Features / Fiction

Q&A With Meg Pokrass

Bloom: How and when did you first come upon the flash fiction form?

Meg Pokrass: I found flash fiction (originally called short-shorts) in the 1980s when my brain exploded reading the work of Amy Hempel. Around the same time, the tiny, densely sad and gorgeous chapters of Monkeys by Susan Minot similarly stole my heart.

Later on, Lydia Davis, Thaisa Frank, Molly Giles, Pamela Painter, and Jeff Landon were important to my growth as a future writer of the tiny form.

Bloom: Before then, you were writing poetry. What was it about the flash fiction form that felt “right” to you? To your mind, how does a flash story differ from a poem?  (And does it matter?)

MP: Does it matter . . . I don’t know why it should matter at all. Good writing is good writing; who cares if there are line breaks of invisible leaps or thought-breaks. I find many poems and flash pieces impossible to tell apart.

Beautiful, dense prose which fulfills itself and brings a mysterious, sudden satisfaction to the reader—like great songs—are deceptively small and strangely mighty. The song “Blackbird” by Lennon/McCartney. “Rainy Night House” by Joni Mitchell. My favorite pieces uncover an emotional story through oddly intimate, specific detail and metaphor.

Pieces which contain some kind of narrative progress, especially those with characters and dialogue, are completely different from poetry. Those are flash fiction. Absolutely different from poetry.

Bloom: You also teach the form; what are some of your approaches to teaching students who are new to flash fiction? Do you find that they know when they’ve “succeeded”? (It seems like a flash fiction either succeeds or it doesn’t; it’s hard to get away with something in the mushy middle.)

MP: As a teacher I lean strongly on the side of being a messy influence. It is different for every writer, but I will tell you about my own process:

Many pieces begin formlessly, with a few sensory details, a dusty clump of memory, observation, images, and sensory-loaded scraps. A writer just has to start anywhere. Structure comes much later—many drafts later. Often this involves leaving a piece alone for quite a while and coming back to it fresh.

Sometimes writers benefit from prompt words such as “Gimme” or “shoehorn” and being asked to do some very quick writing, or lots of repetition, anything to get moving fast into the draft and to tell their inner critic to go away. Especially if they tend to be too neat and cautious. It is best, I think, to allow things to get clumsy. Every story chooses a different path. The story is in charge of the writer.

It is so hard, voice is a mercurial thing. Sometimes paying attention to the private way you think helps you to recognize what your unique voice sounds like.

I tend to love restrictive, experimental exercises, the weirder the restrictions or directions the better. Anything which gets a writer to stop worrying about the result because they are tackling the impossible and have to be creative to get ANYTHING out.

Bloom: The term “flash fiction” can imply that a flash piece just comes to you, in a flash, that proverbial inspiration from above. Is that true, or is it a slower process involving a lot of revision?

MP: One of the reasons I am not fond of the term flash fiction is exactly BECAUSE OF this perception. Flash fiction is not a burp of writing. It is the craft of miniature. Employing not one unessential word unless using intentionally “unessential words” and creating a subtle yet demanding sense of emotional urgency in a very short space is uniquely difficult. Writing flash fiction takes as long as writing a good poem or short story takes, often 30 drafts, at least for me. Anyone who believes flash is the quick version of short story writing is going to have a nonexistent readership.

Bloom: In Monday’s feature, Lillian Ann Slugocki writes of your work: “Here is a feminism that is witty and biting, also impossible to ignore. The diction is razor sharp, the approach direct, and the persona doesn’t mind offending you.” Have you fielded offended reactions to your work? Do you think of your work as “feminist”? Why/why not?

MP: I have never thought of myself as a feminist. My friend Bobbie Ann Mason, when discussing this, suggested that I am a “female ephemeral humorist.”

I love to explore and parody the ever-changing nature of our uninspired, pre-conditioned (or re-conditioned) gender-role expectations. What interests me and what I often explore are the ways in which men and women are the same—all of us facing the struggle to maintain dignity on a dying planet full of media-saturated images. Does this make me a “feminist”? God, I hope not! I tend to route for underdogs, for overlooked creative people.

Nikky Finney, National Book Award winner for her poetry collection Head Off & Split, said in a great speech the other day about the state of humanity: “[W]e don’t care about one another enough.” That is where I stand.

Bloom: Flash fiction is very Internet friendly—it can be easily published and easily read on a screen. But then the question is, can one make a living as a writer of flash fiction? Tell us about the process of finding a publisher for your print debut collection, Damn Sure Right.

MP: I think the idea of making a living as a flash fiction writer is as likely as the idea of making a living as a poet. There may only be one living poet who has done this: Billy Collins. So . . . no, that is impossible as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think it can even be part of any determining factor about writing flash, or writing . . . anything. If you love it, you love it, and you write it. You’ll be lucky if it pays for a few nights at AWP.

Finding a publisher for Damn Sure Right was unexpectedly quick. Kevin Morgan Watson at Press 53 had been reading my flash, so when I contacted him about publishing my collection, there was already familiarity and a lot of enthusiasm from him. It meant the world to me.

Yes, flash fiction is incredibly Internet friendly, hence the explosion of so many flash fiction literary magazines of all kinds.

Bloom: I read in an interview that you’re interested also in writing longer form fiction. Do you see that process as an extension of something you’re doing in flash fiction, or does it feel like a completely different form, like, say, before you were painting, and now you’re going to make a movie.

MP: Yes, I have been experimenting with the novella, working flash fiction chapters together and fitting them together like puzzle pieces, hopefully creating a feeling of a life lived, rather than a narrative story told. I’ve had encouraging feedback about what I’ve written so far and am excited. I suppose this kind of writing is a hybrid . . . a lot like how poetry and film come together in some really small beautiful movies, such as Beasts of the Southern Wild and My Life As a Dog.

Writing the longer form itself intimidates and thrills me. Yet it doesn’t seem to suit me as well. But . . . I am never going to give up. The challenge is fantastic and fun. I am not there . . . yet.

Bloom: You started writing in your mid 20s; you are now in mid-life, and your first book-length work has recently been published. What would you say to young writers who are anxious and impatient about publishing and “making it” as writers?

MP: I’d say life experience is as valuable to a writer as the act of writing. I’d say reading is as valuable to the writer as the act of writing. Finding what you love, carrying those books around with you until people say “DON’T YOU EVER READ ANYONE ELSE???” and you say “Why would I?”

Compiling notes of your feelings, sensual and sensory experience and feelings around them, and oddly compelling observations is key. These notes, later on, become a huge source of material to draw from . . . a personal toolkit. Singing, music, drawing, animal loving, loving animals, making mistakes, finding comfort, losing comfort . . . write it down, 10 minutes a day.

Pressure kills writing. Rushing to be a writer kills creativity. No matter when you begin publishing, you simply have to feel ready. Start publishing at 40. Start publishing at 80. Try not to die without living.

Bloom: Is there a question you wish someone would ask you in an interview? Feel free to ask, and answer, it.

MP: Yes. How does one begin writing in mid-life?

I think you can start by looking at the mess in your room, in your kitchen, or in your life—and writing some words about it. See if the words are as messy as the mess. Those words are important. Mess is important. Alternatively, look at the orderliness in your room, your kitchen, or your life. Write about the satisfaction or the tyranny in that order. Who does it remind you of? Who do you remind yourself of? Write about the phone call or e-mail that doesn’t come, the one that you were waiting for your whole life. Write about the call that comes too often. Write about the call that is strangely just right on time, what the ring sound is like, and what the room temperature is when the phone rings. Write about what you love as much as what you dislike. Imagine people you despise when they were children, write about an imaginary moment that made them who they are. Lie and create. Deceive your way to the truth. Tell your own story, and then find characters living inside yourself.

Click here to read Lillian Ann Slugocki’s feature piece on Meg Pokrass.

Credits: Feature image courtesy of Flickr

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