Flash Fiction Exercise: An Appropriated Form, the List

Through exercise, through activity, direct the writer’s eye and mind: the entire world as structure. Not Freytag, not three act, not two realist characters, enter apartment, enter argument, rising action, sneeze, slap, fuck. Ah, cigarette, ah, dénouement…We don’t need to rely on a narrative as old as Socrates. Look around. Appropriate. Observe. Take. Seize! What am I saying?

Ask your students to look at the ceiling. It has tiles and fluorescent lights (they may buzz like a frayed hornet or may bathe the room in pools of melting butter, but that’s another exercise completely…). It has objects and spacing. Guess what? The ceiling to your classroom is a segmented flash fiction form. Like narrative, it has intent. Let your students note that the architect “wrote” the ceiling. If those fluorescent lights, if those tiles, if the spacing of your classroom ceiling does not have symmetry, patterned self-similarity, and harmonious balance I will put down this pen (what pen?) and eat my hat and come over tomorrow afternoon to paint your house. I’m that confident the ceiling is not random.

Students: Why doesn’t Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger—a man who was the youngest ever Mr. Olympia at the age of 23 (a record he still holds to this day)—exclusively exercise and work out one side of his body? One arm, one leg, etc. I mean why not? It would save a lot of time (and the man does stay busy). I’ll tell you why not: the human being believes symmetry and balance are beautiful. Structure is everywhere. Students, listen to me: look around.

Example, the list.

Students, have you ever made a list? Read one? Give us examples. (Teacher, as this in-class exercise progresses, you’ll note the student is already intimately familiar with your narrative form. Welcome to yet another advantage of opening the world as structure.) Grocery, mix tape, to-do, top-ten, Christmas…lists. With appropriation, forms will often equal function. As humans, we do indeed list.
Here’s one1, by word-gnasher Blake Butler, a man who believes words are meat (and he’s right).

Scroll down to “Death Toll.” One of the many advantages of flash fiction pedagogy should be obvious: the students quickly read the text in class.

Wow, what a random list. Stream of consciousness, yo!

Wrong, but nice job slipping in a literary term.

No more random than the Sidney Opera House or The Gates of Hell by Rodin or, well, the ceiling of your classroom. Butler’s list is an artifice. It is supposed to look like blue musings, kinetic web surfing, the hob-nob electric of our present cluttered lives. It is not. (In fact, it is even contained within the Oulipo of “50” [Butler even has 50 of these 50 out in the literary megaverse {go find them!}—welcome to the world of Blake Butler.])

Butler’s “Death Toll” list has a few defined modes (students, please locate and discuss them…). These wires coil about one another. Like notes, they return. Subjects juxtapose, certain web sites, certain first person observations (controlled: musings that satellite around their sun), on and on, but not on and on and on and on…three to four central motifs, patterns, threads of containment for significance. Nested. Woven. (I am radically mixing metaphors here; forgive me, my mind is oft awry.)

Hey! Here’s a list by Kathleen Rooney and Elisa Gabbert.

They write together as collaborative artists (future assignment for your class! Okay, Okay, sorry, let’s get focused…).
Random notes again, huh?

  1. Um, no. Just like with Blake Butler, have your students needle out the pattern. Eventually, they will go all:
    They are all reflections on a particular subject. They muse, they examine, they investigate a topic: weirdness, monstrousness (see below), etc. Looks like you’ll need a subject.
  2. They have a personal “I” with thoughts and opinions: “Thinking weirdly helps me fall asleep.” Looks like you’ll need an opinion, but isn’t that part of growing up?
  3. They have factoids. Looks like you’ll need a bit of research: “The lab notebooks used by Marie Curie are so radioactive that only now have scholars begun to read them.”
  4. They use quotations from others: “Hogarth said…” Go find some quotations!
  5. They give bits of advice: “Don’t start thinking about how smells smell to anyone else.”
  6. They are all short. Less than 500 words. We like that. (“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book–what everyone else does not say in a whole book.” Nietzsche)

Read this list: “Four Hard Facts About Water” by Damian Dressick.

(Note how absolutely NOT arbitrary this list of four.)

Read this list: “25 Presumptive Descriptions Of People In This Café” by Jimmy Chen.

(Students, do you know Jimmy Chen? Well, you should. Now you do.) Read another by Kathleen Rooney and Elisa Gabbert.5
Now go ahead and write one.

“But teacher I am ripping off Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney…oh noooooooooooo.”

“Dear student, Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney ripped off Susan Sontag (Notes on “Camp”) and George Orwell (Some Notes on London Slang and Swearing). Grow up, people. Ripping structure off from others, from the world entire? Let me fill you in on the artist’s life: We steal shit and it’s not even stealing (a whole other discussion entirely). Now move along.”

Also include a “process paper.” (You should probably do this with more of your assignments, just as a rule.) Have these writers explain their process, the scaffolding, the artifice. Readers don’t want to see the wiring, get it? They want to enter the fictional dream. We students of creative writing don’t have time for dreaming right now. We must sweat and toil! (What exactly is elbow grease? Nasty.) As teachers, we want to see that the students do see the wires. Creative writing is a difficult and complex underdoing (and therefore satisfying). It is a craft. So process paper, yes?

Yes. Proceed.

Sean Lovelace lives in Indiana, where he directs the creative writing program at Ball State University. His latest collection is about Velveeta and published by Bateau Press. He blogs at seanlovelace.com. He likes to run, far.