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Last year, as part of its Tiny Desk Concert series, NPR featured Yo-Yo Ma. The cellist devoted his twelve minutes to discussing J. S. Bach and playing a little of the composer’s music. I loved hearing Yo-Yo Ma perform, but what struck me was something he said. He revealed that Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello, the piece with which he opened, was the first song he’d learned to play. And he learned it when he was four years old.
I marveled at this (four years old!), but he was modest about the accomplishment, explaining that he’d learned the piece “one measure at a time.”
The audience laughed as he demonstrated the inching progress of his practice. One day: one measure. The following day: the next. He emphasized how some practices were easy because a measure—the day’s “homework”—was a repeat of the previous day’s measure. Other times, the measure was different but similar to the one the day before and therefore not too difficult. And then there were harder days with more complicated measures. But still, a measure a day, however challenging, by virtue of its brevity, was doable.
After reflecting on his earliest experiences playing the cello, Yo-Yo Ma confided, “It’s actually not painful to learn something if you do it incrementally.”
These words have stayed with me. They touch on what I’ve learned about myself: that I write best when I write very little.
This isn’t to say that I write for ten minutes, then call it quits. Almost every morning, I sit at my desk for at least three hours. But in these hours, I’ll only strum up four or five hundred words. I usually feel good about them, however. My writing routine—eking out a little over a long spell—doesn’t just keep the pressure manageable, it affords me the luxury of time to tweak, experiment, sit, and think. To add words, cut words, rearrange, and read aloud. To play.
Incidentally, five hundred words is probably the average length of a work of flash fiction. I’ve developed a passion for flashes. The form is aptly named and not just because such stories can be read “in a flash.” So often, the stories, themselves, seem to flash—with an energy that presses against the word-length restraints. With a loosely-tethered power.
A good flash will shimmer.
Though I write flash fiction regularly these days, a decade ago, I didn’t even know the form existed. I regret this. Had I been familiar with flash when I was still teaching high school English, I would have incorporated the reading and writing of it into my instruction.
Flash fiction is ideally suited for class-wide close readings and discussions. A flash is so short that, even in a mere hour, it can be examined thoroughly. In a single class period, students could note a flash’s every intricacy (unusual repetitions, shifts in point of view, juxtapositions of images, metaphors…) and determine such details’ significance. The students could also note what isn’t in the short piece: the missing, the absent. Flashes frequently leave much unsaid and therefore lure readers into filling in the gaps. Students could learn to attend to these silences and draw conclusions.
Crafting flash fiction would also encourage excellent writing habits among students. In order to master the form, a writer must learn to keep prose deliberate, precise, and lean (freed from the weight of unnecessary exposition, modifiers, and backstory).
If only I’d known about flash fiction sooner. With regards to my students’ writing, I used to believe more was better: long critical analyses and plenty of them, draft after draft after draft. A grueling routine for them—and, frankly, for me, too. I was forever grading essays.
Having my kids write flash fiction could have suited my objectives just as well, if not better. It certainly would have been more pleasant for my students. Even fun!
How incredible: to have plenty of time to read great flash after great flash (because, after all, a flash doesn’t take that long to read) and, through immersive reading, get a sense of the form’s potential. To draft something short, then practice whittling it down. To follow the conventions of standard written English—or not. To learn when to break a rule or two. To swap words, tweak a phrase, and choose a better verb. To cultivate a mystery. To play with words—only so many of them—and play with them well. To read a flash-in-progress to a peer. To listen to the peer read his or hers. To share feedback. To tweak some more. To come to see oneself as a writer. An artist. To care about one’s art and love what one is creating.
To accomplish a lot with a little, like music learned slowly and thoroughly. Measure by measure.