A Closer Look: GOING SHORT
By Amy Barnes •
Nancy Stohlman’s bio reads: Writer, Professor, Performer. Her new craft book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, explores aspects of flash fiction including inspiration, writing, editing, workshopping, the form, collections, and an index of prompts. It is flash fiction seen through Stohlman’s unique lens—as writer, professor, and performer.
I first met Stohlman through her writing, the flash fiction collection Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities. I met Stohlman the performer in a flash community Zoom when writer and performer merged in signature Stohlman style, breaking into a piano-accompanied song while wearing a jaunty scarf and striped shirt. It was, in a word, a flash. I met Professor Stohlman in Going Short, where all three personas converge, where she inspires and encourages throughout.
There are similar guiding texts in other art forms, like leveled music books, such as Suzuki or Schumann, encompassing music theory, clefs, bars, notes, stanzas—all with the ultimate goal of teaching a student to perform. Music teachers often use the technique of listening for the story behind the notes. Going Short reverses that process, helping writers bring music to storytelling, music to flash. By making music with words, Stohlman’s book explores flash fiction but also looks at every aspect of the process: finding inspiration, editing, collecting, self-promotion, overcoming rejection, and supporting other writers.
Going Short asks important questions with a brevity that fits the genre: short chapters of manageable information interspersed with memorable quotes. The slim volume is a printed master class on how to add tone, bring inflection, and create that orchestral flash of words, to make readers close their eyes and imagine. From the beginning notes to the closing cymbals of this flash-class word-symphony, storytelling and brevity are the focus. The book is about flash. But it’s not just about the form; it guides, inspires, pushes and pulls writers to both create and read flash fiction. On each page, there are elements of surprise—Stohlman in a jaunty scarf leading as a writer, professor, and performer—all packaged in around 20,000 words.
Stohlman looks back at how other art forms became widely accepted. In the section titled, “The Flash Revolution,” her words about Stravinsky and rock ’n’ roll stand out as inspiration. As a writer who has broken writing boundaries herself, she compares flash fiction to a movement:
Artists must say what needs to be said in a new and vital way. But artistic movements are rarely welcomed—they’re almost always dismissed as vulgar and simplistic and worse: not real art. Stravinsky was practically run out of town at the debut of The Rite of Spring as people rioted in the streets. Rock ‘n’ roll records were publicly burned in giant bonfires while racist preachers warned teens that Satan had arrived.
Just as music pieces are counted with a metronome, Stohlman encourages embracing time constraints in flash when she guides writers to take a set time or space restriction as a positive, a writing element to lead, not stifle, flash writing: “[A] great way to create a sense of urgency in a flash fiction story is by using another constraint: time. If flash fiction is defined by a word constraint, why not create under a time constraint?”
Stohlman uses “The Concert Setlist” to “curate” flash fiction. In an earlier book she coedited, Fast Forward: The Mix Tape, she compares her writing process to a “1980’s era ‘mixed tape.’” Citing her own personal writing experiences, she suggests musical terms as a way of combining words, defining form, adding tension, or writing a great opener. This glimpse into her creative process is one of many gems within the text:
I wrote each of the stories on a flash card…and spread the stories over every inch of my living room as I would have my music long ago. Funny the patterns that started emerging, like beetles, cockroaches, cheese, Jesus…an apocalyptic pizza parlor spread out before me. Stylistic themes emerged, too, stories told in one long breathless sentence, stories told through numbered lists, ultra-flash stories (under 100 words).
In “Erasure: Loaded Silences and Intentional Ghosts,” Stohlman looks at using quieter spaces akin to the rests and breaks in musical pieces. Even in the small space of flash, she mentions letting silence stand as an important part of the story. Her writer, teacher, and performer sides combine in this quote comparing flash to an orchestral performance:
Think of the drama of a full stop in music, the heightened pleasure and payoff of the returning beat. Orchestras stop completely between symphonic movements and everyone sits, rapt, in the loaded silence. When I teach performance, I remind my students to pause…because a pause is a way to emphasize what just happened.
Answering the question, how long flash can be, in “Is My Story Too Long? Embracing Constraints,” Stohlman explores the upper end of flash length and again suggests the use of constraint as a positive—deadlines, repeating a certain letter, prompts. She writes, “[H]ere’s how you’ll know you’ve crossed over: you’ll never need to look at the word count again,” then shares another history lesson: “Beethoven wrote his most important symphony when he was deaf. Embracing the constraint is the true gift of flash fiction.”
Stohlman reminds flash fiction writers they’re not the only participant in the process. She explores the role of the reader as an invitation to the stage to join the symphony—as an active player. That missive elevates and adds surprise to the flash fiction “symphony.” When would an audience member at an orchestra performance be invited on stage? The interactivity of flash fiction takes that artist/audience relationship to a new place. She says, “It’s this act of interpretation that keeps art vital—no longer just watching from a darkened audience, flash fiction invites the reader up on the stage, hands them a tambourine, and tells them to keep up…”
I appreciate the charge of giving the reader this tambourine, knowing that reader may be playing a clanging instrument along with my words.
While most of Stohlman’s book is supportive, she does issue “words of caution” about the biggest mistake writers make. Still couched in positivity, she says “the beginning of the writing process should always be play…that time of pure inspiration, when your ideas are new and fragile, when risks are taken, mistakes are made, and false starts become discoveries.” She goes on to describe how putting that early work out for feedback or critique is like inviting “the paparazzi in before we’re even dressed,” which can then lead to a lack of confidence if the work isn’t well received. She goes on to speak of how writers may not realize which part of the writing process they are in:
We confuse writing with editing, we confuse editing with publication, we show work to others before it’s ready, we hoard work that is ready, afraid of rejection. Realizing which stage of the process you’re in—and more importantly what your work needs—is essential. Resist bringing in the paparazzi until it can withstand all those flashing lights.
At the Zoom session this summer, Stohlman popped in to sing a “Happy Birthday” tribute. In Going Short, she opines that arriving “fashionably late” in flash is a good thing; by starting the story at the moment the action begins, writers will hold a reader’s attention. Months later, I still remember her flashy Zoom appearance. Real-life and writer-Stohlman both strive for a brilliant ending. But she doesn’t just tell writers to create great beginnings and endings, she lets us in on a personal secret by sharing that “endings used to be a huge struggle for me. I’d conceive, craft and execute a compelling story, and then I’d tack on a ‘bow’ at the end.” This furthers the authenticity imbued throughout the book. She continues to punctuate the importance of endings by invoking the word “whoa,” in another flash-worthy surprise:
A brilliant ending should make you go whoa. And reread. And go whoa again. Whoa can mean a lot of things: whoa—how messed up, or whoa—how poignant, or whoa—how surprising, or whoa—how perfect. But regardless, it should punch you in the heart or the gut or the head or maybe several places at once.
In Part 3, Stohlman expands from singular flash pieces to take a closer look at flash collections, novellas-in-flash, anthologies, and flash novels. She speaks to editors and writers about curation and creation and new “conductor” roles arranging flash fiction pieces by theme, length, author, narrative, chronology, or something unconventional. Musical references appear again as she describes the “album” representing flash pieces combined into a larger artistic message. In recognizable tone, she further instructs writers to think about using “party tricks” to strengthen a large grouping of flash:
If the anthology is the compilation album, then the single author collection is the concept album. And when you are both the writer of the material and the designer of the book, you have a new level of creative control. That said, it’s also entirely possible to approach a collection as you approached the anthology. Rather than just a showcase album of all you’ve done, what new story might you tell with these pieces?
Nearing the end of the book, I found Stohlman’s most personal teaching in Going Short: a look at rejections. When she encourages writers to take bigger risks and to get back out there, we believe her because she invokes the collective “we.” When she suggests we get “silly and messy and rediscover what is joyful,” this is advice to herself, as well. She asks the question, “[H]ow do you know when it is ready?” and answers with the universal “we” again: “I know a story or book is finished when I can return to it after at least a month away and I don’t want to change a thing.”
Many writers might stop before discussing rejection. Many professors might stop. They might leave students and aspiring writers with inspiration and ideas but not give that next step: how to get published. Stohlman puts on her jaunty scarf and embraces the next steps. She whispers to that universal “we” once more, leans over the symphony seat and lets us into her writer’s life. Here is perhaps the most controversial idea so far: getting published in smaller publications may be the best way to build confidence, grow our writing, feel valued, feel official. She then moves into even more controversial territory—self-promotion is needed, is valuable, drives writers, brings readers: “I used to think that publishing my work in small venues would ‘waste’ it. And then I discovered something really important: publication is publication. It means someone enjoyed my work enough to put their stamp on it.”
Stohlman issues a charge, even invoking Madonna, who made and delivered her own demos before she became an icon. The words are all Stohlman, all flash-y. They are universal and inspirational, revolutionary—a get-going-short call to action as she tells writers: “We are leading this movement—we are the innovators and the visionaries. So we must surrender to the work, get out of the way, and write what wants to be written. The best ideas rarely fit into neat check boxes.”
Each year Stohlman gifts the writing community with Flash Nano, an online event in November with daily prompts. She provides one simple, thought-provoking prompt a day. In Going Short, she offers up one hundred prompts ranging from “write a story about or featuring a body part” to “write a 13-word story.” True to form, each prompt is designed to be that spark of inspiration for a flash piece.
Like Stohlman herself, flash fiction strides in and drops a French melody and we don’t blink. We soak in the brevity and quirkiness, poignancy, story arc, the surreal, the magical, and the plot twists that launch into song. How does that happen in a small space? How do readers suspend the need to write thousands of words and believe in a flash of story? With the symphony of flash ideas in Going Short, perhaps Stohman’s bio should read: Musician, Writer, Professor, Performer.
In the end, some of her most compelling words have less to do with writing flash and more to do with encouragement and community. Writers and editors reading and using Going Short will find themselves clapping for this flash fiction bible and for Stohlman’s guidance as well, whichever hat (or scarf) she’s wearing. “Applause is contagious,” she writes. “So openly support the work and promotional efforts of your colleagues, honor those who’ve paved the way before you, and commit to sharing your successes with those who follow.”
AMY BARNES has words at a variety of sites including: The New Southern Fugitives, FlashBack Fiction, Popshot Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, X-R-A-Y Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic, Museum of Americana, Penny Fiction, Stymie Mag, No Contact Mag, Sublunary Review, The Molotov Cocktail, Lucent Dreaming, Lunate Fiction, Rejection Lit, Perhappened, Cabinet of Heed, Spartan Lit, National Flash Flood Day and others. Her work has been long-listed at Reflex Press (third place), Bath Flash Fiction, Retreat West, and TSS Publishing. She volunteers at Fractured Lit, CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, NFFD, The MacGuffin, and Narratively. She is nominated for Best Microfictions 2021 (Spartan Lit) and a Pushcart Prize. Her flash collection Mother Figures will be published in May, 2021 by ELJ Editions, Ltd.