Flash Fiction, Timeframes & Spatial Minutiae

Agnes Martin. Untitled. 1960 | MoMA
“It is condensed, even curt; its rhythms are fleeting, its languor quick, its majesty diminutive. It discredits accretions, honors reduction, and refuses to ramble. Its identity is exceptional, its appetite exclusive. It is refractory, rapid, runtish. It reverses, refutes, revises. It can do in a page what a novel does in two hundred. It covers years in less time, time in almost no time. It wants to deliver us where we were before we began. Its aim is restorative, to keep us young. It thrives on self-effacement, and generates statements, on its own behalf, that are shorn or short. Its end is erasure.” — Mark Strand.

That is possibly the most extended quote I’ve ever opened an article with, and the irony is not lost on me that it should be for an article about writing short. Still, it’s a quote I feel musically sums up this thing we call ‘flash fiction’.

I’ve written previously about the distinctions of flash and micro-fiction — including word counts and some of my own findings for what makes ‘good’ flash fiction — the factual components, if you will, of this writing form. When I first started writing in this genre years ago, it wasn’t too well known. There were some prominent publications in the UK and the US that advocated for it, but in the past few years, there’s been a bit of an explosion of flash fiction, with more publications acknowledging and accepting shorter works, more competitions, and more writers practising and growing the form.

I’ve been curious about what it is that’s led to this rise in popularity. It’s no secret that the pandemic years have changed how we think and engage with our general day-to-day. Lethargy and languishing (the lesser-known psychological state that psychologists have been indicating we’re all suffering from this year) have created shorter attention spans in a world where there were already ongoing concerns about our ability to stay focused on one thing.

In a bout of heavy procrastination, I began reading more about writing small, which in turn lead to further explorations of why we’re drawn to miniature things more generally (said bout of procrastination featured a heavy dose of looking up various pygmy animals on Google #NoRegrets). I also came across an interesting study from the University of Tennessee. In 1981, students were asked to imagine themselves as a Lilliputian (a trivial or very small person) while they examined a replica miniature model of their student communal lounge. The model included tiny figurines, and the students were asked to imagine themselves as one of the tiny people for thirty minutes. They were not provided with a clock or watch but were simply asked to say when they felt thirty minutes had passed. Researchers found that time flew by for those imagining themselves as miniature people. Curiously, the sped-up passing of time participants advised they experienced was proportional to the scale of the model lounges they explored.

The study is often cited to this day as evidence for how our brains fold time and space together and how mysterious our perception of time can be when we tweak our perceptions of reality.

I found it a fascinating look at how reality can shape how we engage with different aspects of life. Have our attention spans shortened, or is information delivered faster, in more engaging ways, with less effort? Is it more that our expectations of the reality for how information is now provided to us have changed rather than our ability to stay focused? I don’t know the answers, but I know that flash fiction can expand our framed experience of time rather than shrink it. Sometimes when I read a concise story, I can feel as though I’ve been lost in the world for days rather than minutes (as is usually the case). Some of the shortest fiction I’ve read — and I mean short as in one or two sentences — have stayed with me for years, and I still think about the entire world those sentences created in my mind.

A great example of this is from Alex Epstein, a master of micro and flash fiction. In his book Blue Has No South, he creates a masterful alternate reality across his stories, although separate entities in their own right all seem to exist in this other world. One of my favourites is The Bookmark as Murder Weapon:

Except for the title, any connection between this story and reality is the product of the imagination of the author and the reader.

And here, I think, is the crux of our developing love and taste for flash fiction. It’s so much more than simply very short stories. The best flash fiction can transport us in ways longer fiction cannot. Flash fiction tends to play in our minds, long after reading, as our imaginations go wild, unpicking everything left unsaid. In longer fiction, our imaginations are afforded a luxury of taking a little backseat — they’re still engaged, of course — but most of what we need to know is provided to us. Flash fiction does no such thing, and in a world that sometimes feels heavily prescribed, this is a marvellous thing. In his essay on flash fiction for Literary Hub, Grant Faulkner points to the “infinite possibilities of brevity” and provides thirteen unique and wonderful phrases for describing or defining flash fiction. I especially like his comparison of flash fiction to Bonsai trees:

“Flash fiction is like a bonsai tree, compressed, yet sculpted to create movement, proportion, asymmetry, and poignancy. Some trees slant. Some trees cascade. Some are windswept or weeping. “Bonsai art is the display of a landscape — without the landscape,” said the bonsai artist Nobu Kajiwara.”

Faulkner also acknowledges the way minutiae have captured collective imaginations, referencing Dr Seuss’s fascination with tiny worlds and his famous book Horton Hears a Who, where Horton the elephant hears a speck of dust talking to him and discovers it’s really an entire tiny world.

Flash fiction isn’t for everyone. I have several friends who support my creative writing while simultaneously telling me they can’t bear to read it because it doesn’t make sense to them. They need answers for the questions flash fiction has a propensity for dangerously leaving unanswered. But if you’re eager to explore the ways your brain might fold time and space through the infinite possibilities of very short writing, I highly recommend you seek some out.

Originally published at Write Or Die Tribe.