Aesthetics of Constraint: Reflections on Flash

by Beth Keefauver

“We experience life like flash fiction. With every second that passes we are a second closer to the endpoint, as with every word used the piece closes before itself. Scarcity produces meaning. The flash, like life, is over achingly too soon. We live moment to moment, becoming ourselves in pieces. We move through dimly lit halls where nothing is ever fully known or completed. A flash, then nothing.”
–Meg Pokrass

Flash fiction is a hybrid form. It bears striking similarities to both fiction and poetry, but is very much a genre of its own. The flash artist must be cognizant of techniques from both fiction and poetry while allowing the form to become itself in the process. Setting limits that constrain choices enables the writer to achieve the intensity that is so essentially characteristic of flash. Counterintuitive as it may be, constraint is generative.

Writers new to this genre sometimes want to understand the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry. Pragmatically speaking, the difference does not matter to the writer. Robert Haas’s “A Story About the Body” and Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel” are considered prose poems, yet have been anthologized and taught as exemplary pieces of flash fiction. This question of difference between flash story and prose poem reveals their common genealogy: both forms thrive on the tension between narrative and lyrical elements. As writer and editor Tara L. Masih defines it, “A flash is simply a story in miniature, a work of art carved on a grain of rice—something of import to the artist or writer that is confined and reduced [...] with the purpose of creating an intense, emotional impact.” As Masih suggests, confining and reducing is crucial to the intensity of flash. Or as Meg Pokrass puts it, “Scarcity produces meaning.” Flash is most effective when readers experience the intense, emotional impact of a significant moment even though they are left with questions.

Flash artists, then, must engage constraint in the writing process. Flash tells a story. And to have a story, we must have change, a break in pattern, a shift in the ordinary. In literary fiction, this change or transformation takes place within the main character or reader. But story in the conventional sense will not always yield effective flash. The impulse in fiction is to explain. Flash stories do not need a lengthy intro as in a novel, or paragraphs of backstory as in longer short fiction. Flash illuminates the moment of change. The moment is the story.

This focus on a single moment opens the writer to lyricism. While lyrical language is often a feature of longer fiction, lyricism can predominate in flash stories, stretching the form into the arena of poetry. Whereas narrative moves the story forward, lyrical writing slows us down, invites us to dwell in the moment. The narrative arc provides the reader with a complete experience, but the lyrical elicits questions that the story does not answer, and leaves the reader wanting more. This tension creates resonance and impact. The flash is never complete, yet gives readers a full emotional experience.

My favorite metaphor for flash is the iceberg. I borrow this image from Jerome Stern, who introduces the iceberg as a useful shape for writers in his influential book, Making Shapely Fiction. A flash story is the tip of the iceberg, revealing only a fragment of experience above the surface, while the greater weight looms beneath the surface. As readers, we cannot see the rest of the iceberg, but we should certainly feel it—its heaviness, density, opacity, darkness. Like the unconscious mind, the iceberg underneath—all previous experiences, memories, sensations, emotions, histories—gives the tip, the illuminated moment, its power.

But how to render the iceberg? If the beauty of flash is its brevity, the most generative prompts for flash writing are those that set clear limits. The more the writer explores or develops content, the more likely the piece will lose its emotive power. The strongest flash pieces are often mostly complete after a first draft. Too much revision can diminish intensity. Consider this example of constraint in the process of writing flash, Ryan Anderson’s story “Nantucket.”

Raindrops cling to the leaves, and the branches droop like the arms of a man trying to lift too much weight. Yesterday was her fifth birthday; I wasn’t invited to the party this year. Alice wraps her tiny arms around a trunk and sniffs the bark. Nothing can take her away from me, I think. An ice cube melts in the dirt, from the drink she spilled while laughing. Nantucket will only be a funny word where we’ll never visit. “Daddy, can I climb?” she asks. Enlightened, she’ll one day leave me, but I tell her, “Yes,” anyway. Reaching towards the first branch, she opens her mouth in surprise when her foot lifts from the ground. Soon she’ll do this without my permission, and I’ll forever have to check up in the trees when I can’t find her. On my birthdays I hope she’ll remember to call. No one will be allowed to tell me to give up hope, and maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to forget this all existed.

Here, a father watches his daughter climb a tree. The narrative arc is achieved by the writer’s juggling between the girl’s actions and the narrator’s inner thoughts. Why is this seemingly joyful moment so incredibly painful for the narrator? We are given hints: he was not invited to her fifth birthday party, which suggests a rupture or loss in the family unit. He refers to the futility of his giving his daughter permission to climb, knowing “she’ll one day leave me.” The non sequitur that opens with the word “Nantucket” invokes something familiar to the characters, but about which we are given little information. Is this a private joke? A place they used to visit, but now cannot? Scarcity of information gives weight to the word, and its use as the title intensifies the mystery that much more. Like voyeurs, we can only glimpse this intimate moment. Images of loss and heaviness permeate the piece: the melting ice, the tree arms lifting too much weight. What we feel in the presence of this iceberg tip is the greater weight of absence—the daughter forever going away.

Now, I will tell you the secret of this story: it was written in response to a specific prompt in which the first letter of each sentence spells the writer’s name. The finished piece is a poignant example of how arbitrary limits produce narrative meaning as well as lyricism. The emotive impact of this story is created by the writer’s disciplined constraint. Abiding by the limiting rule to begin each sentence with a particular letter, he creates syntactically interesting sentences, unexpected juxtapositions, and lyrical images, which result in an intense emotional experience. Each phrase is compressed, signifying more than it says. The writer illuminates this particular moment for this particular character, but also the universal pain and terrifying risk of loving someone too much.

Constraint is generative. Flash offers us an illuminated moment, a slice of life, a snapshot. The artist of flash works within limits to produce language that is condensed, compressed, constrained. We must constrain ourselves, lest the would-be flash become something else, something bigger, more refined and organized, something less life-like. Prompts that set limits and define clear boundaries—an arbitrary rule, number of words, a single image—can be profoundly generative. It is through constraint that flash provides readers with an opening to other horizons. The tip of the iceberg points to the sky.

Beth Keefauver's fiction has appeared in The Citron Review, Pisgah Review, Stirring, Blue Lotus Review, Press 53 Blog, and the anthology, Not Somewhere Else but Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place (Sundress 2014). She has taught literature and writing for the Great Smokies Writing Program, Lenoir-Rhyne University, Warren Wilson College, Western Carolina University, and the University of Tennessee, where she earned her PhD in English and Creative Writing. Beth has written and performed in the Asheville area for LYLAS, an all female comedy troupe, and “Listen to This,” a storytelling series. She is a former fiction editor of Grist. Beth lives in Fairview, North Carolina, with her husband and two young sons.