“Nothing squeezes an idea like boundaries,” says Tom Wilkerson, one of nine writers whose work will be featured Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. in An Evening of Flash Fiction at Nightbird Books. The reading will deliver a series of very short stories — 600 words or fewer — in rapid succession, creating the “campfire effect” which invites a group to gather and travel into imaginary worlds together where stakes are high and protagonists must overcome various forms of trouble.
Flash fiction is a term for extremely short narratives (usually under 1,000 words; by some definitions 500 words or fewer) that stand alone and contain the essential components of a short story. These pieces, sometimes called “sudden fiction,” “short-shorts,” or, as University of Arkansas fiction professor Molly Giles has coined the briefest versions (100 words or fewer), “fireflies.”
“Flash fiction works sort of like a microburst. It’s like one of those rainstorms that shoots down from the sky for like five minutes and then ceases, leaving you shaken up,” says Gabrielle Idlet, whose Wednesday Night Writing Workshop has served as the birthplace of the pieces to be read Saturday. “The story hits, totally overtakes the reader, and then leaves, reverberating after it’s gone.”
Late master of the short story Raymond Carver likened short stories to poems. “There’s a compression of language, of emotion,” he said, “that isn’t to be found in the novel.” His assessment may be even more applicable to flash fiction. No room exists for anything inessential in a narrative that must erupt, grow, and come to a close in just a couple of minutes.
While flash fiction is written in as many ways as there are writers, of course, the stories to be read Saturday appeared on the page initially in forty-minute writing stretches in Idlet’s workshop. Working within such a limited time allotment can spark material to be developed into longer works, or interesting practice that simply builds skills. Sometimes, the pressure cooker can force out whole short stories. Martin Jardon, who has been developing a novel in part through workshop prompts, is excited on the weeks when self-contained stories spill onto his notebook pages. Flash fiction writing, he says, “hurtles me into the present moment. There’s no time for thinking, worrying or judgment – it’s just me, pencil and paper.”
Saturday’s reading is the latest offering in a Northwest Arkansas’ literary culture undergoing rapid growth. “Up on the hill,” the University of Arkansas’ nationally ranked Creative Writing MFA program routinely produces award-winning poets, translators, and fiction writers. Meanwhile, monthly events like the Burning Chair poetry reading series at Nightbird Books and the Ozark Poets and Writers’ Collective’s live reading present fresh work by local and national writers of note. And just last weekend, Fayetteville was host to the International World Poetry Slam, featuring “the best poets in the world” in jovial combat at venues across town.
In addition to Wilkerson and Jardon, Saturday’s readers will include Renata Shelton, Barbara Jaquish, Iris Shepard, Susan Bull, Erik Thornquist, Roy McCann, Susan Idlet. Expect work that is “sensual, surreal, disorienting, lyrical, moving,” says Idlet. “Above all,” she says, “expect to feel alive.”