This is what you do if he wakes up sad. This is what you do if he comes home angry. This is what you do if he stops taking his medication. This is what you do if he stays…
At first, I didn’t understand that this was a piece of flash fiction because I don’t write flash fiction. When I got this refrain stuck in my head, the voice of a woman living in an exhausting, frightening, and unsustainable situation, I did the thing I normally do with any story shard: I sat with it for several days, trying to figure out what or where the story was, following threads, conceiving and dismissing ideas, shaping the characters’ lives, trying to figure out how the hell they (particularly she) got to be where they are. At this point, I thought the refrain was my way into the real story.
But, even as I developed that story in my head, the refrain wouldn’t quit. I’m trying to be better about listening to my gut, letting the story control me rather than the other way around, so I thought, okay, maybe this refrain is not just a way in, but is actually the structure of the story. (I still didn’t understand it was flash fiction…because I don’t write flash fiction.) I began to think of the story unfolding in brief sections, separated by white space—each line of the refrain corresponding to a small scene that would gradually reveal the bigger picture.
Again, I did this work in my head, imagining how each individual “this is what you do” might be best illustrated, trying to decide whether the story should work chronologically, or if it would be more interesting if it were just a chaotic gathering of dangerous moments that had no obvious order, no arc other than her increasing desperation, just a stew of panic with an undercurrent of steely resolve that she would be able to handle anything that happened if only she had enough contingency plans.
I didn’t have to actually write even one of the little scenes to know, before too long, that this idea wasn’t going to work. Every time I began one in my head, it paled in intensity to the line it sought to illustrate. Plus, the more time I spent with it, the more the whole idea seemed contrived, heavy-handed; my intrusive fingerprints were all over it. The story was no longer about the character; it was about my presentation of her. So maybe, I thought, this was a fail. The refrain remained a compelling seed—I still couldn’t shake it—but it wasn’t going to open up into anything more.
Before I gave up, I decided to write it down, just as I’d first heard it, because who knew?… maybe I’d figure it out someday when I was smarter. So I let her talk, just unleashed her onto the page, and it wasn’t until I saw it for the first time outside of my brain that I thought, hey, wait a second…maybe I do write flash fiction.
SUSAN PERABO’s most recent books are The Fall of Lisa Bellow (2017) and Why They Run the Way They Do (2016), both from Simon & Schuster. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South; and her work has appeared in numerous publications, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, and The Sun. Her five favorite things are her family, the sun, the St. Louis Cardinals, black coffee, and socks, in that order. She is a professor of creative writing at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.