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On the Very Contemporary Art of Flash Fiction

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Lord Chesterfield called the novel “a kind of abbreviation of a Romance.” Ian McEwan described the more compact novella as “the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.” William Trevor considered the short story “essential art.” Writing a story, he said, is infinitely harder than writing a novel, “but it’s infinitely more worthwhile.” And now we have the even shorter story, a form that was validated, if it needed to be, when Lydia Davis, whose stories are sometimes a sentence long, was awarded the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. In their citation, the judges said of Davis’s works: “Just how to categorize them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apothegms, prayers or simply observations.”

The short-short story is narrative (or it’s not) that is distilled and refined, concentrated, layered, coherent, textured, stimulating, and resonant, and it may prove to be the ideal form of fiction for the 21st century, an age of shrinking attention spans and busy and distracted lives, in which our mobile devices connect us to the world as they simultaneously divert us from it. And on the screens of our smartphones and our iPads and our laptops, we can fit an entire work of flash fiction. It’s short but not shallow; it’s a reduced form used to represent a larger, more complex story; it’s pithy and cogent, brief and pointed, and like the gist of a recollected conversation, it offers the essential truth, if not all the inessential facts.

The market for flash fiction is extensive and it’s growing. A Google search for flash fiction markets nets 719,000 hits in .55 seconds. Duotrope lists 4,700 publications looking for flash fiction, and a few of those outlets publish 365 stories a year. Your chances of finding a home for your short-short story are considerably better than they are for your novel. What better way to break into the world of publishing, to get your name out there, to earn the endorsement of editors, to introduce your beloved characters to an appreciable number of readers? If your dream is to write a novel, consider that flash fiction might be your first small step. I learned to write novels by writing short stories and learned to write short stories by writing very short stories before they had a snappy name.

While flash fiction may be quickly read, it is not often quickly written. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” To be brief takes time. But the obvious fact is that it does take less time to write a short-short story than it does the longer forms. It might take years to write a novel (it does for me), months to write a story, but only weeks, maybe days, if you’re lucky, to write a very short story. And an occasional morsel of sweet short-term gratification won’t make you sick. Promise! With the end so close in sight, you are emboldened, and you learn to finish. If you don’t finish, you can’t revise, and if you don’t revise, you won’t learn to write.

Writing flash fiction will teach you to focus. In a short-short story you have no time for digressions, for subplots, for extraneous characters, for backstory. Get in and get out. Start when everything but the action is over, as Frank O’Connor had it. This admirable compression, of course, means that every word carries more weight and every image does double or triple duty. It advances the plot, expresses the theme, and reveals the characters. You learn to take the creative collaboration with your reader to a higher level. You begin the story or the scene, you furnish the clues, sunlight through an open window, say, a woman leaning out, her elbows on the sill, watching the surf pound the beach, and the reader sees the wisp of hair falling over her eye, smells the salt air, hears the sizzle of the surf and the barking of that golden retriever dancing in the waves.

As fiction writers, we are always trying to impose limits on ourselves to avoid the tyranny of the blank page. Flash fiction provides us with a word limit, and that limit may be all we need to get us thinking in an unconventional and creative way. Of limits, the composer Igor Stravinsky said, “The more constraints are imposed, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit . . . and the arbitrariness serves only to obtain precision of execution.” And here’s what else you get to do with flash fiction: experiment. Follow Lydia Davis’s example. Make your flash fictions algebraic word problems or culinary recipes or autocorrected text messages from your estranged father or email spam from Nigerian bankers or advertisements for a new kind of hat that grows hair in just thirty days or for Dr. Campbell’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers. In short, anything at all.


From Flash! by John Dufresne, courtesy W.W. Norton. Copyright 2018 John Dufresne.

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