A Very Short Story

Boxed In 

Flash fiction by Kim Siegelson

Published in the 19th edition of The Steel Toe Review

There are short stories, and then there are even shorter stories. Generally a short piece of writing might be from 1500 to 7500 words in length. Usually a short story will have a small cast of characters and centers on a particular incident or encompasses a short time frame. Taken to its most brief extreme there is a form called "Flash Fiction" or "Micro Fiction." These stories can be from 100 to 1500 words, but most typically are around 1000 words in length. Children's book writers will understand the form immediately because this is the typical length for a children's picture book. Poets will understand the difficulty of creating an emotional impact in very tight quarters.

At a recent gathering with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, she shared two profound quotes about what drives so many of us to write. The first came from a poem by W.H. Auden In Memory of W.B. Yeats: "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry..." It is the response to hurt, or rage, or sadness, or joy, or some other powerful experience that requires a considered attempt at an expressed answer from within ourselves.

She also offered this quote from Yeats: "Rhetoric is the language of our fight with others; poetry is the language of our fight with ourselves." Writing is the physical manifestation of an interior struggle-- our attempt to understand. The best writing is brave and ruthless in its confrontation of our inner struggles.

I enjoy stretching into new venues as a writer, finding new publishing outlets, and challenging myself to grow in my craft so that I never find myself in a creative box.  Boxed In is an example of flash fiction at less than 1000 words. I'd consider it a YA cross-over, and it can be found in the latest issue of THE STEELTOE REVEIW out of Birmingham, AL.  

Click on the highlighted links to read my story and also the work of other fine authors in this 19th issue of a publication dedicated to contemporary southern literature.

What A Writer Needs: POETRY

Poetry has become a very hot topic in my writer's group.  We are each drawn to this literary form in similar and different ways. Some of us explore it as a way to fully realize and tell a difficult story filled with emotional content. We turn to poetry as a means to illuminate character in a way that cannot be expressed through the usual venues of dialogue, action, or expository narrative. Others use it to explain the natural world simply while conveying its complexity and beauty. Or as a framework for a short book that needs structure, clarity, rhythm, or verse.  Poetry is invaluable as a literary form that should be studied by writers of all sorts, from novels to non-fiction. 
Poetry illustrates that brevity and efficiency are more effective than meandering prose. What is the best way to tell you what I need you to know as simply and quickly as possible? What exact words will convey the feeling I want you to have at this moment in my story? Poetry reminds us of the power of ideas, of what we know and feel deeply but struggle to say aloud.  These fears, dreams, hopes that are universal among us are allowed to step into the light through poems, lyrics, scripture.  In her essay "Poetry Is Not A Luxury" Audre Lorde says, "It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt." 

We writers need poetry in order to find the beauty in words and ideas; to find the ancient drumbeat in the telling of our stories; to find the courage to be truthful and bold in what our writing reveals about ourselves. For an inspiring discussion on Poetry as nourishment for the soul, I encourage you to listen to the podcast "Words That Shimmer" with Krista Tippett and American Public Media at: Words That Shimmer

What A Writer Needs: GATHERING DAYS

Daydreams by Charles Wilson 1887

 Writing is challenging mental work. It's akin to putting the gray-matter through a mini-marathon or, depending on the story, a season of Survivor. Even the most prolific and tireless writer needs a period to rest, refuel, and reflect.  Jane Yolen is one such writer and she calls these necessary breaks Gathering Days. A Gathering Day is one in which no active writing takes place-- no pen to paper or fingers to keys. These are days that are nonetheless active in the practice of absorbing creative energy much the way a plant soaks up sunshine on the way toward a fruitful harvest. It is a time of observation, of taking in the world, of mindful consideration and stimulation. Without them we run the risk of our cupboard becoming as bare as that of Old Mother Hubbard who nearly starved her beloved pooch to death.

My favorite Gathering Days involve being outside somewhere. A living history museum or an antique hardware shop will make me wonder, "who used this and how and why?" Lectures and art galleries and graveyards and old buildings inspire me. Spending time in the company of young people keeps my youthful memories fresh but relevant to the present. So take a day or two just to be alive in the world without guilt or worry that you aren't at your desk. After all you can't fill the cupboard without leaving the house every now and again. The final verses of "Old Mother Hubbard" tell of a well-fed pooch: This wonderful dog was Dame Hubbard's delight, He could read, he could dance, he could sing, he could write!

What A Writer Needs: TOOLS

Over the past many years I have read a lot of manuscripts, from accomplished writers and those just beginning to learn the craft.  Each piece of writing teaches me something. The most important lesson takes me all the way back to seventh grade and the meanest teacher at Indian Creek Elementary, Mrs. Henley who was my English teacher. She insisted that her students actually know the proper use of language including punctuation and grammar, the difference between simile and metaphor, the use of adjectives and adverbs, nouns and pronouns, and the importance of consistency in verb tense. She did not easily forgive the dangling participle or the fragment. Grammar and punctuation are basic tools for writers of every level, but not every writer has an easy command of them. The more skilled a writer becomes in the use and understanding of language, the more accomplished she becomes in her craft, and the greater the AUTHORity she has in the telling of her story.

As I carefully vet a box of 134 manuscripts --all hopeful of receiving a work in progress grant, the difference between those who have a wide assortment of tools at their fingertips and those who do not makes me grateful for Mrs. Henley. The difference between an elegant, engaging story and one that is clunky and awkward often comes down to language skill. Does this mean you can't break the rules? Absolutely not! There is a difference in using language in a casual or conversational style and using it in a way that appears sloppy or indifferent, or worse. How does a writer who is no longer in grade school scrape the rust off those linguistic tools? By reading, of course. Pay attention to the flow and use of language, the vocabulary, the craft of a well turned phrase or paragraph. It also doesn't hurt to have a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style on hand. As Steven King says in his excellent book On Writing...This isn't high school...you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin. And once you start, you'll find you know almost all the stuff anyway--it is a matter of cleaning the rust off the drillbits and sharpening the blade of your saw.  

What a Writer Needs: FEEDBACK

2011 Winter Retreat (from back left) Vicky, Elizabeth, Robyn
(from front) Gail, Me, Mary Ann
We call ourselves the Cheese Whizzes. It's a long story and only funny to those in this close inner circle of writing friends. We have cheesy nicknames, a hand signal, private jokes, and a penchant for wine, good food, and long philosophical discussions into the wee hours of the morning. But this is not what brings us together several times a year. We were a critique group before we were friends.

Finding a group of peers to offer feedback is invaluable to a writer at any stage, whether just starting out or as a professional. I've been in three groups during my career, each dear to me, and each important in different ways. There are no set rules for how a critique group should function, but certain fundamentals put into place will insure the best result.

1. It helps to have a set of parameters: Who will moderate the group and/or be the administrator? How often will you meet and where? How large will your group be? How many pages can be submitted per person? How far in advance of a meeting should submissions to the group be sent? Must everyone submit for every meeting? Etc. Don't make the rules too inflexible. Writers are quirky and tend to suffocate when boxed in by a lot of strict rules. Our group is capped at six, we meet quarterly with two weekend long retreats in winter and summer, our moderator rotates annually, we send pages electronically and three weeks in advance (full novels by prearrangement with the group,) we prefer that everyone submit something each meeting.

2. Develop trust. This will not be immediate, but your group will not last without it.  Respect each person's writing process and understand what sorts of comments are beneficial at different stages of a manuscript's development. It's good if everyone is on equal footing professionally, or the group might become a "workshop" with one or two leaders always teaching. The group must benefit everyone. The Cheese Whizzes are all published authors of books for young people, but we each bring a different strength and background to the group. Submissions always arrive with instructions from the writer as to what comments would be most helpful to her.

3. Hold each other accountable.  You are forming a professional group, as well as a social group. Push each other to stay involved in your industry, read what is current, attend conferences, and share information with each other. Cheer each other's accomplishments and encourage more. Our group members are all very active professionally and it benefits us as a whole. We get tech talks from Elizabeth, we pass along industry information and news as we learn it, we get SCBWI news from Robyn, conference recaps from those who've attended, information about upcoming workshops, resources, and more. Having a professional peer group is invaluable at any career stage. Having friends who GET your work and your life, is even more valuable.

What A Writer Needs: GOALS

It's a NEW YEAR, and time for personal and professional resolutions. Unfortunately the typical resolution falls by the wayside in about 12 weeks. Goals are easy to make, but hard to realize. As a writer with no one but myself to answer to I understand the temptation to mindlessly surf the web, knock-out household chores, or do anything to avoid working through a snag in my story or dive into a long tedious revision.

I have no magic incantation or words of wisdom that will change the fact that it's not easy to hold yourself accountable to your own goals. It's not easy to keep your butt planted in your chair and stare at a defiant computer screen; it's not easy to start a new project in the face of numerous rejections; it's not easy to allow others to read your work and comment on it. It's not easy, but who promised you it would be?

It's January so set some reasonable goals and push toward them this year.  Make things happen for yourself. Just begin! This year I pledge to finish two professional projects I started in 2010, and begin two new projects in 2011.  Briefly:

1. I will publish my first paperback under the SIX HENS PRESS label. I created this publishing company for the sole purpose of keeping my previously published titles in print and available, and to give me greater options and flexibility as publishing moves swiftly into uncharted territory.

2. I will finish a new YA novel begun last year. Such a fun but daunting project to work through!

3. I want to begin work on a new picture book idea as soon as the novel is through its first draft.

4. I will give more attention to my blog! Each month I'll post under the heading "What A Writer Needs." Check back to see what is on my mind, in my heart, and my inbox.

Libraries are not just books!

Most people think of libraries as a local book warehouse with reading room, but they are much more! In many communities, they offer free internet access (without having to buy coffee), free educational programs for kids and adults, access to music, movies, documentaries, photographs, primary research documents such as letters and diaries and audio narratives, as well as community meeting rooms, art and cultural exhibits, and more. If you are in Washington, D.C., our Library of Congress must not be missed! It is a cathedral built in honor of literature and learning. Tucked away upstairs is the Children's Literature Center and the office of our Chief Children's Librarian, Dr. Sybille Jagusch. She has remained at her post through decades of oval office turnover and turmoil. Hail to the Chief!

One of my favorite specialty libraries is the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History. It's the nation's second largest archives specializing in African history and culture related to the Diaspora, and African Americans. A current exhibit showcases Bunce Island in Sierra Leon, the gateway most enslaved Africans passed through on their way to American soil. Preserving our history and culture, inviting dialog, support of study, and encouraging understanding: this is the heart and soul of our community libraries.