Nancy Stohlman Proves You Can Tell a Story in Under 1,000 Words

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Courtesy Nancy Stohlman
Nancy Stoholman works exclusively in flash fiction, stories under a thousand words.

Writer Nancy Stohlman doesn’t need a lot of words to make an impact. In fact, she needs fewer than a thousand.

Stohlman has spent the last few years championing flash fiction, stories told in under 1,000 words. She will release her new solo anthology of flash fiction, The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, on Wednesday, November 12 at the Mercury Café as part of the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series.

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Courtesy Nancy Stohlman
The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories is Nancy Stohlman’s first solo flash-fiction anthology.

“What isn’t said is just as powerful as what is said,” Stohlman says. “I love playing with silence and absence. A lot of what we leave out is the back story, and we just drop the reader into the present, the moment. We choose description very carefully: Instead of having a vase with 25 roses, we have only one rose.”

At first, Stohlman says she struggled with flash fiction. But through time she learned the difference between the meat and the fat, and she began to find the essence of her story.

“I think as writers, we get trained to languish in our own words,” she says. “We want to spend a paragraph describing how the tree caught the light. We indulge ourselves in a way that makes us feel good — but maybe not the reader. Rather than spell everything out for the reader, I implicate them and make them more invested in the story.”

Although Stohlman says long novels still have their place, she wonders how Moby Dick would be different with modern-day tools.

“When a writer wrote those novels in the past, they didn’t have a word processor or typewriter,” Stohlman points out. “The editing was a lot different. When these stories were being written there were a lot less entertainment options; no one was in a rush to get to the end. And now I wonder if those stories would have end up differently.

“I see those novels as a mark of time and preference. I think it’s a gorgeous thing to go on a long journey, just as it is going on a short journey. But I think flash fiction is just as interesting in a different way. When you enter a story and get to the end all in one sitting, you get the entire ride at once.”

To show the power of short-form writing, Stohlman cites the legend of Ernest Hemingway sitting in a bar one evening, when someone bet him he couldn’t write a story in six words. Hemingway supposedly replied with this: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” That’s a story she could think about for years, Stohlman says, and it’s only six words.

“People think it’s popular because people are in a hurry,” she says. “There is some truth to that, but the reason flash fiction has lasted is because they’re really complex little nuggets. I think the short ride ends up being just as transformative.”

She has written novels in the past; she likens that process to being in a marriage. With flash fiction, she strives to get the first draft out in one sitting, so she can return to it later — like a one-night stand that turns into a relationship. Her stories may be short, but she still labors over them.

In Stohlman’s new book, published by Pure Slush Press, she draws inspiration from dreams and Bible stories. Her book is full of bizarre, surreal tales, including stories about a woman turning into a piano and a woman falling in love with a fox. And even though the stories come in short bursts, Stohlman does revisit the same characters throughout, creating plot development. But if you’re hoping that Stohlman will extend a single story beyond a thousand words, don’t hold your breath. She says when we try to answer too many questions, we take away the beautiful mystery of art.

“I get attached to my stories, but I’m afraid to ruin them,” she says. “For example, I just saw the latest Planet of the Apes, and the more back story you give me, the more it changes the original. There were so many unanswered questions we had to accept. Sometimes over-answering the questions waters down the experience. I don’t want to ruin the perfect snapshot.”

See Nancy Stohlman at 7 p.m. at the Mercury Café, when she’ll be reading from her new book. The event is free; for more information, call 303-294-9258.

Follow Amanda Moutinho on Twitter at @amandamoutinho.

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