Making Every Word Count. A Chat With David Galef, Author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook
The first draft of this Introduction had reached 300 words when I remembered I was writing about a book titled Brevity, proof enough that shorter forms can be just as challenging as longer works. An entertaining mix of instruction, exercises, and fiction from a diverse slate of writers, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook is a much-needed guide to writing flash fiction. David Galef, who directs the Creative Writing Program at Montclair State University, has written an insightful and useful new book for teachers and writers of flash. Galef shared his thoughts in a recent interview.
Interview by Chuck Augello
What inspired you to write a flash fiction handbook?
As the head of a creative writing program, I’ve been asked and asked about writing some kind of manual. I’ve been sent examination copies of everything from triplegenre textbooks to writing your novel while doing yoga. But I’d been teaching workshops based on short fiction for years, and it finally occurred to me this area could really use a textbook. No one had put out a book with systematic chapters on what kind of stories you could pack into a small space. Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook has sections on the vignette, the what-if premise, the character sketch, the twist story, dialogues, stories disguised as letters, and so on, as well as chapters on how to cut wordage and the vanishing point of the form. Short answer: I wanted to fill a gap.
In the Introduction you discuss the development of flash fiction. Can you give a brief recap for readers who might be unfamiliar with the background?
For such a short form, flash fiction has a long history. Short narratives can be traced as far back as Aesop’s fables, probably earlier if we had records of oral history. We also could talk about biblical parables, Jātaka tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, or pieces from Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book. Or note the vogue for short-short narratives in Liberty and Cosmopolitan in the 1910s and ’20s. Or recognize some famous 20thcentury practitioners of the form, from Colette to Hemingway. The boom in our era started in the mid1980s, when Robert Shapard and James Thomas began their anthology series Sudden Fiction. Then came Tom Hazuka and Denise and James with their anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories. The internet emphasis on speed, the dimensions of a screen, and near-instant publication has accelerated the trend enormously.
What are some of the challenges of writing flash as opposed to longer stories?
Flash fiction depends on an ability to work in a small space, to make every word count. Let’s say you have a limit of 1,000 words. You can’t devote a page to your setting on the Jersey shore or a complex backstory involving an addiction to three different drugs. But you can still register effects: a quick view from the boardwalk at Point Pleasant or the twitchiness of withdrawal symptoms. Fiction is the art of representation, a little standing in for a lot, and flash fiction stresses that lesson.
Brevity contains fiction from a diverse cast of writers, from Donald Barthelme to Roxanne Gay, from Steve Martin to Alice Walker. How did you select which readings to include?
I wanted gripping, amusing, poignant, absorbing material to illustrate the techniques taught in each chapter. I wanted diversity; I wanted a panoply of voices demonstrating a character sketch, a rant, or a piece of metafiction. And I wanted to zoom past the 50-percent rate, which is to have at least half the stories liked by the readers. I read a lot and also solicited recommendations. Then came permissions hell, at times tracking down authors whose only trace was a defunct website, as well as securing translation rights, global rights, and electronic rights. I also insisted on paying everyone because I think writers should be recompensed for their work. The whole process took a long time.
The discussion questions after the readings are a highlight of the book. They ask the reader to think about craft, but also engage in larger questions, such as “what makes someone envious?” Why are these discussions important?
You mean points like asking you in the fables section to go against conventional wisdom: You can buy happiness. Or how crying over spilt milk gets results. I have fun in these sections, but in fact questions and prompts help a lot. They get you thinking about what makes a story: a precipitating incident, for instance, such as the third and final time your girlfriend tells you to get a job, any job, or it’s over between you. You’re desperate and have to be creative. In the next paragraph or even the next sentence, you’re dressed as a humansized hamburger, handing out samples outside a new fastfood franchise.
In the chapter Mass Compression, you discuss syncope and synecdoche. Explain these terms to readers who might be unfamiliar with them.
As I mention in the chapter “Mass Compression,” syncope is a series with the middle term left out—think of syncopation in jazz. In fiction, you can render a plot without all the incidents: you don’t actually need the scenes between the car crash and physical rehab. As for synecdoche, it’s not a town in upstate New York (you’re thinking of Schenectady), but a figure of speech in which a part stands for a whole. In poetry, “forty prows crested the waves” represents a fleet of ships crossing the ocean. In flash fiction, you can do the same, and with anything from character to setting: that one buzzing, halflit neon bar sign illustrates the whole seedy block.
Each chapter includes writing exercises. Have you used any of these exercises to generate your own writing? Can experienced writers still benefit from writing exercises?
Writing exercises are invaluable tools, from drills on cutting down wordage to prompts for getting people started. You can write a pretty fair piece of flash fiction based on a scenario that turns a joke insideout. Experienced writers usually generate or find their own, but most writers are on the lookout for a great idea or premise. I cherish a line from one of the Columbia University Press reader reports: “Often, I felt so inspired by the prompts that I wanted to sit down at my computer and try the exercise myself.” And no, I didn’t make that up.
As an editor for the online journal Cease, Cows, I’ve seen numerous flash submissions with impressive language, but nothing happens. How important is telling a story to successful flash?
I admit, I’m most impressed by performative language. Anyone who tosses me a fresh way to put something gets my attention. The work of Barry Hannah comes to mind, and though he wrote longer than 1,000-word stories, he packed in a great deal. In any event, I also want some narrative drive beyond mere lyrical outpouring. It can be a forward march, backsliding, or a sideways maneuver, but make something happen! In a good piece of flash fiction, the language works hand in hand with the story. That amazing sentence in the last paragraph couldn’t have appeared earlier because the events didn’t yet allow it.
One of my favorite flash fiction stories is “The Haircut” by Manuela Soares in the anthology Sudden Flash Youth. Do you have a favorite work of flash fiction?
I have most of those anthologies, from Flash Fiction Funny to Flash Fiction Youth, and you’re right, “The Haircut” is a powerful comingofage story with a sexual orientation shift. Two stories in Brevity come from that collection, Raphael Dagold’s “The Two Rats and the BB Gun” as an example of a modern fable, and Christine Byl’s “Hey, Jess McCafferty” to show the full scope of a rant. But as for one favorite work, I have too many to list. Maybe—nah, just can’t.
You teach creative writing. Do you approach teaching flash differently from teaching longer works?
It’s like a regular fiction workshop, only more intense. Think of a person with something he’s got to tell you, but he has only a short space in which to do that. It works a lot from prompts, like “Your character just learned that the world is ending in three hours. What would she do?” It emphasizes brevity, concision, and the few details that stand in for a whole page in other fiction. We won’t describe her whole face, just quivering nostrils.
What’s your view on that old warhorse of a question, “Can creative writing be taught?”
That query still comes up, doesn’t it? Here’s my answer: What people usually mean by that point is whether you can teach someone to write the great American novel. Maybe not, but anyone in a good workshop emerges as a better writer and reader, and that matters. Do people ask of a coach, “Can you really teach football?” or query a math teacher, “Can you teach algebra to my son, who can’t add?” Of course you can teach basic skills, or at least move people from point A to point B. Sometimes it’s instructing people how to liven up their prose with sensory details and action verbs; sometimes it’s placing a piece by Lorrie Moore or George Saunders in their hands.
Who is the intended audience for Brevity?
That’s a good question, with more than one answer. For use in the classroom, obviously, particularly since short-short fiction is more manageable for student reading, writing, and discussion than devoting three weeks to a novel. But it’s also for all the people out there, from fledgling writers to pros, trying their hand at writing in brief. It’s both reader- and writerfriendly and I hope entertaining.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get started writing fiction?
I was one of those kids who brought a book everywhere, even to the library. I read everything, though I had a long fantasy and science fiction phase that made me dream, and a longish P. G. Wodehouse run that influenced my style. I read and read until one day, when reading something not particularly memorable, I thought, “I can do better than this,” and sat down to write a story. My first published short story was in Personal Computing, back in 1977. It paid $200, and I was elated. I was seventeen. I’d like to say that fame and fortune followed, but another two years went by before my next fiction publication. Meanwhile, I kept sending out material, and that was in the days of the typewriter and the selfaddressed, stamped envelope. Since then, I’ve been a shameless eclectic, publishing three novels, two short story collections, two volumes of poetry, two children’s books, translation, criticism, essays, and reviews. My first job after graduate school was teaching in the field of my doctorate, modern British literature, but I kept publishing so much other material that they let me teach creative writing workshops, as well, and I ran the MFA program in creative writing at Ole Miss for six years. I now direct the creative writing program at Montclair State University, and I still teach both “literature” and creative writing.
Which authors have inspired or excited you over the years?
The roll call here is lengthy, from Albee to Woolf. Let’s just say that I love what I’ll call the maximalists, writers who can make even a trip to the supermarket wondrous and strange.
Which journals would you recommend to someone looking for quality flash fiction? How would you rate the current “state of the flash?”
I’m worried about omitting places, from recognized sources like SmokeLong Quarterly and Word Riot to smaller operations like Cease, Cows and 100 Word Story. But as for the state of flash, it’s incredible. It’s everywhere, from contests and anthologies to classrooms and websites. I keep thinking that it must have reached a peak of some kind, but it just keeps growing.
Chuck Augello lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, three cats, and several unnamed squirrels who live in the back yard. His work has appeared in One Story, Smokelong Quarterly, Word Riot, Juked, A Lonely Riot, and other fine places. A contributing editor for Cease, Cows, he publishes The Daily Vonnegut, featuring interviews, essays, and trivia about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.