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Creative Research Center

The Universe in a Grain of Sand – by David Galef

Posted in: Guest Essay

"brevity" spelled out in Scrabble tiles

What’s under 1,000 words and read all over?

Flash fiction.

For over two decades, I’ve been teaching flash fiction in my creative writing workshops on the basis that compression stimulates creativity. A couple of years ago, I published an entire book on the subject: Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, from Columbia University Press. By that time, I could have written a large volume, but I deliberately kept it short.

Does size matter? Paradoxically, leaving out material can make a piece of fiction feel more expansive. This idea is what Robert Browning refers to in his poem on the Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto when he writes “less is more.” The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe adopted the same credo for his minimalist creations. Good flash fiction often relies on the art of implication rather than statement, depending on suggestions that lead to a large, unspoken whole. Readers introject themselves into the gaps and become more active, creative participants in the act.

With pressure comes intensity, another reason that flash fiction has won so many fans. As one student described it, “It’s like someone’s telling me an urgent message, and I’d better listen.” A good piece of flash fiction doesn’t just exist; it bursts onto the page. It has, in the words of one fiction-workshop participant, “the immediacy of a newsfeed.”

Yet flash fiction has been around since the beginning of fiction, especially if you include short narrative lyrics, Aesop’s fables, and Biblical biblical stories. Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book from 11th-century Japan features short sketches that could qualify, as does the 14th-century Italian Decameron, by Boccaccio. American authors including Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway dabbled in the form.

But flash fiction didn’t truly heat up until Robert Shapard and James Thomas’s anthology Sudden Fiction in 1986. There, under the label “short-shorts,” were 70 narratives ranging from one to five pages. Fiction workshops embraced the form, and it began to spread. As the form proliferated, it began to spawn smaller versions: flash fiction, which achieves its effects in about 500–1,000 words; and microfiction, which does the same in 250–500 words (though these limits ae hardly universally agreed upon).

What’s the limit of vanishing returns? A Canadian magazine a while ago ran a fiction contest that restricted all entries to 69 words, and 55 is another formula that’s been tried. Hint fiction weighs in at 25 words. You can see a lot of this material on the web, including nanofiction, also known as Twitter fiction, registering only 140 characters, including punctuation and blank spaces.

Hemingway is famous for supposedly constructing a short story in six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” The claim is apocryphal (Hemingway scholars have been unable to find any record of it), but the story remains in wide currency. The image is poignant, and haunting, because it is incomplete: Are the shoes being sold because the infant died, or was the original purchase based on a hoped-for event that never happened? What do the shoes look like, who’s selling them, and in what state of mind? For everything left out, an image or narrative segment comes to mind. The creativity resides in the gaps.

What’s the point? you might ask. Or: What’s left? The point is not just to cram as much as possible into a line, though practicing the art of economy is always useful. Making a few words stand in for a whole is a powerful effect that any good writer knows: William Blake’s line “the universe in a grain of sand” from “Auguries of Innocence,” or Ray Bradbury’s short story “All Summer in a Day.” A microcosm may stand in for a macrocosm. In a larger sense, all art is representation — in flash fiction radically so.

In short (sorry), you have to be creative to represent a person by her way of speaking (in a halting two lines of dialogue) or a murder plot evoked by only the brief aftermath (no one knew the assassin was also her son). We might even call flash fiction “concentrated story.”

If art is life with the boring parts left out, as more than one commentator has quipped, flash fiction is both artful and artistic. But creativity is little without demonstration, so I devoted my handbook to showing this point in many different forms. The chapters include close looks at vignettes, twist stories, what-if premises, fables . . . everything from anecdotes to the vanishing point of narrative.

More specifically, the first series of chapters focuses on forms particularly successful in miniature, such as character sketches and diary entries, prose poems and list-stories. A section on how to pare down material marks the midpoint. After that come chapters on techniques or treatments that work well when applied in a small space, such as surrealism and metafiction, mass compression, and the simple opposition of two viewpoints.

For classroom instructors, the proof resides in how successfully an approach draws creativity from the students. That’s why each chapter concludes with exercises or prompts designed to get readers writing. I also provide two sample stories at the end of each chapter as models and for analysis, with discussion questions. This makes for a feedback system in creativity: Read, write, and analyze. Repeat.

Though I’m interested in all forms of creativity, I can only salute a molecular physicist or a business entrepreneur. Writing is what I do, and writing so that every word counts makes for powerful, memorable work. The aesthetics of my miniature worlds depend on aesthetic efficiency. To get started in that direction, here are three creative tips:

  1. Cut the opening, and get right to the point.
  2. Focus on the one telling detail, not a full description.
  3. Don’t “conclude,” but instead end with an action or an image.

This is apt advice for a lot of fiction, but particularly true when working in a tight space. I’d argue it’s good for creative work, in general.


David Galef has published over a dozen books, including the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress (one of Kirkus’ Best 30 Books of 2006); the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books’ Short Story Collection Award); two children’s books, The Little Red Bicycle (Random House) and Tracks (William Morrow); the translation Japanese Proverbs: Wit and Wisdom (Tuttle); literary criticism: The Supporting Cast (Pennsylvania State University Press); and the poetry collections Flaws and Kanji Poems (David Roberts Books). His work has been translated into Russian, Spanish, and Japanese, and optioned for films. His latest volume is Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook, from Columbia University Press, now in its sixth printing. He is Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing program at Montclair State University.