Built For Speed: How Flash Fiction Stole My Heart

From Huffington Post:


When I read Augusto Monterroso’s very, very, very short story, I was hooked. It consists of a single line: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”

All day the possibilities of those nine words glowed for me like uranium, canceling even the possibility of normal discourse. How had a man crawled into bed and slept while a dinosaur lounged or prowled in his bedroom? Or was it his bedroom? It had to be a pretty big space, so in that case…

I began to read flash fiction because poems I’d been working on were not cooperating. Monterroso, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, Jorge Luis Borges, Ron Carlson made me think about my work in another way. Revising recalcitrant poems was like a lugging a Great Dane into the vet for his shots. But when some of those irresolute poems morphed into Flash Fiction, it was a sunny day in the dog park with my slender whippet.

Even the various names for the genre delighted me — flash fiction, micro fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction. And my favorite from China: smoke-long stories, finished in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.

Flash fiction stories are finished. Sometimes so compact and allusive they are koan-like; nevertheless they often use protagonist, conflict, obstacle, and resolution like most imaginative work. Yet these standard elements of fiction are not front and center. Flash fiction doesn’t have to end with a bang when a whisper, insistent and ambiguous, will do.

Here’s a sentence plucked from the middle of a F. Daniel Rzicznek piece published in Issue 3 of elsewhere: “Your chest rises like fog, and you have only the yellow light of stairwells to see you on your way.” I can’t resist a writer making language do unexpected things. I can see the entire story as I read. When I get to the bottom, I go back and start again.

Bruce Holland Rogers is a master of flash fiction. Suzanne Vincent of Flash Fiction Online says, “Bruce has taken, analyzed, and made the form into art.” Here is how he opens “Estranged”: “After the divorce, my wife said she didn’t know who or what she wanted to be. When I heard that she had become a toaster, I felt vindicated.” A deceptively generic first sentence and then — Wham. I wanted to read on to see if she burns things. Who wouldn’t?

I’ve turned into a bit of an evangelist for quick fiction and for its truths which are — as Nadine Gordimer said about short stories — momentary, discrete, and fleeting. But flash fiction doesn’t really need me. It’s alive and well at places like Smokelong Quarterly, Blue Lake Review and Cleaver. And the classic short story certainly does not need me, not with people like Lorrie Moore and Aimee Bender hard at work. But I remember college and grad school — those sometimes suffocating terrariums — where short pieces were rarely valuable as themselves but just as rungs that would lead up to — wait for it — The Novel.

I don’t want my stories to lead anyplace except straight to the reader’s heart or funny bone or both. I like the way very, very short stories hurtle toward the conclusion with deceptive velocity.

Flash fiction doesn’t mind giving pleasure. It has a palpable level of affection for its readers that I sometimes find lacking in a lot of so-called serious work. If the latter promises a better understanding of our own civilization, flash fiction modestly says, “Let’s be edified in the usual way later. Give me a few minutes of your time. You won’t be sorry.”

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