In the Classroom

  • Train Dreams: A Novella
    Train Dreams: A Novella
    by Denis Johnson
  • Bluets
    by Maggie Nelson
  • We the Animals: A novel
    We the Animals: A novel
    by Justin Torres

from the syllabus:

This class is going to be an experiment for me.

As something like a foundation: We are going to be reading and writing very short stories. These very short stories are also sometimes called flash fictions, short short stories, palm-of-the-hand stories, miniature narratives, etc.

It’s somewhat arbitrary, but I’m setting a limit of 750 words on the stories you write.

That’s the main thing that I want you to bear in mind this term.

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Another thing: About flash fictions, Richard Bausch has this to say: "When a story is compressed so much, the matter of it tends to require more size: that is, in order to make it work in so small a space its true subject must be proportionately larger."

I want us to begin our discussion of flash fictions this term with Bausch’s statement in mind. I want you to ask: Are these stories we’re reading and writing “large” in the way Bausch says they should be?

If the story is “large,” then I want you to consider how the fiction is shaped around that large thing. If the story isn’t large, then: Might the story work anyway? Might its “smallness” be significant in some way?

*     *     *

Another thing: I was talking to Robin Metz recently, and he quoted a scholar who visited Knox at some point in the past. This visiting scholar was an economist, I believe, but I might be wrong. He was giving a talk somewhere—we’ll say it was in the Round Room—and one of the things he said during this talk was that every idea could be expressed as either a narrative or a lyric.

I need to get the name of this guy from Robin, because I really like this idea, which I’m paraphrasing here, a lot.

For our purposes: I’m wondering about the role of both the narrative and the lyric in flash fictions. I’m also wondering about the role of these two things in the prose poem.

So, a few more questions that I want you to be asking yourselves as the term progresses: When we’re reading prose poems: What role does narrative play in the lyric? For flash fictions: What role does the lyric play in the narrative? (I’m making a couple obvious presuppositions here; I intend for them to be considered as a starting point—the lyric might be important to the prose poem, and narrative might be important to fiction—for our discussions, not necessarily as rules of thumb or anything).

And: What, really, is the difference between prose poems and flash fictions?

One thing I’ve noticed: A lot of prose poems are written in “blocks”—without paragraphs, and thus white space. Am I making a gross generalization here? Maybe. If I’m not: Why is this the case? Consider, in general: The role of white space in these stories. And the lack of white space in stories/poems composed of just a single block of text. Consider, too, how stories/poems that are composed of several blocks of texts (i.e. of un-indented paragraphs) are working.

These aren’t the only things I want you thinking about this term, of course. They are merely the kinds of things I want you thinking about.

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I maybe should have prefaced some of the above with this, but since I didn’t…What is fiction doing, in general? How does it work? What “parts” do you expect a fiction to contain?

After you come up with some answers for the above: Do you expect flash fictions to contain the same “parts” as “regular” fictions? Do you expect them to work in the same way?

When I first began reading and writing flash fictions, I expected/wanted them to be wholly contained. I wanted them to offer a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending. I wanted something like a crisis and a resolution.

I noticed, too, back then that a lot of magazines would have contests for flash fictions or short short stories, and that they would implore writers to tell a “complete” story in only 500 words, or in only 1200 words, etc.

The more I read in this particular genre, though, the more I’ve come to appreciate stories that lack the “completeness” that I used to look for. The more I’ve come to appreciate how this form doesn’t necessarily need to rely on any other form in order to create meaning.

*     *     *

That said: I was talking a couple years ago to the writer Peter Orner, who writes a lot of “brief” stories, and I asked him what he thought about some magazines’ prejudice against flashes and/or short shorts. (What I mean here: Some magazines have in their guidelines something like, “If you’re going to submit something to us that is under 2000 words, it better be really good…” I think this sentiment is a little idiotic, and so I asked Peter what he thought.) He said—and again, I’m paraphrasing here: “I just call them all stories. I don’t put any other label on them. And if you can tell your story in only 700 words, then maybe you’re just that good.”

Lately, some writers of flash fictions have expressed similar sentiments. They’ve suggested that we do away entirely with labels like “flash” or “short short” and just call the things fictions, or texts.

For the record: I am often in agreement with these people.

--Chad Simpson, Knox College, Spring 2010