FLASH FICTION: The Semester Goes By in a Flash

There are twelve students in each flash fiction workshop I teach at Emerson College in Boston. What is very different about this class in contrast to my regular fiction workshops is that every student writes one to two stories a week, and we read all of the week’s stories in a four-hour class that meets in the evening. So everyone has a story workshopped every class. (Almost every summer, I teach such a course at a writers’ conference. There, students write a story a day. Yes, it can be done.)

In my semester-long workshops, stories are passed out the week before they are discussed. My method to keep everyone involved is to ask the person to the writer’s left or right to lead the discussion. That way we hear everyone’s voice in addition to a reading of everyone’s story. We talk about everything that has to do with the art of fiction, especially with language. I like students to aspire to density, to a textured story. Sometimes due to reading aloud it is clear to the ear that the last sentence needs three or four more syllables. Every word—every syllable—does count.

I believe in exercises—especially for flash fiction. My exercises are designed to create stories that range from a few sentences to two or three pages, and they are never condensed longer stories. Here is what I do to show my students the value of exercises: The first assignment in my workshop is to write two 250-word stories. For the first story, students can write anything, but the second story must be one sentence long using only one semicolon. When they bring in their two stories, most students admit that it was much easier to write the one-sentence story. Rules actually convey freedom. From that point on, they are ready to follow my guidelines or restrictions.

Often, I will use a story as an example of the exercise. When I discuss an exercise that involves “borrowing characters,” I pass out Kafka’s “The Truth about Sancho Panza.” Writers have long been learning from and borrowing from the work of other writers. Fitzgerald and Hemingway used the word “trick” when writing to each other about something they learned from a novel by Joseph Conrad. Fakes, by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, is full of ideas for exercises: the subtitle, An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts reminds me of flash writer Sean Lovelace’s “appropriations.”

Subject exercises are also great favorites. For example, my favorite subject exercise is to write a road trip story, and I use as an example Linda Brewer’s “20/20” from Jerome Stern’s anthology, Microfiction, and Elizabeth Tallent’s “No One’s a Mystery” that I reprinted in my textbook What If?. These example stories must have at least two characters, a departure place and destination, dialogue and, of course, tension.

Another exercise for the class might be to write a “How To” story: a piece about a character acting in a startling way or learning how to do something new. Stace Budzko’s, “How to Set a House on Fire,” was made into a tiny movie that is posted on YouTube. Lee Harrington’s “How to Become a Country-Western Singer” uses the perfect detail of a floor annoyingly filled with extension cords and amps. Another subject exercise is to begin a story with the sentence “The neighbors are at it again.” The important word is “again” and the story is really about why the narrator is annoyed or saddened by what the neighbors are up to—again.

Length restrictions always yield great results. I tell students, write a 53-word story. Or a 100-word story. As an example of the 100-word story, I use Courtney Watson’s stunning story, “Hard Time,” that was published by Grant Faulkner in 100wordstory.org. The title, “Hard Time,” and the first sentence, “Joe ordered his first kit from a hobby magazine sent to his cellmate,” completely set up the subject of the piece.

Restricting the narrative’s form is another way to develop flash stories. One form is the list. Students write a list that must have a narrative thread. An excellent example of a list story is Gregory Burnham’s “Subtotals” in the anthology Flash Fiction—72 Very Short Stories. Another example is “Love and Other Catastrophes; A Mixed Tape” by Amanda Holzer that begins with Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself” and goes through the arc of a romance and marriage with song titles such as “Looking for Love” (Lou Reed), “Let’s Kiss” (Beat Happening), ”I Wanna be Your Boyfriend” (The Ramones), “Love and Marriage” (Frank Sinatra), then moves through disappointment and betrayal “Your Cheating’ Heart (Tammy Wynette), and finally ends where it began with “All by Myself” by Eric Carmen. This story was reprinted in Dave Eggers’s The Best American Unrequired Reading. Antonia Clark, another student, wrote “Excuses I Have Already Used.” Her story ends in a headlong rush with “I’m flat out. Life is too short. It’s too late to go back.”

Another exercise that restricts form asks students to write a story that is made up of all questions, questions that reveal the lives of the characters involved and also tell a story. An excellent example is Bruce Holland Rogers’ chilling piece, “How Could a Mother.” Another form exercise is master flash writer Ron Carlson’s ABC exercise “Solving for X.” Each story is 26-sentences long. The first sentence begins with A, the second sentence with B. (You can see where this is going.) Writers can only have one sentence fragment, and one sentence must be exactly “100-words long and grammatically sound.” I vary these exercises of length, subject matter and form throughout the semester.

The class has other requirements beyond writing. Students must read a lot of flash fiction on their own—in our assigned texts or in print and online journals. They are to look for a story that they particularly like, and then use it as the basis for creating an exercise for their fellow students. One student used Francine Prose’s “Pumpkins,” published in the first Flash Fiction anthology, as an exercise in writing a “linked story.” Another student, after she graduated, sent me a restaurant review that was done in a contrapuntal way: he said/she said. She wrote that she thought this would make a good exercise. And since that time, my students and I have written and published several such stories.

Another requirement of the course is working on an artist’s book of five nano-stories. These tiny works can be connected or not. Students then put them together in an artist’s book. “Book” is not literal, so one student put her nano-stories into tiny bottles. Another student, who is an Iraqi veteran, put his into an old Army and Navy publication “A Short Guide to Iraq” published by the War Department. Another student used a child’s repurposed board book. The possibilities are endless.

The class also publishes an anthology in which every student includes at least six stories that they have revised. Students let me know when their work has been published, and we note this in our anthologies. Twice, former Emerson MFA students have won The World’s Best Short Short Story Contest started by Jerome Stern. The first was Brian Hinshaw for “The Custodian” and, most recently, Kat Gonso for “A Pinch of Salt.”
For the final assignment each student puts together his or her own collection, complete with Title, Table of Contents, Flap Copy, six or more stories, a biographical note and, finally, blurbs—from friends or made up blurbs by well-known writers. The last class ends up at a neighborhood bar where we pass around the collections, then everyone reads a story, and we laugh over their flap copy and blurbs and, finally, toast the large number of stories they now have to submit for publication. I hope you can tell how much I love teaching this class.

Pamela Painter’s flash collection is WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO KNOW. She is also co-author of the textbook What If? Her work appears in numerous flash anthologies, such as Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction, Micro- fiction, Flash Fiction Funny, The Smokelong Anthology, and Stripped, among others. She lives in Boston and teaches at Emerson College.