Featuring Meg Pokrass, Shane Larkin, Donna Obeid, Dan Crawley, Mary Thompson, and Fiona McKay
In this installment of State of the Art, New Flash Fiction Review editors and recent contributors—those winning and commended in this year’s contest—share insights on their writing lives and processes.
Meg Pokrass, NFFR founding editor, writes about “getting back to the self.” Shane Larkin (“Bog Iron”) talks about experimentation with flash, gives revision tips, and sheds light on how he wrote his contest winning piece. Donna Obeid (“The Storyteller of Aleppo”) focuses on the importance of images and syllables. We also include and highlight some of NFFR editor Dan Crawley’s reflections on teaching and the importance of voice from a recent interview. Mary Thompson, NFFR contributing editor, sings the praises of asynchronous online writing experiences. Fiona McKay writes about finding the meaning in a work and the evolution of her piece in this summer’s flash contest.
It is ironic how writer’s block happens mostly to those of us who are both hard on ourselves and who write through necessity. Getting rejections can add to the problem of writer’s block, and yet, ironically, it is our very ability to withstand rejection that makes us solid and strong.
I did have a long, hard dose of it a long while ago that I’d like to share. A nearly 5-year-long silence that felt like an evil spell occurred after an experience where an editor whose work I admired looked over some of my poems and told me they lacked ‘substance.’ Remember, I was new at this and youngish. This was probably the worst thing that a writer could say to another writer, and the effect was devastating.
Since then, unsurprisingly, I have heard that this particular author/editor specializes in slamming the work of female writers yet is quite nurturing toward male students. With anything personally meaningful, we take a risk when showing our work to another, asking for guidance.
A few years later, luckily, I was rescued by a generous and loving mentor who reminded me what was good about my work and gave me permission to let it blossom.
Perhaps this is why I feel it a personal mission to devote my energy as a teacher and mentor to pinpointing what exactly makes a writer’s work unique. Pointing out what works in a writer’s vulnerable writing is how we help them to grow.
Here’s a secret for when one is feeling blocked. Start with an older piece of writing that never felt ‘finished’ or complete. Something you gave up on. Now, write a baby or ‘offshoot’ of that original piece, using many of the same words as an interesting ‘constraint’ technique. Loosely connect the new story to the older piece. See if you can intuitively connect-up the new story to the original, or touch on it in some way. Use at least 12 of the words in your older piece. That way, you’re not starting with nothing, and in a way, you’re having a conversation with yourself.
Another good idea for bursting through the block is to work with someone else’s photograph, painting, or piece of music. Look at that photo or painting for a moment, or if it’s music, listening to it on repeat while writing.
The main strategy I use for writing any first draft is to find a time when I can write wantonly, freely, wildly. Keeping in mind that every first draft, no matter how odd or unreasonable, is perfect. Setting a timer helps. I usually suggest 10 minutes, but you can set the timer for 3- or 5-minute writing intervals.
After that, I suggest putting that fresh work away to ‘settle.’ Later, come back to it fearlessly, wearing an editor’s hat. This distance isn’t always necessary (sometimes one can edit a freewrite that day or the next), but when in doubt, I put a good amount of distance between and return to it in a no-nonsense frame of mind. It’s almost like I have to be two different people, one a wild and creative writer, the other a no-nonsense editor.
Finding momentum inspired by other art forms (painting, music, etc) feels like flying. Drafting on the feeling and emotion of an existing piece of work is a gift, and there is every reason to do it when feeling a bit less inspired. It often breaks the spell of silence.
Leap off from an existing creation (not yours) and see where it takes you! This is a kind of passive collaboration in which we can always benefit. Write freely to whatever emotions and personal themes a random work of art or music evokes is a mysterious experience. Sometimes this way of writing (especially to music) can be harder for me, as it tends to become emotional, which usually means good writing. It’s always useful for getting back to the self.
Shane Larkin On Revision, Lessons for New Writers, and Writing “Bog Iron”
Do you have go-to strategies for starting new pieces or doing deep revisions?
I try to avoid facing a truly blank page if I can help it, so I’m usually pulling from my notebook scribbles when I start something new. It might just be a sentence or two, an ending, a title. Or an image, a certain mood, a character, a space, a nagging memory. Just fragments of things, usually. Often, it’s an abandoned tangent from a different story. So it usually exists in my head or on a page in some unfinished form already, and then the actual writing is a process of clearing the smoke to reveal the rest of it.
When I’m editing a story, there might be a few immovable things, the things that compelled me in the first place, but I’ll happily mess with everything else. Arriving late and leaving early is usually good, and there are any number of different points on a story’s timeline where this can be done, so why not move things around a bit just to see what happens? Even if my first instincts end up making the most sense, this can be a useful way to clarify that.
Most importantly, after a certain point, I have to leave the draft aside for a few days, maybe more, put it away, and put a bit of distance between myself and it. Then I come back to it, see if there was really something there or was it something illusory and actually a bit shit (this happens a fair amount).
What are some lessons you’ve learned (about this) that you’d like to pass on to new or aspiring writers?
As much as I rely on the notebook scribbles, I realize that can be a bit of a trap. I’ll get fixated on the same handful of ideas swirling around in a frustrating limbo state of constant, incremental revision. Nothing really new, nothing really finished. So I do try to spend some time on entirely new pieces based on the vaguest of prompts, whether the spark is there or not, and see if anything worthwhile comes out of it. Occasionally something does. It might just be a sentence I hold on to, or a particular way of expressing something that feels interesting. The important thing is to push through the drudgery and give some sort of shape to a new piece.
Paying attention to submission calls for journals and competitions is a good way to do this with some consistency. Specific prompts and word limits obviously won’t suit every story, but starting with those parameters and seeing how much life you can give to something within them can be a really fruitful process. Flash fiction is a great medium for experimentation. You can hold a flash piece in the palm of your hand and look at it from every angle really easily, turn it upside down, pull at the edges. You can get very weird with flash, and I think you should.
Something I’ve taken far too long to embrace is the importance of involving other people in the process early on. Whether that’s close workshopping with a group or just sharing an early draft with a friend who reads a lot. I think there’s a dangerous level of comfort that comes with writing entirely in solitude and submitting to a journal, having only to contend with either a lovely acceptance or a generic rejection email and then that’s that. But offering up an imperfect draft to be engaged with seriously, at length, by interested peers, is a different thing entirely. With the right people, it can change everything for you.
How did you come to write “Bog Iron”? What were the challenges?
I wrote the first draft of “Bog Iron” in full by hand when I was out and about somewhere, which I don’t normally do. It had been rattling around in my head for only a short while, it was a rare case of almost the whole thing coming together for me at once, and I wanted to get it on the page before it dissipated. I think the ending and the child’s point of view were the first things to show up and it went from there.
I was thinking a lot about folk memory, myth, hidden places, bogs, ghosts, giants, and loamy things. The challenge was to filter all of this through the eyes of a child trying to understand a troubled father, their environment, and a particular way of seeing the world. Or trying to articulate that understanding, to put the intangible into words. I had to flesh out the relationship and the world and then pare it way back, hinting at something larger and the sense of danger without being prescriptive. Writing all of that from a child’s point of view felt very natural.
Looking back at that first draft now and comparing it with the final one, obviously things changed, but the structure stayed essentially the same. As did the ending and the beginning. For the most part, I went with my gut and didn’t try to question it too much. Which sounds trite, maybe, but I think it turned out to be the right approach.
Donna Obeid On Writing Flash and Letting Every Syllable Speak
Flash fiction is the tiny glimpse into another existence, a moment’s view of what might otherwise go unseen. It almost always begins with an image tugging at the heart, impossible to ignore. “The Storyteller of Aleppo” began the moment I saw a photograph taken by Omar Imam of a blind woman in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, listening to her husband telling stories.
Flash fiction must accomplish the same as all fiction does: namely, a good story, well told. The language must be particularly sharp and to the point. The beginning should intrigue, and the middle should move towards an end that surprises. The writing should take the reader to an unfamiliar world.
In a very short span, the writer must trust the reader to understand what’s going on and to lean into the mystery all humanity is born into. One commits to revising the piece over and over until it accomplishes exactly that. As Joyce Carol Oates says, “Writing is a matter of experimentation. And all writers do a lot of revision.”
My best work is often done in the early morning before the rest of the Stanford campus wakes, and I remain near a dreamlike state. Once I have a draft down, I’ll seek to unfold the piece, to keep discovering what is revealed and why this story should matter. At the same time, I hone the beauty, rhythm, and structure of each sentence by reading the piece aloud. In such a small space, I’m cognizant to let every syllable speak. Each story is alive, somehow; each story, a gift.
On Figurative Language
Like voice, I’m a very big fan of figurative language, metaphors specifically. And trying to be subtle, and let the reader participate with the story on the page. But I think to come up with a description that can resonate with a reader is a real challenge for me, but a joyful challenge. Regarding titles, in all honesty, they are a bear for me. I usually wait until I’ve got a few drafts under my belt before thinking about what to call a given piece.
But I do think titles can add flavor to a story’s intent, if not point the reader in the right direction. I tend to grab significant word choices from the story to play as a signpost, too.
On “Into the Den of God” (published in Crawley’s volume The Wind, It Swirls)
…Yes, voice is an important tool in my writing. When initially thinking about the story of the boys waiting for God in a dad’s den, the dialogue of the characters was foremost in my mind. In fact, it was Paul Derrick’s voice, his begging, that was one of the first lines I mulled over, playing out the scene again and again. The imagery of a dark room full of lit candles also was a spark for this story. The arc, figurative language, and conflicts slowly filled in around this dialogue moment, the details in the scene. Usually, character dialogue and a strong image are how most of my stories start.
On Teaching Workshops
In the first weeks of the workshop, we read different examples of stories to talk about character, conflict, figurative language use, how to write toward a resolution. Specifically, I stress the importance of character-driven writing in all my workshops. Knowing a character’s intention, or the want, to kick start any story is a great way for writing students to begin. Then a conflict gets in the way of a want, and so forth. Also, I see workshops as a collaborative effort. Everyone brings in their attempts and we all work together to come up with ideas for revisions. This process is the best part of teaching fiction.
And the workshops I’ve led over the years have enhanced my own writing. Assisting others with their stories is a wonderful exercise for my own decision-making for my stories.
Mary Thompson On the Wonders of Flash-Writing Workshops
For those of you unfamiliar with online flash fiction workshops, they normally run asynchronously over several days or weeks and often take the form of a series of prompts. The participants are asked to write a short piece for each one and given a particular word count (usually around 250 or 300 words) and a deadline by which to complete it. They will then post the story and receive feedback from the other writers and tutor.
I have taken a number of excellent flash fiction workshops over the years, most recently several brilliant ones run by Sarah Freligh, but one of the ones I most enjoyed was a memoir workshop run by Meg Pokrass in 2018. I don’t know whether it was the timing or prompts in this particular workshop, but somehow, my ideas really seemed to flow, and I ended up getting all of the stories I wrote published, something which (as a fledgling writer) I naively took for granted at the time. What I love about Meg’s workshops is that she always manages to provide participants with prompts that gently coax out what is already there, which may be an embryo of an idea at most, and in her feedback, she’ll make subtle suggestions that will allow the story to further develop, often to a publishable standard, which can be a difficult feat when working alone.
One prompt from the memoir workshop required that we tell a story while repeating the phrase, ‘let’s say.’ I initially had little more than an inkling of an idea, but once I’d scribbled the words into my notebook, the story somehow evolved from there. “Ladybird” was based on a teenage romance I’d had at university, and as it slowly came back to me, details that had laid dormant for years miraculously reappeared. Looking back, writing this story was almost a case of piecing together the images, which was a beautiful, almost cathartic experience that made me remember how special those young love types of feelings are. “Ladybird” ended up being ‘recommended’ in the London Independent Story Prize 2018, before it was published in Spelk in 2019. It was also included on the Best British and Irish Flash Fiction list 2019 and in ‘Best Microfiction 2020.’
When choosing a workshop, I’d recommend finding someone whose work truly resonates with you. For me, it is writers such as Kathy Fish, Meg Pokrass, and Sarah Freligh. I tend to prefer pared-down prose and pieces with a lot of “white space,” i.e., stories where what’s between the words is as important as the words themselves, as this allows the story to linger long after the first reading (as is the case with these three writers). I’ve also found that if you choose the right tutor, then the other participants are very likely to also write stories that resonate, so not only do you end up writing some decent stories, but you get to read some great stuff too! Participating in workshops forces you to write and can shake things up a little. It’s all too easy as a writer to become complacent and lose confidence as a result, but workshopping instills a sense of jeopardy as there’s a deadline—you must write quickly so your writing ends up being raw and much more real, and therefore eventually more likely to be published!
Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I have a little kernel – an image, a phrase, an idea – and as I write, the idea unfolds, the words flow the way I want them to, the story and the subtext and the layers all twine around each other and the white space, all coming together to make something that is more than the sum of its parts. Reader, this almost never happens. When it does, it’s like a gift, and it’s almost as though it isn’t really mine, just something for which I was only the conduit. Most of the time, this is NOT how it goes.
Most of the time, I stare at the screen and type over and over I have nothing to say about this, I have nothing to say about this, I have nothing to say about this until eventually, my fingers on the keys find something to say about this – the prompt or workshop or idea – and they stutter out a few paragraphs before winding down slowly like an old spinning top. Then the real work begins.
When I started writing “Fulfilling,” it was a line in the Notes app on my phone (*spoiler alert) saying, ‘Woman keeps finding bits of fluff on the back of her neck – eventually realizes she is a stuffed toy.’ It was a quick flash of an idea, a concept, and much like the stuffed toy, it had no heart. The line sat in that note for a long time, waiting for me to find that heart. I was in a SmokeLong Fitness workshop where we were asked to pick out ten of our favourite little sparks to try and develop, and this was one of mine. I wrote it long (1200 words), I cut it back (400 words), it was called Fluff, then Stuffed. It wasn’t quite right. The writing was okay, but the heart still wasn’t there. It was still a conceit rather than a narrative. I’m in a small critique group, and I brought it to them, and through our discussions, I could see that the idea of women being burnt out by caring for everyone around her had to become a narrative of one woman being so burnt out by caring for her extended family, her job, her friends, that she is coming apart at the seams, and the only self-care she has is just the act of putting herself back together every evening, before doing it all again the next day, and the toll it is taking. As a narrative, it is still a metaphor but no longer just an idea or a generic Everywoman. Once the story came alive, it needed a new title, and “Fulfilling” appealed to me on so many levels.
When I’m critiquing or editing, there are two questions I always ask—What is this story about? And, What is this story REALLY about? Once I know the answer to both of those, then I can work on editing things like the language, pacing, and title. But the heart must come first.