A poet through and through, I had my first crack at flash fiction last year at the Midwest Writers Workshop during a one-hour session with Lee Martin. I then bought the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, responded to several juicy prompts, and published some stories as part of Flash Fiction Fridays at Tweetspeak Poetry. This summer, I wanted to up the ante and spend two days writing nothing but flash.
So I traveled to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Now in its twenty-seventh year, the Festival offers nearly 150 week-long and weekend workshops in a variety of genres at the University of Iowa campus, home of the prestigious MFA program, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. According to the program’s site, “the Festival has welcomed writers from 18 to 94 years of age, from all 50 states and from every continent. We come together across the genres and at every level of literary practice with a common purpose and in a common enterprise. We come as writers.” My enterprise for the weekend? Anthony Vallaro’s workshop, “The 500-Word Story: A Writer’s Weekend.”
Anthony Vallaro, Associate Professor of English at the College of Charleston, author of three short story collections and winner of several awards, knows his stuff. He also knows how to pass that stuff on to his students. Right away, I started to get the feel for what makes good flash: Make the first line do 70% of the work. Establish the conflict and relationship right away. Be tight, tight, tight. Don’t talk about tears falling from a character’s bent head. Say the character cries. That’s it.
We discussed stories from Micro Fiction, from titles to tone to complex relationships—some presented in just one sentence, such as in Molly Giles’s story “The Poet’s Husband.” We talked about sending out and publishing work.
But the real magic came from the simple act of sitting at a desk and generating new work in increments of five to ten minutes. Tony’s prompts, which usually included the first sentence or phrase of a story, got my imagination going. Here’s one of my favorites: “My brother takes me to __________ where we ___________.”
And here is my one-sentence story in response:
This morning my brother takes me to the nursing home where we sing hymns to the residents, he on guitar and me on mandolin, his eyes squinting at the wrinkled chord sheets for “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “How Great Thou Art,” my pick tremoloing the G over and over because it is the only note I know, but he has insisted that I come along to learn how to finally give to someone other than myself, the walkers and wheelchairs strung with oxygen tubes, deflated balloons and pictures of themselves labeled with their names—we are on the “bad floor” the nurse says as she squeezes out a mop of urine—while my brother lurches out “Amazing Grace” in harmony with their groans and a hunched woman clutching a grimy stuffed kitten bangs toward me with her walker: “I want ‘In the Garden,’ ‘In the Garden,’ ‘In the Garden,’ ‘In the Garden,'” backing me into a table of half-eaten Jello cups, where I fall and—godammit—lose the only pick I own.
* * * * *
I’m still amazed that I was able to write this little piece in a matter of minutes. Tony gave us the confidence to proceed and succeed with our writing; I told him I wish I could continue to pay him to give me prompts in a distraction-free room every day.
The process has indeed inspired me. Since the workshop, nearly every day I’ve given myself a prompt, set a timer for five minutes, and written a promising spurt of story.
Now, if you’re looking for a place to network, the Iowa Summer Writing Festival may not be the best for you. Unlike the Midwest Writers Workshop, which emphasizes Twitter and QR codes while providing central meeting spots for coffee and book-buying, Iowa feels a little more insular. Aside from a Saturday-night open mic at The Haunted Bookshop (happily haunted by cats), there are no other central meeting spots or events during the weekend workshops. You’re there to write, maybe make some friends if you have time and extroversion to spare. I know that I have very much needed and appreciated both types of conferences as a writer. But all in all, I left Iowa City as one happy writer, with a half-dozen story drafts on my iPad.
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