Exploring the art of prose


Author: Brenda Peynado

Author’s Note

I’m used to writing longer fiction and longer plots, so it took me a long time to understand how to write flash fiction. I kept trying to pack an entire short story’s worth of plot into flash fiction. It wasn’t until I started thinking about moments on the brink that I had a breakthrough. In each of these stories, I started with an image and a moment of deep desire for change, even when the character themselves doesn’t quite understand what they’re asking. They’re caught, like flies in amber, in a moment of transformation.

The world, of course, is the amber trying to trap them.

For “My Debt Collector,” I started with a memory I had of a debt collection call mixed with a customer service phone call I had where the representative was very chatty and we asked each other where we lived and how it was there. Once, too, I worked a receptionist job where I had to call people about their unpaid bills. What would happen if all of our debts were so weighty that our debt collectors knew our names, and we knew theirs, knew their burdens as well as our own? What would that change? Or would we be caught in this moment perpetually on the brink of releasing those burdens, never allowed to by our situations? That was the moment I trapped in amber, the moment that the characters came the closest to releasing everything, how desperately they want to, and yet still can’t.

For “Fire,” that moment of tension is between this girl and the larger world. She’s about to explode with power, she thinks, and yet the reader knows what the narrator is up against, the rest of her life like a wildfire she would burn in. Here, too, she’s only at the start of a larger battle, but the moment I wanted to trap was when she’d won something small, a swell of pride and image, on the brink of the rest of her life and the battles that implies.

For “The Haunting,” I started with a moment of being in Sewanee, Tennessee at the graveyard at night, everyone around me wanting to be haunted, waiting for something exciting to happen. I kept listening for anything spooky, but there was nothing but us giggling with flashlights. This was one of those moments on the brink, when our yearning for something about to happen, for what wouldn’t happen, was more important than watching whatever comes next. It seemed to me like a haunting from the future rather than a haunting from the past. I wanted to wallow in the yearning itself. Afterwards, the situation for the flash came to me, that this was girlhood, the girls’ older selves warning them, drawing them forward, our futures just as spooky as the house from The Haunting of Hill House that draws in its guests.

Another way to think about that moment on the brink is as a haunting. The moment when the future selves of the characters, like ghosts, tempt them to come forward, are visible at the corners of the reader’s eye. At any moment they could succumb. What pushes them forward? What, like a hand punched out of the dirt of a grave, holding on to an ankle, keeps them back?

BRENDA PEYNADO’s stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, a Dana Award, a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, and other prizes. Her work appears in The Georgia ReviewThe SunThe Southern ReviewThe Kenyon Review OnlineThe Threepenny Review, and other journals. She received her MFA at Florida State University and her PhD at the University of Cincinnati. She’s currently writing a novel about the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic and a girl who can tell all possible futures, and she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.