Ask a Flash Fiction Editor: Erasure
So first off, huge thanks to Denis Bell for allowing us to use his story in progress, “Dreams”, for our discussion of flash fiction today! (Full text of “Dreams” below).
One of the beautiful things about flash fiction is that, like poetry, it requires us to drastically trim, shrink, and carve our own thoughts. It leaves no room for bloating, filler, tangents or indulgences—and even forces us to utilize our silences.
Silences can be full of meaning—think back to the last time you sat in an uncomfortable silence with someone. What isn’t said is just as important—and often louder—than what is spoken.
The first time I ever heard the term “erasure” was in a class at Naropa taught by Laird Hunt. It was the first time that I had ever considered cutting intentional holes in my work, rather than just trimming to remove fat and fluff. Well-placed silences can carry huge implications.
Most of us understand the implication of silences in speaking. When I teach performance, I remind my students to
…because a pause is a way to emphasize what just happened.
a pause can shift a mood… to prepare for what is coming.
As a listening audience, we understand the signals that silences create. We understand how the absence of sounds adds drama and importance to the remaining ones.
The same is true on the page. As a flash fiction writer, we can trim our stories to create gaps of information and to leave purposeful ghosts.
So Denis, let’s look at your story in progress, “Dreams”, with this in mind:
First off, I love the universality you establish as you begin to take us into the dream sequences—the images are both familiar and unique. I love the staircase he’d never noticed and I particularly like the way the family members come in and out. As the interactions with mother and sister grow even weirder, the story takes on a dimension of foreboding, the ghosts in the texts become real, and the reader is disorientated in a good way.
There are a lot of stories out there where a character “wakes up” at the end, (think Bobby Ewing in the shower of Dallas). But I like how you take that cliché and make it fresh by allowing the waking to be a vital portal into the final pieces of information (more on that later).
I think there are two (or three) important places in this story where some strategic cutting will activate the power of silences.
In flash particularly, you need to arrive into your story at the latest possible moment. And while your opening right now is fairly concise, I wonder whether you can begin with the second paragraph, jumping right into the staircase and the dream sequence? We will recognize the dream landscape in the title and your descriptions, so we probably don’t need that extra setup.
I have the same thought about the middle section where he wakes up and then falls back asleep. It seems to me that it serves as a literary device to remind the reader that we are dreaming, but again I wonder if a succession of dreams with no interruption would be more interesting? Without all the awakened asides, we will be fully embodied in the dreamscape, and we will accept the oddity of things (such as the mother talking to him even though she has been dead for 15 years) with the same certainty that Joe accepts them. (Brilliant, by the way, how you state that so matter-of-factly.)
Which brings us to the end. I really love the idea that the waking life Joe is contemplating suicide, and his dream world and dream sister stop him—it’s a great crossover. If you make the other cuts I’m suggesting, then the question becomes how do you successfully give us the suicidal info only at the end. I think the place to look is your last paragraph, where he wakes up with “steely intent” and thinks of the knife. The way it’s written now makes it almost seem as if he has never considered suicide until this moment. So we’re left wondering: what just happened? Is he so mad at his nightmare that now he’s going to kill himself?
We might need a longer beat between the dream world and the real world. Maybe when he awakens he’s reminded of his pain, which he had forgotten in the dream world. Perhaps we, like Joe, need to see a few choice items that remind us, “Oh yeah, we hate our life”. Perhaps he sees the knife sitting next to the bed where he left it before he passed out? The empty bottles? The phone off the hook?
Ultimately the ending will be most effective if we are gaining a final level of insight into Joe. This is not the “surprise! we were dreaming all along” ending that can come off as too easy but it instead adds a layer of organic surprise. Joe wakes up and remembers that he is in a hospital, missing both his legs. Joe wakes up and remembers that his wife left him. Joe wakes us and remembers…that he has nothing to live for. Whatever it might be. But do it through showing us what he wakes up into.
With a bit of focused trimming your story is going to ring both haunted and wise, lovely and liquid. You are almost there. Thanks for letting me play with it—keep going!
(I welcome all comments and conversations, so join in! And feel free to find me on Facebook or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Denis Bell
On the day after his thirty-second birthday, Joe took a swing at the foreman and was fired. Now he spends most of his days in the bedroom, ensconced there with a bottle of Jim Beam and a bag of weed. He sleeps fitfully and has a series of vivid and affecting dreams.
Joe’s apartment contains a staircase he’d never noticed before leading to a large suite of lavishly furnished rooms. The apartment is much grander than he had imagined. Children are playing in some of the rooms. A cousin packs up the mood in a plastic box to be buried in the back yard at the end of the day.
Joe is presenting a report in science class. A new teacher is standing at the back of the classroom wearing a hood that hides his face. Joe’s classmates are cheering but behind the hood the teacher is angry. The teacher reaches into his pants and pulls out a –
The clock on the bedside table reads a groan worthy 11:35. Beside the clock are a stack of porno mags and a wadded up rag. The room is too bright. He stumbles to the window. Outside there is snow on the ground. A child’s broken tricycle is rusting in a neighbor’s yard. He pulls down the blind and steps into the bathroom.
When he gets out his mother is standing there, pretending not to notice the magazines. Why did you leave us like that, she asks. Joe looks away.
She tells him about a house in the country she bought for herself and his sister. Sturdy wooden frame, brass fittings, hardwood floors. Nice gated community. She wants Joe to move in with them. Now that you’ve lost your job there’s no reason to stay in this dump. Soon, he tells her. The conversation seems strange because both mother and sister have been dead fifteen years, but it would be rude to point this out.
Fragments of Joe’s past float through his dreams. The ramshackle house where he grew up. The dank cellar with the rusty furnace. His sister with her coloring books. Days spent fishing alone in the creek. His father fish-eyed and silent. His mother grimacing as she reaches to button his coat, his father absently nursing a damaged hand.
The swish of a belt.
His mother’s cries.
Bloodless lips, twisted in silence.
White napkins dark and crusty with dried blood.
Memories from the night they died.
Don’t hide in the cellar, lend us a hand, his sister says (bossy as ever).
Joe awakes with a start, head full of steely intent. Thoughts of kitchen utensils. He starts to climb out of bed but a hand restrains him. Not yet, a voice whispers.