“Lean & Mean-ing: Flash Fiction as Compromise Between Digital Impatience and Search for Meaning”

Studying creative writing, in particular fiction, is about more than just learning how to invent stories or passing time with an imaginative diversion. Once a graduate student of creative writing, I learned how to appeal to a human’s innate love for narrative and how to use that skill to my advantage: to get people to listen and to communicate important information. I tell my students that stories are everything; they chronicle what we know about our societies and ourselves.

However, new media demand new storytelling methods. Marshall McLuhan is famous for stating, “The medium is the message.”[i] What he means is that the medium dictates what type of message will be most effectively communicated to the audience. For example, the pages of a printed book or other text have only two capabilities: the ability to be flipped by a finger and the ability to hold ink. Limited by the paper page, the reader stands a better chance of paying attention. On the other hand, a computer or digital device presents the reader with many opportunities to interrupt his or her reading by accessing apps, browsing the web, or participating in social media. Visual and sound notifications steal our attention. A writer producing work for digital consumption and an editor preparing that work for consumption must keep the reader’s potential distractions in mind. In his influential essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr describes the steps that media outlets have taken to appeal to what they believe is their audience’s shortening attention span. He writes, “Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.”[ii] Almost all news media outlets possess a Twitter account, which limits their updates to 140 characters at a time.

Perhaps, in an age of information overload, we suffer not from shortened attention spans but from digital impatience. Impatience isn’t necessarily a negative trait; it’s born from a realization that a task can be done more efficiently. It’s a sign of intelligence and awareness. Most readers know that a message can be communicated quickly and efficiently by an adept writer, so they won’t read a piece that takes for granted their time and energy. At the same time, readers don’t want to be treated like they need a dumbed-down version of the truth, disseminated through Tweets, newspaper abstracts, and capsule summaries. Maybe what readers seek is lean meaning: a highly concentrated yet short form of writing. Flash fiction, sometimes called “microfiction” or “short shorts,” can satisfy that need.

According to Grant Faulkner, executive director of National Novel Writing Month, “Flash fiction, which is defined as being a story under 1,000 words,…communicates via caesuras and crevices. There is no asking more, no premise of comprehensiveness, because flash fiction is a form that privileges excision over agglomeration…”[iii] One famous example of flash fiction is Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” However, the majority of flash fiction falls between 500 and 750 words, which, when displayed on a computer monitor, hardly requires the reader to scroll.

When I introduce flash fiction to students in my creative writing courses, I find that most of them admit they’ve never heard of the form. However, flash fiction is a highly effective tool to help students learn how to write narrative. In a workshop setting, more students can share short pieces (as opposed to stories or essays that are five or more pages long), and the shortened form can serve as excellent practice for revision, a daunting task for the beginning writer. In her essay “Falling Safely: Building Revision Bravery Through Flash”, Kelsie Hahn writes, “Flash fiction, however, offers a place to test strategies and approaches to revision that feels safer. It’s a prime stretch of cliff from which to take the fall…”[iv]. In addition, length constraints force students to scrutinize sentence structure, vocabulary, use of adjectives and adverbs, and overall structure in a way they might ignore when not limited by word or page limits.

Of course, the form has its critics. In his essay “Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust,” Jason Sanford writes, “The popular take on short shorts is that they are a reflection of our fast-paced modern lives. This is, to put it politely, bullshit. Yes, 21st century Americans may act like none of us have any time left…But America’s quickie culture is merely a rationalization for the booming popularity of short shorts.”[v] Later in the essay, he explains why students haven’t heard of flash fiction: few readers outside of the professional literary community read it. Finally, he believes that writers who churn out flash fiction are looking for quick publication credits; in his opinion, a 500-word story doesn’t take as long to write as a 10-page story. However, he fails to consider that a compressed story can sometimes be even more difficult to write than an unrestricted one, which makes no demands of the writer.

Maybe, as Sanford laments, some greedy writers do use flash fiction as a shortcut to publication, but one fact is impossible to deny: the growing popularity and acceptance of flash fiction creates more publication opportunities for emerging writers. On the Poets & Writers online database of literary magazines, a search for literary magazines that publish the subgenre “flash fiction” yields 278 results. Only 148, approximately half, of these magazines publish in print[vi]. Though flash fiction is, as Sanford says, mostly enjoyed by the literary community, a flash fiction story is an easy sell to casual readers, who won’t need to invest the same amount of time they would need to read a novel like Moby Dick. The digital literary magazine Literary Orphans, which publishes flash fiction – in addition to reviews, interviews, short stories, and poetry – lists the estimated time it will take for a reader to read a piece. In Issue 16, estimated reading time for all fiction ranges from one minute to 18 minutes[vii]. A minute is not a lot to ask of a reader.

One of Literary Orphans’ one-minute stories, “Accident While Parking,” by Cady Visniac, describes a scene in which a young man runs over his fiance’s foot while parallel parking. They are on their way to their shotgun wedding; he’s in a tux and sneakers, and she’s wearing a prom dress. He runs over her foot “not because he was a bad guy,” Visniac writes, “but because he was a very bad driver.”[viii] By the end, the reader is left to imagine how the relationship between these two characters will survive and whether or not they will face regrets. In just one minute, the reader has entered a new world and has immersed herself in another human’s experience.

One criticism of our growing reliance on technology is that it detracts from human experience, from immediacy. For example, instead of enduring the awkwardness of a blind date, we can mediate the encounter by using an online dating site to search for our ideal date candidate. But reading fiction can help us regain our humanness and challenge our fears and reservations. According to Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology and novelist, fiction “measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.”[ix] Behind our screens, don’t we need, more than ever, to connect with something larger than ourselves?

Since Fall 2012, I’ve been teaching a course at Rutgers University titled “Introduction to Multimedia Composition.” Housed in the creative writing department, this course challenges students to communicate using media that wouldn’t be taught in a traditional composition class: podcasts, blogs, video essays, and e-books. This semester, I’ve decided to focus one of my sections on the study of flash fiction, both the reading and writing of it. Students will be using digital tools to create parallel content, which will enhance the flash fiction reading experience. By the end of the semester, I’ll be curious to know whether students believe that writers of the future will need to adjust their methods of communication to reach an impatient audience.

Regarding flash fiction, writer and editor Robert Shapard asks, “Are they an Internet fad? Are they short because TV and Twitter have shrunk our attention spans?”[x] Inspired by this question, and also not quite sure of the answer, I decided to post it in the heading of my syllabus. Together, my students and I will discover whether flash fiction is a passing fancy among the literati or whether all communicators can borrow traits from writers of flash fiction: an obsessive attention to detail, an awareness of form and structure on both the macro and micro levels, an understanding of how image and description charms the reader, and an appreciation of how minimalism diffuses our anxieties.

[i] McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium Is the Message.” Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: Critical Edition. Ed. Terrence Gordon. Berkeley: Gingko Press, 2003.

[ii] Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. 8 July 2008. Web. 29 January 2015.

[iii] Faulkner, Grant. “Going Long, Going Short.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. 30 September 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

[iv] Hahn, Kelsey. “Falling Safely: Building Revision Bravery Through Flash.” NANO Fiction.

[v] Sanford, Jason. “Who Wears Short Shorts? Micro Stories and MFA Disgust.” storySouth. Fall 2004. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

[vi] “Searchable Database of Literary Journals”. Poets & Writers. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

[vii] “Issue 16: HOUDINI.” Literary Orphans. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

[viii] Vishniac, Cady. “Accident While Parking.” Literary Orphans. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

[ix] Oatley, Keith. “Changing Our Minds.” Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. 1 December 2008. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

[x] Shapard, Robert. “The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction.” World Literature Today. Sep. 2012. Web. 29 Jan. 2015.

About Laryssa Wirstiuk

Laryssa Wirstiuk lives in Jersey City, NJ with her dachshund Charlotte. She teaches creative writing and writing for digital media at Rutgers University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Crab Fat, Gargoyle Magazine, Word Riot, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. http://www.laryssawirstiuk.com