and dramatic power, creating a series of unconscious chain reactions, little explosions of insight that go off long after we’ve read the stories — the first a story about Japanese children’s bright balloons armed with bombs by Japanese soldiers; the second about B-27s and bombardiers’ viewfinders outfitted with crosshairs made from the heads of little old blue-haired American ladies. When they reach their targeted destinations, both stories carry heavy payloads of lyricism, drama, and revelation that cascade into consciousness like the horrific bomb-laden toys — pens, harmonicas, little bird-shaped bombs — dropped in the eighties by the Soviet Union during the terrible Soviet-Afghan war.
Whatever we want to call them, in their most raw, organic forms, short-short stories often have a kind of gorgeous symmetry with an often-tart and never-too-sweet lyricism, like a bright-shining fruit, just-ripe, something we can hold in our palms and pop into our mouths, dark red, the color of bright blood, something with a hard seed one must spit out — or break a tooth.
I love flash fiction almost as much as I love my kids, almost as much as my kids, six and seven, love the maraschino cherries in Sonic shakes, dyed too red, seedless but too sweet, enough to cause cavities or to make one’s teeth hurt just thinking about them, something that my kids are always fighting over in the back seat of my wife’s red Saturn Ion.
Pushing language as far as one can toward a kind of critical mass is one of the most important risks any writer can take, a risk that the whole thing might at any moment collapse in on itself or explode, too much overstated, emotive language or purple prose shattering into shrapnel. But more often than not, a short-short must also carry a secret, surprising payload of dramatic risk and menace, even outright danger.
What kind of risk? Something that might make you blush a bright cherry red — or blow up in your face.
Like the cherry bombs my old freak friends used to toss into the boys’ room toilets at Lake Highlands Junior High, then they’d run like hell.
We used to have firecracker wars, these friends and I, all of us long-haired degenerates with too much Zeppelin and Zippo-lit testosterone, too many green stems from Ziploc bags, green seeds popping into our faces from Zig-Zags rolled too loosely, or too tight, all of us just a minute or two away from getting busted for something illegal or stupid or both.
In the empty fields across the street from the house where I grew up in Dallas, we screwed stainless steel wing nuts onto Black Cat firecrackers to give them heft, then lifted and lit them with the bright cherries of our Marlboro reds hanging from our lips, trying to throw them at each other before they blew up in our hands or faces.
I think back on those days and tremble a little. What was I thinking hanging out with these guys? Mostly guys who’ve grown up to be wing-nut Texas conservatives.
It’s a question I still can’t answer.
An advocate of nonviolent political action, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to make sense of such casual violence, violence among young people, violence against young people, especially the violence still sanctioned by the adults who these children grow up to become — parents and lawmakers, politicians and religious leaders — perpetuating the unspoken and unspeakable cycle of violence.
Along the way I’ve learned just how taboo this subject is, just how easy it is to overwrite, to make maudlin and sentimental — and just how easy it is to be misunderstood. More than a few times in my life, people have projected the violence I write about onto me, completely missing or misunderstanding my intent.
Intentional fallacy or not, the consequences of such projections have made writing about violence against young people even riskier, reinforcing an already vicious internal critic who echoes the voice of a controlling parent. As I’ve learned the hard way, following Cesar Cruz’s call as artists to “disturb the comfortable” and “comfort the disturbed” can be dangerous, with potentially explosive consequences.
When I was a kid, violence was a given among my friends because we experienced it every day in our homes and schools, violence perpetrated by adults — parents, teachers, principals, the police — against nonconforming kids like us, violence that we too often turned against each other in our powerlessness, frustration, and rage — violence that at any moment could explode.
Let me tell you: You do not want to have a Black Cat go off in your hand. It stings like you’ve just grabbed a paper wasp nest of yellow jackets — knocking it down with a broom or a stick, then running full out, swatting at wings buzzing your face — just the kind of stupid thing my friends were always daring each other and me to do.
First, there’s the blinding flash and the deafening pop, then the high ringing in your ears that seems to last for hours like Tibetan meditation bells struck against each other, and then your hand buzzes for hours like you’ve spent all day removing old paint from an antique writing desk with an electric sander. The tips of your fingers are blue for days, and it’s hard the next day just to pick up a spoon to eat your Corn Pops with, much less pick up a chewed-up pencil to write.
But having a cherry bomb (or an M-80) go off in your hands could kill you almost as dead as a grenade could — or at the very least blind you and blow off a few of your fingers, knuckle bones like popcorn from the exploded aluminum of a Jiffy-Pop pan flying thirty feet in every direction. Stupid as I was then, desperate as I was to be accepted, to be cool, I knew that much, so it was always another friend, more brave or more stupid, who took the dare and dropped the cherry bomb into the toilet in the Lake Highlands Junior High boys’ room.
The fuse never fizzled out but instead sizzled and popped like drops of water in a deep-fat fryer, and I was perfectly happy just to step back and watch, someone who wanted to hold on to his fingers just a little longer.
It’s not so much that I was a coward then or that I’m an adrenaline junkie now, like a battlefield reporter who thrives on being closest to the biggest explosions, but that I’m a writer compelled to take risks. Like it or not, anyone who chooses to write chooses to risk, but like most of the writers I know, I have almost no choice about my obsessions. They’ve chosen me and not the other way around. The only choice I have is to risk writing about them, being willing to take whatever might come.
Even so, like many writers, I’m also keenly aware of just how easy it is to lose an audience, writing the kinds of fiction I’m afraid I’ve become little infamous for, the kinds of stories I’ve been tossing out into audiences for much of my writing life — always risking over-the-top melodrama or a kind of macho self-parody or maudlin self-pity, with too-easy villains and victims, or just something written to show off, to shock rather than to edify, like an inexperienced writer dropping the F-bomb into every other line of dialogue.
What I fear most in writing narratives, especially the little ones, is that they’re just too damn much, but without that unrelenting fear, without that kind of difficult risk-taking, I feel like I’m just typing.
It’s perverse, I know, but why bother writing, I tell myself, if I’m not a little terrified when I sit down to write?
The best flash fiction is just that, a flash of almost-blinding brilliance, and then it’s gone, nothing but the ringing in our ears and the after-image burned into our retinas, our memories, feeling the intense joy or pain that can spontaneously bring tears to the eyes of the most cynical reader, the shortest flash of dramatic change that can change us, moments left to linger in our brains for years, even lifetimes, like shrapnel too close to the heart to remove.
A little like Oppenheimer’s plans to compress and pack high explosives around a core of uranium and plutonium in Little Boy and Fat Man, setting free the nuclei of those heavy metals at the Trinity Site in 1945, the most powerful short-shorts have become apt vessels for stories in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the product of a writer’s almost-impossible attempt to compress the power of a novel, say, into a story of just a page and a half, just the right details and conflict under just the right pressure to create a brilliant flash of recognition.
Even so, there’s always the danger of overdoing it, having the whole thing go off in ways we’d never intended.
Call it a rule of flash fiction — like the warning labels printed on firecrackers if you’d like — or just a simple rule of thumb: When writing highly dramatic, highly compressed stories with highly compressed emotion, remember that the more explosive the drama of a scene, story, or chapter, the more the writer must try to understate it, lowering rather than raising the volume and pitch, resisting the temptation to light the fuse of overly emotive language.
Such a paradox may seem counterintuitive to many beginning writers and more than a few experienced ones, but it’s especially true, I think, for writing flash fiction.
In fact, it seems, the smaller the story, the bigger the bang; the bigger the bang, the more writers must work to avoid the drama queen’s tendency to blow a firecracker up into a mushroom cloud — using understatement rather than overstatement, tossing scenes off almost without comment, almost throwing them away, as if we’re describing someone doing the dishes, describing great drama simply, clearly and directly, concisely and precisely, unflinchingly, staring at even the most horrific moments of human cruelty or violence straight on with courage while also avoiding strongly emotive, overly abstract or over-the-top language.
In a sense, too, the greater the emotion we feel while writing early drafts, the more we must try to edit and compress them, the greater the time and emotional distance (not to be confused with insensitivity and numbness) we’ll probably need to rewrite them, again and again — what Wordsworth describes in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” emotion recalled “in tranquility.”
My former professor, the late short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter Bill Harrison, used to say in workshops, “Let the reader, not the character, emote.” It took me many years to understand what he might have meant: not that we should avoid feeling strong emotion but that the more we understate a characters’ emotions or a story’s language, the more likely our readers are to feel them.
The greatest risk writers may face, in fact, may be unconsciously manipulating readers’ emotions rather than earning them, inadvertently glorifying or sensationalizing the world’s cruelty and violence. The goal is difficult: never to become insensitive or cruel ourselves, mirroring for our readers instead the highest levels of empathy and compassion in the most understated way possible.
C. Michael Curtis, the venerable, cranky fiction editor of Atlantic Monthly, once sent me a handwritten note at the bottom of a form rejection about a story I’d sent him, “This one’s dead in the water,” like the story was a torpedoed U-boat already on its way to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Many years later, I’m still not sure I understand exactly what he meant, but I suspect he was trying to tell me something universal, something I can still learn from but probably still haven’t, at least not yet. Something I have to learn and relearn again and again with each new story I start: that I’m really starting all over again.
If you want me to tell you what you need to do to write flash fiction that editors of Smokelong Quarterly or Narrative or Noon or Quarterly West will publish, I don’t know.
All I know is that the stories I write are the stories I have to write, editors be damned, the kinds of stories that always seem to risk injury, death, or embarrassment. In fact, I almost feel that that’s the essential requirement of writing a story that makes me mad as hell or makes me blush or makes me swipe at my eyes no matter how cynical I may have become.
Sometimes it’s enough simply to revise little stories — like poems — twenty times or more after they’ve come back with another form rejection. In most cases, only after a long period of time — especially with the shortest of stories — can one gain the right balance of compression, dramatic power and clarity, compassion, risk and understatement, just the right narrative and emotional distance to take the greatest risks, the only risks worth taking.
Katherine Mansfield, an early modern master of the very short story, writes, “Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others. … Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”
That pretty much covers it for me.
Lex Williford has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University, the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and the University of Alabama. His book, Macauley’s Thumb, won the 1993 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals. Co-editor of the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction and founding director of the online MFA at the University of Texas at El Paso, he currently chairs UTEP’s on-campus bilingual creative writing program. Visit his website at lexwilliford.com.
His most recent collection of flash fiction, Superman on the Roof, is the winner of the Tenth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, selected by Ira Sukrungruang.