Tara Masih was attracted to writing flash as a high-school student because it allowed her to get to the “heart of a scene.” She’s gone on to not only publish her stories widely, but to publish others through noted anthologies. She also created one of the seminal books on writing flash fiction, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.
She told us what she looks for in a good piece of flash fiction, and who she’d invite to a dinner party of flash writers.
What’s your earliest memory of yourself as a writer?
We’re all readers before we’re writers. And artists before we’re readers. My first recollection of creativity was trying to draw people, and being frustrated because I couldn’t make the drawing match reality. I was so upset I crawled under my bed and cried for hours. From there I moved on to a love of reading, and I combined my interest in art and writing by storyboarding little made-up fairy tales and tales of mice who acted like humans. I guess I gave up on reality at some point and was much happier for it, creating my own.
What drew you to flash fiction?
I was taught to write in vignettes. I had a visionary high-school teacher in the late seventies, early eighties. Kathy Collins. She in turn was taught by poet Elizabeth Graves. We were encouraged to always get to the heart of a scene, to find those moments in life that deeply affected us in some way. Collins would then ask us to string together the vignettes (or fragments, as she called them) to create a fuller story. No one I’m aware of wrote in this way at that time. Now, I think it’s pretty standard practice in the literary world. That microscopic attention to one deep truth in a scene led me to writing flash fiction (when it got its name) as opposed to fragments.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one flash story with you, what would it be?
Wow, that’s almost impossible to answer. Obviously it has to be something I could read over and over again. I’ll go with Sherwood Anderson’s “Paper Pills.” One of the earliest flashes out there. Groundbreaking. With its humanistic details, sexual and romantic topics, and resonance, it includes everything a reader could want from a brief story.
How did you decide to edit The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction?
I proposed the idea to Rose Metal Press. The idea came to me when a poet read some of my flash and said he was studying it so he could write his own. Light bulb moment. There was no text at the time for writers who wanted to know more about flash. I had a textbook background, so creating the format and concept was easy enough. Rose Metal fine-tuned it.
Did putting together a collection that included so many flash masters and such a deep exploration of the form change you as a writer?
It felt like a collaboration of like-minded writers getting together to celebrate a form and their love for it. I heard many times how happy they were to be part of a project that made flash fiction a serious candidate for teaching at the academic level. I don’t think it changed me, just helped me define myself as an editor and writer a bit more. It made me for sure feel part of something larger, delving into the history and discovering the short short story has been around for a very long time.
You’re now editing an anthology with Robert Olen Butler, The Best Small Fictions. Choosing stories for an anthology must deepen your sense of what goes into a good story. What makes a good flash story?
Not sure editing is the right word. I’m compiling and selecting finalists for The Best Small Fictions with a team, Butler is selecting the winners. But you are right about the process of selection. What makes a story get on to that finalist list? I think it might be different for each person, why we have a team process. But my answer would be that a great flash story needs to jar me out of my reading daze. I have a physical reaction when I get to one of those stories. I literally sit up straighter and concentrate more on each word, like I’m tuning in to a different station.
Sometimes it’s a unique voice or subject, but all the successful stories have one thing in common: they tell a small story in a small space with not a word or mark of punctuation out of place. They hook in to some essential characteristic of human foibles and triumphs. Each sentence drives forward to the next.
It’s hard for me to put it into words because we judge each story on its own merit and each one may do something differently. But the successful ones don’t leave you wanting more, or wanting to edit. They hold your attention in that special zone and find some unique way to tell their story, whether through format, language, scene, setting, or character. The best are layered, and require second readings to appreciate what the author accomplished. Sorry if that’s kind of vague. It’s sort of that “I know it when I see it” answer.
You’re hosting a dinner party with your favorite flash authors, dead or alive. Tell us about it.
Hemingway drinking boisterously at one end, regaling us with stories about elephants and baby shoes. Kawabata on the other end, listening quietly and gazing at the snow out the window. Michael Martone in the middle, on one side, laughing and cracking witty word jokes when he can get a word in. Kathy Fish on the other side, shaking her head and smiling. Me, happy to pour their water and wine and clean up.
What has writing flash fiction taught you about living life?
To not care what others think. If they think you are in pursuit of something inferior, but you love it, keep at it. Success comes from passion. And the ability to focus on small details. I think being able to do that allows you to enjoy life in the moment.
For more, see Tara’s 100-word story, Ella: Then.