Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He recently published The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story. He’s also published Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories; the short story collection All the Comfort Sin Can Provide; Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (as editor); and Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, and he has been anthologized in collections such as Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Flash Fiction America, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Literary Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast Write-minded and subscribe to his newsletter Intimations: A Writer’s Discourse.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Art of Brevity. I thought it was a great read. You’ve got a lot going on already in the lit community—what motivated you to put this book together?
Grant Faulkner: It’s a funny thing about books because I don’t remember when I actually started writing this book—or why I started writing it other than curiosity and the emerging obsession that accompanies any book. Writing short is such a riddle and a mystery. It’s like playing the Ouija board, in that you’re speaking with ghosts, and you don’t have access to the full story. It’s an ineffable, numinous form that’s full of different contours and spawns so many different types of storytelling containers, from postcard stories to six-word memoirs to 100-word stories to “sagas” of flash fiction that are 1,000 words. I love the form because it invites a different type of storytelling than longer forms, so I needed to write this book.
Also, I was interested in how an aesthetic is an existential view of the world, and I find the aesthetic of brevity so compelling for the many different windows it opens. This aesthetic helps me see what’s in between or not said, in particular. It helps me see little stories that often go overlooked, but “little” doesn’t mean they are any less significant than a big story.
CS: We start out with a bit of your personal journey—how you wanted to be a novelist but then discovered flash. Can you talk briefly about this process? What were the influences that turned you on to this form? What are the essential elements of flash that continue to excite you?
GF: Yes, when I first dove into flash fiction, I was working on what I now call my “doomed novel”—a novel I’d been working on off-and-on for ten years. I happened to read some excerpts a friend of mine, Paul Strohm, published from his memoir, Sportin’ Jack, which consisted of 100 one-hundred-word stories. He modeled the form as if writing with a fixed-lens camera, with the idea that an arbitrary limit inspired compositional creativity. I tried my hand at writing such tiny stories because I like to experiment, and I also needed a break from my behemoth of a novel, and I became entranced by the form.
I learned that the short form is beguiling. Since it’s so short, it would seem to be easier, but in my initial forays I couldn’t come anywhere close to the one-hundred-word mark. I told Paul that I’d written several stories as short as 150 words, and I told him I was pleased with that level of brevity, but he chided me to keep going farther, to trust that my story would actually get better as I cut it down.
He was right. Not because there’s any magic about the number 100, but because the more I pared my prose to reach 100 words, a different kind of storytelling presented itself. The art of brevity. The art of excision. The art of compression. The art of omission. The art of spaces and gaps and breaths. The art of less. All of those elements are the ones that continue to compel and excite me.
CS: I enjoyed the book’s structure—especially how all the chapters end with a prompt—and as someone who offers a lot of prompts to students, I wondered about the timeline of these chapters—did you write the chapters first and then come up with the prompts? Or did some prompts lead you to thinking about a bigger picture, which then led you to explore the idea at a deeper level?
GF: I actually wrote the book as a series of random snippets that grew into an elliptical collection of thoughts—without chapters and without exercises, so the prompts came later. The initial draft was around 30,000 words, about two-thirds the length of this final book, and it was meant to be a reflection of the flash form, with thoughts floating about in white space and the narrative taking different shapes and textures.
I wanted a reading experience that encouraged piecing things together instead of being led by the hand of an author, but the publisher wanted a more conventional and orderly approach, so I expanded the book to speak to different topics by chapter and include exercises for writers and teachers.
CS: There are a lot of great topics covered here—the power of suggestion, boiling a scene to its essence, white space, negative space, the power of implying, the trusting of a reader to complete a picture, the array of structures available to us. As you look back on your evolution as a writer, can you say which of these, once you recognized it and understood it better, had the biggest impact on your work? How did this revelation change the work that followed?
GF: I’m very compelled by all of the elements you mention, and I don’t see them as distinct from each other, but working together at all times and part of each other. But if you want me to pick out one element that has had the biggest impact on my work, I suppose it’s what’s left out of a story, how I can construct a story not just by the words on the page, but by what’s omitted.
Flash communicates via caesuras and crevices. Flash has attuned me to the subterranean, the implied, the unsaid, the unseen. The world is always a little bit haunted in a flash story because of what’s left out.
When I was first paring my 150-word stories down to 100 words, I learned how a good 100-hundred-word piece moves with a precise balance of what’s left out versus what’s included. As I learned how to write them, I learned how to “mind the gaps,” as I like to put it—the gaps between words, sentences, and paragraphs, the gaps around a story itself. I practiced the art of omission, and in those spaces I discovered the wisps and whispers that are integral to good storytelling. The most haunting stories are those that don’t provide answers but open up questions.
CS: I think my favorite chapter addressed fragmentation. I think this is hard for some folks—as writers, we want to present worlds that are vivid and complete—yet there’s power and beauty in those unclaimed spaces. In your work, how do you like to utilize fragmentation? Is there a kind of story—or a kind of scope—that lends itself more to its use?
GF: I like your phrase “unclaimed spaces” because I often think of my stories as being a series of fragments that I’ve found in the world and that I’m just arranging about in the air.
I don’t think of life as a round, complete circle—it’s shaped by fragments, shards, and pinpricks. It’s a collage of snapshots, a collection of the unspoken, an attic full of situations that aren’t easily disposed of. The brevity of flash is perfect for capturing these small but telling moments, these splinters and feathers and bubbles.
I think the way flash affords an aesthetic of fragmentation speaks to how I see an aesthetic as an existential position. I am fascinated by the disconnections in my life, whether it’s the gulf between a loved one, the natural world, or God. I don’t want a form that represents comprehensiveness or unity because that’s an aesthetic at odds with my experience of life. In fact, our universe is becoming more entropic as I type.
To write in fragments calls on a different sensibility, a different tactile feel, a different artistry.
CS: In flash, one needs to boil down backstory and characterization to a single stroke or a telling image. What advice would you offer a writer trying to accomplish this in the most efficient yet lyrical manner? In your own work, do you focus on a surprising turn of language? Finding some element that resonates with the rest of the piece?
GF: I think it’s hard to describe because in some ways discovering the telling image or capturing the lyricism of the essence of a story or character isn’t just the summation of the words on the page, it’s a matter of rhythm, mood, timbre, what’s left out. It’s a balancing act. A constant calibration and recalibration. It’s like making perfume because you’re in search of the essence—you’re attuning yourself to nuance to find the rare redolence that exists in quintessence.
Which means it’s about obsession, because finding the essence of anything is about obsession. In my book, I talk about how Yasunari Kawabata was obsessed by capturing the essence of a story, and how he turned his acclaimed novel Snow Country into an eleven-page story, “Gleanings from Snow Country.” The novel was already written with brevity, so I’m fascinated by his urge to take it further, almost as if his first effort, despite winning the Nobel Prize, wasn’t good enough. He thought the truth of the story required greater distillation.
So my craft advice is to be obsessed on finding the essence. Always let your obsessions guide you.
CS: I liked the notion of getting ideas from one’s “inner junk shop” and how you tied this in to the work of Joseph Cornell. This link really clicked for me—I’m a big Cornell fan—and that made me wonder about your relationship with Cornell and visual art in general. Do you find inspiration in other art forms? Is there some kind of creative connective tissue you’ve found yourself tapping into—perhaps from the realms of music or dance or the visual arts?
GF: I actually talk a lot about visual artists in this book: Romare Beardon’s collages, Rauschenberg’s erasure painting, Laurie Simmons’ photography of miniature worlds. I also talk about music, John Cage’s notions of silence and noise, in particular. So I like to think about how an aesthetic crosses over into different forms. It’s primarily a sensibility, a way to feel the world, so I find a lot of kinship with artists who work in other arenas.
In many ways, this book isn’t just about writing. It’s about an aesthetic of brevity in general, as it applies to all of art. Since I’m a ragpicker by nature, I love Joseph Cornell’s approach to art, how he collected odd, discarded items with a collector’s fetishistic obsession and then transformed his bric-a-brac into odd and arresting stories by putting it together in boxes. I write a lot of my pieces with the same process: collecting junk (in the form of snippets of text) and recombining and remixing the junk to create a story.
Near the book’s end, we have chapters on the sentence and the paragraph—both their roles and challenges in flash. Do you find yourself more drawn to one or the other? Do you think one carries more weight in a piece?
GF: I don’t choose one over the other, but I suppose I have more of a keen focus on the sentence, especially when it comes to 100-word stories. I once conceived of sentences as functioning almost like chapters in a story, and they can. In such tiny miniatures, which are essentially paragraphs, each sentence carries so much weight and needs to do so much work. You have to think of how a sentence moves with or against the sentences around it or if you want a sentence to create momentum or disrupt momentum.
So a single sentence can have its own personality and be its own little creature, but then you bring them together in a paragraph like bringing a group of people together, and sometimes they sing as if in a chorus and other times they bicker and cut each other off at the knees.
In the book, I quote Gertrude Stein, who said, “A sentence has wishes as they decide.” I think that’s often the case.
CS: I love the quotes from different artists at the book’s end—I imagine collecting these was fun—but also a bit of a challenge. Did you have some of these stashed away for a while? Do you find yourself collecting quotes?
GF: I’m fundamentally a ragpicker, as I mentioned, so I am a great collector of quotes, most of which are collected in a very haphazard and disorderly manner. When I was a teen, I wrote quotes on notecards and filed them in a series of steel notecard boxes. I wish I’d maintained that librarian’s archival sense of order, but my collection of quotes is a little like my writing: I live in a constellation of fragments.
CS: What’s next?
GF: I say yes to a lot of things in life, usually without doing any math about how much time is involved. This is generally a good trait, but I’ve been very overcommitted for the past couple of years, and this book took way more time than I’d counted on, to the extent that I’ve barely written any of my own fiction in nearly two years.
So I’m going to write fiction. I’m going to sit in a corner and write my own little stories. That is my bliss.
Curtis Smith has published over 125 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Small Fictions, The Best Microfictions, and the WW Norton anthology New Micro. He has worked with independent publishers to put out five story collections, five novels, two essay collections, and one book of creative nonfiction. His most recent novel, The Magpie’s Return, was named a 2020 Indie Pick of the Year by Kirkus. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, is due out in September 2023.