When it comes to writing short stories, especially flash fiction, we simply have to keep in mind their leanness, their small tautness. There’s no time for long-winded passages or overwrought explanations, no time to waste in the bog. Instead, think of your writing as the striker of the proverbial hot iron. You need to hit hard, hit quick, and be swiftly shaping the heated elements into something worth a damn.
Here is an image from my childhood: my mother reverently turning the onion-thin pages of a typewritten, amateurishly bound book. She has gloves on. This is the USSR in the late 1970s. The book is George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. It has never been published by a state press. It is never discussed by any critic. It is missing from literature textbooks. Orwell’s novel is not merely banned; it does not exist.
I began writing extensively about the conditions of black life and death in America after the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016. The killing that took place on that hot July night—a police officer drawing his weapon, a black man shot dead—was routine and yet different. I was living with my young daughter in St. Paul when I heard the news.
As soon as I wake up, especially if I don’t set an alarm and just let myself rise when my sleep cycle naturally breaks, seeds of poems are waiting to be planted in my journal. I always choose a journal by its tactile quality. Velvet with lace, satin with ribbon, sometimes leatherette (don’t want to kill animals for my poems).
Religiously homeschooled until college, I grew up a famished reader. Though I had a constant stream of books in hand, the content was often more instructive than literary. I consumed nearly every title on the shelves at home from courtship manuals and Creationism guides to decades-old encyclopedias and Atlas Shrugged.
In December 2019, my second child was born, a daughter who spent nine days in the NICU while her lungs caught up with the rest of her chunky 9 lbs 4 ounces. Thinking back at what, at the time, was the most stressful in my life, I now know how fortunate we really were. I knew my daughter would come home with no lasting health issues.
I just love the whole process of it. Beginning in emptiness. Wanting nothing. Recording brief flashes in the head, mixing that with some thing in my vicinity, flowing back and forth, slowing down, catching the wave of a memory or something completely imagined or dreamed that arrives like a movie projected into the mind.
After writing initial drafts in longhand, I’m ready to start typing a poem out on my computer. I begin in optimism—sit down at my desk, stare at some inspiring quotes on my corkboard. Encouraging and antagonistic alike (A word after a word after a word is power-Atwood/ The first draft of everything is shit-Hemingway), these mantras remind me to just begin, but dear reader, is there any despair deeper than a winking cursor and the looming void of a new file?
Shot and left to die on a lonely city street in the twilight hours of a Sunday morning. No witnesses. No leads. An instant cold case. “She didn’t know,” some students whispered as I absorbed their version of events. But I wiped away tears to teach because I believed that the value of my student’s life more than her death made painstakingly clear how poetry could matter to my first-year composition students.
I came late to writing nonfiction and doing photography with intent to publish. I quickly realized, I wanted to tell stories combining my words and photos. I’ve had more success submitting nonfiction pieces with embedded photos—a handful or a bunch—than with calling them photo essays.
I often get BPS (Blank Page Syndrome), for which I’ve sought prompt treatment: sentence starters, random objects, storytelling cards, dream journaling, and more. Sometimes they work and crack me open. Sometimes they don’t, and after a paragraph I abandon the idea.
I first translated French poetry into English as a very young woman working with an older poet. He suggested that we co-translate a poem by René Depestre, a Haitian writer, to give me access to a deeply political language. While I had grown up in a political family, there was a high wall between my writing and my activism.