Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Flasher

I have finally found my niche as a writer, my medium, my genre: flash fiction.

It would be easy to dismiss the current popularity of these short-short stories, often under 500 words, as an outgrowth of the twitterati's limited attention span. But in truth they are a refinement of the traditional art of the short story.

They are shorter to read, but not necessarily quicker to create. What they are is an exquisite test of the lapidary skills of the writer-as-editor, perfect for someone like me, whose two shortcomings as a writer are 1) a facility for creating vignette but the inability to move characters across a room, and 2) a preference for editing over actual writing. Like most people with literary ambitions, when I say I love to write I mean I love to have written. But I do, honestly, love the act of editing.

Flash fiction is an apt name (others are sudden fiction and microfiction) for works that often capture a single moment in time. I think of the big round flashbulbs of my childhood Brownie Hawkeye camera, the way their sudden explosion captured in stark outline a single frozen moment of my existence. Those photos lacked subtlety and shadows, the gray shading of real life. But because of that, they offered a naked truth that makes them still powerful decades later.

Here is how I work: I write my setup, often from an unfinished short story in my files, then rework and refine it, chipping away at that rough rock, waiting for a small diamond to emerge—and  waiting for the "flash" to strike me. What I'm looking for is not so much an "ending" as a moment of meaning.

My first try at flash fiction sank without a ripple (I blame a poorly-formatted entry in last year's "Portland Noir" contest), but my subsequent attempt garnered second place in a recent online contest (and $250 cash, which just about covered my monthly  Starbucks tab).

And I learned a valuable lesson, too, almost destroying a thirty-year friendship in a flash. We've all heard the advice to "Write what you know," but there is peril in taking that too literally. When that moment of stark illumination captures the hyper-reality of an imagined world, powerful drama can emerge. When you're looking at your own real world, be gentle. Just remember how awful we looked in those old Kodak snapshots. 

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