What is a short-short story?

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness.

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Writer’s Craft: What is exactly is a Short-Short Story?

The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable, fable, and myth, wrote Robert Shaphard in 1986.

Yes, in 1986! I had no idea. I’ve only really become aware of the form in the last few months, perhaps I read some before but without labelling it as such? I don’t know. However, I’ve been on the search.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories is a collection of work all under 1500 words, published in the mid-eighties, with such notables as Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading as much flash fiction and short stories recently because that’s what I’m turning to as I write. I wanted to find out more, find the history, learn the craft, and then probably ignore much of it knowing me. Still, it’s good to know what works, what has lasted. I’d not known the rich history though and this collection also had three short sections at the back where the authors talked about the form, what does it need to hold together, what is the best category to use, the naming of form and the craft as they saw it then.

How do we define and do we need to? Yes, we’re writers, we’re programmed that way, to write it out to make sense of the experience. Hence this short essay.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories has so many stories that are touching, inventive, suggestive. A week’s worth of reading if you’re like me and have to take on short story at a time, read with it, put it down, and let it rest.

At the end of the collection are three sections where the authors were asked to write about the craft, tradition, and yes, how to name this form. The discourse between the writers was just as interesting and their characters came out even in those responses.

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness, a stripping away of anything unnecessary. There’s economy, wit, a turn at the end that is often funny, shocking, touching, or unexpected. Each one gives a sense of place, mood, scene and atmosphere in under three pages. I’d say they’re often less narrative and more evocative. They give us, the readers, a slice or quality of life, a moment of discovery, or a flash of illumination. They are complete and when you finish, the last line stains and lingers. That is the beauty of the form. The compact completeness that lingers.

There’s nothing like reading quality stories that inspire and this collection did. There are over sixty-five pieces, and only thirteen are by women writers. Shame. I’ll say nothing else here on that topic.

When critics and authors explain the interest in short-shorts these days (2018) they often claim it’s a result of the Internet, short attention spans, an influx of information. Exactly the same was said thrity years ago, even longer as some of the pieces in this Sudden Fiction came from the sixties. Perhaps then it’s just that there’s something so satisfying to dive into a world for only a few pages, if that, and be touched and surprised?

Whether I call them vignettes, prose poems, sketches, parables, fables, flash or short-shorts, these condensed concise tales of moment or incident live in a no man’s land that appeals to me. I’m enjoying playing with moments, memories, imagination, words and forms. This then is the start of a new body of work for me. I’m having fun. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far so good, I have over fifty of the buggers. I’m on a roll.

Here then is one my latest shorts:

First Date

She folds up her long legs into the front seat of the old Toyota truck, window rolled down, one silky arm draped out touching the trees as we drive down narrow rocky back roads mid morning and her other hand holds a tall mug of creamy coffee, clasping it carefully with feline fingers that trace the curves, and I drive with eyes averted, focused on the dangers ahead, the rocks unseen, the flash of animals in the woods, and the sun creeps into the valley as we head up and up, deeper and deeper into the unknown New Mexico wilds with only a vague sense of direction, the truck trundles onwards unflinching and reliable with the steady churning of gears slower and slower and the world gets rockier and my hands clench with determination not to wander too far off course and we’re barely moving but covering so much ground as we catch up and laugh out loud and tease and I drive, ignoring the hand on my lap, and squinting in the bright light, and then our mountain track opens up to a meadow of sunflowers as tall as this woman beside me and she turns to me and says, Stop, and I did and I still don’t regret a thing.

pavement stains

Flash Fiction: Pavement stains. I broke your wings on the way home. Sorry about that.

I broke your wings on the way home. Sorry about that but your fingers were like antennae and my skin split. The mess, it’s all mine, and now that stain on the sidewalk won’t wash away. I tried, I did, I hosed it down. I’d even bagged you up, stuffed into a grocery bag from Trader Joes, and you bled, still dead on the sidewalk’s dust and time screamed slow down under foot pushing me back into those glorious guts that didn’t bring you back. Jealousy’s a killer, isn’t it my love, that burn of shame and those black-outs drowning with desire and desperation and I’m thinking of how all the stupid things I’ve said are now caught inside but I never meant to cause you trouble or do you harm or kill you, not really, sorry love. Your belly button and all its fluff tossed me sideways alone and alive with me begging you still breathless wrapped up in arms. You bled me dry scraped on pavement and nameless and numb without eyes. Confusion steeps in the clouds pouring down in the drizzle like chilled tea. What if you’d wanted me back? You’d waited too long to leave: I blame those flying broken dreams. My landlord won’t return my deposit now there’s yet another stain in front of my home.

Flash Fiction: Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you

Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.

 

(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)

Flash fiction: Is this what you meant?

Is this what you meant?

When you said dogspeed, did you mean big dogs or little? Remember Freddy, the old chi-mix I took in from the shelter? With the grey face, bad arthritis, and his red winter coat? He was slow, feisty but as slow as you are in the mornings. And Harold, my sweet Harry, bless him, he’s not as fast as he once was. It’s his hips – isn’t that true for all of us? But Rosie, she doesn’t bloody stop, does she? Putting her on a leash to walk around the block is like asking a marathon runner to skip to the traffic lights and back. Oh. You said godspeed? I don’t know what that means. Sorry.

Twitter @Princeharry5566

Twitter. Today. Dear Princeharry5566. Got your message. I can answer you now. It’s already been a couple of hours, I’m sorry. Princeharry5566, thanks for following me, I’m right flattered. Princeharry5566, not many young men notice women my age, you were raised right. I’m flattered of course, who wouldn’t be, what with a real live prince? I got the message you sent asking me where I’m from; maybe you looked at profile and saw I’m English too? We’ve not met, yet, but I remember getting plastered when your mum and dad got hitched, it was scrumpy cider and we were in the Mendip hills, and us girls got a bit messy. We spent the afternoon on a horse ride until 3pm and then cleaned up and sat in front of the telly with our cider and snacks, waving our silly little flags, but we’d drunk all that cider and then those flags did naughty things and the telly went on the blink and that was that. Did we miss much after four when it was tea time, you wouldn’t know really but maybe your mum said something? It was quite the day and so much has happened since then and you’re tweeting to me about your wife and you. I read your profile and your posts but you do need to edit. Your profile is in first person and third. Like it’s copied and pasted? Well, nice chatting. To think. Princeharry5566. And me.

The old borrowed time motif that ticks on relentlessly

The snow didn’t melt, would not melt for another three months and you’re scared, scared to sit with yourself, the memories slamming away, keeping you up at night, haunting your eyes so that the barista hands over the coffee with no chitchat, she takes the money and turns to the next in line with a glance of relief at his normality, the average build, short brown hair, brown eyes, winter hat and scarf from Walmart up the road, nothing unusual to him. Your Russian fur hat and ski instructor jacket from the seventies with the words Polite written across the back and your accent, that not-quite-right English accent, it’s too much, so you sip a mug of dark coffee and stare out the window onto main street, unsure what to do with yourself for the next few months, next few days perhaps, you are restless but why? Why when nothing is different but for that clock inside, the one with the loud ticking relentessly reminding you that you live on borrowed time, too many died the last few months, eight to be exact, eight friends and you’re only fifty, for fucks sake, you’re only fifty but you’re scared that time is running out, speeding past and you’ll never get all the words out before you die, never get the stories out and onto paper, onto screens, that they’d end up rattling around in the afterlife but as an atheist, that’s no help, not for you so you sit and sip coffee, take notes of conversations around you, twist them up to make them warp and burn in your brain, and then you trudge home through the snow drifts in sub-freezing weather, up the hill and back to your desk. You’re living on borrowed time and someone might knock on that door stop that clock inside and be done.

Flash Fiction: A Few Things You Wish You’d Said

A few of the things you wish you’d said and done in that bathroom

 

It’s been a good night, a fun night, you’ve been drinking with your friends at a diner in Tennessee, Friday night in the next county over. You need the bathroom. A public bathroom. Not your favourite place to visit, even in the city, and well, you’re here in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, a Baptist enclave of reluctant drinkers, or at least – unpracticed drinkers. You go to the women’s, do your business, flush, and then stand at the sink to wash your hands. The door opens behind you, closes, opens, closes. You look up into the mirror, a woman stands there, stepping back to check the sign on the door. She looks you up and down, the jeans, boots, sweatshirt, and short brown hair. Think Amelia Earhart, slender, scruffy, and a woman in your own right, that’s you. This woman in polyester and hairspray takes you in slowly, her eyebrows raising up as she notices you staring back. She closes the door behind her. What are you, she asks? Why, you reply, what are you? She steps closer, taking a big inbreath, a sigh of impatience, but you smile, friendly and polite as usual and turn off the faucet. You reach for a towel from beside her, and she flinches. No, what are you? She persists, and points her lacquered nails in your vague direction, not too hard to do in this tiny linoleum lined bathroom with only one stall. Are you a man or a woman, I can’t tell, she says with a snarl and snark, too close, too mean in the eyes, all fire and righteous religion, I can’t tell, she insists, am I in the wrong bathroom? You laugh, how would I know unless you show me, and you look her up and down, saucy and slow, a firey anger building in your gut as you take in the pink blouse, puckered lips, and blue eye shadow, the hennaed hair and mouthful of her toxic perfume. She spits, are you a man? You counter with, well, what are you, a drag queen? She squares up to you, her heaving chest to your flat one, stands too close, spitting and spouting, cursing like a backwoods heathen, calling you the devil’s work, as pure evil, a pervert, a disgusting specimen, you you you, you should be killed looking like you do, you should die, what are you, what are you, what are you? She yells at you, GET OUT! GET OUT! but you say, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, and she swallows, as you slowly, with hands on your belt, unbuckle, unzip, and drop your pants.