By Katy Yocom
Spalding MFA Associate Administrative Director
“Write it short, then make it shorter. Watch it start to glow.”
Maybe it’s my journalism background, but I find it exciting to write to a word limit. This week, I’m finishing an essay for a blurred-genre contest with a 750-word limit. Many publications have a limit of 1,000 words for flash.
It’s rewarding to sit down and draft an entire story in one sitting, to finish it up and send it out within days of first putting pen to paper or fingers to keys. To see the thing in its entirety—no spreadsheets, no index cards, no Post-It notes required for managing intricacies of story and character.
There’s joy in tightening sentences to meet the word count. Sometimes the tightening proves revelatory. The writing becomes more layered and refined. An ordinary sentence like “They met in Chicago in 1963” might become “Chicago, 1963. They meet.” You might make that revision simply to pare a couple of words, but suddenly you’ve got a new rhythm, which lends itself to a different tense—and now you’ve got a stylistic change to consider.
I’ve spent the past few months playing with flash pieces as a sort of physical and mental relief after spending years (years!) on a novel. The novel was an ultra-marathon; flash pieces are sprints, or maybe even gymnastics. They’re exhilarating. They sharpen the senses. I’ve tackled exercises and writing prompts as a form of fitness challenge. The more abstract the prompt, the better I like it. The abstraction requires me to invent, invites me to play.
While I was playing for its own sake (which is the point, after all, of play), eventually it hit me that writing short might offer an entry point into a long-form project I haven’t known how to enter. It’s a family story, nonfiction, focusing on a 56-year- long friendship between my mother and her best friend. Taken as a whole, it seemed monolithic, a blank-faced edifice offering neither door nor window. At the fall residency, a friend suggested I consider flash as my way in. Later in the week, I took Dianne Aprile’s collage essay workshop at SpaldingCon, and it broke something open for me. Approaching this enormous story as a series of flash pieces has gotten me thinking of it episodically: dipping into stories, illuminating themes with flashes of lightning rather than an unwavering spotlight. Writing elliptically is permission-giving: I don’t have to tell the whole, massive story. I can leave enough blank space around the edges to invite the reader in.
Are you drawn to the idea of writing short? I encourage you to find some prompts for inspiration—they’re out there, at Poets & Writers, on Tumblr and Pinterest. (Just Google “writing prompts” and you’ll find thousands.) Don’t write the first thing that comes to mind, since the obvious story probably lacks life. Write something no one else would write, given the same prompt. Write it short, then make it shorter. Watch it start to glow.
Katy Yocom’s fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in The Louisville Review, New Southerner, 2nd & Church, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.