Three years ago a poet friend, Jim Norcliffe, told me about the upcoming New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day. At that point I hadn’t read any flash fiction and I said I was sceptical that a story could be conveyed with much depth in just a few hundred words. He, on the other hand, a practitioner of the prose poem, enthused about the flash form, which he defined as being similar to prose poetry with a narrative arc. He recommended that I read Flash Frontier, an online journal established in New Zealand in 2011 by Michelle Elvy. The journal’s 250 word gems captivated me enough to want to investigate further. In the process I discovered a whole world of flash fiction complete with supporters hailing it as the future of literature, critics decrying it as the death of literature, and others dismissing it as a passing fad of the internet generation.
Although flash fiction has become more prominent since the advent of the internet, its roots go back to ancient times. For the kind of ‘slice-of-life’ flash fiction commonly published today Charles Baudelaire’s prose poems are credited with being the precursor. In more recent years many accomplished writers are turning to the form for the challenge of conveying the greatest possible effect in the fewest possible words. There are now hundreds of online journals, as well as literary prizes and print publications that include or focus exclusively on flash. The position of marginalised obscurity it once occupied has long gone.
After the conversation with Jim, I decided to set myself the challenge of trying to write in this intriguing form. At that time I was working on my fourth book, a novel titled The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (to be published by Makāro Press in August). While the two forms are completely different, I found that writing flash helped me to think more about the weight of words in my novel. Writing flash is good discipline for writing in any form.
After publishing work in various journals around the world and being placed in competitions I approached Amanda Saint of Retreat West in the UK to ask if she was interested in publishing the stories as a collection. To my delight she was. Amanda suggested taking out some of the stories so that the fifty seven left in the collection formed a cohesive whole with connecting themes. The result is Soul Etchings.
Many of the stories deal with social dislocation, other-worldliness, loss and grief. Others explore memory, love, the search for belonging and new possibilities. The ideas for these stories came from a variety of sources – newspapers articles, fragments of overheard conversation, images and memories, but a few appeared out of nowhere, almost fully formed.
An example of this is The Gatherers. This appeared one day as I walked by the river with my dog. The sky was blue, the Southern Alps glittered with snow, the tracks were covered in wildflowers, and the only sounds were bees and birds and the dog splashing in the water. Unannounced, The Gatherers arrived.
The distress of a bird unable to help her fledgling when it fell from the nest triggered Waiting Lists. A visit to a spooky second-hand shop with one-eyed dolls, stuffed animals, and a massive carved bed with enclosed wooden sides resulted in Whistle on the wind, my lad.
Early one morning I opened the curtains and saw a golden hot air balloon drifting over the Canterbury Plains towards my house. It looked beautiful, but it also triggered a memory of being in a hot air balloon accident twenty five years before. At that time the pilot was inexperienced, and when a fierce wind blew up he was unable to deflate the balloon quickly enough to land safely. It crashed to the ground and was dragged on its side by the wind at top speed towards a lake. No one was killed although most of us were injured. The memory of that accident surfaced after I sighted the golden balloon and I wrote The Golden Balloon, giving it an ending that could so easily have happened. The story was first published in Fresh Ink (Cloud Ink Press) in 2017 and I wrote this article for The Spinoff on its origins.
An experience my youngest daughter and her friend had one night observing a strange object in the sky while lying in their sleeping bags in a paddock with their horses inspired Soul Etchings, which became the title of the collection. A painting she did of a girl who was part tree with green hair, feet like roots and arms like branches was the inspiration behind The Girl with Green Hair. Esbos Boo came from a dream of a child named Esbos Boo who was hiding in a forest The name was so intriguing I wrote it down as soon as I woke up. When I started writing his story I saw he had blue skin.
I have picked just a few examples of how the stories in my collection began. It isn’t difficult to find ideas. Ideas are everywhere. The challenge is in creating fiction out of them. Flash fiction is defined as a complete story between 100 and 1,000 words. Because of this restriction much of the story must be implied rather than stated, but there must also be enough to deliver a moment of clarity, a punch to the gut, a stab of recognition.
Sandra Arnold lives in New Zealand. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, ‘Soul Etchings’ (Retreat West Books, UK) was published in June; a novel, ‘The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell,'(Mākaro Press, NZ) will be published in August. Recent awards include finalist in the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, the 2018 TSS Flash Fiction Competition and the 2018 University of Sunderland Short Story Award. Her work appears or will appear in Spelk, Fictive Dream, The Sunlight Press, Bending Genres and JMWW among others. She is a guest editor for Meniscus and Flash Frontier. More can be read on her website.