As summer approaches, and some sort of quarantine continues, there’s been plenty of talk of productivity and the joy of creating “schedules” to maximize our (creative) time.
But most of our lives look pretty weird these days. The days aren’t regular, but they’re not vacation, either. Many of our imposed schedules from the outside are gone, and we are finding ourselves floating in an immense and frightening freedom.
So the question is: how can we have both accountability and kindness for ourselves?
Now that my semester is ending, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot. I decided to do a little investigating into my stack of journals to see what my daily schedule looked like last summer when I was (both highly productive and) on sabbatical.
And that’s when I discovered something important: I didn’t have a schedule. I had a routine.
I woke between 7-10 am and spent 1-2 hours in bed reading or catching up on social media (but nothing “important”).
I got dressed and walked to the coffee shop and began to journal for the next 1-2 hours, depending on how quickly (or slowly) inspiration hit.
I went home, ate lunch, and worked for 2-3 hours. This part of the routine worked especially well because the afternoon hours were the hottest.
I finished working for the day and went exploring, walking, swimming, dinner, etc.
I realize this is an idealized routine, but the important takeaway is that because this was a routine and not a schedule, there were no set-in-stone times. I did NOT set the alarm to wake up at a specific time or say “I have to be at the coffee shop by noon” or whatever. Instead, the looseness of this routine vs a by-the-clock schedule meant that everything got done every day—but the daily particulars were flexible.
We all have many routines already. Consider: many of us wake up and then drink coffee. One thing naturally follows the other—we wake up, we make coffee, we drink it. I have never set my alarm to make sure I don’t miss drinking coffee–coffee is part of the routine.
Or: I read every night in bed before I go to sleep. Sometimes I read for an hour. Sometimes I read for 15 minutes. Sometimes it begins at 10 pm. Sometimes it begins at 11 or 8. I never have to schedule reading time because it always happens last in my daily routine.
Not looking at the clock works for me. Letting one thing naturally follow the other in a predictable sequence works for me. Creative work needs creative breathing room. And yes, it also needs discipline. But when we make schedules we can become militaristic—we beat ourselves up, lording the clock and the whip to do those 30 mins of yoga/meditation/writing by a certain time instead of honoring that we are dynamic animals in an ever-changing daily flow.
That’s why I think a routine is truly the sweet spot in the middle. Think of it as the “sliding scale” schedule, a sequence of events. Rather than “I must be at my desk by 10 am”, it can be: “I must go to my desk after coffee.”
That said, some things must be scheduled. Work, classes, events have a starting time that we may have to work around. But for all the rest of the time, especially with summer birthing itself and many of us yearning for more productivity in this strange, in-between time, I encourage you to get investigative: throw out the clock, listen to your your natural rhythm, and discover your perfect routine. When in the day are you the most productive? When do you want to rest? Do you wake up ready to write? Or do you like to wake up slowly? Do you like to take a nap? Stay up late? Take a walk in the evening or after working? See if you can create a routine that really supports that flow this season, rather than imposing a schedule that may be counter to what you (and your creativity) really need.
Remember: Even the bunnies stay out later in the spring, regardless of what the clock says.
Here’s to your perfect routine!
(and check out some of the surprising routines of creative people below)
Workshops: Not Cancelled!
In honor of my delayed book release I will be running a fun, 5-day “Going Short” Writing Flash Fiction (with preview chapters from the book) workshop from June 22-26 for those of you who want to get your pens moving. Registration opens soon.
Extremely spare, the micro stories in Randall Brown’s latest collection, This is How He Learned to Love, function almost as tiny puzzles to decipher. Brown is a master of compression, and these stories are the most delicate of enigmas rupturing page after page with the rhythm of a heartbeat.
Nancy Stohlman: So in the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Randall Brown: Short bursts of emotion, maybe insight.
NS: I absolutely love your use of titles, and I remember you sharing how to use titles unconventionally at the AWP panel on microfiction in 2019. Your titles, especially the ones in this book, almost feel at times like a classic call and response (I’m thinking of your final story, “Yes, I Knew”). Discuss.
RB: Because almost all of these piece fit on a single page, I thought perhaps readers would read the title, then the story, then the title again. So the title might work as a first line, last line, or both. Other times, the title was an original word or phrase in the piece that, in the process of editing, got deleted. In titles such as “Skip a Life Completely” and “What To Do,” they came from other sources, the first from Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and the latter from the rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In a piece such as “Ghost Writer,” the title sets up the reader to think one way about the meaning of a “ghost writer” and then the ending might change that meaning. I do like to find words in titles that might have varied meanings, especially if those meanings might change as the reader progresses through each piece.
NS: I’m curious about your process, especially as you have been on the front lines of flash fiction for a long time. Do you start with longer ideas and then whittle them down to these little micro nuggets? Or do they come out short? Has your process changed over time?
RB: They come out this short—and most of my ideas work no longer than a single 9 x 6 page. The idea comes first. For example, I recently thought about a guy who fires his inner voice and begins to interview for a replacement. Why would he fire his voice? What might the other voices he interview sound like? What might he learn from the process? I then write to find out myself, to figure it out, to see what happens. Most of the times, I find that the execution of the idea fails and fails and fails again. That is one great thing about the (very) short from. You can try many, many times to make an idea or piece work. For me, there’s a lot of anxiety around writing, especially the uncertainty about whether each choice is the right one. So getting the piece to end quickly is key to my surviving the process. Also, it helps so so much that, in my non-writing life, I repress most feelings. They get buried deeply, and there they compress themselves, getting deeper, denser, until they just have to explode. I let that happen in the writing. Boom.
NS: I’m laughing. Well said, and how nice of your subconscious to compress for you! So one result of the micro form, then, is that there is often a lot of white space on the page. When one flips through the pages of This is How He Learned to Love, for instance, the simplicity can be deceiving. I wanted to (and did) read most of these stories twice, and I’m pretty sure they will continue to reveal themselves to me on every subsequent read. Is this something you do intentionally or does it happen unconsciously?
RB: Maybe it’s the nature of compression, that each word is loaded so that each word continues to set-off varied meanings. Frost’s “The Oven Bird” ends with this sentence: “The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing.” Perhaps, one answer to that, for Frost, was that one makes a poem, another “diminished” thing in response to a fallen (diminished?) world in which “the highway dust is over all.” One thing I learned from Frost is the use of “indeterminate” words that seem simple but have various possible referents. In the above line, for example, Frost’s use of “thing” allows the reader to fill in that “indefinite-ness” with varied meanings. In my collection, you’ll find many examples of Frost’s technique. Just in the first story: “my father whispered something”; “somewhere, in between casts”; “I’d felt it this time”; “something entirely else.” Those “indefinite” words continually search for a referent, and that feels about right, doesn’t it, for the nature of things.
NS: This sort of nuance and complexity is (in my opinion) where prose meets poetry. How can flash writers hone this level of nuance in their writing?
RB: I learn (surely not steal) from other writers’ techniques. For example, from Kim Chinquee I learned how to remove modifiers at the end of sentences. At the end of the titular piece in the collection, I originally wrote something like “And then he’ll have to decide whether to stay or leave.” Channeling Chinquee, I changed it to “And then he’ll have to decide.” I think another time I had a sentence such as “In the crib, the baby rattled the bars.” This changed to “In the crib, the baby rattled.”
In reading Poe, I came across this line: “I quickly unclosed my eyes.” Cool way to define things, I thought, by what they are not, rather than what they are. In one story, instead of dislike or hate, I used the word “unlove.” In reading Anne Sexton, I found “my heart / is a kitten of butter.” I loved the repeated “tt” that connected the words. That might become something like “he kicked the deck of cards” in a story, not even close to the wonder of Anne Sexton, of course, but an attempt.
And so on. In Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma,” he ends the song with the line, “It’s life and life only.” Would the line “it’s love and love only” be too much of a “steal” from Dylan? Hmmm.
NS: Hmmm, indeed! So Randall, you are a very funny person in real life (and on social media!), but the stories you write are often quite serious. And yet the humor slips in very gently, in subtle ways and moments. Talk about humor in your writing.
RB: By being funny, I think you mean I comb the internet for jokes and either post them or memorize them to deliver at the right moment. I think the humor is a preventative against pretension: it helps me not take myself too seriously. It sometimes works.
NS: This is How He Learned to Love was the first runner-up in the Sonder Press Chapbook Competition—congratulations! Talk your journey to publication with this book.
RB: Not much to tell. They asked if I wouldn’t mind having them publish the collection. even though it didn’t win. Such an honor to be asked by such a wonderful press! I was over the moon. Elena Stiehler provided amazing editing suggestions—and I believe I said YES to all of them, except when she tried to cut a reference to Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh stays. I was adamant about that. No one puts Pooh in the corner. Well, unless it’s Pooh’s Corner. Then it’s okay.
NS: Okay, so here comes the genre question: You’ve published many books in many genres, including prose poetry (I Might Never Learn), a novella (How Long is Forever) and even non-fiction (A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction) as well as being a master of flash fiction. Talk about the crossover. Does it help cross-pollinate your work or do you have to shake off one genre to fully engage in the other?
RB: To be honest, and I know we disagreed about this idea a bit on our panel at AWP, I don’t care what label gets put on a collection or piece. It comes out the way it comes out. So that’s my “real” answer. But here’s maybe a more helpful answer. The longer my pieces get, the worse they get. This has been confirmed not only by agents, readers, editors, and the like, but by the very best scientists. Big league scientists. And I have often wondered why that’s the case. To make things longer, to draw things out, things need to happen, and I find that to make the choice after choice of “what should happen?” means I’m too often going to get it not quite right. I think I’m better at making the language-level choices of what should come next than at making the narrative choices of what should happen next. After a bit, choice after wrong choice of what should happen next leads to a rather confusing, convoluted narrative. I’m working on it still.
NS: I first read your essay about flash fiction in the Rose Metal Field Guide to Flash Fiction in 2009, when I was writing my MFA Thesis. How do you think flash fiction has changed (for good or bad) in the last decade?
RB: I think I might’ve been able to get noticed way back when just for writing something so compressed and compact; now, the size itself isn’t enough to get readers interested. There might be more focus on what each writer is able to do with that compressed space—and perhaps editors and readers want to see innovation beyond the challenge “Can you tell a story in [ ] words”? So, I think when I was first writing flash, pieces were partially accepted because of the novelty of the form; places weren’t being inundated with very short fictions. Nowadays, I don’t think there is much novelty in writing flash fiction: editors are quite familiar with the form. So writers might need to push the form into new, exciting places or create content that feels fresh.
NS: I totally agree with you–short and clever isn’t enough anymore. It’s a good thing you are short, clever, and brilliant!
It’s been such a joy to chat with you, Randall. Can you share links to buy the book or other promo links?
RB: I just finished HAND IN HAND, a coffee table photo & essay book that matches the macro-photography of my wife Meg Boscov with my own micro. A weekly dose of image and words gives readers (we hope) a year of inspiration, meditation, and reflection. That makes for fifty-two macro/micro doses. It’s available at Matter Press or Amazon . We also have AFTER available on Kindle. AFTER again takes photos from award-winning photographer Meg Boscov, but this time projects them into a peopleless future, and describes, in the prose poetry accompanying each one, the time after the melting, after the rising, after the disappearing, as Earth begins the recovery, out of the woods, a return to form.
Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection MAD TO LIVE, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING FLASH FICTION, and he appears in BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2015 & 2017 & 2019 and The Norton Anthology NEW MICRO: EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION & The Norton Anthology HINT FICTION. He founded and directs FlashFiction.Net and has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print. Recent books include the prose poetry collection I MIGHT NEVER LEARN (Finishing Line Press 2018), the novella HOW LONG IS FOREVER (Running Wild Press 2018), and the flash fiction collection THIS IS HOW HE LEARNED TO LOVE (Sonder Press 2019). He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College.
This workshop is now SOLD OUT. Stay tuned for additional summer offerings.
Do you have a large, book-length idea that you’ve been wanting to bring to fruition? Do you love the intensity of FlashNano or NaNoWriMo? Then get ready: In 10 days we will create a flood of words and you will leave the workshop with the bones (at least) of a flash novel.
What’s a flash novel? With the scope and complexity of a novel, and the size and ingenuity of flash fiction, the flash novel is a new type of book, a breakout genre that can deliver a sophisticated reading experience in a compact space. In this workshop will envision, draft, collage and create the momentum for that large-scale idea you have been wanting to tackle.
Participants should come with a basic understanding of flash fiction and have ideas for a book-length concept. Limited availability.
Questions? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Nancy Stohlman’s Flash Novel workshop was so helpful and so much fun I took it twice. Nancy’s wonderful course materials—readings, commentaries, exercises, critiques—arrive each morning like a magical gift to unwrap with the day’s first coffee. Now I’m hoping she’ll offer a Flash Novel Next Steps workshop!”~ Sally Reno
“Nancy will help you to become a better writer—while having an awesome time. The best thing about working with her is that it doesn’t feel like work; the atmosphere is positive, generative, encouraging. I took her “Write a Flash Novel” class. These days I’ve become a slower, finicky writer, but her class pushed me out of my finickiness and into producing work. I wrote the hell out of those two weeks. Every day there was an inspiring prompt and lesson. It coaxed me out of dull perfectionism and allowed me to make a mess (a requisite for any artist).”~Leonora Desar
“The day I signed up for Nancy Stohlman’s “Flash Flood: Write a Flash Novel” workshop, I entered with five underdeveloped ideas. By the workshops conclusion, one of these ideas blossomed into a cast of characters with personalized desires, humor encompassed in varying flash forms, and previews of my fellow writers flash novels in-progress. This workshop enables writers to construct a table of contents, toy with characters (new and old), and exchange ideas on how to proceed in writing their novel in flash once the workshop ends.” ~K.B. Carle
“I feel very lucky to have taken three of Nancy’s workshops. They have all been fantastic and exceeded my expectations. Not only are they well-organized and in-depth, but Nancy has a knack for making course material accessible in a way that also reaches beyond writing at times, pulling examples from other mediums to bring a point across in a different way. No one else does that, and I love it! The classes have introduced me to some of my new favorite authors and ways of approaching stories that I’ve not encountered anywhere else. These courses have stretched my skills and my writing has only grown stronger as a result. My only wish is that there were more of them on offer.” ~ Sara Hill
“I am always blown away by Nancy’s insights, comments and concrete suggestions and the deep attention given to each piece by the other writers. Of all the real life and online workshops I have participated in, Stohlman Workshops have provided me with the best critique, guidance and greatest sense of connectedness, albeit brief, to other writers. The materials are organized, clear and interesting. Nancy’s expertise as an instructor, editor and writer are greatly appreciated. I am challenged but never intimidated. Nancy embodies what it means to be a great teacher: she remembers what it was like not to know how, breaks the objective down into manageable lessons, gently guides and raucously encourages every success.”~Katherine Beck
“Nancy Stohlman’s Novel-in-Flash Workshop was a thoroughly rewarding experience. Nancy was an encouraging and passionate instructor. She fostered a supportive community of writers. Her knowledge of flash fiction helped me move out of my comfort zone and try out different techniques I would otherwise have been afraid of trying.”~Candace Hartsuyker
“Nancy Stohlman’s Novella in Flash Workshop moved my writing ahead in a direction I never imagined. Before it began, I feared I’d signed up for more than I could handle. But, in a ‘flash’, Nancy, a generous person, with an infectious creative spirit assuaged those worries. From the first workshop day to the last I received encouragement and insightful responses to my writing.”~Jo Goren
A deceptively slim book that tells an entire Irish family saga, Damhnait Monaghan’s debut, The Neverlands, is a beautiful treatise on who we love and how do we love–especially those closest to us. In this story love is vulnerable and risky…but it is also redemptive. A stunning mini epic full of equal parts sorrow and hope, each tension-filled story stands alone and yet together they create something powerful and universal.
NS: I love your opening story—the spray-painted phrase “Seamus O’Riordan is a gobshite” sets the tension and tone for me immediately. Was this story always the opening story? Or did this tale begin elsewhere for you?
DM:The Neverlands began as a mosaic flash written during Fast Flash, an online writing group led by the inimitable Kathy Fish, and was published at Jellyfish Review. A shorter version of the opening story was the first micro in that mosaic flash. It seemed a good place to begin the novella-in-flash as all three family members – Mammy, Nuala and Da – are referenced.
NS: How did the stories find their order—were they written mostly chronologically or did you mosaic around an idea?
DM: The five mini-micros in the original mosaic flash covered a lot of ground. Writing the novella-in-flash provided the opportunity to slow things down and fill in some of the bigger gaps between the original micros. I was vaguely aware of the overall arc I hoped to achieve, but I didn’t write the new stories chronologically, instead writing around images and ideas which then inspired more pieces. For example, I wrote a flash about Nuala’s holy communion ceremony where Mammy cuts down her wedding dress for Nuala. This led me to write a flash about Mammy and Da’s elopement, where Da shows up with that wedding dress.
NS: The title of the book, The Neverlands, comes from a literal misunderstanding of “The Netherlands,” but of course it’s a beautiful mistake. In some ways, “misunderstandings” both beautiful and painful are a defining feature of this epic story. Your thoughts?
DM: Yes, I think Nuala in particular misunderstands things that occur, partly because she wants to believe. For example, in ‘Holy Communion’ she half rises out of her seat to go look for the money tree in the garden that will pay for a new dress; she wants to believe in that money tree. But Mammy too makes mistakes; in “Star-crossed Lovers’ she runs off with Seamus/Da at sixteen, thinking his flattery is “dead poetic.”
NS: Your characters are Irish, and most of the story takes place in Ireland, but Ireland feels almost like a translucent background that you see in hints only. In the same way, I love how you pepper the Irish dialect without having it intrude on the story (as some written dialects can). What are your thoughts around writing in dialect?
DM: My parents were Irish, but emigrated to Canada before they married. I’ve never lived in Ireland (although I have visited) so I was over the moon when the wonderful Nuala O’Connor described the dialect in The Neverlands as ‘pitch-perfect.’
Done well, dialect adds another layer to a story, but I’ve read books where the dialect is so dense it’s off-putting (naming no names). I’m in the midst of dripping more dialect into the manuscript of my first novel, which is set in Newfoundland. I’m looking for that balance between a desire for authenticity and the need for clarity.
NS: At some point the child Nuala wants to stay and watch grandpa whittle, “wishing she could see what animal crawls out of the wood today.” I think your writing is a bit like this— you do an amazing job “carving” to the essence of each story. Talk about your writing process? Do you do a lot of editing/whittling or do they come out in big chunks? Or something else?
DM: Flash can be distilled right down to the essentials of the story. When I’m writing flash, I tend to write big, then pare down, changing words, tense, etc to polish the piece. The Neverlands underwent a fair amount of editing, as I explain below, and I was conscious of the need to ensure that each individual piece worked towards the whole, as well as the need for continuity.
NS: I really love the scene with the teabag—anyone who has traveled internationally will relate to being faced with unfamiliar and/or losing familiar cultural rituals. In your hands I felt this story as a point of compassion: being an immigrant is hard in hundreds of small ways (we usually only think of the big ones). Your thoughts?
DM: Thank you and yes, as an immigrant myself I agree that small things matter. When I first moved to the UK from Canada, I thought everything would be so easy. I figured, you know, Canada is a former British colony, we speak the same language, how hard could it be? Ha. There were myriad small differences that made day to day life incredibly frustrating in those early days.
As the daughter of immigrants, I so regret not quizzing them more about their culture shock -imagine their first winter in northern Canada! – while I still had the chance. The tea bag scene is based on a story my mom liked to tell about her first encounter with a teabag. During a layover in New York, en route to Canada, she had tea in a restaurant with her friends and they all had to take instruction from the waitress on how to “work” the tea bag.
NS: You use both Mammy and Nuala as story “headings.” It’s a simple strategy, but it works. How did you decide to do it this way?
DM: That was a suggestion made by my wonderful editor and publisher Sarah Leavesley at V Press. As there are two different voices in the novella, I think it helps to quickly ground the reader.
NS: The Neverlands is currently called “short fiction”—it could just as easily be called a novella in flash. Why one and not the other? And does it matter?
DM: Great question. At the time of publication, I was hung up on the apparent need for each flash in a novella-in-flash to be stand alone and wasn’t sure if all of mine did. (although reviewers seem to think they do.) But now, I think, why do they all have to be stand alone? Who made that rule? What is a novella-in-flash? It’s a short novel told in flash. If I was publishing it now, I would absolutely call The Neverlands a novella-in-flash. (Phew, glad to get that off my chest!)
NS: Ha! Now this is your first book—congratulations! Talk about V. Press and/or your road to publication?
DM: Thank you! The whole process was a delight, which I understand is not always the case in publishing. I met Sarah Leavesley of V Press at the 2018 Flash Fiction Festival and discovered they were open to submissions for flash pamphlets. At that point all I had was the original mosaic flash and another flash called ‘Habits’ written in that same Fast Flash course. The original mosaic was in Nuala’s voice and ‘Habits’ was in Mammy’s.
Well, it seemed these two characters had much more to say. While still at the Flash Fiction Festival I attended Karen Jones’ visualisation workshop (highly recommended). I was prepared to go wherever the visualisation took me, but allowed myself to hope it would be towards Mammy or Nuala. It was. The words flowed into rough drafts which I polished, later submitting a sample to V Press. Sarah got in touch to request the full MS and subsequently offered me publication. We then spent some time to-ing and fro-ing on edits until we were both happy with the final result. I can’t praise Sarah enough. She is a fantastic editor and also designed my gorgeous cover.
NS: Advice for writers who are writing a book?
DM: Oof. There’s so much advice out there, much of it conflicting. Do what works for you. Find your tribe, be it online or in person. For me, literary Twitter has always been a brilliant and supportive writing community, but there are lots of other avenues. Find what works for you. Don’t compare yourself to other writers and celebrate their success as much as your own.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
DM: Just to thank you so much for this opportunity to chat, Nancy. I’m sad we won’t see each other again this year in Bristol, but will cross my fingers for 2021!
Damhnait Monaghan was born and grew up in Canada but now lives in the U.K. Her writing has won or placed in various competitions and is widely published and anthologised. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions. Her novella in flash The Neverlands was published by V. Press in 2019. She is an editor at FlashBack Fiction, an online literary journal that showcases historical flash fiction. You can find her on Twitter @Downith.
So… this month I decided to scrap my original post and share something very personal instead, particularly how this experience is framing the current situation for me. Indulge me a moment…
Almost 4 years ago I was in a car accident on my way to a reading. “In a car accident” isn’t quite right; I was hit head on by a drunk driver going 60 mph the wrong way on a 3-lane highway in broad daylight. And almost as soon as it was over, from the moment I was ripped out of the car, then in the ambulance, and then in the ER, I heard one thing over and over: you are so lucky.
You. Are. So. Lucky.
The first responders were amazed that my back wasn’t broken. The doctors, nurses, even later the tow truck driver who dragged my carcass of a car off the highway were amazed that I was still alive at all, let alone not paralyzed or permanently injured.
I kept hearing lucky, lucky, lucky. You are so lucky you should buy a lottery ticket.
And it clicked for me in the ER, while they were pulling chunks of glass out of my skin and hooking me up to morphine. I was lucky. I’d been given a great gift. And this was a glorious day to be alive.
This story could have gone another way. Not just the way of my demise, of course, but at that precipice between light and dark I could have turned to the dark. In that space between lucky and unlucky I could have allowed myself to become a victim–because I was a victim. I’d been driving sober, doing the speed limit, wearing my seat belt. I’d done everything right—so why did this bad thing happen to me? I couldn’t teach my classes, I couldn’t get out of bed. I even missed my oldest child’s high school graduation. And I didn’t deserve any of it!
During these days of uncertainty, I’ve been thinking a lot about those lessons of 4 years ago. Coronavirus has hit the planet like an out of control drunk driver going the wrong way on the highway, and we’ve all been part of the 7-billion car pile up in its wake. Everyone’s plans just got hijacked, and it’s not our fault.
But, individually and collectively, we are now on the precipice between light and dark. Will I become hardened, bitter, angry, victimized—this isn’t fair. I didn’t deserve it. Because it’s not fair and you didn’t deserve it. The fall out is real. We got hit. The car is totaled. Our lung is punctured, half our ribs are shattered, and our arm is going to need to be pinned back together with screws.
So here’s the point of my story: One night when I was in the hospital I vividly remember when a nurse (angel) I’d never seen before answered one of my late night calls for help. He had caught me at a bad moment, in pain, frustrated because I couldn’t go to the bathroom alone, and having a bit of a breakdown. And I vividly remember he looked at me right in the eyes and gently said:
“An accident is a reminder to be grateful for every little thing in your life.”
Now, whenever I’m in uncertainly, I always try to remember: An accident is a reminder to be grateful for every little thing in your life. And this worldwide “accident” will affect people differently; none of us will emerge untouched. But bad days don’t have to become bad seasons, bad years. In times of crisis, confusion, and change we always have a choice between the dark and the light. The alchemy of this moment has the power to transform either way—the heat of this fire will scorch and burn us up or strengthen us, like pottery in a kiln. We can become victims to circumstance or we can shine no matter what.
Right now I’m grateful to be quarantined in a country where I have clean, running, hot and cold water, a pantry and a freezer full of food, a heated apartment, internet access. I’m grateful to still have an (now) online version of my job and the tools to make it happen (the kids in my friend’s elementary class in New Mexico can’t afford computers to do online school). I’m grateful that it’s spring and that I have a body that still works, a bicycle with full tires. I’m grateful that being out of toilet paper is truly not the end of the world. And I’m grateful for every one of you and for the strange but glorious creativity happening in this unexpected time.
I am sending you lots of love in such a difficult and uncertain time. I’ve been thinking a lot about the painter, Mark Rothko, who said that abstract expressionism really came as a result of artists needing to say something that had never been said before. Basically, when the world changes, art changes.
So in all this uncertainly, there is something you can do: make art. The world needs artists more than ever in times of crisis. We are the visionaries. I’ve always said that I have no idea how the non-artists in the world handle their emotions! If I couldn’t journal, write, sing…I don’t know what I would do. We are lucky. We have our art.
So to that effect, Kathy Fish and I are going to do a morale-boosting, free 30-day FlashNano-like event starting tomorrow, Monday, March 16, for everyone sitting home in front of their computers and ready to write. We’ll be posting daily prompts (many recycled from FlashNanos of years past or from our retreat “prompt envelope”) on our website (no need to sign up for anything, we are just going to keep it simple), so we hope that this strange time can also be productive and inspiring.
We can’t control the crisis but we CAN control what we do. So let’s make some art. Please be safe and stay healthy and look after each other.
Michael Loveday’s debut novella-in-flash, Three Men on the Edge, is a story in three movements, a triptych of liminal spaces that forces the reader to consider the interior landscapes of others and how rarely we intersect with or even understand the tortured lives of our nearest neighbors, friends, strangers.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Michael Loveday: “For sale. Crazy muse. Never porn.” (that’s Hemingway, right?)
NS: Ahem–of course (wink)! Now your bio says that you are “inspired by his experiences of an in-between place.” Explain. Do you think we are all living in in-between places in some form or another?
ML: The specific inspiration for ‘Three Men on the Edge’ was the weird hinterland between northwest London and the Hertfordshire countryside where I lived for ten years – an urban-rural “edgeland” that became the setting for the book. These kinds of places (neither fully city nor countryside) are quite a common phenomenon in 21st century capitalism, certainly in the West (and of course have been so for a while).
But it’s true I was interested in liminal states in an emotional and abstract sense too. The geographical edgeland is a backdrop for describing those.
I guess in some sense this human experience is always one of “becoming”, as much as we might crave it to be only one of “being”. The more the pace of the world seems to speed up through cultural and technological change, the more we always seem to be hurtling towards some other way of living.
NS: I read this almost like the three movements of a symphony with a fast-slow-fast movement. Talk about your organizational choices?
ML: Yes I guess you’re right. I knew I had three separate but related sequences of short prose pieces, adding up to a kind of triptych, all linked by the shared setting (and certain shared themes about relationships and mental health).
Originally I had the middle sequence (‘The Invisible World’) as the last one. It stood out as different – more meditative, more descriptive, closer to prose poems, and as much about the watery landscape of the canals and lakes of Rickmansworth as it is about a person. I thought, naively, it would be a more substantial way to end the book. But it was just sort of dangling out there as a third limb.
It was my wife who suggested putting this section in the middle. She was so obviously right! With the new order, there was a sense of symmetry, the energy picked up again in the final third, the mood became (slightly!) more comic again, and the pieces more character-driven once again. It also created the pattern that the main protagonists became progressively younger in age through the course of the book.
NS: I find it interesting that all three of the men in here are defined in some way by the women in their lives—loveless marriage, dead wife, fantasy woman. Comment.
ML: Yep, and I’d argue they’re defined by a need for non-sexual female companionship too. Women have been influential, stabilising influences in my own life and the book was intended as an exploration of what can happen to men if they aren’t connected in a healthy way to women, or to the feminine principle in general. I think it’s a big problem in some parts of our culture.
NS: You have super detailed eye to nature, especially in the second movement (Gus). Are you a secret botanist or gardener?
ML: Oh gosh I’m terrible! I never know the names for anything and am always wondering “what the hell type of plant is that?” If I had more time I’d definitely do a course of study in it. The book was a deliberate act of witnessing in terms of the local landscape, but I had to work with terms and concepts that were fairly familiar to my suburban soul. Eco-fiction for the suburbs?
NS: All three of these men are living lives of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau would say. It makes me wonder (and this has been a topic of conversation in wider circles): do you think we talk enough about men’s darkest emotions and weaknesses?
ML: There’s been improvement but I think there’s so much further we could go as a society. When I had my own struggles with my mental health starting in the mid-90s I had no preparation for it, no vocabulary or language or comfort with the territory. I was very aware of the fact that I was embarking into terrain that would mean I lost connection with some of my “closest” male friends. And I did. Not with all, but with some.
Things have got better in general since then, at least for the broad majority I think, in terms of awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental health issues. But we can go further. So many men are carrying profound wounds that are unexplored or unexpressed and just get acted out – in violence, aggression, intimidation, ruthlessness, lust for power, competitiveness, lack of empathy, problematic relationships etc. There are examples at the very top of our social food chain in both the US and the UK!
I’m very interested in the idea, from Jung, that we all need to come to terms with the feminine and masculine impulses within us, anima and animus as Jung put it, reconcile them and learn to express them healthily. I’m still working on this! (And when I’ve figured it out that’ll probably be the death of me as a writer! Haha).
NS: Your stories share locations—Bury Lake, Our Lady Help of Christians, etc. In Part 1, Denholm is even making a town diorama, which seems very telling. How does the shared location—or even just the location itself—facilitate these stories?
ML: My experience of this particular suburban “edgeland” was that I had very ambivalent feelings about living there – I felt like I was neither in London nor in the countryside, neither belonging nor not belonging, geographically on the margins, with something very significant glimpsed further off.
The physical experience of the landscape was the foundation for being between states emotionally too. I had this idea that “edgeland” locations might be sites for ambivalent, transitional, liminal experiences in fiction or poetry. (And it’s true – it’s reflected in films and TV, for example, when so many acts of transgression or secretive (often criminal!) acts take place on run-down industrial estates or in neglected woods or in empty warehouses out on the edge of town).
Rickmansworth is in the Three Rivers District of Hertfordshire, a valley where the Gade, Chess and Colne rivers converge (and feed into the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham). The manuscript began (as my MA dissertation) as something called “Three Rivers, Rickmansworth”, with the idea that each of the three third-person voices was a different “river”. So landscape and geography were feeding into it from the start.
NS: The three men’s stories don’t overtly overlap but they pass by one another, almost “pass the baton” from one to the next. This is one of those clever tricks that the flash novella form allows us to do. Talk about the form and how it informed the way you told these stories?
ML: Oh gosh. I could bore people for days about the novella-in-flash! Working on ‘Three Men on the Edge’ kindled what i think is going to be a lifelong love affair with the form. I’ve since written essays about it for SmokeLong Quarterly [http://www.smokelong.com/strange-feasts-and-where-to-find-them-twelve-more-great-flash-fiction-novels-novellas-part-iii/] and been lucky enough to judge the Bath Flash Fiction Award Novella-in-Flash competition for the past couple of years.
As I developed the book, I did a lot of research, exploring examples and “permission-givers” that might inspire me and influence me. There are so many great examples of novellas-in-flash or “flash novels” out there – your own included. I was conscious of the fact that I wanted ‘Three Men on the Edge’ to add something new to the conversation, so I tried to make it as close to prose poetry as the form could bear and use the structure of three related “mini-novellas” set in the same location.
I knew some readers who were looking for a stronger sense of plot might struggle with the book – there are other novellas-in-flash that have a much more explicit narrative arc, like a traditional novel has. But I hoped that other readers, perhaps ones who separately enjoyed reading poetry, might find it an interesting and unusual way of reading fiction, one where you’re asked to fill in lots of “gaps” – a suggestion of narrative rather than an actual narrative.
NS: This is your first book of prose, and it was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards—congrats! Talk about your path to publication.
ML: Thanks! I spent a long time struggling with the project. It was hard writing three mini-novellas at once, especially when I hadn’t written fiction before. I could really have done with a mentor, but I didn’t think I could afford to pay for one, and I didn’t dare inflict all my drafts on my friends – I drafted well over 200 stories for it from 2011 to 2017, although only 64 made it into the final manuscript.
A writer who read one late draft (not far off the final manuscript – about 25 pages short of the final version) suggested I send it to her publisher. That was around December 2016. I got my hopes up, as a result, and was gutted when it was rejected – the publisher was planning a transition into an “even more experimental” direction, they said.
But ultimately that nudged me to do some more editing and add some more stories to beef up the manuscript – I basically rediscovered a number of stories that I’d written but abandoned over the previous few years of editing, and I couldn’t understand why I’d overlooked them. It was weird encountering them again – like someone else had written them. But the manuscript was better off for including them. I’m now relieved that that earlier version didn’t get published.
In the meantime, I’d read a couple of V. Press flash fiction pamphlets and liked them very much. Because of the hybrid nature of the manuscript, I knew I wanted to send it to a publishing house that dealt with poetry as well as fiction, as V. Press does. So when their submissions window opened again (for pamphlets) in the late summer 2017, I sent a very tentative enquiry about the possibility of them doing a full-length book. Thankfully, they were willing to consider it, although they had only done them for poetry before. I was still writing a few more stories after the manuscript was accepted (and in fact some that I really wanted to include were written too late for the publisher to agree to include them. They very gently suggested it was time to stop writing the book. Haha).
NS: Advice for writers who are writing a novella-in-flash or other book?
ML: Well, maybe don’t try writing three at once! Be patient, read lots of published writing, keep editing, seek feedback. If you can publish parts of it (if perhaps it’s a story collection or poetry collection) as you go along, then do so, it will give you – and a publisher – necessary belief in the book. Lastly, be protective of your baby and don’t rush it into the world. There are so many books already out there.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
ML: If you’re reading this blog and enjoy flash fiction, why not come to the Flash Fiction Festival in the UK – it’s in Bristol in the summer each year – June 19-21st in 2020. It’s an amazing, inspiring event, very welcoming and full of writerly camaraderie. Nancy and I will both be there teaching two workshops on the flash novel / novella-in-flash. And there are dozens of other brilliant workshops to choose from. https://www.flashfictionfestival.com/
NS: I second that! Thanks so much for playing, Michael!
ML: Thank you, Nancy, for inviting me to think about these interesting questions!
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). He specialises as an editor for novellas-in-flash: https://novella-in-flash.com/. Other info about his writing, editing and mentoring can be found at https://michaelloveday.com/ When he’s not found holed up in cafés in Bath, United Kingdom, reading manuscripts or doing his own writing, Michael enjoys the usual distractions of music, cinema, and countryside walks. He has a soft spot for very earnest songs by Bruce Springsteen.