Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Why Literary Bondage Is Good For Your Writing

The first thing Ellen Orleans said about her flash piece in progress, “How to Write The Name of God”, was: “It’s 1170 words—too long for flash?” The answer is technically yes (though I’ve seen flash defined as long as 1200 or even 1500, as a general rule it’s 1000).

tied handsWriters new to flash often find the constraint arbitrary and infuriating: Why such a stickler on the wordcount? So what if it’s a few words over? But having worked in this form for so long, I can say with confidence that the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraints. Interesting things bulge against boundaries. From sonnets to writing prompts—even deadlines—many writers find they produce some of their best work when pushing against the wall of a constraint: you can only paint with the color green, you must finish a film in 48 hours, you have to write a story without using the letter E.  The famous Oulipo movement in Paris in the 1960s was made up of writers and mathematicians who suggested that using constraints created a new kind of writing.

Embracing the constraint is the true gift of flash fiction.

Working with flash will make you a very different—and I would say better—writer no matter what you write. You will cultivate a sharper eye to what is truly necessary in your work. So if you find yourself battling against the constraint, trying to make your story fit into flash fiction…relax. You’re going about it all wrong. Because once you “see” your story through the lens of the constraint, it ceases to become a battle and instead becomes about “freeing” the flash story from the longer work.  As Michelangelo said about his sculpture David, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.”

So Ellen, let’s look at your story, “How to Write the Name of God” and make it fit the constraint.

First of all, I love this story. I love the sweetness of the character, how well I’m able to relate to her struggle, and how as children we all try so hard to make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense. A child’s struggle is always a glimpse into ourselves, and I love your character’s honesty and transparency. Her dilemma is so pure.

There are two ways of shrinking a story: chipping or chopping. The trick to writing flash fiction is learning to chop rather than chip, looking at the story in sections rather than trying nitpick. When we are picking at the story, checking the word count every 10 seconds to see “if it’s under 1000” yet (yes, we are all guilty), the final result feels moth eaten and thin.

When chopping, it’s important to pay less attention to what is being eliminated and more on what is going to be left. You are trying to figure out how to remove the excess so that what is left becomes more prominent. My instinct on your story is to take a healthy swipe at the beginning, landing us inside the classroom as soon as possible. Imagine your story begins like this:

How to Write the Name of God

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you write it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God.

With this chop you would now drop us right into your story and also tie your title to your first sentence (I also changed “spell” to “write”). You would suck us into the narrative and cut 241 words—enough to land you in flash territory in one swipe.

To clarify: does this mean I don’t like your current opening with all the names? Actually, I do, and I think you should put some of that into the story later, as the character is trying to figure out what to put into the box. And frankly if your story were only 500 words, you might just leave it.

But again the beauty of constraints is that they force us to look at our work with a more discerning and sometimes brutal eye—and for most of us that is actually a good thing. And something mysterious happens when we kill our darlings: Like a faint pencil mark that can’t be completely erased, those phantom darlings are still there, still delivering their messages in the spaces we’ve cleared away.

Thanks, Ellen, and Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

(Feel free to join in on this or any other conversation, and if you have a flash piece in progress please find me on Facebook or message me at

How to Write the Name of God

By Ellen Orleans

God, we learn, has many names, including ElohimHa Shem, and Adonai.  Elohim means Mighty Ones, which is no surprise except that it’s plural.  (The Rabbi says this multiplies God’s power.)  Adonai doesn’t have even an English translation. It just means God, my  Hebrew School teacher says, tired of my questions. Ha Shem means The Name which is confusing but also kind of cool. His name is The Name. There’s also El Olam: “the world,” “the universe” or even infinity or eternity. “Very trippy,” as my sister would say.

Another name is El Echad which means The One. “One with a hundred names,” I think, “How ironic.” I am eleven and nothing is more clever than irony.

In English, God’s names are Almighty, Master, Highest,  Father, Lord, Ruler, and King. Also, Most Powerful One. If God is so great, I think, why is he so insecure?

Years later, in a congregation led by a female rabbi, infused with liberals and sprinkled with queers like me, I will  hear new names for God:Creator, Spirit, Beloved, Shekhina. But by then it will be too late—the white-haired, scowling judge man will be seared into my imagination.

Anyway CreatorSpirit, and Beloved are years off. Now it’s 1971 and the biggest question here in fifth grade is not who is God, what is God, or even “Can God create a rock so big that even he cannot push it?” but “How Do Spell God?”

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you spell it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God. Because if you write down God, then that piece of paper, like all the prayer books with God printed out—all its letters, no dash, no asterisk, no missing “o”—that paper cannot not be thrown away.  It is sacred.

Which is exactly the point when Baruch Benson, who’s Bobby Benson in real life at Burnet Hill Elementary school where he sits two rows behind me making armpit noises, whose Hebrew name means Blessed One even though that’s the last thing Bobby is, when Baruch Benson in the final minutes of Monday afternoon Hebrew School, writes GOD, all caps, all three letters, on a piece of notebook paper and shoves it into Kenny Graulich’s back pocket.

“Have to keep it forever,” he sing-songs as the bell clatters, our high-pitched punishment before freedom.

In the hall, Kenny yells “Glenn! You’re it!” and slaps the God-paper into Glenn’s hand, where it stays until Glenn passes it to Shimon, who’s always off in dreamland anyway until Cheryl, thinking it’s something else, grabs it, giggles, and pushes it off onto Debbie. By now we’re in the parking lot, waiting for, looking for, our carpools home.  Before running into the sea of parents, station wagons and sedans, Debbie passes the damp folded-unfolded-refolded note to Lynn Becker, who rolls her eyes and gives it to Nurit, who’s new and from Israel and doesn’t get the game. That’s when I take it because, unlike Lynn, Debbie, Cheryl, Glenn and Kenny, I know want to do with the name of God.

You bury the name of God.

If I had liked Glenn or if he’d written God’s name in fancy calligraphy, I might have kept it, at least for a while. But GOD was just three awkward letters, smudged pencil on creased paper.

Still, it was God.

That night, in the back of my dresser, I found the white box that had held the velvet case that had held the gold Chai my grandmother gave me when she returned from Israel two years ago. The box, I decided, was good enough for God.  I covered the bottom with Kleenex, neatly refolded the paper and put it inside. Tomorrow, I’d bury it in the back yard. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust. It was a good plan.

I turned off my bedside reading light.

It was a good plan…except.

Would God get lonely there in the dirt?  I thought of the box, the tissue, The Name, underground for years and years, long after I grew up and moved away. And after that.  And after that. Eternity for Eternity. All Alone for The One.

What could keep God company? What was mighty enough for The Mighty One, what could befriend The Universe? More to the point, what would fit in the box?

In bed, in the darkness, I considered the tiniest occupants of my room. The glass cat with the chipped glass ear. The dollhouse tea kettle. The miniature ceramic mouse, looking up, about to pounce. My Grandma Moses postage stamp, cancelled. My Apollo 8 postage stamp, uncancelled. Nothing seemed like the right match or maybe I didn’t want to give any of them up. Not even for God.

For the next three days, I scrutinized the world for the perfect thing to put in the box with God.  A flower petal would shrivel up. An inch worm would die. Pine needles? Too much like a Christmas tree. A yarmulke wouldn’t fit and a loose thread from a Temple tallis, well, there weren’t any loose threads. I tugged at one and nothing came off. I could spill a drop wine on it, like my father spilled wine in the Passover Seder, a tradition from his father and grandfather, but that seemed more like a stain than a friend.

Half a Hanukkah candle? A clove from the spice box? Crumbs from last week’s challah? (Crumbs next to God? Definitely ironic.)

Ashes? Dust?

Walking home on Friday, thinking of God’s names, I remembered Elochim. Mighty Ones. Plural.

God needs God.

At home, on my best stationary with my best pen in my best handwriting I wrote

God   God   God

God   God   God

God   God    God

and folded it into fourths. I lay my Gods on top of Baruch’s God and taped the box shut.

As I walked behind our house—gardening trowel in one hand, the box in the other—I could smell our Friday night chicken baking.  We would be lighting the Sabbath candles soon. I hurried past the swing set to the garden bed where early violets and lilies-of-the-valley shared the soil with mossy rocks. The soil was damp and easy.

There are Hebrew blessings to recite when you hear thunder, feel an earthquake, or see lighting or a comet or a rainbow.  There’s a Hebrew blessing for when you see the ocean or lofty mountains or exceptionally beautiful people. There’s even a blessing for strange-looking animals.

But what do you say when you bury God’s name between violets and lilies? When you cover God with a blanket of dirt?

What you say, I realized, is Psalm 91, the Bedtime Prayer. Or at least, what you can remember of it.  I knelt in the garden bed, wet earth seeping into the knees of my jeans.

With my wing, I cover you.

Under my wings take refuge.

For you yearn for me, I shall rescue you.

Fortify you, because you know my name.


A former columnist and essayist, Ellen Orleans is the author of five books of queer humor, including the Lambda Literary Award winner The Butches of Madison County. She co-edited Boulder Voices, an anthology published in response to Colorado’s Amendment 2, an anti-gay referendum later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Her story “Outreach” won the 2007 Gertrude Press Chapbook Competition for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in the anthologies Primal Picnics, Milk and Honey, The Incredible Shrinking Story and, forthcoming, A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park. Excerpts of her book, Inside, the World is Orange have been published in The Denver Quarterly; Palimpsest; wigleaf; and Eccolingistics and performed as part of a Stories on Stage/Buntport Theater production.  Other work has appeared in Trickhouse, Blithe House Quarterly, The Washington Post, Rain Taxi, and the Lambda Book Review.  The former curator of  Boulder’s Yellow Pine Reading Series, Ellen now leads story hours for toddlers and builds cigar box art in her garage in north Boulder.