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.
I was inspired to address this issue after I read multiple social media posts, all from writers I admire, all lamenting that they “weren’t writing.”
Not writing is painful. Unfinished work sitting there is painful. You might beat yourself up with a bunch of “shoulds” and berate your lack of discipline. It can make you feel hopeless, drained of energy and questioning if it’s even worth it. No wonder you keep avoiding it!
But there are usually some very good reasons why you’re avoiding your work. To start with, you’re a better writer now. Just do the math: if you started even one year ago, then you’re a better writer now. And that’s a good thing! That’s the beauty of practice paying off. But it can also feel frustrating when you realize that first story or first draft, the one you labored over, might have made you a better writer but isn’t at your level anymore.
Or you’re in a different emotional place. Often the impetus that drove us to the page resolves or fades; whatever we were grappling with has been settled. Perhaps we’re on the other side of a life change, and the early writing was part of our process, but now we aren’t “feeling it.”
Or you’re overly loyal to your original vision. After all, you’ve probably put in countless hours of work. But sometimes we become too attached to our original vision; sometimes we’ve read and reread our sentences so many times we can’t imagine them any other way. And when we can’t imagine new possibilities for our work, when everything is known and nothing unknown…well, then it’s no wonder we’re not writing.
And, finally, you might be shifting gears. This almost always happens to me after finishing a big project. After a book for instance, I like to consider myself creatively postpartum, recovering from the birth and taking care of the new baby for at least 6-12 months. Anything I try to write in that time will end up sounding exactly like what I was writing before because I haven’t shifted gears, yet.
But it’s discouraging, regardless of the reason, to find yourself fallow, quiet.
So what to do?
1.Give yourself a break. The creative process ebbs and flows, and what goes up must go down…and back up again. Trust the process.
2. Read. I especially like to reread favorite books in these periods. Sink into the familiar and remember why you love words.
3: Remember: creation is ultimately play. Get silly and messy and re-discover what is joyful. Be curious. Be ridiculous. Be shameless. Take a bold risk into new territory and allow yourself to fail. Remember: no one has to know.
Love, Nancy xoxo
*excerpted from Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction coming this summer
Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction is a craft book that has been seven years in the making and is the product of my 12+ years in the flash fiction movement. I draw from workshops, lectures, interviews, and my experiences as a flash publisher, editor, curator, and teacher, but most importantly as a fellow writer, in the beautiful trenches of a new genre.
I’m THRILLED to be joining the ranks of Ad Hoc Fiction writers! Ad Hoc Fiction has been a leader in flash fiction publishing both in the UK and abroad, winning the 2019 Best Publisher Award at the Creative Bath Awards. Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction will officially release at the 2020 Flash Fiction Festival UK, in time for the Fall Semester writing classes.
(Educators and reviewers, please contact me if you would like early previews.)
“In Going Short, Nancy Stohlman captures the true spirit of flash fiction, those brief narratives imbued with all the urgency of life itself. An extremely practiced flash fiction writer, Stohlman is also a veteran teacher. She knows the territory and takes us on a trip from getting started to the finishing line, and everything in between. It’s hard to think of a more thoughtful, adept, and enthusiastic guide.”
~David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook
“Nancy Stohlman has written the definitive, and appropriately concise, book on the flash fiction form. You’ll learn what flash fiction is and isn’t, tips on writing it, tips on honing, sculpting, and polishing it (I especially like her idea of “swapping” sentences and paragraphs in revision and “strategic cutting”), along with thoughtful discussions on the flash novel and tips for pulling together a flash collection. As a widely-published master of the form herself, Stohlman brings years of teaching experience and her own engaging voice and wit to this useful, encouraging, and entertaining guide. A must-have for flash writers of all levels.”
~Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life: Collected Works 2003-2018
“This book is an invitation to flash dance with Nancy Stohlman, an accomplished partner who will show you the steps you can take, the fluid moves you can make on the flash fiction studio floor. It is all about practice. She will spin you around and show you things you didn’t know you could do, and lead you to a kind of prose performance you didn’t think possible. It’s all about paying close attention and getting it down with the necessary urgency. It’s not easy at first, it’s a tricky art form, but Nancy shares her sharp insight and offers short cuts to get you more quickly to your own satisfaction and your reader’s delight. And at the studio door when it’s time to leave, she hands you a scroll of a hundred good ideas and wishes you happy travel. Just follow the map.”
~James Thomas, Co-editor of the Norton Flash Fiction books
The stories in Kim’s Chinquee’s new collection, Wetsuit, are the barest of wisps, impressionistic in their minimalism and yet dense with implied meaning. Each one is a gem, deceptively simple but hiding entire, barely concealed worlds in the silences. With each revisiting you discover the truth: that the stories are shadowboxes that continue into infinity, a magician’s hat with no bottom.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, explain this book in six words:
Kim Chinquee: Water. Swimming. Food. Animals. Motherhood. Men.
NS: I’m super intrigued by your titles, which are very often a seemingly random phrase pulled from the story that becomes the title and then suddenly isn’t random at all. Talk about your process with titles. Does it change the story for you?
KC: Absolutely! Titles are so much fun. A title can inform a piece, and can also turn it on its head. I’m always experimenting with titles, whether removing the first sentence of a story, and using it as a title. Or sometimes I’ll choose the last sentence, or one from the middle. Or perhaps the title is a word in the story that repeats itself. When I studied with Mary Robison, she recommended (to me and other students) closing our eyes and randomly pointing to places (on the physical copies of) our stories and opening our eyes and imagining the words and phrases (where our fingers landed) as potential titles. That’s a fun exercise I share with my students a lot. Sometimes a title can have nothing to do with the text of the story and can give that entire piece a different meaning. I think I have a few stories with titles like that.
NS: Your stories are very sculpted—sometimes down to almost an impressionistic wisp. I often find myself rereading them several times, as they are slight but extremely dense, sometimes deceptively so. How do you know when to stop? Do you think flash writers ever go too far?
KC: It’s possible to go too far, of course. But one can always save the latest drafts and rearrange the words, add them back, etc. I struggle with writing longer work because I’m always cutting.
NS: Water is a theme connecting these stories, from puddles to steam to oceans to ice. Talk about your connection to water and why it ripples through this book? (By the way I love your picture of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon on the cover!)
KC: Thank you! Pier Rodelon designed Wetsuit (and my books Oh Baby, Veer, and Shot Girls). And (in speaking of titles): I had several other titles of the book before deciding on Wetsuit (I think maybe MILK was one.)–and when I saw the cover, I realized Wetsuit was the one that best “suited,” and included mostly pieces pertaining to liquid and/or water of some form. And I added some words and lines to some of the pieces so they would better fit the overall theme. So, the theme of water was kind of accidental, I suppose. Or something that I didn’t see until later. I had been swimming a lot and doing triathlons when I was writing these pieces, so it makes sense to me now that I was writing a lot about water.
NS: The narrator seems consistent through many of the stories, and we get reoccurring images tagging back to other stories. Was this an intentional weave or a happy discovery? And if intentional, how you would distinguish this collection from, say, a flash novel? Or is it?
KC: It probably was a bit of both intentional weave and happy discovery. Some of these pieces were written long ago, and some were written during the same timeframe and in consecutive order. When compiling the collection, I ordered them to have some sort of arc, and/or storylines that connect and speak to each other.
NS: On that note, your beginning and your ending are also circular, with one image from the end hooking up with the initial one. It gives a certain sense of spiraling around and around a life. Can you about your circular concept?
KC: Thanks for noticing that! My editor and publisher Kathryn Rantala suggested ending on that last piece “My New Skin,” which I thought was kind of brilliant. I suppose, when looking at it now, I like to think it’s a metaphor for the front crawl or the breast stroke, the circular motion and the constant movement that keeps one not only moving forward, but afloat.
NS: About 2/3 of the way through the book your stories start to get super short and extremely dark. It feels like both a shift, a deepening, a quickening, and also, consequently, like the climax of the book. Can you talk about your design and intention with this purposeful pondering?
KC: As I was compiling the collection, it seemed natural to me to put these pieces closer to the end of the book, I suppose like a climax. I was afraid that if I included them near the front of the collection, they might discourage the reader, and that some content before might give them more context. I suppose it’s a lot like writing a novel. Wetsuit feels, content-like, or at least the way I compiled it, much like how I put together my first collection, Oh Baby.
NS: You have been an important voice in the flash fiction movement for a long time, and you’ve authored many books, including Shot Girls, Pretty, Veer, and Oh Baby. How is this book different than your others?
KC: Ah! Good question. I was about to talk more about this in the previous answer. I like to think Wetsuit holds a bit more hope for its main protagonist, and that there is maybe more maturity and depth. The son of Wetsuit is older, an adult, and there is a longing, I think. Artistically and aesthetically, Wetsuit is much like Oh Baby, imo. Veer was compiled as a collection to celebrate the venues where the pieces appeared (and where I’ve published most regularly): NOON, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Willow Springs, Story Quarterly. Pretty was published (as a prose poetry collection) with White Pine Press, under different editorship and is told in three parts. Whereas Shot Girls (also with Ravenna Press) includes mostly longer stories, of women working in “service,” including the military, and it includes a few flashes.
My next collection will also be published with Ravenna Press in 2020! It’s tentatively titled Snowdog. (And involves a lot of snow. And dogs.) Though I tend to change my titles a lot!
My novel-in-flashes, Battle Dress, will be published with Widow + Orphan House in 2021. I wrote the pieces in Battle Dress in consecutive order, while I was running a lot of local 5K, 10K races. So, there’s a lot of running and repetition in that book. Kind of like running the same kind of races (with different results) over and over.
I’ve also written a couple of “non flash” novels, and am currently revising Pirouette, which takes place in Boston, with alternating points-of-view of three protagonists and their experiences during the Boston Bombings. I’ve also started a new book called Stray Voltage, which is mostly about cows.
I probably write flash fictions with the most consistency and frequency, especially when I’m in the midst of teaching and doing administrative work. So, when compiling Wetsuit, I drew upon the flash fictions in my inventory, and put them together in a kind of collage.
NS: Congratulations! I’m looking forward to all of these! Wetsuit is published by Ravenna Press. Talk about your path to publication?
KC: Ravenna Press published my first book Oh Baby in 2008; I had such a great experience with Ravenna, and continue to publish with them. Kathryn Rantala is a great advocate and supporter of my work. I believe we have a mutual respect for each other and I love working with her.
NS: What advice would you give someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
KC: Read a lot. Write your story. Collect advice and keep what’s useful. Pay attention to what’s happening around you.
Perhaps nothing is stranger, more visually fascinating, than human deformities and abnormalities of nature. Before television brought everything into the home and political correctness made drawing attention to the out-of-the ordinary taboo, traveling shows filled with characters such as the four-legged woman, elastic man, Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy, and the albino family drew curious crowds of all ages.
Such is the world of “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities,” Nancy Stohlman’s flash-fiction novel that is this season’s Wheat Ridge Reads selection. A finalist for the 2019 Colorado Book Awards in Literary Fiction, the book alternatively amuses, shocks and challenges its audience.
The book “requires the reader to be an active participant in the story,” says Stohlman. Unlike a traditional novel, which takes its time unfolding, flash fiction requires one to “be awake, pay attention, or it will fly right by you.”
Stohlman discovered the emerging writing genre while attaining her Masters of Fine Arts degree at Naropa Institute a dozen years ago. She struggled with writing a novel of 80,000 words or so, and finding flash fiction was “an enormous relief,” she says. “I can get rid of the part that I’m bored to write, that connective tissue that is necessary to tie the long novel together. Now when I write, I think about what I can take out.”
The technique — also known as micro-fiction — reduces a story to 1,000 words or less. “Madame Velvet’s” is a series of these stories carefully choreographed to make the whole, using white space as much as words.
“Using white space is an intentional negative, letting what you have written resonate against what is not said,” explains Stohlman, exhibiting a page where the written words take up less than a quarter of the space. Flash fiction “gets at the essence” of a story in a “tight, hard-hitting, sharp, fast” manner that is “over quickly,” she says.
Stohlman herself is larger than life when she performs. With her expressive eyes, bright red lips, and crisp, clear voice, she has a presence that commands the stage.
Her readings and discussions for Wheat Ridge Reads take place 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 15, at Swiss Flower and Gift Cottage, 9890 W. 44th Ave., and 9:00 a.m., Thursday, January 16, at Ye Olde Firehouse, 3232 Depew St. The events are free and open to the public. She will also be presenting to students at Wheat Ridge High School as part of the WR Reads program.
In addition to being an author, Stohlman is a lecturer in University of Colorado’s Program for Writing and Rhetoric and is the lead singer in the jazz metal lounge band Kinky Mink. She has published four books and her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She leads writing retreats all over the world and is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series at The Mercury Cafe.
Wheat Ridge Reads is a citywide book club sponsored by the Wheat Ridge Cultural Commission in partnership with the Wheat Ridge Library and Wheat Ridge High School. Presented annually, the program promotes literacy and a shared reading experience throughout the city. Complimentary copies of the book “Madame Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities” are available at the Wheat Ridge Recreation Center and Swiss Flower and Gift Cottage as well as Little Free Libraries throughout the city.
Once all hope had truly been lost—after the planets lined up and nothing happened, after churches were roped off with police tape, historical landmarks proven fraudulent, and even sex became irrelevant, the few people still able to feel pain took what was left and traveled to the edge. And once there, they sacrificed the rest of their ruby slipper childhoods and abandoned imaginations and some people even ripped off their own tattoos and threw the inked bologna skins over the edge and together we watched our dreams quietly float away, like deflated balloons and sad water bugs…..Keep reading