Meg Pokrass interviews Lynn Mundell about her work in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and about the art of writing microfiction.
MP: I find your way of telling of your story, “The Old Days,” fascinating. You capture the personality of a man’s destructive life and ripple-effects by weaving his own well-worn phrase (and way of looking at the world) throughout, blending repetition with very real moments of disastrous human behavior. It feels like a magic trick, like misdirection, how we’re watching this life play out between the lines, literally. Can you tell us anything about how this piece evolved?
LM: Thank you, Meg. It was story that began with the first line, “In the old days, there was no Human Resources.” I had been contemplating how things in the workplace and the world in general are so different from when my parents were coming up. For example, there aren’t many pension plans in the U.S. anymore, but my parents each retired young with a pension. Also, men and women had somewhat prescribed roles and behaviors, which are mercifully changing and constantly being re-evaluated.
In the instance of this story, which is unusual for me, the character was waiting very eagerly for me — an older man who is hanging on to old beliefs as the world around him changes. It seemed to be a story brewing for a while because it poured out pretty clearly, also unusual! Finally, I wanted to submit the story to Five Points‘ call for submissions for its first flash fiction issue, so I also had a big goal and a deadline. The word count was only 250. So, I knew I had to get in there and get out.
MP: Your last sentence is startling and revealing. Now we’re sure he’s telling his own story. I wasn’t sure until the end. His defeat, even though the reader knows that he’s a jerk, feels brutal but fitting. What a great ending this is! Is there anything you can enlighten on about how this ending came to you? Did you know how it would end when you began writing the story, or did it find itself in the process of writing?
LM: The first half of the story is somewhat comic. He is not a nice guy, but he is also sadly hapless. How much can we say is his fault and how much is the time he lived in colliding with a new, modern time? As the story turned to its conclusion, I wanted to up our sympathy for him but I wasn’t sure exactly where he would end up toward the end of his life and the story.
During some of my evening commutes from the office with my friend Alexandra, we are stuck in Berkeley traffic on Sacramento Street, where there was a senior assisted living facility called The Berkshire. Sitting in traffic we would talk about how we would meet up there as old ladies, what we would do each day, and which apartments would be ours. That place ended up as the home for the narrator in “The Old Days.” (The Berkshire finally closed and has re-opened as Silverado, which might not have inspired the same story ending.)
MP: Lovers of the form know how essential omission is in these pieces. How do you know what to include and what to leave out?
LM: That is a good question and a hard one. The closer I can stick to what I want the story to say — whether it be about aging, lost love, family dysfunction, what have you — the clearer it is for me in the writing the path I should follow and what should be noted on that path. I get into trouble if I have a really vague idea of the story’s thrust and just starting throwing all sorts of details and stuff into the piece, sort of like when my dad used to sometimes do the family grocery shopping and he would come home with bags and bags of items, some really fun — like Hostess fruits pies and jumbo boxes of Crayons — and some pretty pointless — such as way too much plastic wrap.
MP: Any tips for tackling revision? How much revision is necessary for you with your very short pieces?
LM: I write with pen in notebooks sitting up in bed, like a granny. I never compose on the computer. I have kept all of the notebooks, and there are dozens gathering dust under my bed. I can’t part with them, like they are piece of me. Sometimes I look back and will see one small story took a whole notebook or even two, with fits and starts, rewrites, fiddly pondering over an adverb. Somewhere within me I usually know when a story is done.
If I don’t listen to myself, I regret it. I have made myself slow down even more with my writing this year, really digging deep for a story and taking more time. I recently thought I finished a piece but woke up in the middle of the night realizing I had not taken it far enough. It felt right after I rewrote it. My mantra is, Don’t treat writing as some sort of race but as a contemplative walk.
MP: When writing microfiction, do you begin with an image? A few random words? A memory? How do you begin, and how did you being when you wrote “The Old Days”?
LM: While “The Old Days” was really one line that rattled around my head, stories come in different ways. It can be a memory that I want to explore, such as the time my parents tried to adopt a boy who kept running away or the time my mom took me to our sunporch to talk about sex ed and mid-way one of our kittens fell in the pool. Sometimes you need look no further than life itself, which can be pretty crazy.
Word prompts don’t work quite as well for me, for some reason, but photos and drawings do. I also will have a theme I am thinking about in “real life” that will be worked out in a story. It is weird when time has passed and I see that a story was a conflating of memory, big stuff I was going through, such as the death of a dear friend, concerning world issues, and very mundane stuff, like when the washing machine malfunctioned and tore up my favorite work pants.
MP: How do you get going when feeling uninspired? How do you attack the blank page?
LM: I will free-write some. If I feel stalled and that I am procrastinating, I will look for literary journal calls for submissions to see if that structure will bring about a story, as a story assignment might at my job. Sometimes that works but not always. I really would rather take half a year to write something I am really proud of than several weeks to write something forgettable. So, if I have nothing to write, that means I don’t need to write. I will do the two things that aid my writing, which are reading and swimming, and let myself regroup before I try again.
MP: Are there common traits that the best microfiction pieces, no matter how different, seem to share with one another?
LM: It sounds sort of woo-woo, but all of the great stuff out there — and microfiction and flash fiction really seem to be hitting a new high lately–shares a strong vision by the writer. It could be about a bear, Planet Earth, or our collective consciousness as humans, but there is not just description or just a character or just a place or just lovely language. There are all of those things working hard together to tell us something greater, either something we knew but forgot or something we didn’t realize but really needed to be told.
MP: What other art forms do you feel are most similar the writing of microfiction?
LM: I am going with … knitting! Yes, knitting is an art, if one is good at it. (If one is not, then it is a crime against humanity.) When knitting, you might get pretty far along with your sock before you realized you effed up and dropped a stitch. If you want your sock to look good, you are going to rip out the stitches and lose the hours you spent knitting perfectly well after you made that mistake in order to correct your error and ultimately make the sock you were born to knit. For me, writing is the same. If I take a wrong turn, I need to go back to that juncture to fix the story. Otherwise, I will have a sock, I mean, story, that has not lived up to its potential. A stupid, useless sock-story.
MP: A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?
LM: All of the hot young people rush to the novel’s side to buy it Manhattans. It gets sloppy drunk and starts making out with the poem, which is stone cold sober and many will say later was overly serious. The poem has been in love with the novel for years — a dangerous cocktail of envy, slavish devotion, and pure lust. After a session in the men’s room together, they exit, smoothing their clothes and hurrying back to their genre group houses, where they tell the story of their meet-up to their titillated roomies. Nine months later, a micro is born. It is small, red, and squalling, but it is also the best aspects of the poem and the novel, which becomes more clear each year as the micro matures. One day its parents will be proud of it, acknowledge it as their own, and call it by its name.
MP:What are you doing now? What is next?
LM: I have been using news stories as story prompts lately. It is a new sort of project of mine, I guess. Not big, ugly stories, like you see on the surface of American news in particular these days, but small, strange stories from around the globe. A news report that one of the wives from the TV show “Sister Wives” left the family inspired a summer story of mine, “Sister Wives at the County Fair,” which will be published by SmokeLong Quarterly in late September. More recently, a news story about the true Mona Lisa’s descendants coming forward prompted my story “Smile, Lisa,” recently published in Monkeybicycle. Since the news is great fodder, who knows what is next?!
Lynn Mundell is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and co-editor of its anthology, Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story, as well as a managing editor at a large health care organization. Her short-short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many U.S. and U.K. literary journals, including Tin House online, Booth, Superstition Review, Portland Review, Permafrost, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Sun, and Five Points, as well as in anthologies including New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2018). Lynn earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University and is an advisory board member of the U.C. Berkeley Extension Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing.