I had a very interesting Twitter conversation the other day about flash fiction, and the skills needed to write it. It’s such a great thing, Twitter, not only for connecting people, but also for allowing users to engage in conversations like this one, which turn out to be so useful. I’ve been wondering all week, ever since this Twitter discussion, about the discipline of writing, and whether the skills you gain from one ‘style’ of writing are always easily applicable to other styles.
Words are words, of course, and writing is – basically – writing. But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.
The Twitter discussion which sparked off this idea came about because both the person to whom I was speaking and myself were, at the time of our Twitter exchange, working on pieces of flash fiction, with the intention of submitting them for publication and/or competition. We were discussing the intricacies of creating a good, workable piece of flash fiction and what the difficulties were in doing so. At one point, my correspondent asked me whether I was going to submit a short story, as well as a piece of flash fiction, to a particular competition; I told her ‘no’, mainly because I hadn’t been able to write a short story which I’d consider good enough for submission. Then, she said something along the lines of how she prefers to write flash fiction anyway, as it takes such a short time and requires such a small amount of editing.
This, I have to say, is the opposite of how I experience flash fiction, normally. I find flash fiction to be an extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming thing; sometimes, I remind myself of a glass-cutter, laboriously etching an intricate pattern out of the delicate and unyielding material he’s chosen to work with. I agonise over every word, I fret about structure, I sweat over characterisation, I pour myself into each image and metaphor, and I always struggle with the ending. My friend, however, has one distinct advantage over me when it comes to writing flash fiction.
She is a poet, as well as a prose writer.
Ever since we had this discussion, the connections between poetry and flash fiction have been on my mind, and I’ve been seeing the distinct links between the two genres. Poetry doesn’t work without delicate and judicious word choice, and the ability to arrange these perfect word-jewels into just the right structure to make a sentence hum with life and meaning; the same, of course, is true of flash fiction. Poetry can often operate within very tight structures; most competitions will limit poems to a particular length, but as well as that a poet, if they choose to, can write within a particular style, which will have its own unbreakable rules. A sonnet which has too many syllables in any one line is no longer a sonnet; a villanelle is not a villanelle if it has twenty lines. Break one rule, and you may as well break them all. Because of this, then, poets are used to working in tight spaces, and they bring extremely good word-skills to the table.
Poetry has also, since its earliest beginnings, exhibited an ability to make words work as hard as they can, and to carry as much symbolic meaning as they’re able to. Poets are able to make the most extraordinarily evocative images out of very little, and they have a way of making the everyday seem new. These skills obviously mean that poets come to flash fiction with a completely different skillset than a person who has only really written prose – and long-form prose at that – will have. All of this adds up to one inescapable fact: my friend is far better equipped than I am to write flash fiction.
However, I wondered further. I’ve had a few months’ experience with flash fiction now. I’ve written many pieces, some of which have been successful for me. I enjoy the form, and the challenges it poses, and the opportunities it offers. The burning question now is: Does being able to write reasonably successful flash fiction make you a better poet?
If the skills are transferable in one direction, do they transfer in the other direction too?
I’m not too sure about that. I don’t think my newfound flash fictioneering skills have any bearing on my ability to write poetry – I’ve never been a poet (or, at least, I’ve never been a good poet), and while I can appreciate the skills required, and even talk about them in an abstract, academic sense, I find them impossible to apply. It seems strange that I can be in possession of the skills needed (or at least be working toward them through my flash fiction), and be aware of how to write a poem in a ‘paint-by-numbers’ sense, and still have no ability to put a piece of poetry together. There’s more to it than just having the ‘mechanics’, clearly. Poetry takes something else, something besides an ability to use words – I hesitate to call it ‘sensitivity’ or ‘an aspect of the soul’, or anything arty-farty like that, but perhaps those words are as close as language can bring us to the secret of writing a good poem. You need the word-skills, you need the sensitivity to language, you need the ability to thrive within limits, and you also need something extra, something special, which only a poet can truly describe.
What do you think? If you can ‘write’, does it make you equally able to write a screenplay, a piece of drama, an epic poem, a novel, a short story, a piece of flash fiction? Or are there so many differences between the genres that each one is its own separate discipline with its own rules? Do you think its possible to be an ‘expert’ in more than one field of writing? I’d be interested to know what your take on these issues is.
Oh, and happy Friday, by the way.