Eleven writers reveal more


Northland by Michelle Elvy

Meet more of 52|250’s contributors — flashing on flash.

We flash so fast each week, we seldom have time to discuss the nuts and bolts of writing or the inspiration behind the story. So we asked some of our seasoned writers who’ve been with us from the beginning — Randal Houle, Guy Yasko, Martin Brick, Susan Gibb, Michael Webb, Dorothee Lang, Susan Tepper and Doug Bond — and three relative newcomers to 52|250 — Fred Osuna, Len Kuntz and Nicolette Wong — to choose one particular piece and tell us more about the process behind it.

Randal Houle on Vestiges, from Week #24 – Tombstone

Process? I didn’t even know I had a process until I started writing flash. When Susan Tepper came up with the theme “Tombstones,” I knew I would have to dig deep into areas previously closed off to writing (by me). In eight years in the cemetery business, I witnessed how people grieved and coped under the humongous responsibility and financial pressure. I once thought I would never allow any of that to surface in my writing.That is impossible. At least if you ever want to write anything worthwhile. And I remembered that I rescued a tombstone once.Memorial Day, 2007: it was buried under an overgrown bush. I found fifteen other stones all around the 250-acre cemetery that weekend alone.The continent is made of granite. Everything we think of as “earth” is stuff that has died before us turned to soil. I set out to write this story from the point of view of the tombstone. Extracting nouns and verbs like granite, I carved into the words to find their true meaning. Most people would never recognize a piece of granite unless it is chiseled, gouged, and polished. Neither can a theme be recognized except through story. Finally, the story forced me to accept a dual POV. Any stonemason will tell you, do what you want, but the rock will speak at the last – stories do, too.

“Vestiges” is a tribute to tombstones as they speak for the dead and the corpses that are powerless to maintain them.

Guy Yasko on Catacombs, from Week #19 – The last time


I force memories to surface, erase their contexts, cut threads of
continuity. I leave only footprints.


Plotted on paper, isolated points of memory-data grow toward each
other, tracing a curve that was once impossible.

Fred Osuna on Darkroom Tech, from Week #23 – Long lines

A non-specific theme such as ‘long lines’ can bounce around in one’s brain for days or weeks generating ideas before one of them becomes the most distinct of the lot. The immediate thought of an endless queue of people was the first to come to my mind. Then there was the only slightly less obvious visual image of snaking traffic. A shaft of light. The barrel of a gun. An unnerving stream of forced patience.

While writing “Darkroom Tech,” I incorporated all of these concepts that the prompt ‘long lines’ had planted in my thoughts, and I wrapped them around a character who seemed to me to be the personification of a lit and inevitably explosive fuse – another ‘long line’ image.

I was thinking of this process at midnight this morning while standing behind thirty other people at Wal-Mart, waiting to buy my nephew a PlayStation bowling game for Christmas. The line behind me stretched into the aisle from the electronics department, past sporting goods and their specials on fishing rods and reels, around the women’s undergarments section (advertising shapely girdles), almost reaching the car detailing garage where they paint those sharp thin white borders on Camaros. Some guy tried to cut in front of me in a manic rush, snorting and wiping his coked face repeatedly. I noticed his shoelaces trailing behind him, the aglets click clacking on the striped linoleum tiles. His veins ran visibly up his forearm…

…Wait. Wasn’t I talking about long lines?

Martin Brick on Just Listen, from Week #17 – We are not responsible

It’s probably Saturday, maybe Sunday.  Weeknights I don’t cook much, but on the weekend I like putting several hours into the kitchen, denying the stack of freshmen essays.

There’s usually a drink going.  Recently, sidecars (thank you Mad Men).  At three in the afternoon, empty stomach, a little bit goes a long way.  A buzz and a rhythm.  A few dishes going, drink close at hand, and the key to proper kitchen zen – music.

For “Just Listen” it was Peter Mulvey’s album Knuckleball Suite.  With the theme “We are not Responsible,” I knew the mood I wanted: rural and summer – one of those nothing-doing but magical nights.  The title track set that stage.  His other songs rounded out the details.  A song about Eisenhower and nostalgia gave me “Abilene” for the radio broadcast.  “Marty and Lou” show up in a song about two armchair philosophers.  But “The Girl in the Hightops” provided my conflict.  About getting old, listening to some youngster wax poetic on the sublime beauty of a poet’s death.  You see yourself; you see it as a little silly.  Throw in Bono’s declaration that young artists “kill the inspiration to celebrate the grief” and you’ve got something.

The parts emerge from the music and the caramelizing onions.  As long as I don’t hit the sidecars too hard, those parts stay.  After dinner I play with them on paper.  Always paper first.  Then type and hit the word count.  Too long; pare it down.  Word count.  Repeat as necessary.

Susan Gibb on The Lottery, from Week #23 – Long lines

One of the most difficult stories for me to write for this challenge was for Week #23’s theme of “Long lines.

I knew immediately what I was going to write, because the concept had been simmering in my mind for over a year. The premise was simple: A lottery drawing where the winners were supposedly set free from a detention camp, yet one prisoner suspects that those whose numbers were called were not gaining freedom but were in truth going to their deaths. The twist, the scenario that makes it an emotional conflict for the protagonist is the day when her number is called and a young pregnant woman whom she has befriended silently pleads with her to switch numbers.  Perhaps because I hadn’t decided, hadn’t a clue how this was going to play out, the week’s challenge and decision to meet it with this story was the only way it really got written. With this drama, I most certainly could have embellished the setting, the deepening friendship of the two women, but I’m not sure that that’s not what inhibited its telling.

Maybe the immediacy of the danger, the starkness of the sparse setting details, all helped the piece by its very restriction of words. I’m grateful to the 52/250 team of Michelle, John, and Walter for getting this story out of me. I can breathe a sigh of relief and wonder only, as the reader, if the narrator was right.

Michael Webb on The Really Useful Shopping Trip, from Week #14 – I can’t wait

“What’s this one about?” My wife was reading over my left shoulder. I had another document open, writing. I was always writing. She wrote too, but not like I did- oceans, rivers of prose. Some of it even palatable.

“That time you had to go babysit at night? When the baby was sick? Then we took the boy to Target? ” We spoke in the half sentences of the long married. There was only one baby, there was only one boy, there was only one emergency night flight to sleep in a strange bed. So far.

She read over my shoulder silently.

“That’s not how it happened.”.

“I know,” I said calmly. “Poetic license.”.

“How come you get to be the hero, and buy the toy, and I’m the villain, the meanie who says he can’t open it?”

“Because that’s how it was.”

“But that’s not how it was. He didn’t say that until we were in the parking lot. And I told you you didn’t have to buy it. You insisted.”

“It reads better this way. And I only have 250 words to tell it, so I have to be concise.”

“You don’t write anything concise.”

“True.” She had me there.

“Just make sure someone hot plays me in the movie.”

“How about Sela Ward?”

“I didn’t know you thought she was hot,” she said, frowning.

I sighed. “I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut.”

Len Kuntz on Free, from Week #23 – Long lines

I’m often accused of writing about dark subject matter.  I think that’s fair, but people should know that I’m actually a very happy person.  I have kids who make me belly laugh, a wife I love to death, not any more worries than the next guy.

When I write, however, my heart tends to seek the broken person–the doomed child or flawed father.  It’s not that I want to glorify suffering–quite the opposite: my aim is to shine a light on injustice and, therefore, repudiate it.  I figure the world already has plenty of happy endings in films, stories and love songs, and it doesn’t need mine.

As a flash fiction writer, 52/250 has really schooled me by demanding that each word matter, by indirectly enforcing every good writer’s mantra: “Edit and prune.  Edit and prune.”  Sometimes, if my draft is stuck at 260, I’ll agonize over each sentence, gauging its relevance, with an eye and ear always cued for the weakest word or beat.

I also really enjoy the theme aspect.  My method is to approach it metaphorically.  For Week #23 – “Long lines,” my story, “Free” uses the theme to symbolize how lines can impede our progress, but also provide a cloak of anonymity.  The hero of “Free” becomes an anti-hero.  He’s able to free himself from a harrowing situation and get lost inside a line clogged with people, but it’s his conscious he has to live with, something much more difficult to liberate.

Dorothee Lang on Queue,  from Week #14 – I can’t wait

When the theme “Can’t Wait” approached, I noted it on my pinboard, so that it could simmer in the background for a while – that’s how I approach theme challenges. The hope, of course, always is that a complete story might bubble up, and just needs to be written down. So far this never happened. But usually, a first idea takes shape at some point, often not at the desk, but while outside. For “Can’t Wait”, the first idea arrived while I worked in the garden. I scribbled down a note, returned to it later, wrote the start and middle, then got stuck.

“The next day, I returned to the story, tried to pull it together, and reached an end – only that now, the story was too long. So I copied the whole thing, to revise it and cut it shorter. I like that part of writing, and often go through stories several times. Finally it was complete. The story is: “Queue.” [http://52250flash.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/queue-by-dorothee-lang/]

Yet the theme didn’t end there. There was another theme waiting on the pinboard, a call for a “War” anthology. I didn’t have a clue where to start with this huge theme, but arriving from “Can’t Wait”, the combination of themes triggered a story idea. For me, this definitely is a great side effect of 52/250, this inspiration of extra stories, and of unexpected thematic connections – my curiosity for this chain of inspiration even lead to a thematic diagram: “Can’t War Sleep Identity” [http://virtual-notes.blogspot.com/2010/08/thematic-analysis-of-my-recent-flash.html].

Susan Tepper on Gift Wrap,  from Week # 23 – Long lines

Whenever I begin to write, be it prose or poetry, I start from the first image that pops in my head.  I am a disorganized writer, which I believe is the way to go. This challenge was Long Lines and right away I “saw” a department store gift wrap area.  They tend to have long lines.  Once during high school I worked in gift wrap for a short time.  But I stank at tying bows, and my wrapping didn’t come out very good so they transferred me to pots and pans.  In retrospect, I believe it traumatized me on some level— the idea of not being able to wrap a simple package neatly.  So here I was with my first image, and in pops this traumatized girl who desires.  She DESIRES.  So much so, that she is certain  her friend’s baby will be a boy (despite medical reports to the contrary).   I feel this girl wishes to replace her failed girlness with a new boy baby.  Her mother calls her a handful.  Her childhood perm turned out disastrous like a poodle.  She can’t remember the last time a boy kissed her.  This story, I believe, is about desire, loss, the inability to control your life.  The girl hears moaning sounds coming from behind the gift wrap partition.  A partition that separates her from what she most deeply desires.  She can’t remember the last time a boy kissed her.

Doug Bond on Where the Ocean Ends, from Week # 23 – Long lines

I’d seen the poet Bob Hicok read here in San Francisco during the summer. I love the fluid nature of his work, the indirection and the openings for light this allows. There’s a quote in which he speaks to his process, how it’s understood that he doesn’t know where a poem is headed when he starts. Instead, his focus is on “trying to understand why something is on my mind. . . . Maybe writing is nothing more than an inquiry into presences.”

I’d finished a call with my father, who recently turned 80. He is in reasonable health for his age, but related to me some tests he had coming up…again nothing dramatic, but after I hung up, my mind wandered and I found myself suddenly devastated at the prospect of his loss, in effect projecting to events that are not real or current concerns. Once I was inside this somewhat “fictional” mindset, and afforded its protections, a monologue of remembrance began.

Whittling a piece down from 700 to 400 to 250 words does of course cut out things that feel hard to lose, but inevitably the process reveals the stronger essence of what it was that was on your mind. The core images remain while those tangential are cut away. In the case of this inquiry into presence what I found was a relationship of child to father, the roles that are swapped, the places we snap together with parents, like puzzle pieces until we’re pulled apart.

Nicolette Wong on Equilibrium, from Week # – 24 Tombstone

In another life you and I shared a veil of smoke and distance. Whenever you reached out to hold me, my soul split. All that was left was the memory of the night, of your drunken murmur and me dancing naked on a fold-up chair, shaking in fervor; a picture of my handwriting and a cigarette box, our promise of re-creating each other in art.

Since we parted I have not stopped running. I am running in between words on charcoal paper. In the translucent blue descending, across invisible homes and streets, I trace your footsteps into a cafe where smoke rings stir against the rain. I see serpentine lines of the woman you love dawning in a notebook, through a glimpse of her shoulder in the warm glow of your bedroom.

Your love is born out of reactivity, you said, of embracing the shadows on your lifelong quest for truth. It is the kind of love I cannot contain. I set the cold fire burning up our present: a pair of tombstones for the death we once lived, for love will tear us apart today and forever.

2 Responses to “Eleven writers reveal more

  1. I found it interesting that the themes ‘tombstone’ and ‘long lines’ came up so often in these comments. Great reading. Thanks for the opportunity to think some more on these topics.

  2. Interesting that “Love will tear us apart” comes up. I felt like i had to fight with Joni Mitchell over “the last time” (i saw Richard was Detroit in ’68…) And maybe i was romanticising some kind of pain. A

    At least it was semi-conscious. This week i channelled Mishima’s version of Mizoguchi w/o being aware of it.

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