Meg Pokrass asks Sarah Freligh to discuss her stories “We Smoke” and “Another Thing” forthcoming in NEW MICRO — EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and to talk about the craft of writing microfiction.
MP: “We Smoke” is one of my personal favorites in New Micro. It’s darkly funny, rebellious, sad and complex. It begs for rereading. Every word feels essential. It’s poignant and it sizzles. You have hinted to me about its “checkered past” (which sounds perfect, considering the nature of this story!) Please tell us the story about writing this story!
SF: Thanks so much, Meg! Such a high compliment considering the number of fine stories and authors comprising this book. . . .
“We Smoke” began its life as a poem. Like most poems I wrote between 2010 and maybe 2015, it began its life in a spiral notebook I carried everywhere in my purse in hopes of maybe wedging in a little writing time during a crazy busy day. It was a terrible poem on first draft and stayed a terrible poem, refusing to lineate in surprising ways or yield up intriguing language. When I finally released it from its lines, I realized how controlling I’d been; that is, as a piece of flash fiction, I could finally see the poetry in it and how the repetend of “We smoke” might build the narrative arc for the story. I realized at some point that the repeated phrase “We smoke” not only presents the scenarios in which the protagonists smoke—a movement through time and place, as it were—but also the tonal shadings that form a pattern of change for the narrators: from defiant to humorous and ultimate (I hope) poignant as the reader understands more about why “we smoke” than the narrator can articulate.
Once it had been spanked into prose form, I sent it out on a whim to Sycamore Review’s Flashcard contest in 2015 and was extremely surprised and pleased when it won. A good thing, too, as the $100 honorarium helped to pay for my rebooked flight to AWP in Minneapolis after I came down with the flu.
MP: “Another Thing” is so beautiful, fiction written like a poem. The images cling to my brain. My favorite line: “When they turned, I could see her hand on his back, her nails like red holes in the white of his shirt.” I see this like a painting as I’m reading it. Is there anything you’d like to share with us about the writing of this story?
SF: I’d been writing a linked collection of short stories since 1987 that followed a married couple in Michigan, Vince and Marie, from mid- to late twentieth century. “Another Thing” was written a long time after the other stories and is tonally much different from them; it’s a much darker moment in the couple’s marriage and suggests what they might become as the marriage wears on. Ultimately the story didn’t end up in the collection, so I was very happy when Scotty wrote to say that it had found a home in this anthology.
MP: How do memories and images from childhood inform our voices as adult writers? Please describe how you draw on memories from childhood in fiction.
SF: The older I get – and that seems to be accelerating rapidly – the farther I get from my : memories, which is a good thing. “Real life” doesn’t bend enough for fiction. Image memory, however, is a very good thing. I think of those eight balls we used carry around and ask questions of—“Will he ask me to the dance?”—and the answer would wiggle its way to the surface and present itself in this ghostly white writing: “It will never happen.” Image memory is like that, the way something will break free and rise to the surface—sometimes when I’m writing, more often when I’m in motion, swimming or walking. The lipstick glasses are an image memory I think I carried around with me for a while before they found a home in “Another Thing.” Once they did, they assumed a significance beyond just the visual image/’50s memory.
MP: How do you begin? Do you set out to write a story with a strong feeling about it, or is it something that finds itself while writing?
SF: I used to start with intent, that is, with a firm idea for where things might end up, but writing poetry helped me trust the line-by-line process. Nowadays when I write a micro, I’m more likely to be led by sound and image. I love to revise, too, so much of the story will take shape on revision.
MP: Is there freedom in writing pieces of this length?
Freedom in the sense of accomplishment, yes. You can write from beginning to end in a fifteen-minute freewrite, and when I was teaching full-time, that’s often all the time I could carve out of a day, fifteen minutes.
SF: The world seems to be falling in love with the short form these days, though it’s been around for a long while. Why do readers love flash fiction and microfiction? What are their uniquely addictive qualities (aside from being very short)?
Flash combines the narrative impulse of fiction, an if/then causality, with the sonic punch of poetry. Also, there’s an aspect of mystery to flash, and often it’s what’s left unsaid that will linger and haunt. I’m thinking in particular of Jon McGregor’s story “That Color” in Flash International, co-edited by James Thomas. What appears to be a simple moment at home between an archetypal, long married “he” and “she” isn’t. That story just undoes me and still does, even after the fiftieth reading.
MP:What is the best writing advice you ever received? What is the worst?
SF: Best advice: Don’t get into too many habits.
Worst advice: Never __________ (fill in the blank). I hate being told I’m forbidden to do something.
MP:When writing microfiction, do you begin the way you would when writing a longer short story, or a poem, or a novel? What is different? What is the same?
SF: I try to catch hold of the tail of something—an image, a sense of place, a character— which is pretty much how I’ve always written/begun to write. Then I start flailing around and if I do that long enough, I eventually find the light switch.
MP: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
SF: I’m revising a novel. Please send prayers.
Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Her fiction and poetry work have appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, SmokeLong Quarterly, and in the forthcoming anthology New Microfiction: Exceptionally Short Stories (W.W. Norton, 2018). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.