Matthew Sharpe on Short Shorts
Brevity in writing is a real art. With short-shorts (or flash fiction), the old “show, don’t tell” adage is really put into practice, and careful attention is paid to the decisive moment.
Meet Matthew Sharpe, author of the short-story collection Stories from the Tube. He posts a new short-short on his blog every week. These pieces are so fantastic that I just had to interview this talented writer.
MJ: How long have you been writing shorts?
MS: I’ve tried writing very short stories on and off for years, but I started the latest series this year, partly because I’ve reached a temporary (I hope) impasse in the novel I’m working on, partly because I’ve had only short bursts of time to work this year, and partly because I’ve been meditating for the last few years and got curious about whether I could extend my meditation practice—or something like it—into writing. I fell into/established some rules for myself: (a.) start with little or no idea where I’m going and see what comes; (b.) complete a draft in one sitting, typically between 30 minutes and two hours; (c.) I’d like to say, after Isak Dinesen, write without hope, without despair, but there are many days, in this period of my spiritual development, when that rule is simply not possible for me to follow—not that this stops me from writing; (d.) ignore any of the above rules or add new ones as needed.
Artists whose very short narratives or narrativesque things inspire me include Yasunari Kawabata, James Tate, Chopin, Lynne Tillman, Russell Edson, Charlie Parker, Kafka, Borges, Lydia Davis, Catullus, Philip Guston, Linh Dinh.
MJ: When you get an idea for a story, do you know right away whether it’s the seed for a novel, a short story, or a flash fiction piece?
MS: I thought that my last novel, You Were Wrong, was going to be a short story when I started writing it. After around 30 pages I realized with a mix of dread and relief that it was going to be a novel. One of these little things that I’ve been writing lately turned into a 15-page story, but all the rest have somehow managed to behave as I’ve intended them to, at least as far as length is concerned. As far as narrative content or form is concerned, I have little idea or expectation about how they’re going to behave until they start behaving that way. I don’t mean to say I have no control over them, only that I generally feel more like a conduit than a generator.
MJ: Tell us about your process for the short short. How do you even start? Do you focus on a particular scene and weave the story around it? How different is it from writing a short story? Tell us.
MS: I start by willing myself to sit in front of my laptop or notebook as early in the day as I can manage. Then I relax my body and take a few deep, slow breaths. Then I close my eyes. If I happened to have awoken that morning with a line or an idea in my head—which I usually haven’t—I write that down. I generally don’t know what I’m going to write till I start writing. I often start with something pretty ordinary, a dumb line like “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy” (as in Story #6 of ‘Very short stories r us’) or someplace pretty straightforward like a supermarket (Story #4), or I pick a fairy tale motif like a girl staring down into a well (Story #9). One bright morning I was staring out my office window and then I closed my eyes and saw a negative image of the window on the backs of my eyelids—a black rectangle, which led to a story about someone who sees a black rectangle every time she closes her eyes (Story #5). I often let a location emerge within the first few sentences and then I wait to see who’s going to do what to whom in it and with what consequences. By the time someone causes something to happen the story’s almost over. Someone thinks, feels, acts, responds to someone else’s words or actions, the end.
MJ: Would you share some tips for writing a successful flash? Do you have a mental checklist when you’re done–some guidelines that you absolutely respect? How do you know when your flash piece “works”?
MS: No checklist or guidelines, sorry, there are so many ways to do this, I’m just trying out / inventing / stumbling into what feels right for me at this moment. I’m mostly keeping the sentence structure simpler than I’ve done in the past but that is by no means a requirement of the form. While I’m writing them I have no idea if they’re any good—often I believe they are not. A few days or a week or two after writing any given one I come back and read it and can see it more clearly and feel less attached to its success or failure, at which point I either abandon or begin revising it. Revisions are sometimes minimal, sometimes maximal, usually somewhere in between.
MJ: You’ve been posting flash stories regularly on your blog for the past few weeks. Tell us about the why of this endeavor. About the readers’ response. Will you eventually compile these stories into a book? An ebook maybe?
MS: I wrote maybe fifty flash stories over the course of five or so months. Then I started sending them out to magazines. Then I felt sort of weary to be sending a story I wrote to a magazine for about the seven thousandth time in my life. I also thought the speed and directness of the stories seemed to be asking for a method of disseminating them that was equally fast and direct, so I created ‘Very short stories r us’—wherein I post one story a week—and started spreading the word about it via email and facebook. I’ve gotten positive responses, including a write-up in the Los Angeles Times after my first post. I’ve never had a blog before and didn’t know what to expect or what makes a blog successful, but I wanted to experiment with the possibilities of this vehicle for publishing fiction, and I am still experimenting. I do intend to publish these in book form, when I have enough of them, whatever enough is. Maybe a print book and an ebook, we’ll see.
MJ: What else are you working on?
MS: Trying to write a novel about the Iraq War, a really tough subject.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels You Were Wrong, Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible, and the short story collection Stories from the Tube. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Harper’s, Zoetrope, and BOMB, among others. He teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University.