Welcome to our Indie Spotlight series. In which TNBBC gives small press authors the floor to shed some light on their writing process, publishing experiences, or whatever else they'd like to share with you, the readers!
Thoughts about Flashing and Acting
I have heard the late Gene Wilder speak about why he became a comedic actor—how it was tied directly to his strong desire to entertain his depressed mother. How wanting and doing that made him a veteran entertainer, but deep down, he was a shy and melancholy person.
Like Wilder I learned to live through self-expression from a very early age as a way to combat my own disabling shyness. I grew up with a single mother who was overworked and stressed. I felt it was my job in the world to entertain her and to cheer her up. Acting was in my family. My big sister, Sian Barbara Allen, was a film and TV actress, and I wanted nothing more than to follow in her footsteps.
I believe my process as a writer is similar to what I learned while being a young actor.
I unknowingly developed writing tools while studying theatre; reading great plays (memorizing and performing lines) by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Wendy Wasserstein, Muriel Spark. This helped me develop a love of the rhythm and music in language as well as interest in character motivation.
I fell in love with the idea that there is a world underneath what is said. As with becoming a character, writing flash fiction involves skilfully working with the mysterious quality of absence. As the actor will focus a good deal on what happened right before the scene and on what happened many years ago to make this character who they are today— and so will the writer. The actor makes use of what isn’t said from the minute a scene begins. Both forms involve conjuring emotional logic and thinking about a character’s unresolved emotional and physical needs and what isn’t said is the key to believability.
Flash fiction plots are not the typical plots of other forms of fiction: they are internal and psychological. In other words, the character tries to make sense of life and takes the reader with her on this journey and THAT itself is the plot. Something must change in the course of of a story or longer treatment, leading to a quiet shift in a character’s way of being in the world.
It’s hard to create true-feeling stories in which very little is explained— but I love the challenge of telling as little as possible, showing it through odd details, holding out when it helps to story to be quiet, and letting the underlying truth of the story push it way out. I marvel at how good flash fiction engages the reader as a co-conspirator, as if we’re peeling the onion of the story together, hunting for the truth at the core.
The movement of a story is, after all, determined by what came before it. Communicating this feeling of backstory without telling is part of our job. If we’re leaving it out entirely, the reader must be able to pick up its scent. The best way to engage a reader’s trust is to trust them. The trick involves getting out of the way.
Often my own writing dances around the concepts of sex and/or death. I don’t mean that characters are having sex or dying all over the place. My favorite acting teacher used to say it this way: “Your job is to find the sex or the death in every scene. This is where pathos lives.”
In “The Loss Detector”, I created a collage of imaginary moments, based on my own memories from times that stuck with me mysteriously. Moments that changed me. What I did is something I think of as “patch-working” like one does in making a crazy quilt—pulling out disjointed bits from various earlier prose poems or stories and stitching them loosely together. Part of the joy in this process for me is in figuring out how stories that may have been about different characters were actually about the same character all along—how they always belonged together. I used this technique in both “The Loss Detector” and with “Here, Where We Live” from the Rose Metal Press.
In terms of ordering the chapters, in “The Loss Detector”, there is the chronological arc of a girl growing up. The piece begins when Nikki is eight years old and ends when she is fifteen. The overall effect is a sense of a character’s life through seemingly random moments. There was some mix-tape blending involved in this process, and I like to think about ordering chapters like listening to a favorite record album. I talk about that ordering of chapters in depth in my craft essay for the Rose Metal Press collection “My Very End of the Universe – Five Novellas in Flash and a Study of the Form, and that essay has been reprinted here.
I believe that flash must contain dramatic urgency and there must be attention to emotionally accurate detail. There are elements of this form, about how a writer gets there, that remain mysterious to me and this is one reason I love it. When flash fiction is successful what you are reading is weirdly compelling—compelling in a way that can’t intellectually defined. It must hold some powerful, unspoken, emotional truth living inside of it. Flash fiction must seduce the reader and as with theatre, it must entertain. Falling in love with a flash fiction story is not something you need to talk yourself into.
It’s useful to keep in mind that in fiction and theatre we tend to root for characters who are finding ways to cope with difficult circumstances, not sitting around and wallowing in despair. I’m a strong believer that big life changes originate out of seemingly small, unconscious observations and/or shifting awareness toward a situational reality. This has always been true for me. When creating “The Loss Detector” I became blind to the rest of the world… it was like being in love.
Richard Thomas when I was very young
Meg is the author of six flash fiction collections, an award-winning collection of prose poetry, two novellas-in-flash and a new collection of microfiction, Spinning to Mars recipient of the Blue Light Book Award in 2020. Her work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Electric Literature, Washington Square Review, Waxwing, Smokelong Quarterly, McSweeney's has been anthologized in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015) and The Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019. She serves as Founding Co-Editor, along with Gary Fincke, of Best Microfiction. Meg Pokrass’ new novella-in-flash, “The Loss Detector” will be available in October, 2020, from Bamboo Dart Press.