“Playing on the Ladder with Micro-Fiction”

It was a precocious high school freshman who introduced me to the adorable boxed set of flash fiction published by McSweeney’s, One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies. Tucked into a beautifully designed box are three wonderfully varied individual collections of flash by Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso, and Deb Olin Unferth, with pieces ranging from experimental to philosophical, absurd to heartbreaking. There are two-sentence stories, stories written as micro-biographies of famous composers, stories that build on each other, and stories that stand alone. There are so many types of stories that reading the entire set provides a comprehensive introduction to the many possibilities of flash fiction.

When I first read it eight years ago, not only did it further stir my then-budding interest in flash fiction, but it also sparked teaching ideas for my high school creative writing classes. I find I am able to use flash fiction with beginning, intermediate, and advanced students, as its compressed form lends itself to intricate structural and linguistic examination. I teach from this boxed set so frequently, in fact, that it remains on my desk at school with a handful of my most frequently referenced anthologies and craft books.

The story I most often teach from this collection is “How the Water Feels to the Fishes” by Dave Eggers, a simile powerhouse in which fish and humans try to convey to each other how their habitats feel to each of them. Typically, we read it early on in class in combination with a discussion of S. I. Hayakawa’s ladder of abstraction, which illustrates how people speak, think, and reason at different levels from concrete to abstract, and can easily be applied to writing. After discussing the ladder of abstraction, we look at how Eggers uses concrete sensory details and abstractions (for example, the fish describe the water as “Like the fur of a chinchilla,” yet also, “like forgiveness”).

When teaching students about writing with concrete details versus abstractions, I used to all but banish abstractions as I hammered home the importance of concrete detail. At some point, though, I realized that it was OK, and perhaps more accurate and beneficial, to acknowledge the power of a well-placed abstraction when surrounded by concrete, specific sensory details.

Usually, I have students underline every concrete detail and circle every abstraction in “How the Water Feels to the Fishes,” a manageable close-reading exercise since the story rings in at under four hundred words. We count up the abstractions and the concrete, sensory details, sort out any confusion and differences of opinion about “abstract” versus “concrete,” and calculate the ratio of concrete to abstract descriptions. Then I have them write their own “How the ________ Feels to ________” on the subject of their choice, so that they can practice moving up and down the ladder of abstraction.

My students are book nerds and are suckers for this set of handsome little hardcover books, but they really fall in love with what’s inside. Dave Eggers’ wacky and brazenly moral stories are often the favorite. My lovely books are getting loose in their bindings, the corners bent and the pages ruffled, but I will take the beauty of a book adored by teenagers over a crisp, perfect, unread collection on my desk any day.

About Kim Henderson

Kim Henderson is the author of the flash fiction chapbook, The Kind of Girl, which won the Seventh Annual Rose Metal Press Short-Short Fiction Chapbook Contest. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Tin House Open Bar, Flash Fiction Online, Cutbank, River Styx, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. Originally from New Mexico, she now lives on a mountain in Southern California, where she chairs the Creative Writing Department at Idyllwild Arts Academy.