The Joy of Jumping Boundaries with Flash Fiction

I write flash fiction. It is a relatively new genre, differentiated predominately by its brevity. A flash piece should generally be less than 1,000 words. Most stories are in the 300-800 word range.

Flash fiction can feel constricting. The writer must construct a narrative arc in a very brief amount of space.

In other ways, flash fiction is incredibly liberating. Since the story’s time is short, there is no room for extra words or details. Characters often have no physical descriptions. If a setting is mentioned, it is described in the briefest detail.

Stories also don’t have to adhere to having a beginning, middle, and end. Flash fiction often drops you right into the middle of things. En media res, as the smart kids say. Conflicts develop quickly. Resolutions are messy, if offered at all. Often, the reader is left hanging, free to interpret what happens next.

There is also more of an experimentation with form. Flash fiction walks the line between a story and a poem. Language is more lyrical. Imagery is potent and often fantastical. Flash fiction stories often make you feel like you woke up in the middle of someone else’s dream.

These are the stories I like the best. The dream stories. The stories that ride that line, ping-ponging between poetry and narrative. The stories that don’t spare a single word and leave you gaping, gasping, and wanting always, more.

Below are some of those boundary-jumping stories.

Remembering How Beams of Steel Disintegrated While Whole Sheets of Paper Fluttered Down Like So Much Ash and Dust to the Street” by Catherine Averill from Paper Darts

I Am Going to Cook a Quiche in My Easy-Bake Oven and You Are Going to Like It.” by Roxane Gay from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Lost Luster” by Kayla Haas from Nano Fiction

This week’s video is “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Bjork, another artist who likes to play with boundaries.

 

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Burning Down the Page with Plath

“My night sweats grease his breakfast plate.”

The line caught me, stopped me from flipping the page.

I whispered it to myself. Rolled it around on my tongue. Tasted it.

This line is from the poem “The Jailor” which appears in the poetry collection, Ariel. Ariel was the manuscript Sylvia Plath left behind when she killed herself in 1963. Her husband, poet Ted Hughes, published the book after her death.

I first read Plath in junior high, after a teacher recommended her work. Her language was dark and beautiful. Her voice was strong. Her words burned down every page. She was the first writer I really fell in love with.

I have Ariel The Restored Edition. It includes Hughes’ original version of the book, Plath’s version of the manuscript, and her notes throughout the writing process. It also includes a foreword from Frieda, Plath and Hughes’ daughter.

Plath and Hughes’ relationship was tumultuous, to say the least. Some people think having Hughes edit Ariel was a disservice to her work. He was, after all, a subject of scorn in many of her poems.

You see the tension in their relationship in the first line. Plath is angry, and she is angry at Hughes.

“My night sweats grease his breakfast plate.” Try saying it out loud.

That is part of what I love about Plath. Her poems aren’t filled with flowers and sunshine, but that doesn’t make her words any less stunning. Her phrases have a musicality, a flowing of sound.

Two stanzas later:

“Something is gone.
My sleeping capsule, my red and blue zeppelin
Drops me from a terrible altitude
Carapace smashed,
I spread to the beaks of birds.”

My favorite sound here is the “Carapace smashed” line. The phrase is musical, even if the image described isn’t conventionally beautiful. But that is one of Plath’s best tricks. She turned ugly images into beautiful sounds. This juxtaposition is part of what makes her poetry so arresting.

The poem ends with this stanza:

“That being free. What would the dark
Do without fevers to eat?
What would the light
Do without eyes to knife, what would he
Do, do, do without me.”

The language is simple, but no less stunning. What a clever way to describe light, as something that knifes your eyes.

But it is the ending that grabs me.

“What would he/Do, do, do without me,” she writes. The repetition of do, do, do sounds almost like a pop song. But in this context, it is a fiery question aimed at Hughes. A question that suggests he needs her as much as she needs him.

Reading Plath at a relatively young age shaped the way I write. Her style helped me develop an my ear for language. My stories inevitably have a few sentences that sound like lines from a poem. I strive for the musicality of Plath’s language.

A year or so ago, I was working on a story, and I wrote, “A man is a man is a jet plane is a rusted fire escape.” I knew what I meant, but maybe the reader wouldn’t have known. But more than anything, I liked the way it sounded. This line contained some of the mystery and beauty of poetry. It has since hit the cutting room floor, but I still love the sound it, the way it rolls off my tongue.

Plath also helped me learn how to channel my ferocity in my writing. I want my words to burn down the page like her’s.

In the foreword to Ariel The Restored Edition, Frieda writes, “Her own words describe her best, her ever-changing moods defining the way she viewed her world and the manner in which she pinned down her subjects with a merciless eye.”

Ariel contains Plath’s final words. Here we see her at her most fierce. Her eye most merciless. Her language most stunning.

What would he do, do, do indeed.

This week’s video is “Husbands” by Savages. They are an all female London-based rock band. And they rock hard, my friends.

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All I Wanted for Christmas was Some Chill (And a Tepee)

Hi friends!

Sorry for the late post. Like many of you, I was celebrating Christmas with my family. It was nice to have some time off to chill, watch movies, and eat delicious food.

I promise next (this) week I will have a full blog post.

After my house emptied out, I spent some time working on a story, reading, and thinking a lot about writing. I should have an interesting post for you this Friday.

In the meantime, I have been listening to Brandi Carlile’s latest album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, on repeat. It is really, really good. So this week’s video is “Wherever Is Your Heart” which is off of The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Enjoy!

P.S. I asked for and received a tepee for Christmas.  I guess I’m never going to outgrow my love of forts. 🙂

Max Wiener and I in my new tepee.

Max Wiener and I in my new tepee.

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Home is Here.

“You excited to go home?”

It was a simple question, meant to be answered with a quick yes.

But my answer was not simple.

Was I excited to see my family in Iowa and celebrate Christmas with them? Yes, of course, I was.

I love my family. And we get along like families do, which is to say, most of the time.

My problem with the question wasn’t about being excited, but simply the idea of home.

Do I consider Iowa home?

Growing up, I felt like an outsider in my hometown, a square peg in a round hole.

My pants were too baggy. My hair was too black. My shirts were too short. I was too quiet. My feminism was too loud.

I was always too something.

And when you are a young person in this world, especially a young woman, it is hard not to fit in. Though I wasn’t exactly trying to be part of the crowd, I wasn’t exactly trying to ostracize myself either.

So I had friends. And my friends weren’t all trying to fit in either. There were a surprising amount of square pegs in a town of twenty-five hundred people.

My best friend, James, was one of those square pegs. James is gay, which made him an automatic outsider. The squarest of pegs in my hometown.

When I was away at college, I came back to visit my parents one weekend. I stopped at a gas station in my hometown. The woman behind the counter gave me the up and down, as I made my purchase.

“You aren’t from around here, are you?”

I wasn’t even wearing anything that outlandish. I had on a black slouchy top and turquoise eyeshadow.

“Actually, I grew up here.”

After college, I moved to Brooklyn to live with James. NYC is nothing, if not a refuge for those who don’t fit in anywhere else. It is a city of misfits.

I was happy to learn, to see, to taste, and to drink up as much of NYC as I could while I lived there, but it never felt quite like home.

I am a Midwest girl at heart. I like a slower pace of life. I like green spaces and room to roam. I like cheese on everything. I like board games and slippers and fires.

I am grateful that I grew up in Iowa. Grateful I sledded down a hill at the local church every winter. Grateful I ate fresh corn on the cob every summer. Grateful I had a paper route and delivered newspapers on my bike. Grateful I met my best friend and many other wonderful people.

I am also grateful I left. Grateful I lived in NYC. Grateful for the people I met there. Grateful for the things I learned. Grateful for the incredible beauty I experienced.

State of Minnesota on a mitten.

Home is Minnesota.

Most of all 7 years + later, I am grateful I moved to Minneapolis. Grateful to be a square peg that fits right in this little, big city. Grateful to have found home.

This week’s video is “Bangarang” by Doomtree. And for those of you unfamiliar with Har Mar Superstar, this video will give you a little taste of  Har Mar, a wonderfully square peg and a Minnesota native.

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P.O.S Is (Not) Ruining My Life

I first saw P.O.S perform, when he opened for Cursive. It was May 2009, and I had moved to Minneapolis a few months before.

P.O.S had just put out the album Never Better. But I didn’t know this. I didn’t know who P.O.S was yet.

I had discovered The Current, a public radio station that plays an insane mix of independent music, classics, and local bands. So I was hearing his songs, though I didn’t know that yet either.

There is a line from “Savion Glover” where P.O.S raps, “Get your A.C. Slater on.” I remember hearing this line on the radio, and wondering who this rapper was. But as the next song played, this thought passed from my head.

Man Man was slated to open for Cursive. (I still have the tour poster hanging on my wall with Man Man’s name printed below Cursive’s.)

For some reason, the band couldn’t play. Before the show, The Current announced that an unnamed artist would replace Man Man. (Unnamed due to legal reasons with the label.)

So there I was, crushed into the crowd at First Avenue, the venue that would soon become my favorite place to see a show. And there he was, P.O.S up on stage.

I have a confession. As much as I like going to see shows, I don’t get into a band/musician if I am hearing their music live first. I like to be at least a bit familiar with the music, before I see a band perform. It makes it easier for me to access, I guess.

But then P.O.S started spitting rhymes. He was clever. He was funny. He was political. And he was punk as fuck.

I was hooked, and this show served as my introduction to the Minneapolis hip hop scene. For those of you that don’t know, Minneapolis has one of the best hip hop scenes in the country.

Soon, I would learn about the rest of Doomtree crew and fall hard for Dessa. And then Brother Ali. And Atmosphere. And most recently, GRRL PRTY and Lizzo.

Seeing P.O.S on stage that night was my gateway drug. And I am happiest when I get another fix. Luckily for me, he plays a lot of shows around here.

Tonight he is playing with the oh-so-fun GRRL PRTY and Mixed Blood Majority at First Avenue.

So if you’re at First Avenue, I’ll be the girl bobbing her head up and down, dancing until the sweat drips down my back, and mouthing all the words to my favorite P.O.S songs.

This week’s video is “Optimist” by P.O.S, which is off the Never Better record. It is a fun video, my friends. Enjoy.

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What Our Words Say about Our Privilege

Words are important. I have said it before, and I will say it again.

This past week was another one filled with bloodshed. It is heartbreaking. It is disgusting. And it has become far too commonplace.

I am fighting every part of me that wants to feel numb, that wants to throw up my hands in the air and say, what can I do?

I don’t have the answer to all this gun violence. All this killing. I wish I did.

What I can talk about is the language describing this violence and what it reveals about our country.

From the The New York Times,

“A gun battle erupted inside a Planned Parenthood center here on Friday when a man armed with an assault-style rifle opened fire and began shooting at officers as they rushed to the scene. The authorities reported that three people were killed, a police officer and two civilians, and nine were wounded before the suspect finally surrendered more than five hours after the first shots were fired.” The full article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/28/us/colorado-planned-parenthood-shooting.html.

The suspect, Robert Lee Dear, shot 12 people. He is not labeled a terrorist in this passage. He is merely a man involved in “a gun battle” with police.

From The New York Times,

“For hours on Friday, officers traded gunfire with him inside the clinic before they were able to shout to the man and persuade him to give up, according to Lt. Catherine Buckley, a police spokeswoman.”

Dear traded gunfire with the officers. He was not killed. He was persuaded to give up.

According to Merriam-Webster.com, privilege is “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.”

It seems like a lot of white people have trouble understanding what white privilege is or even deny that it exists.

It does exist. And this is what it is. It is this man still alive. It is this man not being immediately labeled a terrorist. And it is so many other things.

I’m lucky enough to walk around with this advantage tacked to my skin. It strikes me as an incredibly absurd advantage, but one that so obviously exists.

One of our greatest gifts as humans is our capacity for empathy. We all need to use it more.

Instead of saying all lives matter, think for a second about how maybe some lives are looked at and valued differently. Maybe some people are automatically guilty because of the color of the skin. Maybe you should stop and listen, instead of hiding behind that white skin and ignoring the things that are happening around you. Try for just a second to imagine, what is like to be young, black, and male in this country.

This week’s video is “Get Down” by P.O.S. Here’s my confession: After thinking about all these things yesterday and dealing with some homeowner stuff, I had a five minute dance break in my kitchen to this song (A lovely concept introduced to me by my friend, Susanna). Sometimes, you do just need to get down. But then, I finished this blog post because I can’t ignore these things either.

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I am Thankful for Scrabble

Hands on tiles. Words constructed. And then reconstructed. Dictionaries thumbed. Triple word score red. Double letter blue. Scores scratched onto pads of paper.

Many holidays I have hunched over a ledge of seven letters.

Across from my Grandma Johnson. Across from my mother. Across from my brother.

My grandmother was very good, but she is no longer with us.

These days, my brother usually wins. He is a fearsome Scrabble opponent.

This year was no exception. He used up all seven tiles in one play and scored an extra fifty points. I cursed myself for asking at the beginning of the game what you get for using all seven tiles.

But this is the week to be thankful. And I have much to be thankful for.

I have a new front doorknob and a functioning snowblower. I have a fridge filled with delicious food.

And I am thankful I spent another holiday across the Scrabble board from my family.

I am thankful for having another chance to best him, to beat my big brother at a game that brings all my family’s elbows to rest on the same table.

I beat him once. I swear I did.

I will always be thankful for a rematch.

This week’s video is a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing “I’m a Lucky So and So.”

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Help #EndTheStigma and Join Me for a Reading Event at SubText Books This Saturday!

The event honors Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, a day of remembrance for those who have lost someone to suicide. It is at 2:00 pm at SubText Books in St. Paul.

We’ve also added a writer! Poet Sierra DeMulder is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion and also the author of The Bones Below and New Shoes on a Dead Horse. DeMulder will join poets Matt Rasmussen and Michael Kiesow Moore along with writer Scott Long.

Canvas Health is co-hosting the event along with SubText Books. I volunteered to coordinate the event because of my own experience with suicide loss. I lost my brother Karl to suicide just over ten years ago.

The topic also has personal significance for the writers. Rasmussen won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets for his book, Black Aperture. The collection of poetry is about losing his brother to suicide.

“It is a subject matter and cause which I consider incredibly important,” Rasmussen said.

Moore’s book of poetry What To Pray For focuses on bullying and teen suicide.

Long is a MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Minnesota. He will read a short story about losing a friend at a young age.

The topic also has particular significance for Minnesota residents. State data shows Minnesota’s suicide rate increased 29 percent from 2003 to 2011, more than twice the national average increase. For Millennial and Generation X Minnesotans, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Senator Harry Reid proposed the resolution to recognize survivors of suicide loss to the US Senate in 1999. Reid had survived his father’s 1972 suicide. When it passed, Congress designated the Saturday before Thanksgiving National Survivors of Suicide Day. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention later dubbed it “International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day” because suicide knows no geographic boundaries.

This week’s video is a live version of “Poison Oak” by Bright Eyes. It is a beautiful song that reminds me of Karl.

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Surviving the Storm

The music moved through me, and I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

DJ Mary Lucia was back at The Current, after a seven month hiatus from the radio station. Lucia took a leave because she was being relentlessly stalked by a local man. According to The Star Tribune, “the case against her stalker is still pending.”

The first song Lucia spun was “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty. Her song was a statement. She was there to rock. Stalker be damned.

I missed that first song, but started listening a bit after. I heard her play the song “Respectable” by The Rolling Stones. This chorus of this song states, “Get out of my life… Don’t come back.”

Her playlist was defiant, but she was also humble and grateful. She said,

“Let’s talk about real friends and what real friends are. I tend to isolate myself a little bit. I’m not a big friend collector. I’m lucky I have a small group of really good friends. Do you let these people see the real darkness some times? They might run away. I’ve been so lucky to have people from my life who’ve done just the opposite. They did not run away. They ran to me.” -From The Star Tribune

There are moments when you hear just the right song. There are moments when someone says the exact thing you need to hear. This was one of those moments for me.

I wasn’t dealing with anything nearly as horrible as Lucia. Mine was a more mundane heartbreak.

But her words hit a chord inside me. I wasn’t alone in my suffering. She was suffering too, but she wove her pain into a series of guitar crashes and fuck you chorus lines.

My tears never breached the space between eye and cheek. I soon found myself tapping my toe and smiling. I missed Mary.

And now here she was, saving me song by song.

This week’s video is “The Next Storm” by Frank Turner.

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Finding Peace in a Room Full of Stories

When I lived in NYC, I worked as a visual stylist at Saks Fifth Avenue. My days were spent up and down ladders, applying graphics, dressing and re-dressing mannequins, painting, moving furniture around the floor, and putting together chandeliers. You name it; we pretty much did it.

It was inspiring. It was thrilling. It was chaotic.

I usually left bone-tired. Some days, it was more than that. I was frustrated. I was annoyed. I had hit my bullshit limit. Those days, I needed an out, some sane, a little peace and quiet.

Anthropologie was across the street in the Rockefeller Center shopping area. I know. There are so many beautiful places around this area. But for me, Anthropologie was the peaceful space I needed.

The smell hit me first. The store always burned its signature candles, which smelled like autumn air and musk and spice. The space was huge, airy. All the clothing, accessories, and home goods were perfectly placed. Everything looked like it came from your most stylish friend’s house.

I would walk in and breathe the peace and quiet. Let it settle on my skin. Sometimes I would buy something, usually something small, like a candleholder. Anthropologie is not inexpensive.

After I felt restored, I would grab the train home.

Spaces affect your mood. There are some rooms and places that just breathe peace. For me, Anthopologie is one of the places.

But I can’t really afford to spend every day at Anthropologie, nor do I want to revisit my life in retail.

This brings me back to my writing room/library. I wrote about it a few weeks ago.

I have made progress since then. I painted the walls (and some of the carpet) grey. I bought a rug to hide the (some of the carpet) grey. My friend helped me move a bookshelf in. I found a great Craigslist wingback chair. We moved the desk in.

I broke my writing room/library in on Wednesday.

Bookshelf

Bookshelf porn.

A space full of stories is a lovely space to be in, my friends. And it is working already. I started a new story on Wednesday.

This week’s video is actually a shout-out for my partner-in-crime, James Wilson. His band, The Paisley Fields, has a record out today. If listening to country music music is your idea of peaceful, check out my favorite song “Brooklyn Rodeo.” Support his awesome band, and buy the EP! https://itun.es/us/PYOd-

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