The Final Details of AWP
F196. Flash Fast Sudden Fiction and the Short Story. (Ed Falco, Jayne Anne Phillips, John Dufresne, Steve Almond)
The authors on this panel agreed unanimously that they don’t care what a publisher calls their work—flash fiction, one page fiction, short short fiction, etc.—rather, they write it for the outlet it provides. Furthermore, this form has been around longer than we think as in Kafka’s paradoxes. What’s new is the attention that this form is getting and the enthusiasm that new writers have for it.
Think of short short fiction as haiku, something that starts us thinking. This form uses exposition to tell a larger story in a smaller space. Characterization happens by way of compression of both poetic and psychological detail. The struggle is off the page and present a moment through the writing but the reader imagines the life. In this way, the form carries more collaboration between the reader and the author than any other form.
Short shorts are marked by brevity, intensity, abrupt beginnings and endings, surprises, sleek and efficient language, and carry more weight in mood, tone, and imagery. There is always more implied than stated. These pieces “hang in the air of mind.” Within the form are all kinds of opportunities: inscription on a headstone, encyclopedia entry, personal ad, character sketch, billboard ad, monologue, etc. Still, no matter what, “the language has to rise up toward beauty and into song,” (Almond.)
Steve Almond spoke to music as his first inspiration for writing short shorts, as the music an content of the lyrics can work together to build much in the same way that narrative poetry or short shorts do. He cited Tom Waits as one of his all time influences in this regard.
Be aware that the longer the piece goes on, the more important plot becomes. Also, this is not to be confused with poetry. Poets do the work of understanding and studying line breaks and stanza breaks, verses and rhyme. Short short authors do not do this work—they do other things, yes, but there is a distinct difference between these forms for a reason. In answer to the question, “Why stop?” authors on the panel said that it has to do with authorial intent. The intent of the short short comes from an emotional place, a sort of impulse that must be listened to at that moment. The pieces read like bursts of energy and that is because even in their most polished forms, they still remain very close to their source of inspiration.
Random fact I learned from this panel: 5 of Japan’s 10 top selling novels from last year were composed on CELL PHONES.
S115. Award-Winning Writing at the Intersection of Nature and Culture. (Jennifer Sahn, Christopher Cokinos, David Gessner, John Price, Debra Marquart)
This was a beautiful reading organized by Orion Magazine and full of lively discussion afterwards. I was most impressed by Debra Marquart, who read from Horizontal Line, her memoir.
Orion writers push the boundaries of genre in service of nature. Its authors take the personal I and move out to the universal we/us/our, then return to the changed I for a meaningful conclusion. The Managing Editor reminded us to use the right narrator for the right essay. Besides this I/We/I form, writers can get a similar “Orion affect” using other forms such as short fiction and the lyric mosaic, for instance. In any case, all Orion writers know their facts and represent a unique point of view that very few people have or have written about before. “Pay attention to your obsessions,” the editor reminded us.
S121. Where Yearning Meets Epiphany: The Intersection of Prose Poetry and Short Short Stories. (Holly Wilson, Ron Carlson, Robert Olen Butler, Deb Olin Unferth, Oliver de la Paz, Justin Courter)
Hands down, this was a wham-pow-rock-star panel full of great, short readings and quick witted insight. Robert Olen Butler began with a speech about yearning, which he described as the deepest level of desire. “Fiction is the art form of yearning,” he said. Ficton makes a move toward yearning at the end, yes, but there is the earlier epiphany where the yearning of the character shines forth—not through explanation, but through the accumulation of pertinent sensory details. In the short short form, however, these two moments are one and the same and the whole form “beats toward that moment.” “In this form, plot is yearning, challenged.”
For Deb Olin Unferth, the short shor has more in common with music than any other form that contains traditional narrative (much like Steve Almond’s opinion). The short short should feel like it is new and never been done before; this newness comes through voice, which raps from the unconscious and has a wholly unique sound and cadence.
Ron Carlson read last and made my day. “I think we write like other people and then we write along the edge of that wheel,” he said. In the short short form our language needs to be unique, yes, but that doesn’t mean over the top. “use cozy words that we haven’t seen around in a while.”
S164. Avoiding Sick Mothers, Absent Fathers, and Losing Your Virginity: The Tropes and Traps of Nonfiction. (Susan Finch, Steve Almond, BJ Hollars, Samantha Levy, Marcia Aldrich, Jessica Pitchford)
Editors reiterated more of the same on this panel: a universal call for quality nonfiction submissions, especially those that employ humor, use the tools of fiction in nonfiction, and speak to something larger than the narrator or major event of the essay. Other editors called specifically for the lyric essays where the emotion is the driving force behind the narrative.
Fourth Genre, in particular, receives more than 1,000 nonfiction submissions per issue and can only publish 1% of those. “I know I rejected a lot of publishable submissions,” said Marcia Aldrich, whom I have indeed received a rejection letter from myself. “But there are only so many that I can take. Remember to let the story drive the situation and not vice versa. Go to larger subjects from the side, through a small, specific, unique entry portal. And when it comes down to it, all editors absolutely LOVE humor.” She described the lyric essay as short, stand alone, and as relying on heightened language and emotion to move a story along.
All editors warned against lengthy cover letters, cover letters that summarize a submission, and cover letters that tell the editor how he/she will feel while reading the submission.
S174. Creative in Form, Nonfiction in Content: Perspectives on the Possibilities of Literary Nonfiction. (Michael Steinberg, Robert Root, Marcia Aldrich, Ned Stuckey-French)
Writers should remember that some forms exist (or are created) only for an express purpose of telling one particular story that a writer has to tell. The writer may never use that form again and that is perfectly allright because it means that the form has served its purpose for the content even though form is most successful when it is arrived at organically through explication.
Editors said that lyric essays are brief but not an excerpt and begin and end in themselves. Everything counts in a lyric essay and they command our attention. They are not formulaic, rather, one time only. Lyric essays read like polished improvisations, demand that the reader fill in, get into material that is much larger than the single driving image of the piece, and are often quite powerful when read aloud. The lyric essay represents the “conrolled art of association.”
And that, my friends, was AWP through this writer’s eyes.
I am officially ready to quit my job entirely to write my heart out.
Sadly, work starts up again next week and I’m kicking and stomping already.
We’ll see how long I make it at the coffeehouse upon my return.
Meantime, Milwaukee, WI awaits my attention and discovery.