ABCs of Flash Writing: W is for Weird

Posted by on May 10, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: W is for Weird

“There are two types of stories,” The Writing Man used to tell us. “Man comes to town. Man leaves town.”

We believed him because mostly we believed in him and his incredible career, the way he distilled the finer points of writing down to soundbytes. Except they weren’t soundbytes the way we think of them—terrible little summaries that sound catchy but don’t say much at all. They were soundbytes in that when we listened real hard and heard the writers we were to become, we heard ourselves as The Writing Man, Lee K. Abbott, pleased with whatever progress our writing students seemed to make and comfortable knowing we had figured some things out about Good Writing. Long sentence? All it took was to say “nouns and verbs” while shaking our head at the adverb-rich.

Here’s the deal: there are more than two types of stories, but probably not much more. For instance, let’s take a look at the first issue of Spry: ten flash stories, one about growing up, four about relationships with parents, four about romantic relationships, one about God. Think back to any collection of stories or essays or any workshop you’ve participated in. Don’t most stories fit into those categories?

So what can we do? If we have to make a story universal to get some sort of emotional response from our reader, what’s the point in writing at all? Haven’t all the stories been written?

Of course not. While there’s no point in writing the familiar—even if the familiar is the heart of your story—we have plenty of reasons to create stories about the familiar.

You just have to unearth the weird.

Take, for instance, a story about a relationship with a parent. It wouldn’t be good storytelling—especially in flash, when you have so little room—to hit on all of the points that create a sense of common existence with the reader. “My mother didn’t really seem to love my father, my mother cooked with me, my mother always told me she loved me before she dropped me off for anything—school, practice, a friend’s house.” These are unremarkable.

It would be unremarkable for a woman to discuss growing up with a mother who didn’t tell her everything about sex—how she explained the physical act but didn’t discuss how sex was like “The pure joy of severing the loose tie between the dead and the alive, the stale and the fresh, the dried and the juicy, the unwanted and the desired, the veil and the veiled, the confining and the constrained.” That’s Saeide Mirzaei in the first issue of Spry. She’s talking about peeling potatoes with her mother. She’s also talking, as she transitions to the end of her story, about how when she grew to be a woman, she took less joy in the peeling, because the skins didn’t peel so easy—“not all constraints were there to be removed.”

In flash, lamenting that your mother didn’t teach you about the difficult, emotional parts of sex cannot be plainly stated. It must embrace the weird—the odd, the as-of-yet-unexplained. Don’t just choose details. Choose the weird details, and connect them to the universal.

The Writing Man had many soundbytes, and here’s another: “You need a page 2 move here.” The Writing Man insisted that in a full-length short story, you started in media res and by page 2 you needed to move back to exposition to help us understand why the narrator or protagonist thought the way they thought.

The way we explain the protagonist or narrator’s thoughts mustn’t be commonplace, though, especially in flash. God, parental relationships, romantic relationships, growing up…these are the themes of any story. Your job as a writer is to make them new. Your additional job as a writer of flash is to make them weird.

Bill Riley is an Assistant Professor of English at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute, IN, and earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The Ohio State University in 2012. His writing has been published in STAND Magazine, Punchnel’s, Prime Number, Spry Literary Journal, Terre Haute Living Magazine, and more. His book, The Milan Miracle: The Town That Hoosiers Left Behind won an IPPY Bronze Medal in the 2017 Independent Publishers’ Book Awards. Find him here.