How I discovered Flash Fiction - Guest Post by Peter Leyland

I was starting to teach a course on The Short Story for my WEA students when I noticed a reference on Twitter to Not Here Not Us, Short Stories of Syria (2018) by Bronwen Griffiths. Having an interest in the recent history of the country, and thinking I needed something to add to my usual fare of Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Shirley Jackson et al I sent off for a copy. 

When it arrived I had just started teaching the course and I read on the cover that it was a collection of short stories, flash fiction and poems about the Syria crisis. I mentioned the book to the class, and they asked me what flash fiction was. I said that I didn’t know but that I would find out for next week. This involved reading the book and so I did.

Reading can sometimes be for me an extraordinary experience, rather like a trip, and so it was with this book. The pieces with titles like ‘Sniper’, ‘Death and Survival’ and ‘Syrian Spaceman’ flowed together in one unbroken reading stream and as I usually do my reading at night I woke thinking well, this is something different. I have been taken into an unfamiliar world but with signposts showing me where I was and how to find my way around there  - there in Syria.

‘What is there to bury? His daughter is six years old.’ 

A line like that is almost a story in itself and this is the art of ‘flash’ as it is known. I contacted the author and asked her if she could define it for me. She said that it was a story of no more than a thousand words and there needs to be action, reaction and conclusion, and ‘a sense that there’s been a change in the main character’. It could also be very experimental. Some flashes, she said, used lists and crossword puzzles to tell the story. 

Well the short story course had to close because of the pandemic and I wasn’t able to give my class the full answer, although I had read them a piece from Bronwen Griffiths’ book called Our Country which they liked. I began to look around for examples of flash fiction which revealed itself to be an exciting new genre, to me at any rate. This is a selection of the pieces I found:

Yew by Johanna Robinson. This is the winner of this year’s Cambridge Flash Fiction prize. It’s about a yew tree being trimmed and is told from the point of view of the tree as a boy tries to steal eggs from a nest within its branches and is warned off by the woman wielding the trimming shears. I won’t tell you what thoughts it raised in this reader’s mind you’ll have to guess, but this is the art of the genre.

The Boy on the Cliff by Giles Montgomery. Another boy story about a member of a group of friends who is afraid to join them in jumping from a cliff into the sea. Years pass, friends change, marry, have children and die, and he remains on the cliff top waiting until one day he jumps, or does he?

Other Uses for a Woman’s Body - winner of a Who Run the World competition, an extraordinary story by Rosaleen Lynch about women using their bodies as a dam to hold back rising water when the sandbags have run out. Men built the foundations long ago but are no longer around. What has happened here? A world full of questions opens up.

As I suggested this seems to be the art of flash fiction – what is not said, what is left out, and the flashes can get smaller. Jayne Martin, a writer of microfiction, asks in an article, ‘How is crafting microfiction like getting a boat inside a bottle?’ She gives us a quotation from the American novelist Toni Morrison as part of the answer:

‘It’s what you don’t write that that frequently gives what you do write its power.’

Martin gives us an example of a short piece from her collection of micro called Working Girl, and she shows how in 48 words you can allow the reader to experience the whole character of a woman who is risking her life in order to feed her child. Only ‘a blush-tinted stiletto’ is left to remind us of the woman who has been snatched from the street by a faceless stranger.

Another very short piece I found was YOLO by Hannah Storm which is about the way TLS or three letter acronyms are used by the army. She addresses the users: ‘So when you churn out TLAs as excuses for your behaviour: MOD, POC, FOB, IED, as if you are still at war, they land like shrapnel and I take cover to protect myself…’

In Storm’s story it is as though the use of TLAs sanitises behaviour that we would otherwise find threatening and offensive. It made me consider how language is used against us as the Newspeak was used against Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). It is no accident that Orwell’s book is being referred to so often during out current pandemic where the government has to sanitise utterances that in cold blood would make our lives unbearable.

As I continued my research into the discovery of this new writing genre, I became more and more aware of its popularity, the number of competitions it had given rise to and the brevity of the pieces asked for. Don’t use a dozen words when you can use one, was the message I was getting and this was reinforced by a recent article in AuthorsElectric by Eden Baylee. He compared the writing of longwinded texts to the storyteller who holds us hostage while telling his or her tale. Flash pieces are not like the tales of ancient mariners. I wondered, however, whether a flash piece might be just that - you read it once and then completely forget about it. The technique might be longer lasting if used experimentally. J.B Carle in Vagabond Mannequin uses a crossword puzzle where the clues tell the story. I had to read it a number of times to understand what was happening but eventually the story stuck.

But to return to how I started. I sent for another book by Bronwen Griffiths, Listen with Mother (2019), which is a memoir of childhood constructed from pieces of flash fiction that the author has written and sometimes published over the years. The pieces are linked together in the mind of a central character, who seems sometimes to be the author but then at other times just a little girl called Lucy who lived in a Worcestershire village in the 1960s and who had a mother and a father and a brother, like we all do or did once upon a time. Some of the pieces could be seen as stand-alone vignettes which is characteristic of the genre but in this book all are linked by the voice of the author, the storyteller. It can be read at a sitting, ‘flash reading’ I would call it. In this ‘flash read’ you will spend an hour or two in the mind of a little girl who is every little girl that ever was. A great trip!


Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating. Thanks, Peter, for a clarification of a genre I've always enjoyed (and even tried my hand at). You've also validated my claim that a piece written by my brother was a good example of the genre. Its title was 'Lost' and it went:

'That ring you lost - was it a wedding ring?
Not really.'

He doesn't agree with me.
Griselda Heppel said…
Yes, thank you for this very good discussion of Flash Fiction. I still struggle with the idea, not in itself, more in what you do with it. You can't really lose yourself in a piece of flash fiction the way you can in a novel or short story, which for me is the point of reading.

And Bill, your brother's example is excellent. I wonder why he doesn't think so. Too modest!
Umberto Tosi said…
Wonderful examples, Debbie. Even the titles are stories in themselves. I hope you class resumes soon and safely at some point for you to continue to enlighten you students with these perceptions.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Peter, thanks for an informative article. Flash is a wonderful genre, and one of my favourite to write. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most misused forms of fiction. In my opinion, a good piece, no matter how short, has a beginning, middle, end; introduction, conflict, climax, resolution. So few pieces incorporate any, much less all of these elements.

I admire experimental flash pieces, and probably should be more open-minded to them! That's my own shortfall though, as in the end, I'm still expecting a cohesive story.

Thanks for referencing my blog! Very kind of you. :D


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