A week ago Sunday I put the finishing touches on a piece of flash fiction, surprised and overwhelmingly pleased with how it had turned out. I confess in the here and now that I’ve never been able to write a decent piece of fiction. Admittedly, I haven’t tried to write once since — oh, let’s see now — since high school. But knowing that things have a way of changing, especially in 45 years, I decided it was time to try again.
Thank goodness for flash fiction, which wasn’t a thing during my high school days in the late 1960s when I first became serious about writing. Simply, flash fiction is a short, short story typically no more than 2,000 words. Some editors will call for for 1,000 or 500 words or less, some for less than 150 words, some even fewer. I’ve also seen flash fiction contests topping word count at 6, and if you’re interested in checking it out further, there’s a series of books of Six-Word Memoirs as well as a slew of books of flash fiction of just about every genre.
Flash fiction, like a short story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The idea is, of course, to write concisely, to cram a lot into few words. I figured it would be a small investment of my time to test my fiction abilities, or lack of. If I discovered I still couldn’t write fiction — well, so be it. At least I’d know without having crossed into a fourth dimension of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of my freshly-cleaned pearly whites.
I set about writing a flash fiction masterpiece in response to a specific literary journal’s need for flash fiction of 1,200 words or less, centered loosely around the theme Dreams. I can do this, I thought. So I did. I decided to go the whole distance; 1,200 words is only a few typed, double-spaced pages. Simple.
I became happily lost in writing my dreamtime story, coming out of my writing trance long enough to see that it was good — probably the best piece of fiction or nonfiction I’ve ever written. The story began with a woman gathering her dying husband into her arms, like the Madonna in Michelangelo’s the Pietà, and flying with him to the center of the galaxy. Their voyage took them unaware, reality and dreams blurring, as they collided safely, gently, and naturally with what was before them. I titled it A Joyride Like No Other, and I fell in love with the story. Maybe I shouldn’t have fallen in love with my own words…all 1,145 of them.
On the previously aforementioned day last week, I set aside my freshly created flash fiction, my masterpiece, the Joyride piece, to let it simmer overnight, as is my custom. I would come back to it the following morning, read it aloud once more, and make any minor edits. Then I would proudly send it off into cyberspace to be considered for that wonderfully themed journal issue on Dreams. And for good measure, I’d email it to a few other literary journals I thought might be interested. At least, that was the plan…
That same night, after Joyride-the-manuscript took its final editing joyride of the day, I started work — the setup, anyway — of my next writing project, which I planned to begin in the morning. I clicked the save icon on the newly created piece and immediately froze in my seat. My brain froze, my typing fingers froze, even my eyeballs froze.
My modus operandi for beginning new manuscripts is to open a recent document with the same format I want to use in the new one, do a Save As with the new title, delete all the previous text of the old document, type the title of the new one, and click the Save icon. Essentially, I save over an existing document, but with a new title so the existing document is preserved under its title and I’m creating a new document with a new title. Then I’m good to go when I’m ready to start writing. This prep work gives me the illusion that I’ve actually started writing when I haven’t…not really. And because I’m a frequent saver and backer-upper of my work, this method has been beautifully effective throughout the years.
But what did I just do?
It was 11:30 at night, and I had put in a productive day of writing. I was feeling all right and all mighty like because I had finished writing a masterpiece and I had started a new document for a new document. But something was wrong, and I knew it for certain when my brain, fingers, and eyeballs froze.
What did I do?
When I saved the new piece, I wondered, did I just save over my masterpiece? Please tell me I didn’t just now delete all that text, replace it with the title of the new piece and click the Save icon? I thought I did a Save As? I’d better check. I held my breath, closed out of all the documents I had opened, shut down Word, and prayed a little prayer to the computer and, for insurance, transferred some good juju to it.
I opened the old document, the masterpiece, and my heart sunk. I had indeed done what I thought I just did. I lost the masterpiece. Where I expected to see the masterpiece was the title of the new piece. Period. It wasn’t the masterpiece. The masterpiece was gone. Gone. Utterly gone. Not there.
Well, just get it from your backup files, I hear you say. Great idea! Except…I didn’t back it up. I’ve been a faithful backer upper since the beginning of the computer age, and I have no idea whatsoever why I didn’t back up this document. I don’t know. (Insert restrained sniffles here.)
I was too frozen to be frantic. You know that internal voice that tells you how stupid, silly, ugly, horrible, unlovable you are? Well, that voice wasn’t there. It had been replaced by a calm and gentle voice of reason with a confident presence and the disposition of a guiding spirit. What now?
Try to get it back. See what you can do to get it back. Documents sometimes reside in hidden places of hard drives. See what you can do.
Of course! Yes, I can try that. I’m no tech pro, but it’s 11:30 at night and unlike my local tech support place, Google is open 24/7. I found seven different ways to recover a document and began with the ones I could understand. Puzzling unruffled(!), I worked for an hour on the seven ways and some ways I made up, but my missing masterpiece didn’t appear. What do I do now?
Go to bed. It’s almost 1:00 am and your brain is fried.
I’ll try again after a good night’s rest. If I can’t recover the masterpiece tomorrow, then I’ll call in the tech gods.
Okay, that’s a good plan.
I went to bed, resisting the temptation to awaken the man in my life, who slept too serenely for my taste, to pour out the mind-boggling tale of how I did something uncharacteristically foolish. I fell asleep sending good juju to my computer, confident things would be okay.
The next morning, I relayed the story of my folly to my sweetie, who wondered aloud why I wasn’t beating my head against the wall and who proceeded to appropriately showered me with energizing hugs. I then went on with my day, attempting once again to recover the masterpiece that I was sure lurked in the hard drive.
No luck. I talked with the tech gods who, after a time, pronounced the case hopeless. The masterpiece didn’t exist anywhere. What now? What do I do now?
You don’t have the time just now to recreate it, with your other writing deadlines and obligations looming. Why don’t you write another piece of flash fiction? The same journal wants really, really short flash fiction of fewer than 150 words, still with the Dreams theme.
I can do that! So I did. I emailed my submission to the journal and to another for good measure, then went to bed. It was late.
The next morning I woke up to an email from the “other” journal, who complimented me on how well I had evoked the theme in the piece. They wanted to publish it. This was positively a perfect accolade after having messed up in a way I’d never messed up before (and will never mess up in this way again). I have made amends. I am redeemed.
The new piece, Activation, appears now in Bougainvillea Road literary magazine. Enjoy:
The pulses and vibrations came first, from far away yet deep within us all along. A faint humming reaching out, yearning for expression. We drew it closer, reeling it in like Pisces. It came easily, louder, a steady drone — lub-DUB, lub-DUB. We delighted in it, and it grew — lub-DUB, lub-DUB.
The throbbing beat increased, became light, then decreased into the dark. It whirred and kept time with the cosmos, worlds coming forth from its exquisite echo. Winds blew, oceans swelled, seasons rose and receded, a ballet of grace and rhythm.
We couldn’t help ourselves. It would have been a messy implosion, darlings, to hold back, and a ferocious explosion if we didn’t. You were your own thought first, and the thought of you was too much to hold in. Do you feel the chaos and the desire within you? The rhythm of the gods.
So there you have it: the story of my first and second attempts at writing flash fiction, of how success can be measured in any number of ways, of how a guiding presence can tenderly take over the heavy task of living for you, of how we can easily go on to Plan B or C or D, of how we can become stronger simply by allowing that guiding presence to move us forward. And maybe — if the odds are ever in our favor — that newly found strength becomes the preeminent baseline for the foundation of our being.