Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fish Flish Flash Fiction

Before we get too deep in this, I must disclose, this little section will be in excess of 1,000 words. The brevity of things, of daily events, of writing is all well enough as long as something has not been omitted because of laziness or neglect. In the fiction sense of proposed brevity, let's talk about flash fiction. I will look at this from a few perspectives: as a writer, a teacher of writing and a publisher. After this discussion, we'll even wonder if flash fiction is its own genre at all.
In many definitions, flash fiction is considered a complete shot story told in one thousand words or less. As far as fiction classifications and word counts go, I've seen it broken down like this:
Flash Fiction: 1,000 words or less
Short Story: 7,500 words or less
Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500 words
Novella: 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novel: 40,000 to 300,000 words
Epic: 300,000 words and up.
I'm convinced that these words counts, as arbitrary as they seem, have their meanings in dollars and cents. Both Balzac and Dickens were paid by the word. Counting words in their day made sense because of letters or plates were used at the print house. The world of writing, however; I don't think is so wildly different today because word count is still important.
When I write, I never start a project knowing I'm going to quit in less than four pages, or so. Why would a writer do that? Last year, as I began Dysphoric Notions, I only had a very short story in mind, and now, I cannot imagine what the project would have been if I'd stopped short. This leads me to the first point: anyone endeavoring in flash fiction should not sacrifice good writing or good story telling for a low word count. Sometimes, a writer can fall into this form perfectly, and perhaps they fall into it by chance. Richard Brautigan in The Revenge of the Lawn uses the brief form with disturbing clarity in his short story: “The Scarlatti Tilt”:

“'It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin.' That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.”

This story is a mere two sentences, and they say it all. Whereas this piece might just be two clever sentences, it is intriguing. As a short (and I mean short) story, the fact remains: it is fiction. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is character development, setting and a sense of space. I only wish I could write something so clever. As I said, when I write a short story, and more importantly, when I rewrite that short story, I don't count words or use the word count as a confine. I am not paid by the word, and indeed, I am not paid for my writing at all.
In all of my experience as a teacher of writing, I like to share as many examples of what I consider good, or at least intriguing, work as I can to my students. Some pieces are short as is the case with “The Scarlatti Tilt.” A few short-short stories I really like are: “The Other Wife” by Colette, “The Dead Man” by Horacio Quiroga; “The Weather in San Francisco” by Richard Brautigan, and Isaac Babel's “Crossing into Poland.” Each of these pieces definitely fit into the flash fiction definition because of their low word counts. But, they all have something more important, they are all examples of good writing. Even if Richard Brautigan's work tends to frustrate students, his work is still valuable to me.
The best part about each of these pieces is that I use them for examples of other elements of fiction. For example, Colette's “The Other Wife,” I love because of the tension in the dialogue, and for that matter, the tension in the whole piece. Colette delivers more information in this short story than some writers can deliver in whole chapters, whole novels. “The Dead Man” is my example of perspective and narrative voice. Richard Brautigan's “The Weather in San Francisco,” I use an example of simile and description. Lastly, Isaac Babel's “Crossing into Poland,” I reference as place and time description. For some ungodly reason, Babel can paint the picture of a battlefield in an almost tender way. In the workshop session where I subject my students to these stories, we read them hoping to gain a perspective on writing, or at the very least, a discussion of writing. Their size is only noteworthy because we can read all four of these, have discussion on each and a writing exercise after each in one workshop session. I never once mention flash fiction as an option in either the discussion of the stories, nor do I mention it during writing exercises or assignments.

When we were developing guidelines for Umbrella Factory Magazine I explicitly stated: no flash fiction. That particular guideline was omitted at Oren's urging, he thought it was too harsh, too limited and superfluous. He was right, of course. What I wanted to avoid with the whole “I don't want flash fiction” gripe was some strange piece of writing that defies the logic of good writing. I had, in the months leading up to Umbrella Factory Magazine, been exposed to writers who never wrote one piece more than 1,000 words. Their writing, while a clever mixture of words, frightened me beyond belief. This was not fiction. It was not poetry. This was not cross-genre experimental work. I like cross-genre, it still follows guidelines, and rules, even if it has to make up the rules. My old buddy Mike Grady's cross-genre work was always worth a laugh: “creative non-play writing.” Tongue in cheek or not, I get it. Cross-genre is noble, and at the function of it, it is very cool. But the writers of this flash fiction I was just speaking about, well, this was something else entirely. Edgy? Nonsensical? An abomination? Or perhaps I missed something else entirely. As far as Umbrella Factory Magazine goes, I want to represent a writer and by doing just that, I do not wish to exclude a reader by publishing strange pieces of brief esoteric nonsense. So far, I don't think anyone has been disappointed.

So? Is this flash fiction a real genre? Well, yeah, probably. There are so many contests out there for it and plenty of writers doing it. In this era of brief messages, text-speak, Twitter, whatever, perhaps one thousand words will soon prove too many altogether. In the meantime, why don't we call it what it is: a short-short story. A short story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. If a writer can tell us a story and her exposition is less than 1,000 words, well then, fine.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Jump Start Part II

Highway 93 runs the length between Boulder and Morrison right at the base of the Rocky Mountains. When heading south, the foothills are on the right, they are small by comparison of their brothers and sisters to the west but impressive next to the expanse of plains that slope forever downward to the east. Highway 93 flows like a river separating two very different ecological providences. It flows through Golden, the one time Capitol of the State of Colorado, home to the Coors Brewing Company, and the Colorado School of Mines. Past Golden comes Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Hog Back that is a reminder of the sea shore that once ended right where the Rockies end today. Past Red Rocks is the town of Morrison. Once in Morrison it is a quick jaunt to Littleton. I have a feeling it was a far quicker jaunt in the spring of 1993 when it was still my commute to work. The drive, over all, was serene. 1993 was a time before the mass development and influx of people. There were often times few people, if any on the road with me. The long dive along the beautiful front range took me so far into my thoughts and my imagination the time was invaluable.
I don't remember the exact day, although I know it was in May. On that day in May of 1993 on that drive between Boulder and Littleton I conceived of a story of an exiled man who landed up in a mountainous desert alone awaiting death. The story evolved in my mind into plots, subplots, flying lizards, HIV victims and abandoned libraries. A few commutes later, I had such a believable story, I could see not only in my mind, but I saw it in the landscape outside the old car.
The day came when I couldn't stand just thinking about it anymore. It was time to write is all down. That day, and I remember the drive because of the rain, I felt a wonderful resolve. I knew all I had to do was get a notebook and a pen, hell, the thing was already written in my mind. I thought less about the story and more about the way I was going to write it. I started, in my mind, on page one and just ripped away.
Just as I arrived at work, I walked to the supermarket across the street. Now, this was 1993, this was before I learned to love the 100 leaf, (200 page) sewn binding composition notebook. It was 1993, and I was a young man.
In the supermarket I became overwhelmed with the vast variety of notebook options. Some were glued, wide ruled, spiral, and of course the sizes varied too both in dimension and quantity of sheets.
I lost all steam standing in the fluorescent lit school supply aisle. How could something so petty matter? The entire ordeal was so petty that I'm nearly embarrassed by it now. I was not going to be able to write my great story and standing in the supermarket as I was, I was reminded of my ineptitude.
I took one notebook down after another. I flipped though a few. Eventually, I chose a 6” x 8” spiral with eighty pages. (It still took me several days to get started).
Those old sayings have always seemed so stupid to me. Stupid sayings like “right as Rain,” or “we'll cross that bridge when we come to it,” or “you eat a whale one bite at a time,” or “start at the beginning.”
The beginning for me was one word on a small piece of paper. A larger page would have been so much more intimidating.
It's that intimidation or the feeling of being overwhelmed that trips up many young (or returning) writers. Yes, cross that bridge when you come to it. Burn the bridge when you come to it. Don't be afraid to start. You don't have to write an entire novel in one sitting. You don't have to write an entire short story in one sitting. You don't even have to write an entire haiku in one sitting. Just begin, get the motivation to do it, set aside the time, and the rest will follow.

During the first Jumpstart workshop, I like to give all my participants a little quiz called the “Why Read." The 20 questions stress only one thing: good writing requires good reading.
Question 19 takes us to Japan, 17th century, and a poet called Matsuo Basho. Basho in his 40th year decided to leave home and take a long walk. At this point in his life he was already a fairly well known poet. The haiku being the common form of Japanese poetry at the time was not enough for Basho. His form is called the haibun which simply stated is a short prose passage followed up with a haiku. There are a few elements common to Basho's prose in each of the haibun in Narrow Road to the Interior and other writings:
1)There is usually travel involved.
2)He names very specific places
3)There are references to people or Shinto figures
The haiku to end each haibun follows proper form in the 17 syllables and three line form. Basho takes his haiku to a different place altogether. Rather than something high, or elevated, or seasonal, or the praises of nature, Basho often times it is praising something as lowly as a cricket.

I don't believe the haiku is an easy form to use, not for fiction writers and maybe not for westerners. To labor over seventeen syllables is a very noble endeavor indeed. In the first session of Umbrella Factory Workshops (the Jumpstart) I believe it is important if not imperative for each participant to leave with something in ther hands, something they've accomplished. After the “Why Read” quiz, after a short discussion of Basho, we write haikus.
A quick lesson in the form leads to Carolyn Forche, and then to Jack Kerouac. The former does not use the form or haibun, at least not in the example I use. The latter, Jack Kerouac in Desolation Angels uses haibun, but in a slightly different way.
Then it's off to the next exercise: The haibun.
Now, we're gone from 17 syllables to a short prose passage. If that isn't breaking the complex task of beginning the process of writing into a smaller, easier to manage part, then I don't know what is. After an hour and a half each participant has a piece of work, their own work to show for their time. Granted, a haibun is not a novel length manuscript, it is only a start. We all must start somewhere, even if the size of paper we use is only for the first word.


Basho, Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior and other writings, Sam Hamil Trans. (Shambhala, 2000)
Forche, Carolyn. The Country Between Us (Harper & Row, 1981)
Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels (Riverhead, 1965)

The Jumpstart Continued:
Place, space and time (setting)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Jump-start Part I

I cannot begin a story of the jump-start without first recollecting the early winter of 2000, and my friend Andrea Hess. Andrea was not a writer, at least not a writer like I'm accustomed to knowing. No, Andrea studied music. Our friendship was neither about writing, nor music. Our relationship centered around the existential dilemmas of our 20s. Much of our time together happened in bars, which may have been my doing I suspect.
On a night in January, I had gone to bed early, because like so much of my Portland winter experience, I was sick. At some point after the bars closed, Andrea called me. She called me because I lived close by, and because she knew I'd do anything for her. She and Jenna had spent the evening in an Irish Pub downtown and during their stay there, the battery in their car had gone dead. You guessed it, they needed a jump-start.
Sick, tired, not feeling human, I went to the assistance of my friend with jumper cables in hand.
In the rain, I jumped their car and off we all went.
Only later, weeks I think, Andrea told me the car battery was not dead and the reason it hadn't started was because of some sort of Volvo trick of engaging the key in the proper manner. They had, of course, figured it out only after they dispatched me, but before I arrived.
The situation was worth the laugh. Needless to say, I would have jumped her car under any circumstances. Helping someone else get going, or helping someone get gone is a noble consideration.
Leaving Andrea aside for a moment, did I mention the existential dilemmas of our 20s? In those days I worked for a living: non-profit work. The very nature of non-profit work is the long hours and small pay that only a recent college graduate can endure. Hell, I had no idea that there were jobs available that paid more and required less of my time. Rather, I worked and worked and worked and I was so unhappy I didn't even understand the depth of it.
There were some particularly nasty things happening in me and around me. In November of 1999, someone broke into my car and stole the US map and photograph bag containing a few letters (some read, others unopened) and a composition notebook much like the one I'm writing in now. The loss of the bag I had carried through the war nine years prior sent me into a hatred for Portland that could not be resolved despite the beer and tequila remedy I had prescribed. The contents of the bag? The lost composition notebook bothered me too. 1999 was not a particularly prolific year for me, and in contrast to the freedom and writing of 1998, it was even more dismal. It was so dismal, in fact, that the lost composition notebook was only the second one of the year, and it was November when it was taken. Of the 200 pages one of these books have, I was nearly finished completing that one. Those pages represented months of labor, toil, pain and anger summed up in fits and starts: petty poetry and half conceived vignettes. And to my horror, it was gone.
I've listened to writers, would be writers and wannabe writers talk about writer's block. I don't believe in writer's block now, and I don't think I was suffering from it then. I simply did not have the time to focus on the writing then because it was clearly a lack of priority. Work, partying, searching for answers and struggling at the mercy of the time were the priorities. Nonetheless, the loss of the composition notebook was not a good thing.
In the weeks after the burglary, I kept replaying a scene in my head. In this scene there were two men standing on a street corner in Denver, Colorado. The first man, Vance Aandahl was a soon to be retired instructor of writing. The second man, me, was a recent student of his. The conversation went like this:
“In my 32 years of teaching, I've learned it's the prolific writers who succeed.”
“You're the real writer Vance.”
“Anthony, you're the writer.”
“I don't have the command that you do. You're the real writer.”
“I took the easy way out.”
“What? What does that mean?”
“I taught writing. The real writer writes. The real writer writes the way you do.”
“Vance, you're the real writer, I only wanted to be a writer because of you.”
“Anthony, I've met very few writers who write as much as you.”
“You're the real writer,” I said. I was young and I had to have the last word. We were on the corner of 17th and California and the conversation ended there when he got on the bus.
So, I had Vance's admiration. This is important, every student wants the respect and acceptance of the teacher.
After the bag was stolen, I couldn't shake the Vance Aandahl conversation from my thoughts. He had not praised my use of language, he had not praised my clever plot lines or my characters. No, he praised the amount of writing. Yes, that's right, he praised the quantity. Within a year of that conversation I wasn't writing at all.
Worse still, it was going to be months before I would be writing again.
I spent months doing that stupid dance called life. I went to work. I went to movies or bars at night. I constantly wondered what would happened if I just took the jump.

The jump came in August of 2000. I turned 28 years old on the eleventh, I finished up my assignment as camp director of the 13th. My last day at work was on the 15th. I bought a new composition notebook that afternoon. Suddenly, I had time. I spent a month walking around the neighborhood drinking coffee and playing pinball. I waited and waited and waited for the words to start pouring out of me.
But to no avail.
Vance's words kept haunting me.
My friends were good to me, they were all very supportive. They all urged me to go out into the world and do what I had to do.
And still I had nothing.
I was walking down NW 21st between the STOP and ROB, where I played a few games at the Medieval Madness pinball table, and Anna Bananas for some coffee. It was there, right there on the street that I ran into Andrea. She had recently moved into the neighborhood. Our conversation was mostly about mutual friends. I asked about Jenna. When we went our separate ways, I thought about the night of the jump-start. I only thought about it as the actual event and not as allegory.
By the time I stepped into Anna Bananas I knew I needed help, I needed a jump-start for my writing.
That day I asked three of my coffeehouse buddies to tell me two things they liked:
Melissa: toes and tattoos
Laura: talking to Rosie and the beach
Emma: coffee and cream

I used these “twos” as writing prompts. These two things that each of them gave me made the filling of notebook pages and the draining of old pens happen with a frequency to make Vance Aandahl proud.
The fall of 2000 is best summed up as the beginning of my consciousness as a writer. I wrote all day during work. I was technically a file clerk at an insurance agency. I wrote all evening at the old and weathered tables at Anna Bananas. It all started with the jump-start. Those writing prompts, toes and tattoos, Rosie and the beach; coffee and cream, I am forever grateful.
It doesn't go much deeper than that. We all need a place to start. As I began to teach writing, I knew the value of starting small. I start smaller than even two items. Sometimes a novel can be born from a haiku. Stay tuned for the Jump-start part two.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Teach Writing?

I love the question: why teach writing? I suppose my favorite reason for this is the literary community it creates. The simple act of teaching a writing workshop does just that: it creates community. This thought makes sense to me now more than ever.

As you may know, I chose to go to graduate school so my writing would improve. I was very excited about the process when I started grad school too. The one element I was not so crazy about was the teaching practicum which was a requirement in the third semester. The most terrifying part of the entire ordeal was simply that I had no leads, no institutional support and way too many options. The part I felt the most hung up about was that I simply did not want to do it.

Returning home from Vermont after the third semester residency, I knew something had to happen. I had no plan, no base, no lesson plans. In short, all I had was the fear of not getting the requirement met. One day in mid January, I was wondering the streets just south of downtown Denver looking for a library, or a school, or something to help me along the teaching process. I understood the requirement, yes, many MFA grads go on to become teachers. But why me? I didn't want to be a teacher then, and I was so uncertain if I wanted to even do this practicum. At the lowest part of the day I found my salvation in a dress shop called She-She.

Before I go any further, I do not have a fetish with women's dresses, nor was it random that I went in there. My friend owned the shop. It was not an uncommon thing to find her in She-She working on projects. If anyone was going to help, I knew it would be her. She has always told me that it pays to know a thousand people and Crystal Sharp knows at least ten times that.

Crystal and I had gone to college together. Those were our undergraduate days at Metropolitan State College of Denver. The two of us had maintained a good friendship in the years after graduation, and on that day in January of 2008 when I needed to find an organization to house my teaching practicum, I had no idea it was Crystal.

The Holiday Chalet Bed and Breakfast(1820 E. Colfax, Denver, CO 80218 (303) 321-9975) became the hope and salvation for a successful teaching location. Crystal suggested in a very definitive tone: “Anthony, just do it at the hotel, in the tea room.” In that instant, The Tea Room Writer's Workshops was born. Crystal has always been so supportive, not only of me, but of all the organizations I've been a part of. I say it here because it is important, and if you come through Denver, you must stay at her hotel: The Holiday Chalet.

With a location, and a parent organization as a sponsor, I was ready to start my practicum. I needed students. I made my friends join up. My friends made their friends join up. I only had one reason for teaching this workshop: a school requirement. Remember earlier when I said community is why I teach writing? It's amazing how much can change in just a few short years.

Rather than brag about the successes of The Tea Room Writer's Workshops, of which there are many, I feel inclined to tell you about the change it made in me. As far as the graduation requirement goes, yes, I completed it. I spent 25 classroom hours with people who either wanted to write, or wanted me to succeed in school, or wanted to be around their workshop mates. I found the participants so pleasant to be around, I looked forward to the workshop planning, and I even kept some of them in mind as I planned lessons. I found all of them to be good writers, even with the small amount of direction they were given. I so thoroughly enjoyed the process that when it came time to write my teaching essay, I had all good things to say. I had good things to say about the location, good things to say about the process, and good things to say about the experience as a whole. The facet of my grad program I dreaded the most, I landed up loving the most.

But where does the community fit in?

After graduation, I tried teaching a semester at Denver Community College. I don't want to say anything bad, and I won't say anything good about that experience. I guess, I felt entitled to the job. I also felt a little obligated to do it. One semester at the community college was enough. It was not the teaching experience I was looking for, that's all.

As Mark Dragota and I were in the very beginning debates about Umbrella Factory Magazine, I suggested that we teach workshops as a way of making a few extra dollars for the magazine. Like me, Mark dreaded the teaching practicum in grad school. Unlike me, however, he got out of it. As the Umbrella Factory Writer's Workshops developed, I was so delighted to see in him the excitement around teaching that I had had in the former workshop series.

The first round of Umbrella Factory Workshops went by quickly. They were rushed, too short in duration and in frequency. They were poorly attended. The best part about them was that we used the Tea Room at the Holiday Chalet. For me, at least, it was a strange sort of home coming. During the weeks that the whole workshop series went on, I got the opportunity to meet a few great people. Some of them are good writers too. During this whole process, several people arrived at Umbrella Factory so eager to be a part of things that even I was amazed. From these early workshops we still have a home at the Holiday Chalet. We met Sue Eberling, a fantastic instructor, and we met Corrie Vela, our workshop program director. Not only was it refreshing to meet these two women, but it was pleasure to meet some of the people in their networks. As time has gone on, I've come to enjoy their friendships as well. This is how the community has grown. It is a community where Umbrella Factory Workshops are the catalyst. As the next season of Umbrella Factory Workshops ensues, I can't, simply cannot wait to meet the people who will come. It's an opportunity for a richer community, a literary community which I think our town needs. I need it too. I gain this community simply by teaching writing workshops. I feel like the majority of the readers of this post are writers. I hope that's the case because they are the community I'm seeking. I hope all of the writers out there can make sense of this: go start a community of your own. Do it through every means you can think of, teaching workshops, giving lecture or readings, or writing a blog.

In future posts: The Jump Start, The Anecdotal Screenplay; my basic teaching principles, and some elements of fiction I find important to teach.