To Thine Own Self Be True (Flash Fiction)

That’s the advice the Bard bequeathed to us some 400 years ago, but then, he didn’t have $50K in school debts and nothing but a Theater Arts diploma to draw on.

After graduation, I lived on a shoestring, getting money from community-theater gigs and a part-time job subbing for a middle-school theater arts teacher. If I wanted more of the “root of all evil,” I’d need to find people even more desperate than myself.

I placed an ad on Craigslist: “Professional ‘yes-man.’ Seasoned actor will act as your double-date to the bar, vouch for your far-fetched excuses to your boss, etc.”

Jobs poured in. I was a wing-man, school principal, doctor; you name it. I side-stepped jobs that could cause bodily harm or willful destruction of property. I tried, for the most part, to steer clear of unethical gigs, but let’s face it— I was paid to be a liar.

One night, I sat opposite to Cheryl and Wade Bledsoe at their dining-room table. A routine gig. Cheryl had backed a company vehicle into a parked car while inebriated. She needed a cover story.

“Pretty easy,” I told Cheryl. “I’ll swing by your office and talk to your boss. I’ll say I watched a guy rear-end you, then take off. You were so nervous, you forgot to file a police report. Thankfully, I gave you my number, in case you needed a witness. Got it?”

“Perfect.” Cheryl breathed a sigh of relief. “How much do we owe you?”

There was something peculiar about the way Wade had been eyeing me. He had that faint look of recognition for the last half-hour.

Just as Cheryl was finishing her question, I placed him. He was a previous client of mine, looking to hook-up with a barkeep on the South side. I played his wing-man, and he got the date.

My eyes shot to Wade’s in recognition. The look of trepidation on his face confirmed he remembered who I was, as well.

I decided to capitalize on the opportunity. Chancing it, I charged him double:

“For a job of this magnitude, the going-rate is $1000. Certain factors bring that number down…if you’ve been referred by a client or you’re a recurring customer. But those wouldn’t apply to you guys, would they, Wade?”

“No,” His voice cracked. “They wouldn’t. Who should I make the check out to?”

Namaste: To Err is Human (creative non-fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I feel guilty calling their posture “impish,” but in several mythologies imps carry transcendent, supernatural knowledge, so maybe it isn’t such an insult?

There were six or so of the women, tiny and ancient, crouching outside our apartment on the daily, sucking down scented smoke and blowing rings that would put to shame the pool-hall regulars down the street. They were clad in Kurta Suruwal: traditional Nepalese dress, the colorful patterns contrasting beautifully with their tanned, weathered skin that resembled leather in so many ways. Their eyes were deep and friendly, constantly inviting you to conversation, but their tongues were unversed in English, making dialogue next to impossible.

Deepak, whose name means “lamp,” shed some light on these women, our neighbors. Like himself, they were refugees from Nepal. Several, in fact, were family members, sharing his inter-generational two-bedroom sardine can. 

To make their day,” he instructed me, “simply place your hands together, bow your head, and say ‘Namaste’: ‘I bless the divine in you.'”

In a former life, before he was driven from his home, Deepak used to be a professor. But when his political allegiances put him in danger, he was forced to emigrate from his homeland and work in a dog food factory on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. In Nepal, he had fortune, status, and political sway. Now, he had nothing. As such, he always seemed to me a microcosm of Cleveland itself. The two were meant to be together, though both acknowledged one another only begrudgingly.

Pain, to him, was now measured on a scale of one-to-his-exile. We spoke often while the remnants of daylight slowly receded below the horizon. We’d watch his children push each other in shopping carts across strewn shards of glass. In such poverty, makeshift toys can be fashioned from just about anything. 

Sometimes Deepak would say wistfully, “You never can know what to expect out of life.” He was over trying to change the world. He’d decided it was enough to keep the world from changing him. He just wanted to minimize the damage.  

Sometimes, I would ask myself: how can being human feel so akin to the divine?

I could feel it: the crumbling brick building wanted to be rid of me. When I stepped out onto my balcony at night, sometimes I almost heard in its creaking a message just for me. “You don’t belong here, Daniel,” it seemed to tell me. “I am not your home.”

In Cleveland, there’s an expression, “Success in Cleveland is making it out of Cleveland.”

My mind was made up. I’d head home to Kalamazoo, Michigan, the city where I was born. 

I was about to experience 258 miles of sheer success.

In a year’s time, I had landed a new job out of state. I only had a week to pack up my apartment and be on my way. My Nepali friend promised to help me move out on our last day. It came as a relief to know I’d have some assistance amidst brown boxes, packaging tape and a sense of overwhelming, unnerving haste. 

But early on in the morning, Deepak received a phone call that pulled him away. I was forced to lug a queen-size bed down three flights of stairs with the aid of only my wife. After our U-Haul was jam-packed and ready to pull out of the parking lot, Deepak was still nowhere to be found. 

Perhaps moving so quickly felt too familiar.  But in his unwillingness to return, I never got to say goodbye to him.

Deepak, namaste.

I forgive the human in you.

Learning Not to Dance

Stepping from the dance floor, she asked me, who taught you to dance?

Who taught me to dance? No one, per se. No formal lessons, no wealth of experience to draw on. Truth is, you have to start dancing before you know how. You do know how, really.

What makes you sway when your song comes on, completely involuntarily, like it’s some function of your autonomic nervous systems, as innate as a pulse? You’d sync your heartbeat itself with the snare and hi-hats if it didn’t mean cardiac arrest for you.

Where’d you learn to syncopate your steps with your earbuds in—your left foot hitting the ground each time the bass drum strikes; your right foot when the tom is hit? No one taught you that. It’s intrinsic.

When it’s 72 and June and you’re cruising in your aught-two Malibu, why is it you roll the windows down, even though your A.C. works just fine? When you go to the grocery store, what makes you roll through the aisles using your shopping-cart like a scooter, despite being in your mid-twenties, relegating your day off to crossing out errands and picking up paper-towels?

Why is it that your affinity for sidewalk-chalk and swing sets never goes away, fully? Why, on cross-country drives, do you look at the tree line with a strange sense of yearning- to get off the grid and become drastically human?

How do you justify giving the guy by the side of the road fifty-cents bus fare? You know he’s scrounging just enough to buy a Forty.

Who, what, where, when, why, how did you learn to dance?

Though it’s a truth we so often forget, we, as Anglos, the chief offenders—you don’t learn to dance, sister.

You learn not to.

Talking Shop: Tone and Voice

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

I’ve talked a little about David Shields’ seminal book Reality Hunger in a past post. Today I want to respond to another quotation from that same book. Here’s a statement quoted in his chapter about flash fiction:

“Even as they’re exploring extremely serious and complex material, short-short writers frequently use a certain mock modesty to give the work a tossed-off tone and disarm the reader. The reader thinks he’s reading a diary entry, when in fact it’s a lyric essay or prose poem.”

Shields goes on to cite examples, one of which being “Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Although I certainly agree with Shields that this “mock modesty” is common in flash fiction, I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that microfiction utilizes this technique across the board.

This does, however, bring up the topic of tone in flash fiction. As writers, we have to ensure we don’t confuse our tone with our literary voice. One of the best ways to ensure we don’t confuse the two is by having a proper definition of each term.

Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience or himself. One can have a sarcastic tone. One can be flippant or somber or self-reflecting or abrasive. All of these are examples of a writer’s tone in a particular piece.

Literary voice, on the other hand, is the distinctive style a writer has. Hemingway was known for his concise style. It made him have a distinct voice. Douglas Adams is known for his humorous approach to science fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his flowery prose.

So how can we confuse tone and literary voice? Well, left unchecked, our stories can all share the same tone, and run the risk of becoming formulaic. For example, I love using irony in my microfictions. But If I’m not careful, I will use it in all my stories, and pretty soon they’ll all read in a very predictable manner.

Have you ever enjoyed the first track of an album, only to find that each subsequent song sounded exactly the same? As writers, we have to ensure we vary our tone from piece to piece while maintaining our distinct voice.

How do you find this at play in your writing? Do you gravitate toward a certain tone in your work? If so, how do you avoid falling into a rut? What makes your literary voice distinctly you?

Talking Shop: Overcoming Writer’s Block

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

No ailment vexes wordsmiths across the globe like writer’s block. At one point or another, it haunts the steps of all who dare to pick up the pen and scribble down their thoughts.

If I could prescribe one antidote to the scourge that is writer’s block, it’d probably be this: Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and call me in the morning.

The War of Art (titled, of course, as a play on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War) is a call to arms for artists everywhere, imploring them to utilize self-discipline to overcome the self-sabotage that so many creative-types fall victim to.

It’s no coincidence that the book utilizes a lot of war imagery. Pressfield is a former Marine who draws on that selfsame level of tenacity and grit to win his creative battles.

In Pressfield’s book, he suggests that we label all of our self-defeating behaviors and thought-patterns as “Resistance.” This Resistance keeps us from fulfilling our ambitions, whether they include finishing a novel, beginning an oil-painting, or opening a self-made business.

Pressfield suggests we re-purpose our “Resistance” and self-doubt as a sort of compass.

If there’s a creative pursuit that we feel disinclined to start, Pressfield argues, that’s precisely the project we should dive headfirst into. In such a way, we can overcome obstacles in creating art.

Others advocate a less militant approach to overcoming writer’s block. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.”

The implication here is that artists should steal away, sneaking in a few minutes when they can. They should look at their creative processes with an ever-changing, new perspective. This approach brings to mind experimenting, squeezing in a time for writing whenever possible, and embracing the spontaneity of the creative process. In some ways, it almost seems diametrically opposed to  Pressfield’s approach.

Still, I don’t think either perspective is wrong.

Simply put, each writer must come up with their own method for overcoming creative obstacles. For some, that means a well-regimented routine. For others, it means writing when you can. Which rings most true for you? Or do you subscribe to a different method entirely?

Talking Shop: Minimalism and Flash Fiction

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

Minimalism has turned our society upside down.

Apple products have left consumers spellbound by their simplicity. Room decor has become increasingly elegant. Web designers succeed or fail, depending on how effortless their websites are to navigate.

What might be less obvious, however, are the ways in which minimalism has infiltrated our art.

For instance, sparse instrumentation and simple words created the smash hit “Say Something (I’m Giving Up On You)” by A Great Big World.

I believe that a similar frame of mind dominates some of the best flash fiction.

An old writing maxim is “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, rather than describing a character as “a nervous type,” show these traits by what the character does: give him a nervous tic, make him ring his hands, give his speech a stammer, let him pace the room, etc.

The same applies to flash fiction, but sometimes the most revealing aspects of a character or a plot lie in what isn’t revealed.

Consider, for example, the poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Though it isn’t microfiction, this piece of writing perfectly illustrates how writing can be made more luminous by what is left out. The narrator didn’t give you the gruesome details of the how the ball turret gunner died. Instead he turned your stomach by simply stating: “When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

In the New York Times article “Hearing the Notes That Aren’t Played,” David Mamet writes,

How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Checkhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.

This idea that “omission is a form of creation” seems to me at the crux of many great pieces of writing. What are some examples you have found of this principle at work? Do you know any great flash fiction that utilizes this technique? Let’s talk in the comments below!

How Niche Should we Write?

Recently, I took up sketching comic-book style illustrations.

I don’t have an iota of talent in terms of drawing, but I picked up Jason Brubaker’s “Cognitive Drawing” and have been plodding through it ever since. I enjoy the challenge of taking on a new artistic medium. Perhaps by expanding my horizons a little bit, my primary creative outlet (writing) will somehow improve by osmosis.

Besides, engaging in creative pursuits is never fully wasted, right?

This artistic diversion has led me to wonder: how beneficial is it to specialize in the arts? Does pursuing a multitude of styles of writing, for instance, make you better at your primary discipline? Or is there a law of diminishing returns, because you’re not focusing your talents solely on the artwork that’s in your wheelhouse?

There are plenty of fantastic artists on both sides of the spectrum, of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential “renaissance man” was astounding in nearly every academic discipline he pursued. Conversely, Thomas Pynchon hasn’t strayed far from what he excels at: writing complex post-modern prose.

My grandfather is a talented oil painter. As a child, he noted my proclivity to dabble in multiple mediums. He remarked on several occasions that I’d eventually “have to choose one” if I wanted to be truly great.

Even in sub-sets of the arts, I wonder how true this is.

During my college years, I worked toward a journalism degree. As such, I wrote almost exclusively narrative pieces, creative nonfiction, and other journalistic types of stories. During my post-graduate studies, I picked up an affinity for flash fiction and prose poetry. Did my creative non-fiction suffer as a result? I doubt it.  One could make the case that I would’ve further developed my journalistic skills if I’d applied myself to that style of writing, instead.

I’d rather not pigeon-hole myself. The last thing I want is to end up with an impossibly esoteric niche of writing. Who wants to be known as the world’s greatest neo-formalist poet who focuses on sparrow migration imagery?

What about you? Do you delve into various arts with reckless abandon, or mostly stick to one discipline?