Fireworks, drowsy swallows and a box clicked shut

Nuala O’Connor celebrates flash fiction, an art form that is small in scale but never slight

Nuala O’Connor: Without writing, or when it is difficult or slow, I become the worst version of myself: crabby, aimless and uneasy. Photograph: Karen O’Neill

Nuala O’Connor: Without writing, or when it is difficult or slow, I become the worst version of myself: crabby, aimless and uneasy. Photograph: Karen O’Neill

 

I used to write out my fertility anguish in poetry – condensed heart-cries of grief, frustration and sorrow when I lost yet another pregnancy, or yet another month passed without two pink lines on a test.

Time went on, and the heartache too, but poetry fled me when novels took over my life. Somehow, and I still don’t know why, poems no longer came to me unbidden. If I wanted one, I had to pursue and grab at it and, even then, the poems mostly did not want to be caught. True, my brain was occupied not just with life-struggles, but with the vast task of writing historical novels. It’s hard for a poem to take form between all that research, all that invention and bellowing of life into long-dead lungs. The novel has a way of seeping into every part of your life: you wake chewing it over, you dine on it all day, you taste its leftovers as you drop off to sleep. If you’re lucky (or not) it infiltrates your dreams.

I’ve found though, over the past few years, that when I have a breathing space (when the novel loosens its grip) it’s to short prose forms that I turn. The wisps of ideas or inspirations that flit into my consciousness beg to be written as short fictions rather than as poems. I love the fast and loose, I’m-just-popping-in-for-a-visit nature of short fiction, particularly its shortest forms, micro or flash fiction. Flash, and to a lesser extent short stories, seem to have replaced poetry in my life. And when a flash – concise and condensed by nature – can no longer contain all that needs to be said, I write short stories for succour.

I don’t aim to write to expunge myself of grief, but to work out what happened and why and to see how my characters are able to deal with their troubles, how they survive

Neither flash nor stories are necessarily written in a short space of time but their brevity requires a distillation of thoughts and words that suits me enormously. Where once I would write a poem to record a loss, or celebrate love, flash fiction has become the medium for those meditations.

Not that I view writing as therapy, at least not in terms of subject matter. Its therapy is much larger than that. For me the act of writing is closely linked to my overall wellbeing and, therefore, my mental health. Without writing, or when it is difficult or slow, I become the worst version of myself: crabby, aimless and uneasy. When I write about subjects that are close to me, such as pregnancy loss and secondary infertility, I don’t aim to write to expunge myself of grief, but to work out what happened and why, to get a clear view of a chain of events, and to see how my characters are able to deal with their troubles on an emotional level. To see how they survive.

Short fictions – flash and longer stories – require a different approach to novels, from both writer and reader. You can see the edges of a story – it’s a one-inhale-and-it’s-down experience, much like the poem. And like poetry, the short story centres around one event: one grief, one moment of light, one instant where things are going awry (unrepeatedly awry), or where the solution to unfortunate occurrences shows itself. But this is a slow gulp, a drowsy swallow, where the reader revels in language and action, rather than rushing past to get to the next bit and the next.

The flash reader needs to learn to decelerate and loiter, to let herself stall in the heart of the story and wonder about the greater, bigger things that are being alluded to

The flash reader needs to learn to decelerate and loiter, to let herself stall in the heart of the story and wonder about the greater, bigger things that are being alluded to within and outside of it. Of course, this linger can’t last long – there isn’t the space or time to get lost in the body of a flash as the reader might in a longer prose piece. But the flash reader learns to savour the word-by-word joys that good flash offers.

In flash, words have particular status, substance and symbolic power – they are bigger than mere meaning, they have to work hard and dazzle. The flash reader learns to watch for the words chosen for their intensity and musicality, the words or themes that appear innocent and/or accidental, but that are sewn like golden thread through the narrative, a stitch here, later, a revealing stitch there.

The flash writer becomes adept at plucking and hoarding new words wherever she finds them; often she is a dedicated reader of poetry. And the committed flash reader begins to know that she is meant to savour the judicious use of language, of rhythm and repetition. She learns to appreciate and absorb the swift, economical absence, the hint-laden plot (if there even is a plot). As the writer Rolli has said: “Flash…can’t be skimmed. Skim and you’d miss everything.”

A flash is an important, honest blink in time and the reader needs to feel that there is life beyond the story. Yes, we can see the flash’s perimeters, but the reader should understand that there was a before and there will be an after. And the writer is lucidly choosing to leave things out and concentrate on a white-hot moment in this character’s life, a unique event.

While miscarriage has not been a one-off event in my life, sadly, each one has had its own difficulties and effects. When you’ve had five pregnancies end badly, a sort of hysteria can take over, an obsession with getting it right, with getting a baby no matter how. In my new short story collection, Joyride to Jupiter, the flash story Yellow explores, in a surreal way, a solution for desperate, would-be parents: flying babies are competed for and caught in large nets.

Also in Joyride to Jupiter, in the story Storks, a childless couple drive across Spain and everything Caitríona, the wife, sees brings to mind the series of miscarriages she has suffered. But then, a chance meeting with a past lover brings hope where she had none. These stories, and others in the collection that touch on fertility issues, are not autobiographical in the way the poems I used to write on the subject are. And, yet, they are awash with me and my life – in a way they speak louder than my poems to the more clandestine, ugly, painful parts of the whole am-I-amn’t-I nature of the fertility struggle, the secrecy and the burden of it.

The best flash fiction is like the aftermath of fireworks – its magic clings to us, the ears ring, the story’s form ghosts through the mind at random times

The larger space of the story – even the flash story – affords a broadening of the exploration of a theme for me, when compared to the poem. Still, not everything is spelt out – we have none of the flab of novels here. Suggestion and omission are the order of good flash. The reader has to notice, and think about what has been cleared to make space and let in light. And these omissions illuminate what is inside the fence. In each flash we read, what is, as Robert Scotellaro would have it, the “…something unsaid that swells”?

The experienced flash reader (and writer) knows that, similar to poetry, a flash story will offer up a moment of oddity or inventiveness that makes the whole piece sing, sting and reverberate. This can be accomplished with great word choices as much as with an instant of revelation. It can also be achieved with a hint, or a moment so quiet it barely registers with the reader; this is the art of showing just enough. But that clue or insinuation, no matter how fleeting, is there, gleaming and certain, and it is important.

Luisa Valenzuela says she likes to compare flash to an insect that is “iridescent in the best cases”. Valenzuela’s shimmering beetle is that moment in a short short that holds an odd, transitional, insightful glimmer that flashes its beauty coyly.

The best flash fiction is like the aftermath of fireworks – its magic clings to us, the ears ring, the story’s form ghosts through the mind at random times. As a reader, I love to be suspended in the atmospherics after reading a flash. The fiery moment that is the core of a good flash burns into my consciousness and the millisecond I come to the end, I want to go back to the start. I want to feel again the light, heat and brilliance, but I also want to find what I missed, see what treasures are still to be found inside the story and outside of it. Russell Banks has described the ending of a flash as “...a radical resolution that leaves the reader anxious in a particularly satisfying way”. This question-raising anxiety, or frisson, is what propels me to re-read a flash I have only just read. It sends me back, too, to old favourites.

I’ve long been a fan of the small artwork that conceals a multitude: the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The concise novellas of Steinbeck and Baricco

Flash revels in concision, in cutting back and honing. As a writer, I’m with Francine Prose who wrote of the satisfaction of having a “…sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp”. This sharp economy is what I look for from myself and from other flash writers. It’s not something I have to chase hard for personally: brevity is my thing; I am concise and neat by nature. I like small objects: miniature glass whales, tiny ships in bottles, those two centimetre long plastic babies you find in American toy shops. And I’ve long been a fan of the small artwork that conceals a multitude: the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The concise novellas of Steinbeck and Baricco. The intimacy of a Georgian lover’s eye portrait. The precise short-short fiction of Robert Olen Butler, Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis. The flash writer works on a small scale, but there is nothing slight here, rather everything is whetted and compressed to convey a large impression from a modest, concentrated centre.

The writer of flash learns to be definite and daring, beginning with her title (as readers and writers we must never take titles for granted). The flash writer then has to work hard to make sure something happens in her story. She concentrates, finally, on her last lines and leaves the reader with good intent. Her ending will resonate; it may be abrupt or ruminative but it should make the reader gasp a little. With luck, the moment that reader finishes reading a flash, she will be moved to go back to the beginning and read it again.

In a letter to a friend, WB Yeats wrote that “… a poem comes right with a click like a closing box”. The same could be said of flash: when as writer or reader we hear the last sentence – hear the box click shut – and we take it in the context of all that has gone before, there is a sense of rightness that descends, a sense that we have just witnessed something profound, and that something is art.
Nuala O’Connor’s 13th book, a collection of stories and flash called Joyride to Jupiter, is out now from New Island Books and is launched on July 14th at 6.30pm in the Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar, Dublin

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