Flash Fiction Serial: Less Flash, More Serial

One of my students read a quote from Stephen King’s On Writing. Paraphrasing, King says that he has to keep writing a story so it doesn’t grow cold. This week I’ll continue writing Tally and Carl and post as I draft.

Part 2

Carl picked me up at six the next Saturday morning, leaving his truck to idle while he came to the door and knocked. Mom offered him a cup of coffee which he drank black. He whispered, knowing Shane was in the other room. When he stood to leave, I stood too. Mom tilted her cheek up for me to kiss.

There was a package of mini powdered donuts on the seat and a bag of sodas on the floor. We drove north toward the dam. Dad had taken me fishing there a long time ago. I didn’t like the smell of the still water. I spent the day tossing Fruit Loops near the bank, watching them slowly bloat. On the drive out, I wondered if I should pretend with Carl, like I really liked fishing.

You like fishing? he asked, tires crunching in the gravel lot.

Kinda, I said.

It’s nice, he said, Gives you a chance to clear your head. I’m out here most weekends.

I hop down from the cab, taking the sodas and donuts. Carl gets the poles and tackle from the bed. He leads us down the earthen dam and tells me which side we’ll fish off, unless I want a competition. It’s the same grassy bank, wet with dew. There’s no breeze but I’m glad I wore a hoodie. Carl opens the bag of donuts and takes two, passes the bag to me. The donuts remind me of when we went to church with Charlene and had juice and donuts in the Fellowship Hall after the service. Carl opened a Pepsi and handed one to me.

Breakfast of champions, he said. He took a long drink and set the can in the grass. He bent over the tackle, opening a sour cream container filled with dirt and worms. He handed me a pole and pointed where I should aim. I came close and started reeling the slack. Carl told me how to fish even though there isn’t much to know when it’s the shallows and all you have is a light pole.

I might go out to Montana this summer and learn to fly fish, he said.

You could do that up north, I said.

Montana sounds cooler.

I make the bobber dance a little, reel it in and send it back out with the same worm. This time I feel a nibble all the way up the line, down the pole to my hands. I watch the bobber dip under and give a slight jerk on the line. There’s too much slack and I only startle the fish away, a little ripple. Enough of the worm is still on the hook, I send it out again. We do that side by side for a while, casting lines, eating donuts, drinking sodas. There are a hundred things I’d like to ask Carl about. He lives with his grandparents but I don’t know why. He quit baseball this season but I only heard rumors why. I want to know what he’d like to do after he graduates next year. I sneak looks at him. He’s seventeen, two years older than me. I like that. He’s got hair that glints gold in the sun. His clothes are as worn as mine. He’s lean like a farm worker. His nose could be on a profile stamped on coins.

I’m suddenly very conscious of his body near mine, of the way he clears his throat and cracks his neck to one side, of how his hands look working another worm on my hook. I remember to breathe.

Can I ask you something? I say and before he answers, I ask, How do you get it?


The liquor.

Oh, he says and laughs a little. You looking for a side business? I can’t tell you just so you can undercut me. We both know I’m not asking for that. He squats down and fiddles with a new bobber on his line. When he straightens and casts again, he says, I really can’t tell you. I’m sorry. He sounds sorry. After a few minutes he says, Ask me another. I’ll answer this time.

I think about what I want to know. I’d like to know if this is a date, if my first date is here on the dam with my hair pulled in a ponytail and the smell of mud between us. I look at the water, as still as when Dad took me here years ago, and I wish I were here with him, not Carl. My throat goes thick so I can’t speak. Carl jokes he doesn’t know anything about the Kennedy assassination but the thought of Dad being here with me that many years ago, putting worms on my hook and not getting mad when I laid down to watch the clouds, it makes me want to cry and I can’t, not in front of Carl.

He puts a hand on my arm. He can tell something. He speaks like he’s coaxing me out from hiding. Tally, hey, you’re alright. What’s wrong? I pick up my Pepsi and take a drink, swallow the lump.

I came here with my dad a long time ago, I say. We both cast our lines again. Neither of us are getting bites, even though we can see the shadows swimming. Carl says, Me too.

Postsecret Flash Fiction

13.theyaretalkingaboutyouPart 1

In school I sit at the back of the classroom, except for Mrs. Perkins’s chemistry lab because her room is set up with tables and she teaches from a different one every day. I think she waits for me to drop my bag before she picks which table to stand at. I see Mrs. Perkins up close a lot. During lunch, I’m out the side door by the art room. We’d get suspended if we were ever caught, not because we’re smoking (well, maybe) but because just leaving a door open at our school is this huge security violation. We could let anyone in with a gun I guess. And after school, I’m even further away than I was during school.

At home I am in my room. My half of my room. I share with my baby brother Shane. He’s only two which means I have to watch my language when I’m mad. When he was first learning to talk he called me TaTas which just about killed me even if he was cute. Tally, I’d say.

Mom put Shane in my room when he was only one. I pointed out his crib took up half the room but Mom just leaned against the door and sighed. She had to get up early with her job. She didn’t want to wake Shane before the sitter came and I left for school. The sitter is Charlene from next door. She’s such a tiny woman, hunched over. I don’t think she should be picking up babies anymore but Mom says Charlene’s fine. She was my sitter when I was little, when Dad took Mom on a date to Country Kitchen. Now when I get home from school Charlene talks a waterfall of the whole day, starting with breakfast.

Charlene is the one who found the water bottle of vodka under my bed. She found it because Shane found it and was rolling the bottle back and forth. Charlene got a cup to pour Shane a little water but he dropped the cup and started crying on the first sip. Charlene took a drink and yelled when I came in the door. Tally Ann! You don’t drink! You’re too young! Hold it together, girl! She waved the bottle at me and unscrewed the cap, poured the twenty dollars I’d given Carl Atkins down the kitchen sink. I tried not to cry. Shane was in his crib when I went in my room. I picked him up and said sorry.

Sorry means change, was something Charlene said once to Mom, after Dad apologized (again) for running around on her. This happened a lot before Shane was born and then not at all after because Dad didn’t come back. Mom never said anything to me but Charlene would come over late at night and sit at the kitchen table outside my bedroom while Mom whispered the latest betrayal. Charlene’s whisper was anyone else’s regular talk, so I picked it up. That man is a cad, Charlene said. That was the only time I heard Mom speak loudly to Charlene, when she said, No he’s not.

Dad’s rum was the first I tried. I had it the weekend after he left. Only a little, as much as I’d ever seen him drink. It was enough, burning my mouth and warming my belly. Dad wasn’t a cad. He was nice. It’s just he was nice to a lot of other women too. I settled on that conclusion, feeling a loyalty to him and a solidarity with Mom. Even after Dad left and Mom had to go back to work with a baby and a teenager to raise, she didn’t say anything mean so I didn’t either.

Someday I’ll probably explode from all the not saying anything mean. It happens at school when Sara laughs at my outfit and says, Dumpster vintage. Or when Mr. Oliver thinks I’m not trying hard when I spent an entire weekend writing his stupid paper about the Roman guard. It even happens out the side door sometimes, when Wolf or Midget says you never know, we might be siblings. As a joke, but still.

After Charlene yelled at me I begged her not to tell Mom, I won’t do it again. The next time I had twenty dollars (sorry, Mom), I went to Carl Atkins and asked what he had besides vodka and rum. Whiskey? he said so I tried whiskey. It wasn’t vodka, which meant I hadn’t lied.

That was a month ago. Sometimes I think I really am going to explode. I can’t because Shane is in the room. I think that was the point, like Shane is a goat in the horse’s stall. I can’t kick down doors if my baby brother is stretched out in his footie pajamas, arm’s length away. So I sit in my bed in the dark listening to Shane’s soft breathing, watching the passing headlights move across the wall behind his crib, and I take small sips from a jelly glass.

The next time I take twenty dollars (sorry, Mom) to Carl Atkins and ask for another water bottle of whiskey, he leans back and looks at me, head to toe. Not like when Sara finds a hole in my tee shirt or points out I’m wearing Mom’s old Reeboks. Carl assesses me fairly: quiet, pimply, a little doughy. He doesn’t take the bills I’m holding out. Instead, he asks if I’ve got any friends. I open my mouth and he holds up his hand and says, Please don’t say Wolf or Midget.

I was going to say Wolf and Midget. I think for a minute and say, I had a good friend, Jessica. Remember her? Red hair?

Carl looks up at the sky, thinking. Maybe, he says, Did she have an older brother?

Yeah. They moved last year.

Did you two drink together?

No, I say.

You’ve been drinking by yourself?

I look down at my shoes.

You’re kidding me.

I keep looking at my shoes.

Carl clicks his tongue, but not like a grandma. Shit, he says, You gotta stop. Lemme think. Carl looks back up at the sky. He says, Okay. You make a bottle like this last a month. You can’t be that bad. Are you that bad?

I shake my head.

Tell me how you do it.

I look at Carl. Really?


I take a breath and tell him about Charlene calling Dad a cad and how after he left for good I found his rum. I can’t drink rum anymore and I can’t drink vodka either because I told Charlene I wouldn’t. I drink like this, I say, and measure the bottom of a jelly glass, and tell him it’s only on the weekends after I know Mom is asleep and I just want to float a little.

Carl doesn’t laugh or snort. He doesn’t wrinkle his brow or roll his eyes. Is it fun? he asks.

It’s something, I say. I mean it that way. If Jessica were still here, we’d go to a basketball game and sit at one end of the bleachers, away from the girls wearing pastel sweaters and Uggs. We’d whisper what boys we thought were cute and do the wave even if we wouldn’t be in that gym when it was lit with twinkle lights for prom. I can’t sit at the end of the bleachers by myself. I think of Mrs. Perkins standing near me and looking up from her notes to catch my eye, a slight nod toward my pencil reminding me to take notes.

Carl sighs. You gotta find something better.

Like knitting? I don’t say it to be funny but it is and we both laugh. Charlene is always offering to teach me to knit.

Tell you what, he says, looking at the sky again, Let’s go fishing.

Part 2 tomorrow or the next day.

No Fancy Way To Say Apathy

Oh man.

I started a short fiction piece this week because if I want to write short fiction, I need to write short fiction. Probably because of Fiction Workhorse, I want to write like I’m ripping off a Band-Aid. Fast. Get a story, write a story. Feel it, leave it. That’s what this current draft is. Another fast piece covering a lot of time in a short space. Spare details. I’m thinking of slowing it down, except I’d like to get the suffering over with quickly. The character deserves to sit in limp regret but I can’t think why I’d draw that over more than a thousand words.

Here’s why: because when I sit in limp regret it always takes well over a thousand words. This month I returned to an old itch, why I didn’t quit teaching  and get an MFA and go on to publish in floundering journals and then in more widely read journals and, maybe, put together a collection. I think I’m nearly done scratching because I realize that

moving abroad
having babies

and whatever else (all the unglamorous issues and insecurities I manage):

it all adds to a much richer current writing experience. I am banging away at learning a craft, mostly having fun. I am writing my way to okay being small, okay waiting for anything I write to find its way to a reader who does just what I did this morning when I read a sentence and stopped to cry a little; or what I did yesterday when another character made me laugh.

So I spent three weeks moping that I know nothing about writing when that isn’t true. I just wanted to mope. What is true is that I need to decide (again) it’s fine to write just to write. I send pieces out. And one day I’ll publish. But right now, this is it. Do I have the endurance to keep writing narrative for the practice of constructing better narrative in five years? I pray about this. Because art is important to me. I write nearly every day. I figure things out on the page. Stories run through me. I have to remember that I am not so special. I do not deserve an audience. But I have been writing to write for years and this month I again asked why.

Packed into my list of why is pleasure. Writing gives me pleasure. It’s so good. We need a little art each day. Every time I ask why, I remind myself of the metaphors the writing process contains. Drafting, revising. Experimenting, discovering or uncovering. Please let all of this be enough.

Fiction Workhorse Recap

I give myself these projects because I’m not in an MFA program with actual assignments. And if I didn’t make up assignments (ex: sestina, Postsecret flash fiction, one more page in the notebook), I would probably just go on thinking maybe someday I’ll write that thing about a thing. And it’d be brilliant when I did. But I know better: between here and brilliant is a lot of workhorse.

In five weeks, I managed just over 18,000 typed words total, a thousand of which are wails and whines and a couple of thousand more of which are stutter starts. Some of those stutter starts might find their own finish, someday. Two of the starts are third or fourth goes at stories that are kicking around upstairs, looking for a way out, but unwilling to be rushed. One week isn’t enough time and five thousand words not enough space for either story.

Here is what I gleaned:

Knocking out a story without pretense is fun. I like to start stories with the idea that someday readers (like, hundreds or thousands) will read the piece and love it because in the turn of ten or twenty pages, they are transported / connected / entangled. Up front, I demand a lot from an itty bitty five hundred word start, putting immense pressure on everything that follows. Such an unfair and un-fun way to draft! Telling myself that all of these stories were only practice gave me no obligation to consider revision or submission.

Still, I like to practice revision too. One or two of my Fiction Workhorse drafts will give me that.

My 1000-5000 word parameter is on the low, low end of short fiction. During the first two weeks, I was reading a lot of published short fiction and noticing how long most of the pieces are. For one-a-week, 1000-5000 is easily done. I spent between three and five hours writing each draft, including light edits. More hours if you count headspace.

Working on a story in my mind before going to the page is a great strategy. The challenge from one week to the next was dropping the previous draft and its characters and finding a new story. I took a day or two after finishing a draft before starting the next, but that time wasn’t wasted. I was looking for what might turn into my next draft: BBC, news, podcasts, overheard conversations. When an idea came, I let it sit for a day. I’d go to my notebook and write a few notes, but not much more. Then, if I came to a turn while drafting, I took a break from typing and l played out a scene in my head. Try visualizing a scene a few different ways before choosing the better option to write. Take notes on the other possibilities if you want to revise later.

Fiction Workhorse was a good time. I almost missed writing another short fiction piece this week. Almost.

One of my next assignments: tell variations on a single story, after “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood or “The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris.

Entangled As A Reader

I read The Diary Of Anne Frank when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember laying on the bottom bunk in the room my sister and I shared, sobbing because Anne wouldn’t grow up. She wouldn’t explore kissing or become a teacher. I closed the book and found Mom. I needed her to hold me. I felt Anne’s loss in my body: the abrupt cut in her diary cut me, deeply, because as long as I had pages to turn she and I were the same dreaming adolescent.

As a kid, I lived in my head. I was always making things up (re: imagining, lying, pretending), carrying the make-believe into real life. This a fantastic way to live as a kid. Even now. But a shift occurred in my pretend when I began reading chapter books. I got sucked into The Boxcar Children and The Littles and Little House On The Prairie. These series gave me templates for pretend, the last, a frontier that I held onto long past wearing a calico bonnet Mom made me, tramping through the backyard. Through high school and into college, I continued reading other frontier fiction like O Pioneers! and Giants In The Earth as well as pioneer women’s diaries. I loved imagining that was my life.

Small leap to think that one reason I determined to move abroad was that frontier fantasy.

Most reading is entanglement with an end. Narrative holds me for its pages, and a little after, or when I remember a title. There are books I remember single lines or scenes from, and I close my eyes, remembering two things at once: my experience as a reader (the surprise, sorrow, pleasure, humor) and my experience as a character, when I lived that line or scene. Isn’t that why we read at all? To go live another life, wearing new skin, looking out through another’s eyes? Don’t we read to entangle ourselves in a place that isn’t the one we’re planted in?

I get entangled in these other lives and find characters who aren’t so different from me: Anne in her diary, wanting; Gauri in The Lowland, not wanting. There’s an ache and joy in finding our own secret or fault in someone else’s hand, turning the pages of their loss and gain. Such beauty in recognizing and connecting with characters, practicing empathy.

There is always more. Please post a book you got entangled in.