For me, being an electric author has always been about more than having my work available on one or more proprietory ebook reader. I joined the online writing world via variouos writing communities back in the hazy days of 2007/8 (OK, hardly those long lost days of youth, but that was basically the time I decided to write "for serious" at all), but it was in 2009 thatI really became an electric author, poking and prodding at digital possibilities, when I started writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes as an interactive piece of literary fiction on Facebook.
It was that book through which I met many of the people I still work with most closely and started to get invited to blog across the web on all topics digital. Most of all, it made me realise how exciting it could be exploring for different ways to write.
The most exciting form I've discovered has been flash fiction which may not necessarily a digital form of writing (there's even a flash fiction category in the Bridport now) but both lends itself to appearing on blogs and has taken off in popularity thanks to online initiatives like #fridayflash (every Friday hundreds of writers post flash fiction on their blogs, then put a link on twitter as well as the #flashfriday hashtag. By searching that hashtag people find, read, and comment on, hundreds of stories a week. It's a fabulous community and has already spawned several superb anthologies).
Flash fiction could be describe in all kinds of ways, from word count (under 1000, under 500, under 400, various others) to structure, but it's an incredibly versatile form (and new) that eludes such labels in the main. Suffice to say it's not a short story (I personally treat flash's relation to shorts as I do novellas to novels - the capturing and layering of a single strand rather than the weaving of several, but I know that's an idiosyncratic way to look at both flash and novellas), and is most definitely not a practice ground.
The closest I've come to a description was in a piece I wrote for James Everington's excellent series "In Defence of Short Stories" which, typically for someone obtuse like me, took the form of a piece of flash rather than an argument. I've put it at the end of this post, along with a new piece.
Anyway, next year sees the very first National Flash Fiction Day, held on May 16th. All kinds of things will be happening all over the country and online, and the event has already attracted some fabulous supporters like Tania Hershman. To support the day, I'm running a Flash Slam in Oxford. Do click the link to sign up! Basically this will take the same format as a poetry slam - lots of people get to read for no more than 4 minutes each, before audience members randomly/affectionately assign marks, and everyone has chaotic fun and learns to appreciate just how fabulous flash fiction is. And if you're not sure if you'd like to read (Oxford audiences really are warm and lovely) or would just like to be part of a warm and lovely audience, do come along to listen! And if you change your mind about reading once things get going you can always sign up to read on the spot. We even have a headline act and superstar panelist, the utterly brilliant Tania Hershman who'll be offering friendly comments on allr eaders as well as reading her own award-winning flashes
So, here are my pieces. They're sort of similar in subject - most of what I write is, in some way or other, connected with the art world. The first, Flash, is in a conversational/anecdotal style I often use. The second, After She Stopped, is more like my longer fiction and will almost certainly remind you of Murakami (albeit many times paler).
I've been reading James’ defences of short stories for some time now, and I’ve sat at my desk thinking about putting something together, wondering what I could say. It should be easy. I write short stories. Lots of them. And not just short stories but flash fiction too.
That’s it, I thought, before I asked James if I could put something together. Flash fiction. After all, I haven’t seen too many people defend it. It’s still looked upon as a bit of a novelty, a parvenu, not at all the place where an author would have the space to attribute three whole adjectival clauses to a single noun.
The problem is I’ve never really been an apologist. Do. That’s my motto. Don’t think it, live it. And live it again, and keep on living. Just like Katelan said that night when we sat around in button back chairs telling the audience about Lilith, and embracing life so close you choke on it, and her friend Holly, who died in her early twenties but lived more than you or I ever will.
It was mid morning. Goodness knows what time o’clock in New York but I called her anyway.
Hey you, she said with all the energy I remembered, and I didn’t feel so bad.
So I’m doing this piece about flash fiction.
Yeah, about how cool it is. No, not just that. A defence of it.
A defence of it? she said and I could hear the frown lines. What’s to defend?
Exactly, I said, it seems so obvious.
So obvious you can’t think how to put it, she said, and I just laughed, and there we were laughing down the phone together at how ridiculous it was.
So how come you’re up? I asked.
She told me she’d been on a shoot and I asked her what they’d been shooting and she said she’d spent all day riding the IRT sharing homemade cupcakes with strangers while a friend filmed the thing on his phone and I said that sounded pretty cool and she said yeah it was cool, and then she spent an hour telling me about this guy who was going to propose to his partner only he wasn’t sure and he and Katelan talked it over for so many stops as they ate and her friend filmed and they ate some more and talked some more that he missed his stop and his partner called him and he picked up his phone in the middle of a mouthful and Katelan heard her say screw you, loser and the guy laughed and ate more cupcakes and felt so free he rode another ten stops with her while her friend filmed.
I asked her what she was going to do with the shoot and she said her friend was just finishing the film as we spoke and was going to upload it the moment he was done. I asked her if she could send me a link and she said not to worry I was first on the guy’s list when it was ready so I said thanks and she said you still don’t know what to write, do you?
No, I said, and she laughed and I asked her why and she said I’d always been slow on the uptake but not to worry, when I got the point I was always the right one to follow it through. I shrugged and asked her what the piece was called so I could tell people about it. I heard another voice, not hers, a man’s voice and it said, I’m not the one who lived. I’m not the one who lived, I repeated and Katelan’s voice and the man’s voice were laughing at the end of the line and then they weren’t. They weren’t anything. I held the phone to my ear waiting for her to say yeah, or awesome, or goodbye or something but she didn’t, and the next noise was the ping of an incoming e-mail and I held the phone close and mouthed thank you down the line.
Thank you, that’s exactly what I needed to say.
After She Stopped
“You could look at it forever, couldn’t you?”
It was my first visit to the Hilbert Gallery. I’m not sure why I was there. Maybe it was raining outside. Maybe there a meeting I needed to miss.
Looking at the screen, I thought the words were part of the exhibition.
I stood there staring at images that seemed to change every ten seconds or so, wondering how much of my life would be too much to spend with a piece of art.
It was minutes before I noticed the girl standing next to me. She had a Mary Quant bob and she was wearing a long woollen coat although it was summer. I wondered how long she’d been there.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a kiss.” She didn’t look at me. It was like a cord ran between her eye and the screen.
“I can’t see any lips.” Between the clothes and the stillness, she had this kind of Beatnik authority about her, and I felt like a klutz as soon as I said it.
“Yeah, weird, isn’t it?” she said.
We stood in silence after that. I kept watching the screen, trying to figure whether the film was on a loop, whether anyone was going to kiss at any point. I’d forgotten whatever it was I’d come in to avoid doing.
I wondered if there was some kind of etiquette for who leaves first in situations like this.
“Come back tomorrow,” she said, like she was reading my thoughts off an autocue on the screen.
“I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow.”
“You’re coming here.”
It was like that for months. I have no recollection of the hours I wasn’t at the gallery. I’d turn up at the Hilbert. “You could look at it forever, couldn’t you?” she’d say, and we’d stand in front of the screen like we were playing a game of dare.
The day she stopped coming, I had this cramping, seasick feeling. I felt her absence next to me like it was thumping my kidneys.
For weeks I went back every day. I stared harder and harder at the screen, as though she might be in there. She never was.
One day I was standing in front of the screen and the emptiness next to me was missing. A woman stood next to me. She had a sharp suit and her blonde hair was tangled like she was on her way somewhere.
I said, “You could look at it forever, couldn’t you?”