Flash Fiction as Emotional Photography

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I was eating seafood gumbo in Apalachicola, FL, alone in a restaurant that sat on a busy (for Apalach, anyway) corner, where 98W streams through town and turns left.

This restaurant has big picture windows, and if you’re sitting facing the corner, you can see the traffic clearly. I watched as a truck hauling cypress lumber passed by, turning the restaurant’s corner. It was distinct because when you drive from Atlanta to Apalach, you usually follow route 65S, which cuts through Apalachicola National Forest, and all that cypress is unmistakable.

A few minutes later, another identical truck passed by. Then another. And another.

The scene reminded me of a corner I pass almost every day at home here in North Georgia. If you get stopped at the light at this particular intersection, you’re almost guaranteed to see a chicken truck pass by on route 20. It always strikes me, because it’s kind of sad, watching those pent up chickens transported into town. We know their fates.

That juxtaposition – the chicken trucks in Georgia, the cypress trucks in Florida – sparked an emotion in me that I knew would lead to a story. I’ve been writing flash fiction a while now, and it’s starting to become easier to recognize that ignition, the feeling I’m on the verge of a new story.

Things usually happen quickly after that. The characters come into view – there was a woman who had worked as a waitress in Georgia, watching those chicken trucks out her window, and something – a guy, probably – made her move to Apalach, where her life hadn’t changed as much as she’d hoped. She was still a waitress, and she was still watching trucks pass by her window. The only thing that had changed was what the trucks were carrying, and where they were going, while her life, to her eyes, remained rooted in place.

It would’ve been a great story (if I do say so myself), but here’s the thing.

I didn’t write it.

Here’s the other thing.

I’ll never write it.

See, I didn’t write it because I had made a commitment to myself to use my writing time on this particular work-cation to finish a revision of my work-in-progress, a middle grade adventure novel I’m really in love with. I didn’t have time to write flash fiction at that particular moment, not if I wanted to keep my promise to myself.

So write it now! I hear some of you crying out. Or sometime later, anyway.

Nope.

The thing is, even though I remember the basic plot and, even to some extent, the fundamental emotional core of the story – why I thought it would make a good piece in the first place – the particular emotions I felt at that moment, emotions that had a certain color, a certain light and texture in my head, my heart and my soul, those are gone. They left me when I stood up from that restaurant and paid the bill, as those cypress trucks sped on to wherever they were heading.

I discovered this week that’s one of the secrets to flash fiction – one of mine, anyway – the emotional connection to the work has to be there. People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever figured out why my flash fiction seems to work so well, and until now, I haven’t really been able to answer.

But now I think I understand better. A little better, anyway.

It’s that emotional connection, and a lot of times – most of the time – it’s sort of fleeting. It’s like a photograph. Do you ever have a moment where the light is just right, a subject is in the perfect spot, and you know it’s going to make a great picture? But maybe you fumble with your camera, or you forgot it in the hotel room, or whatever, and you promise you’ll come back, but by the time you do, the sun has set or the sky is a different color or the horse is no longer standing there, the boat is out to sea now, and heck you can take the photo anyway, but it’ll never be quite the same thing as it was in that moment you missed?

That’s flash fiction, for me at least. It’s emotional photography, and I either write the story when I’m still experiencing that exuberant feeling, or I don’t. I say exuberant, even if the emotion is one of melancholy, because it’s having the feeling that’s thrilling. For me, out of strong feelings and emotions come truth.

And I think, too, that’s the answer to what makes very short stories work or not. A good flash fiction piece, a great piece of music, a fantastic painting – most of them are doing the same thing. They’re capturing the universal in the particular. Particular details – lyrics, words, imagery – can evoke a universal connection between creator and consumer.

We’ve all experienced the sadness of cleaning up after a loved one’s death (The Union Bank Times), or struggled with disrespect in our work life (Sometimes It Goes Down the Wrong Way), or thought about moving somewhere else before realizing how much we’d miss our friends (Winter Ball).

Good stories remind of us of these universal experiences by establishing a firm emotional connection with you, the reader, listener or viewer. I believe they can only do this (or maybe, best do this) if the creator, the artist, felt that emotional connection him or herself at the time of the production of the work.

apalach bayThis shouldn’t be seen as a loss, that I didn’t write that particular story. That’s the great thing about emotions. We’re having them all the time, because we’re human, and that’s what we do. I may never feel the exact spark that might’ve ignited that particular story, in the same way the color of the sunset may never be exactly like it was that evening ten years ago, or twenty, but I will have other emotions, and there will be other sunsets.

The key is being able and willing to let the one you missed go, and to be open and receptive to the next one you see. Because, then, all you have to do is write it down.

 

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My Favorite Short Story Collections

You Only Get Letters from JailI’ve been on a short story kick lately – writing them, reading them, being generally obsessed with the fantastic work going on in this area by a lot of the talented writers out there. As a result, I’ve been talking to everyone who will listen to me about the various collections I appreciate (that’s right, both of you…).

Sometimes I draw a blank, though. Like last night at my critique group, after I did a quick reading of the first half of one of my new short stories, one of the new members asked me for a list of collections I thought they should check out (in conversation, I’d mentioned one or two). Although I knew I had a long list of writers and collections to recommend in my head, I froze, unable to name even one more (such pressure!).

So tonight I decided to document a list right here on my blog that I hope to keep updated as I continue to enjoy more of these collections. I’ve read a lot more collections than these, but if I really enjoy one in its entirety, I’m going to try to include it here.

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The Pusher – “The Art of Food” Exhibit

CholocateI recently announced on Facebook that a piece of flash fiction I wrote was selected for display in “The Art of Food” exhibit and promised some folks I’d post the story somewhere (like, right here) where they could read it.  So here it is.

All that’s happened so far is this piece has been selected to be included in the show.  It hasn’t won any awards but there’s a small chance it still could.  Awards will be announced at the show reception on August 11th.  Wish me luck!

Full exhibit details

From the link:

“Food is vital to our lives, but its concepts and standards are as diverse as the culture that consumes it. What is the connection between food and art? The Art of Food, calls for artists and writers who seek to explore representations of food, food consumption, food production, culinary traditions and emotional manifestations of this relationship. This juried show is open to all art media including the written word, traditional to contemporary work, 2D or 3D, using a singular method or using a variety of techniques and imaginative interpretations.”

The Pusher

By Chris Negron

She found him where he always was: in the back, a chameleon blending into his surroundings. He didn’t call out to the passersby like some carnie hocking his wares. Fact was, he didn’t need to entice his customers at all. He knew they would find him.

They always did.

And she was no different. At this precise moment, time and again, watching him from a distance, plotting her next move, she almost mustered the strength to turn and leave, almost won the perpetual fight against her desperate urge. Almost.

She should resist this time, she knew she should.  But she just…couldn’t.

Her legs propelled her toward him. She glanced left and right, concerned someone might notice her involuntary progress. She was sure it exposed her obsession, laid bare the addiction she fought so hard to hide.

But no one was there to see it. They remained alone – a woman and her supplier.

When she reached him, she quickly requested her usual, hoping to expedite their transaction. He started to present it, then paused, pulling it back. “You sure you’re not ready for something stronger?”

“Something stronger? You mean, like…something new?” she asked.

He nodded. “Eight-five percent. I found a new source in Columbia. A single source.”

“Columbia. Really?” She sensed her voice had raised an octave and worked to lower it again. “Is it any good?”

He grinned. “You know I only carry the best. If you try this, I guarantee you’ll never go back to that other stuff.”

“Can I get a taste first?”

He shook his head. “Sorry, this one’s too rare for samples. You either want it or you don’t.”

She sighed. “How bad will it hook me?”

He smirked at her. “How bad are you hooked on the last stuff?”

She cast her eyes down at her feet and whispered, smiling in spite of her evident shame. “I-I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Well, as I said – this is even better,” he assured her, deftly sliding his prize toward her.

A crowd had gathered around them now, other interested customers stopping to inspect his merchandise. She felt trapped. She wanted to escape.

“Okay. I’ll take it,” she blurted, snatching the package and dropping it into her basket. She began to hurry off.

“Wait – we have it with almonds, too!” he called after her, but she didn’t dare turn around. She just kept marching away, her straight-ahead stare interrupted only by periodic glances down to confirm the treasure she’d procured remained safely nestled amid the rest of her groceries.

One gleaming bar of Columbian dark chocolate. Eight-five percent pure.

She doubted it would even make it to the car.