Promptly: Tara McDaniel on The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, ed. Tara L. Masih, Rose Metal Press, 2009

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction is the best of its kind. For both beginner and advanced practitioners of this hot and wildly popular genre, the Field Guide offers tons of practical advice, hands-on exercises, and intriguing histories of the form. The back matter is chock full of recommended reading lists and suggested anthologies. It’s no wonder this fabulous book is already in its second printing and has received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

Tara L. Masih, editor of the Field Guide, presents the first comprehensive essay on flash in the introduction. After first reading Tara’s intro, I was astounded at the rich history of flash. It’s been around since the dawn of myth; and in Shouhua Qi’s essay “Old Wine in New Bottles,” he gives various examples of Chinese flash dating as far back as 350 BC. Masih describes 14th century Italian flash, the burgeoning of flash in America beginning with Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and even the feminist flash started by Louisa May Alcott and Kate Chopin. We learn the development of flash and its current style and means of consumption via both print and the internet. The final two sections of the book give you an idea of where flash is going in the future and how you can join the party.

The Field Guide is structured as a series of individual essays, each taking a different approach to flash. Such esteemed writers as Stuart Dybek, Jayne Anne Phillips, Robert Olen Butler, and Steve Almond give their two cents on the form along with advice on inspiration, taking risks, beginning and ending successful flash, and finally how to best tackle the editing process. There is truly something in the Field Guide for everyone. Jayne Anne Phillips, in her essay “’Cheers’ (or) How I Taught Myself to Write,” introduces the one-page form and how to play with its density to create the most powerful and moving stories in the shortest space. She suggests working with “instruction booklets, tax forms, newspapers, and cookbooks” to get your writing into a direct mode. As with all the other essays in the Field Guide¸ Phillips’ essay concludes with a prompt and a story example to illustrate how to use the prompt. The writing advice and exercises contained here offer more than just basic advice on flash fiction. In a way, this is a fun manual for writers of both poetry and prose, no matter what the form. Lex Williford’s essay, “Forty Stories in the Desert” gives instructions for how to make your own Rorschach blots and then generate lists of images from them. Williford also gives instructions on how to use the lists to create “15 minute fictions.” Practicing one 15-minute fiction a day for five weeks will “encourage the discovery of images, characters, and storylines,” says Williford, who has used this exercise successfully for years in the classroom. This same essay is also rife with such wonderful advice as how to create surprising reversals in both poetry and prose.

As a poet, I have used many of these exercises to generate new poems and breathe life into drafts that I thought were stuck. One of my favorite entries, “The Myth-ing Link (Or, Linking up to Myth)” by Pamelyn Casto, explores how to write flash using myth as a formative structure. She gives examples of how to re-create or breathe new life into traditional myths, or de-familiarizing myths by giving them a special and unexpected twist. The writing prompts at the end are fantastic with no less than seven ideas for using a particular myth to create new stories and characters. I’ve taken some of these ideas, such as putting Pandora on trial and giving her voice using a Q&A format. Steve Almond’s contribution shows how you can take bad poems and turn them into successful flash. And Kim Chinquee explores the relationship between prose poem and flash in her essay “Flash Fiction, Prose Poetry, and Men Jumping Out of Windows.” The Field Guide is as fine a writing resource as I have yet come across. A highly recommended resource for individual libraries or for use in workshop.

Last Call: Tara Masih on Sherrie Flick’s Reconsidering Happiness

Reconsidering Happiness, Sherrie Flick, University of Nebraska Press

I admire women writers who tell it like it is, don’t prettify their female characters, don’t apologize for their actions. Sherrie Flick’s Reconsidering Happiness is a dead-on exploration of women’s issues in recent decades (and men’s, peripherally), in regards to relationships with themselves and others.

Flick is known as being the co-founder of the popular Gist Street Writing Series in Pittsburgh, PA. She is also much-respected for her flash fiction, and won Flume Press’s fiction chapbook contest in 2004 for I Call This Flirting, which garnered her the title of a master of flash. So how does a writer go from the condensed time-frames and prose structures that flash demands, to the more sprawling demands of a novel?

In this case, with apparent ease. There are no signs in Flick’s prose of a writer struggling to create longer text and scenes; in fact, she follows more than one point of view. Flick’s juxtaposition of several characters works to reveal so much more about each one, as they reveal or withhold information from each other. Her main characters are Vivette and Margaret, two friends who are connected by their past experiences working in a Portsmouth, NH, bakery (which actually exists). We meet Vivette first, fresh on her expedition in an old Buick borrowed from her grandfather Joe-Joe, settling on the town of Des Moines as her new destination. Because she loves the way the words sound: “Des Moines, with those silent s’s beckoning with a sexy finger, a promise.” This is one of those wonderful details Flick sprinkles throughout to reveal character. We won’t meet Joe-Joe again, but he will hover in the background as the recipient of the postcards Vivette will write as she travels. These postcards seem a slight nod to Flick’s flash background, as she can use the cryptic messages as small stories that again reveal Vivette’s state of mind: “Haven’t wrecked the car yet. Will keep you posted. Vivette.”

Vivette doesn’t go directly to Des Moines. She detours to visit an old friend, Margaret, who has settled down, unlike her younger friend, in Lincoln, Nebraska, on a farm surrounded by flat meadows and sheep. Lots of sheep, silent witnesses to their trials and tribulations. We first meet Margaret, however, in the past, with a different relationship situation in San Francisco. How Margaret and Vivette end up in the present is the mosaic that the author deftly crafts into one seamless piece, using the two friends as foils to one another—the restless Vivette who has dallied with married men versus the more deliberate Margaret who has decided to plant her roots in one place finally, despite some imperfections that are gradually revealed in her current relationship with her husband Peter.

For me, the power of this novel lies in the natural interactions and dialog between the characters, the attention to small details, and Flick’s talent in making any scene lyrical and absorbing. I was riveted when Margaret got lost in the dark, driving home late from a bar, leaving behind a startlingly messy encounter:

Margaret continues to accelerate down the waterlogged road, but soon realizes she is lost, actually lost. Lost in Nebraska, a state whose street systems are built on the largest grid imaginable, a place where it’s impossible to lose your way. But she doesn’t recognize anything. The rain is confusing and somewhere, somehow, she made a wrong turn. Margaret pulls over. Her windshield wipers hyperactive and ineffective against the onslaught. Beyond, nothing but darkened, howling fields. She’ll turn around, head back to Lincoln, and start over again. Once she’s lost she knows it’s the only way to reset her radar.

And this is what her characters do repeatedly. Like modern-day pioneers, they continually explore their physical and emotional terrains, take stock of where they are and what they want, and continually reset their radars and their compass points. These are women who have been betrayed and who also do the betraying. Women who carve their names in bar wood and drink hard liquor, and bake and nourish. Women who keep secrets (and there are many) from others and from themselves.

Readers will want this novel to go on longer, beyond the last call of hunger and longing. They will miss Margaret and Vivette.


Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year finalist) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories. She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines and several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations.