Curtis Smith is an amazing interviewer. Here’s a little excerpt from our conversation at JMWW where we talk about origin stories, including the genesis of Going Short, my time co-founding/running Fast Forward Press, and how ultimately most books are smarter than we are.
Nancy Stohlman has been writing, publishing, and teaching flash fiction for more than a decade, and her latest book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2020), is her treatise on the form.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the publication of Going Short. Can you tell us a bit about the book’s origins—your motivations and how you came to work with Ad Hoc?
Nancy Stohlman: Thank you, Curtis. And I just want to say that the response to Going Short has been so heartwarming and validating in a year that was otherwise challenging. So thank you all for that.
The book has been simmering for a long time, over 10 years. I think sometimes we’re called to write books that are smarter than we are, so it basically took me 10 years to catch up. There were (and still are) very few flash fiction specific books, and I wanted to write a craft book (as opposed to a straight textbook)—I envisioned it like having a long conversation about flash fiction with a fellow writer. Ad Hoc was a natural choice; I first collaborated with them at the Flash Fiction Festival in the UK in 2018, and I have always been impressed by their vision of a flash fiction community—a vision I share. It seemed like (and has been) a natural and perfect fit for this book.
CS: You’ve been writing flash for a long time. Who were your influences? What initially drew you to the form. How has the form (and market) changed?
NS: Running a flash fiction press before flash fiction had really “caught on” was enormously influential in my education and trajectory. In 2007, during graduate school at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (I never get tired of saying that name!), a group of us co-founded Fast Forward Press, and then from 2008-2013 we put out a yearly print flash fiction anthology as well as some early flash novels. So much of my education came from reading and analyzing hundreds of story submissions, both the ones I loved and the ones we rejected. We had many spirited conversations about was is/isn’t flash fiction, what constituted a story. At that time our answers were purely instinctual, but I see now that we were helping to define the genre in those early stages.
The flash fiction landscape has changed quite a bit, even in the last decade, but I think the work we did there laid much groundwork, including acting as a honing signal for other early flash fiction writers. More than a dozen years after our first anthologies, I can flip through the Tables of Contents and see so many flash fiction giants and friends, names like Kim Chinquee, Robert Scotellaro, Meg Tuite, Chris Bowen, Jane Anne Phillips, Tom Hazuka, Sally Reno—and you!
Going Short is ready to snuggle and do some writing.
Prompt: Bribing the Muse: On Your Mark, Get Set…
A great trick to create urgency in a flash fiction story is by using another constraint: Time.
For almost a decade now, all my college classes have begun with a 10-minute timed writing. Timed writing is nothing new. We know that it helps us transition us into the writing space, like stretching before a workout. We know that it forces us to stay present and dig deeper—writing past where we might have naturally given up. And we know that keeping the pen moving quickly, without crossing things out or rereading, is a great way to evade the internal critic and uncover fresh ideas.
But I discovered something else through years of this practice: 10 minutes of writing without stopping is also the perfect amount of time to draft a flash fiction story idea from start to finish.
It makes sense: Flash fiction is defined by a word constraint, so why not create under a time constraint? Having that clock ticking while you furiously try to reach the end of an idea gives the piece a natural sense of urgency. And writing from the beginning to the end in one sitting also creates a sense of continuity—we see the end coming as we embark on the journey.
You can use timed writing in many ways. For instance, you can:
Set the timer while writing to a prompt.
Set the timer when you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to write about.
Set the timer and rewrite a “flat” story from scratch while the clock chases you to the finish line (my favorite)
And as a daily practice it’s even better. Besides, you can do anything for 10 mins, right?
April Bradley: You help readers understand in Going Short that “flash fictions are stories under 1,000 words and that flash fiction is always telling a story, even if much of that story is implied.” You also talk about constraints—“Embracing the constraint is the true gift of flash fiction.”— and how flash has “created a new sort of genre freedom.” How does the gift of constraint and “narrative contortions” create something unique and yet recognizable as flash? Is there something more to flash than mere word count and a sense of story?
Nancy Stohlman: I love the nuance of this question. And I will defer to metaphor and ask: Why do we love cupcakes? I mean—they have the exact same ingredients as cake; they both have milk, eggs, butter, flour, frosting. Why not just have a slice of cake?
Flash fiction is the cupcake of literature. And it’s a totally different experience than a 3-layer wedding cake. Yes, they both have plot, character, story, poetry. But for me, the gift is in the intention. I love cakes and cupcakes, but I love them differently and for different reasons, and they require different visions and skills. Yes, we could produce gallons of batter and pour it into big sheet pans, and that is glorious. But we can also focus, shrink, and condense a tiny bit of our creative batter into a perfect circle, the delicate precision of a story you can hold in the palm of your hand.
April Bradley: How does microfiction differ?
Well, I guess that would make micro fiction the cake pop. One bite, and one bite only. But wow—what a bite.
Dressed All Wrong For This, Francine Witte’s new book of flash fiction and winner of the Blue Light Fiction Award, is a smorgasbord of poignant absurdity, expertly navigating the delicate line between pure whimsy and subtle, sometimes devastating truth. This book will make you laugh at the same time it takes your breath away.
Nancy Stohlman: Your work is whimsical and absurd, almost slapstick at times, just the way I like it! Where do your ideas come from?
Francine Witte: I get my titles first, for the most part. A phrase might pop into my head and I go from there. The story usually unfolds as I am writing it. I rarely know what the story is going to be about until I start. Just letting myself go where the story takes me often allows for the absurd to happen.
NS: There are so many memorable moments in these stories. This one from the story “Flag” stood out for me:
The waiter brings the Coq Au Vin.
This is chicken, Janie says
I thought it would be something more.
You might also say that about love, the waiter smiles.
This passage is the perfect example of what I love about your work—just when you think it’s pure silly, you swiftly rip away the tablecloth to reveal the truth underneath. Talk about the relationship between absurdity and truth in general and in your writing.
FW: To me, when something is absurd, it’s because it’s true. So very often as I’m thinking of writing how people are getting along in a restaurant, in love, in just about anything, I’m also thinking, what’s really true here. What aren’t the characters saying? In the above passage, it seems absurd that a waiter would just randomly say what he says, but it’s also true.
NS: There are so many recurring themes in this book, including food, betrayal, and of course, chicken. Why chicken?
FW: Betrayal is my go-to theme. It has conflict baked in. I have lots of guys leaving lots of gals for no reason, or lots of reasons. Parents cheating on each other. Friends stealing each other’s boyfriends, and on and on. It never leaves me. As to food, it seems to be what people do. They eat. Anytime people are getting together there is food. And if there isn’t food now, there is food later. And I suppose that chicken is kind of an easy food to reference, being as ubiquitous as it is in our culture. Also, I think the word “chicken” is funny.
NS: We first shared pages in Tom Hazuka’s wonderful anthology Flash Fiction Funny. Do you think comedic writing is taken less seriously in the writing world?
FW: Humor in writing certainly has less gravitas, even though it’s much more difficult to do well. Maybe humor tends to be more topical, and therefore has a specific shelf life. I love humor and absurdity is like a quieter form of humor.
NS: Talk a little about your journey to flash fiction. Did it choose you?
FW: I started as a poet, and most of my formal writing education, my MFA, etc. is in poetry. I wrote and published poems in the late ‘80’s. Then in the early ‘90’s, I ventured into playwrighting, and wrote a few full-length plays and many, many one-acts. I liked the one-acts more because I love the compression of them. Also, I liked that there are more things you could do form-wise in a short play. That’s pretty much the same as flash fiction. I started to write short-shorts (as they were referred to then) and immediately fell in love with the language and possibility of such a short story. You can set a flash on the moon, for example. That doesn’t work as well in a longer story. I took a class with the great Roberta Allen, who was the only person teaching flash in the late ‘90’s (that I’m aware of.) I started sending my stories out, and got them accepted into the print journals. And that’s how the journey happened.
NS: You are widely published in both flash fiction and poetry. How do you navigate/separate between the two? Or do they bleed into one another?
FW: Flash fiction and poetry have similarities in their language, but for me that’s where it ends. I feel like they do very separate things. Poetry is a meditation. It doesn’t need a story, and if there is a story to the poem, that story’s purpose is the speaker examining a moment and how it helps the speaker learn something. Poetry has an inward movement. Flash fiction, on the other hand, is the unfolding of events that the narrator is living in that moment. The narrator is in a state of discovery as the story goes on. An outer movement.
I always know what I am going to be writing when I sit down and have never wondered if a flash fiction should be a poem or vice versa.
NS: Dressed All Wrong for This was the winner of 2019 Blue Light Book Award: congratulations! How important do you think awards are for writing careers?
FW: Thank you. For me, awards have been important as three of my chapbooks got published as part of a prize. Often, contests are the only avenue to book publication. It’s also nice to get the recognition. I don’t know how important it is to one’s career. I think it’s more of a nice thing than a necessary thing.
NS: What’s it been like to be a writer in New York City during the year 2020?
FW: There is such a vibrant writing scene in New York City. In fact, many writing scenes. Downtown, universities, etc. You could go to a reading every night. Sometimes two. So, the closure of these readings made a significant dent in the networking and socializing aspect. Also the promotion aspect was affected. People who had a book launch in 2020 were kind of screwed. But I don’t think these limitations are distinct to New York. I do shudder, however, to think what we would do without zoom. Online readings have enabled worldwide connections that would have been otherwise impossible. So, while we missed out on in-person readings, a whole other kind of reading, the online reading, was born. Talk about lemonade.
NS: Lemonade indeed! Advice to someone writing a book?
FW: I can only speak to books of flash and poetry. I would say to write and publish the pieces and let the book come together from that. I’ve never sat down to “write a book.” Rather, I put all my favorite poems or stories together. I would find a way for them to tell a story, because usually they did. I do have a novella, The Way of the Wind, but I wrote it as if I were writing flash stories that had a plot tying them together. Most important thing – every story or poem should be a 10 (at least to you.)
NS: “Every story should be a 10.” I love that because, yes, we do get attached to our darlings. Thank you so much for hanging out with me, Francine! Can you share some links to book and other promo links?
Poetry books, Café Crazy and The Theory of Flesh available on Amazon
Flashboulevard.wordpress.com (a web journal of flash that I edit)
Follow her on twitter @francinewitte
Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, Passages North, and many others. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and (The Theory of Flesh.) Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ September, 2021. She lives in NYC.