Trimming the Flash

The other day, Gotham’s own Arlaina Tibensky and Josh Sippie were talking flash stories in my general vicinity, when Arlaina said something that blew me away. 

“Flash stories are like bonsai trees. First you grow a huge tree, then you prune and prune it,  and shape it into a beautiful tree you can put in your pocket.” 

It’s the perfect way to describe writing a flash piece (a work that’s anywhere from 50 words to 1,000, but no more) because it heads off two common mistakes people make when drafting a flash piece. 

One, they write a sequoia. Three or four characters!  A plot and a subplot!  A convoluted major dramatic question! All of which quickly grow into a 100-foot seedling, which the writer then tries to prune, and ends up ruining. 

Or, they write a single reed of feathergrass, and find themselves with nothing to shape. 

A better approach is Arlaina’s — write as many words as you want about one character experiencing one change. Then, visualize the tree’s shape before you start clipping and trimming. Cut judiciously, so that you create space for the story’s true magic to flourish. 

In her flash fiction piece “Mayretta Kelly Brunson Williams Bryant Jones (1932-2012),” Deesha Philyaw starts with a hermit crab — one story borrowing the recognizable shell of another —specifically, an obituary. Within that familiar structure, she tells the (rollicking) story of Mayretta’s life in outline—that’s the plot. Philyaw then wraps those bare facts in asides and commentary, in Mayretta’s distinctive voice, to reveal the story’s deeper (hilarious) meaning. 

Take the first paragraph, which reads almost exactly like every other obit—almost:

“On, March 14th, 2012, Mayretta ‘May’ Brunson Kelly Williams Bryant Jones slept away peacefully right into Jesus’ arms after a long undisclosed illness (and if that big-mouth Margaret Hill says May had a nasty woman’s disease, she’s a goddamn lie).” 

Essayist Bhante Sumano accomplishes similar magic with his flash nonfiction piece “Buoy” by focusing his story on a split-second, very awkward moment between himself and his roommates. He breaks the moment—five dudes eating breakfast with NPR on the radio —into increments, each with its own paragraph. In between them, he grafts on observations and reflections, like, “I sip my orange juice at the table while the room shrinks—wishing, in hindsight, that I had refused the breakfast invitation, slept in.” 

On their own, the external scene or the internal dialogue would be interesting, but together, they’re a slow-motion car crash. And the tight focus gave Sumano room for the highest-impact moment of all, what he wished he’d said.

Both Philyaw and Sumano’s stories illustrate another common mistake writers often make when writing flash — they assume, incorrectly, these deeply affecting, memorable, big stories are small.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Birthday Cluster

Fellow writers, it’s the third week of May, and you know what that means? Birthday cluster!
And this no ordinary birthday cluster — this week we celebrate the births of three iconoclasts, writers who not only defied expectations, but made an art of it.
First up, poet Adrienne Rich, born May 16th, 1929, perhaps most famous (infamous?) for refusing the National Medal for the Arts in 1997, because, she said, “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
Rejecting the easier path and telling the truth were among Rich’s chief values. Twenty years before turning down the medal, she said in a speech, the subconscious mind—so important to a writer’s craft—needs truth to survive. “To lie habitually…is to lose contact with the unconscious,” she said. “It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming.”
Next, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, born May 19th, 1930. Hansberry wrote the classic A Raisin in the Sun, which when it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959 made her the first Black woman playwright to have her work produced on Broadway.
A civil-rights activist and a member of the Communist Party during the McCarthy era, Hansberry believed writers must “write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be—if there is to be a world.”
In Raisin, one of the characters says of the future, “It isn’t a circle—it is simply a long line…And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes. It is very odd that those who see the changes—who dream, who will not give up—are called idealists…and those who see only the circle we call them the ‘realists!’”
Last up, Nora Ephron, born May 19th, 1941. No doubt you know her romantic comedies, her humorous essays, maybe even her 1983 novel Heartburn. But she also co-wrote the screenplay for the drama Silkwood, about real-life nuclear plant-worker-turned-whistleblower Karen Silkwood.
A big moment in that story is when Karen Silkwood shifted from ordinary woman to political activist who risked her life to tell the truth.
“Well, that’s boring to watch,” Ephron wrote. “The answer was to make the movie very domestic, about three people in a house. We had that: Karen, her roommate, and her boyfriend… three people, all moving in different directions.”
Besides being writers born in Taurus on the cusp of Gemini, one thing these three women had in common was a belief that anything good began with people raising their voices. So, to celebrate them, you can (and should) read their work, possibly with cake. But you should also write, in their honor, and raise your own voice.
As always, I’ve got some suggestions.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Your Writing Brain Needs Fun

Guys, my friend is getting married!

Probably yours is, too. Gotham instructor Rachel Simon (who got married April 9th—congrats Rachel!) wrote for the New York Times all about how 2022 will be the record-breaking “year of many, many weddings.

I don’t know how it’s going for you, but lately, when I should be working on my projects-in-progress about secondary trauma, disaster relief, and place attachment, I find myself instead burning an hour looking at pretty dresses. When I should be writing about disenfranchised grief,
I find myself instead calling my friend so we can talk about how we’re gonna dance and eat cake.

It turns out, that’s not only forgivable, it’s healthy, and necessary.

“The mental experience of stress, especially if it’s chronic and moderate to severe, gradually changes the structure of the brain so we become progressively more sensitive to stress,” says psychologist and author
Rick Hanson. “The brain is very good at learning from bad experiences but bad at learning from good ones. Good experiences kind of bounce right off the brain, meanwhile bad experiences sink right in.”

What this means is, your brain needs your help making the good experiences sink in. It needs you to have fun, to experience and savor joy, so that you don’t forget how.

How do you do this? When something good does happen, when you realize you’re enjoying yourself, when you have an opportunity for fun, or joy, seize it. Savor it. Stay in it as long as you can.

A season of weddings can be an opportunity. Watching a dog chase a stick in a park on a sunny day can be an opportunity.

Writing can also be an opportunity.

“I know we talk about writing as work, and it is,” the author Nick Flynn said in a Gotham memoir class a few years ago. “But c’mon. It’s fun, too.”

So let’s have some fun, writers. I’ve complied a few writing exercises here. Try them, and as you do, try to write in a genre that is not your current work in progress. If you’re hammering away at a novel, maybe try these exercises as a script or nonfiction. If you’re writing a memoir, write them as fiction. Try your hand at a bad poem.

Most importantly, if they’re not fun, don’t push it. Move onto the next one, and when you find yourself smiling as you write, keep going. If you feel the urge to stop, don’t. Write three more sentences before you put down the pen.

While you all work on have fun with those, I’ll be over here, dancing and eating cake. 

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty