Brevity in Flash

seth-januaryI love the word “brevity.” It’s quick and sharp but still flows well. It sounds like someone had the guts to let out what they wanted to say. It’s also the word Scholastic’s Art and Writing contest uses to describe flash fiction, and I’d say that’s accurate.

Before I got into my fiction “groove,” I struggled with word count. Regardless of the grade level, fiction pieces were supposed to wrap up at around 1,300 words. Usually, I grumbled through the revision process—why do I have to cut so much out? I’m barely exploring my world or my characters. What a waste.

I was stuck in description. I didn’t have a complete grasp on descriptive implication, so I just focused on things I considered interesting. For example, several of my freshman pieces mentioned their protagonists’ eyes. Who cares whether they were “seafoam green” or “warm brandy?” Details like that helped visual their physicality more, but interrupted narrative flow. I think I can chalk this up to my hesitance to go deeper. Until very recently, I avoided exploring my inner fears and insecurities in writing. I was scared of opening still-fresh wounds, so I hid behind flowing, unimportant images. Even when I had my first lesson and portfolio in flash fiction, I still fell back on layered-but-shallow imagery.

It didn’t work well, at first. The limit was 1,000 words, and my first draft landed at 989. It was below, but it personally wasn’t enough. I wanted—at the very least—to tell something which I felt didn’t suffer under word count. The result was something I was proud of then, sophomore year, and still see the significance of now. To break my trend of unfocused description (and, conversely, protagonists unwillingly distant from the reader), I limited character interactions to just the protagonist and his forbidden boy band love (go ahead, laugh). This was a significant step for me because I usually had the central character of my pieces interact with everyone mentioned. This limitation emphasized the most immediate, important “relationship” in the story. I also cut out all description that wasn’t observed by the protagonist himself, to ensure that every image developed an aspect of the setting, the conflict, and his character. Ironically, his homoerotic conflict intertwined with insecurity about his boring brown eyes, compared to the colors he sees in his band mates’ own. At the very least, I explored aspects of my own insecurities. I applaud myself.

Then sophomore year ended. When I started writing fiction again—in junior year—I felt myself regressing. My images didn’t interrupt anything. In fact, they usually contributed to development. However, all my stories were “safe.” Once again, they lacked personal truth. I look back on them now, and they are well-crafted, but when I compare them to my recent works, I’m not as emotionally affected.

That’s why I love flash fiction now. The form still expects masterful handling of craft, but in a way that gets down to an intimate immediacy. As a senior, I’ve written strong pieces that all—unconsciously—fall under 1,000 words. It’s this trend that helped me realize just how important flash fiction is to me. It emphasizes a direct approach, but not one that’s blunt. There’s still plenty of room for descriptive implication and explorations of plot, character, and setting. The brevity is there, and lets me be myself in writing fiction.

 

A prompt, to help others grasp the importance of flash fiction:

Explore the inner tension of a character as they carry out a single, pivotal action relating to the conflict.

-Seth Gozar, Fiction Editor

Still Grotesque

seths-blogpostI started writing in first grade because it was fun. I can recall several times where my teacher would push back the beginning of Writers’ Workshop because the class preferred free time. I’d be the only one reminding her that writing time should’ve already started, and whoever was close enough to hear my nagging would groan and spread the news.

The earliest pieces I wrote were memoirs because I didn’t know how to do anything else. For most of first grade, I wrote about the trip to the Philippines I had the summer before. In a way that parallels youth, I see these pieces as untainted. Although my first work focused on eating at a Filipino McDonald’s (and enjoying spaghetti and chicken with rice) while a beggar stared from the other side of my family’s window seat, I didn’t know much to poverty. Instead my memoir focused on the uncomfortable experienced of being watched by a filthy man, and my mother’s decision to give him some money.

As I write this, I’m actually remembering his appearance again, and how heavy his eyes were. The skin around them swelled—muscle and crust layered with dumi. Spots decorated his wrinkles, and what shocked me most then and now is that his eyes were blue. Beneath the ragged hair and stained, tattered cloths, he was mestizo. Mixed people were especially desirable in the Philippines (not unlike other Asian countries), yet here he was, desperate enough to stare without shame.

It’s this type of disconnect and grotesque imagery that I feel carries my fiction today. Both fiction pieces I’ve written so far this year play with distance and disgust. The latest, “Dinuguan,” focuses on a woman with heart cancer, who—in increasing desperation—buys pork blood, spills it, and licks it off the sidewalk. That’s the gist of it. Trust me when I say it’s a lot deeper.

In particular, this piece uses heavy description of the pork blood (the main ingredient of the Filipino delicacy the piece is named after) to convey the hopelessness the woman refuses to accept. For example—“Cold slips through her lips—a coagulated mass sinks between teeth and spreads bitter, salty pangs over her tongue. Its grittiness sinks into her throat. She coughs ragged, old and fresh blood foaming together.”

I’ve noticed that both my first and most recent piece focus on my heritage, which is interesting. In all honesty, after the memoirs of elementary school, I didn’t revisit my heritage until my ninth grade personal essays. And even then, I didn’t utilize it again until this year. It’s actually my mission to use more personal details in my pieces this year. I’ve got a good grasp on emoting through imagery and diction, and that extra layer of vulnerability will leave a bigger emotional punch from writer to reader.

-Seth Gozar, Fiction Editor

From Poems about Whales to Now

maddie-oct-nov-picture When trying to learn about the earliest civilizations, archeologists look to cave paintings as clues to what humans used to be like and how we have evolved. If you think about it, all of the writing in the world creates an entire body of work that represents our society’s evolution of thoughts, feelings, inventions, politics, culture, etc. I think a writer’s work from the time they are a child often does the same.
The earliest poem I have a memory of goes like this, “I love whales painting there nails. They look so nice in there long tails. They are so younge they don’t like mails. And they love good sales.” Note the spelling of “there”, younge”, and “mails”. The second memory I have of writing was a narrative story in fourth grade about my dog Keiser that died when I was four. It was a very vivid moment for a young girl and it made its way into my writing a lot. There are obvious advancements in my writing like spelling, phrasing, diction, syntax, and imagery, but aside from that I don’t think the topics of my writing have changed a whole lot.
In my fiction, my pieces stem from my own life and personal truths that I need to explore through fiction in order to process and make sense of on my own. I still really enjoy writing things like creative non-fiction, so my piece about my dog Keiser isn’t that far off from something I would write now. It would be a lot more subtly tied to my life and it would of course be more descriptive and have more of an emotional arc and message, but the root would still be that it’s a story about my life that changed me in some way that I needed to express through my love of words. Death is something I often explore in my work. Religion and dealing with death and how those connect are something I struggle with processing and making sense of and writing it out through other characters is sometimes the easiest way to deal with it.
I recently wrote a fiction piece loosely tied to my extended family and all the issues we seem to have with each other. When first writing out the piece, I remained angry at that side of my family that was causing all this drama and didn’t feel the need to work to forgive them, but through the course of revising the piece, I grew to understand the characters I created as individual human beings that had made mistakes and were worthy of small acts of forgiveness. I didn’t have to let them in completely, but I could open myself up in slight amounts.
My poetry is also almost always rooted in my personal experiences. While I have no encounters with whales that I can truthfully write about, nature is something I often incorporate into my poetry. One of my favorite pieces I’ve written was a coming of age poem centered on how my family and I used to spend our free time going to the beach and hunting for sharks’ teeth.

If you were to line up all of my work from the time I was a child, you would see an illustration of my life up to this point. You would see my initial love of nature, particularly whales, then my first encounters with death, dealing with family issues, coming of age, and they will continue to follow my life from the big moments, like grieving, to the small moments, like just finding beauty in a creature. As a senior, I am moving towards college and deciding my future. I want to be a pediatric physical therapist and I only hope my writing will be able to follow me and illustrate the next stages of my life.

-Madison Dorsey, Community Engagement