When I was ten, I wore YoYo sandals, Gloria Vanderbilts. Jayne Anne Westerfield taught me the disco line dance. “Are you clicking your teeth to the beat?” she said. I stopped clicking, tried to be cool like Jayne Anne. You were nobody in Arkansas if you couldn’t “Fever” dance. Chad had taught me “Cat Scratch Fever” on my guitar. Karen’s big sister used to drag Cherry Street, something “cool.” But Karen wasn’t cool anymore; her mom was a klepto. No one was as cool and dismissive as Jayne Anne. When I moved to Florida, I realized Arkansas was nowhere.
One thing I enjoy about flash fiction writing is that it often involves community.
A few years ago, I joined an online platform for poets and writers. We frequently posted new short pieces and received encouragement and feedback. It was my first time interacting with other writers who, like me, were writing small, concentrated work.
I have also been involved in a flash fiction competition that was held in a public space. Let’s just say, I didn’t win and the handling of the competition was humiliating. In general, writing can be competitive for certain people and in certain settings. That just isn’t me.
But having a short piece to read at a creative event is a great way to participate in sharing with others. Participants often read for five minutes and flash writing fits into this (I use a shorter 250-word piece for a five-minute reading and a one thousand word piece if I have 20-30 minutes.). A meaningful night organized by a friend had some of us reading our stories in an outdoor museum setting. At the end of the night, I got to read a piece with a band playing in the background.
This month, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight 250 word flash fiction competition. Although “competition” is part of the title, the meaningful part for me has been interacting with others—reading their work, giving feedback, receiving feedback.
Next month, I will be involved with Nancy Stohlman’s Flashnano. Some are meeting on social media to share their short pieces and interact. I often meet new people and this has taken on a whole new meaning for me during this season of pandemic.
While public spaces are shuttered to creative gatherings, it has been a relief to find solace among fellow writers online.
My ghost is wearing my red sweater. After papers were signed and locks were changed, I realized I left behind the sweater as well as a French cookbook. Would she try to cook from it? I’m telling you now she will suck. She doesn’t have the finesse that comes only with age. And a lot of cooking.
She is straddling the stadium seat and laughing hard at something my ex is saying. Her hair falls down beneath the hem of the sweater, something I’m sure pleases him. Men pass by and stare at her backside.
She attends a funeral of a family member of my ex’s, someone I knew for over twenty years. We were close. But I was not invited. I text my ex, force my way in. She is there beside him.
“What is she wearing?” I hiss to my sister. She wears a short strapless dress and summer sandals. I have gone full-on Jackie O.
“You are just like Mom,” she says.
I bring a flowering rose bush over to my ex’s Christmas Eve. I feel a little guilty for the grief I may have caused.
My son is there. I say hi.
My ghost takes the bush and doesn’t thank me. She’s wearing my red sweater.
The moon kisses my head through the open sunroof on my way to midnight mass.
I don’t care anymore.
I just had to see my sweater one more time.
Here is a test to determine readiness for achieving competency as a literary fiction writer in the United States of America in the 21st century. The method to test the margin between competence and popularity and/or critical success has yet to be determined. Again, the parameters of this test are merely to determine potential competency in the field of creative fiction writing.
This test is based on the anecdotal experiences of the author of this test and could be deemed less than scientifically rigorous. But given the popularity of readers and test takers who self select tests in magazines and online, we decided to put together a series of tests based on varying demographics and experiences each with the goal of helping the readers determine for themselves answers to the mysterious questions often googled such as: What does it take to be a literary fiction writer? Google, we realize, is the much more interactive cousin of the Magic 8 ball, and so we thought: Why not help the reader be more interactive with himself/herself as he/she goes alongside a mentor of sorts, a working writer, as he/she interrogates the soul regarding one’s capacity for literary endeavors?
In addition to this, we offered to pay the book allowance of each test creator for one month, a small sum which many writers cannot afford given the cost of rent, food, and helping other writers and artists who themselves are hungry and without shelter.
Further, we must disclose we are supported by advertising dollars – big pharma, chain retail, political candidates – but do not endorse ads and links that appear on the site.
We want to do our best to help you decide whether you can be an artist. Please let us know your score below and what you thought of this experience.
Test for Artistic Competency: The Middle Aged Divorced Housewife, given certain conditions listed below
This test may be relevant for you if: You are a woman in her 50s, divorced after 20 years of marriage more or less, were married to a conservative who threatened to leave you if you try to work outside the home and were raised by religious conservatives who have always hated that you are a writer and discourage rather than encourage you. You make no money from your literary endeavors but are living on a wing and a prayer.
- Imagine this future scenario and ask yourself if, repeated over and over in a host of variations, you can handle it without becoming an alcoholic, or at least a nonfunctional one: You go to a bar to hang out with “really fun people” according to the social meet up site on the internet, all of them highly successful working professionals. You begin talking to a seemingly pleasant man who is about your age. He has come to several group meetings, has salt and pepper hair and beard and a Phd, and teaches history at a local private boarding school. You stand at the bar and talk while you enjoy your drinks. When he asks what you do and you say you are a writer he says: Are you successful? If you make no money from your writing but you are published in literary journals, how do you respond? If you defensively argue bullshit about how art has no monetary measure because its worth is in the non-monetized value to humanity, you are a romantic but also a fool in America. Trust me he will walk away and tell the rest of his monetarily wealthy friends you are a real loser. This is a no win situation, so don’t feel sorry, sister. Have more booze and take your credit card away from where it is sitting on the bar then later hoodwink the bartender into believing he’s got a tab going for you. Order another G & T. It’s so busy he’ll get too flustered and forget. Order as many as you can get away with. In so many ways, you can’t afford to be at this gig, but you were trying to be Dorothy Parker. Give yourself 0 points. It’s a wash.
- Add up the number of friends you have now, before you seriously start writing, friends you have now before you even begin posting your writing, publishing it, friends who want to go out with you, aren’t jealous of you or who treat you strangely, friends who like you because they understand you, or at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number less one from that. That’s how many real friends you will have left when you start publishing as a literary fiction writer, friends who believe you don’t have anything to say, who don’t believe you suck, who don’t believe you to be full of shit. (This perhaps assumes you will be relatively “unknown” which applies to almost all working writers in the United States today. However, if circumstances change and you develop groupies, friends won because of fame don’t really count in this equation unless their loyalty is proven through ups and downs. This is not part of the current equation because the test does not solve for virtual improbabilities.) I hope you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one will be added to a negative 10 which is the number of writing friends that will be won and lost over the course of your training and development, friends lost through petty arguments, jealousies, and competitions. However, add 30 to this negative number if you are able to pull off going to a low residency or full residency writing program. Add the same number if you can’t afford it but get involved in the local writing and artistic community as well as the writing community online. If you do both and your attention is divided, the final total number of writing friends and acquaintances of this equation is still a solid 21. If you indulge in unrelated social media arguments and rants – political or otherwise – take away at least 5 friends.
- Repeat the steps in #2 but solve for the number of supportive family members, with some variations added: Add up the supportive number of friendly adult family members you have now, before you seriously start writing, posting your writing, and publishing in literary journals and magazines, adult family members who want to hang out with you, don’t treat you strangely, adult family members who like you because they understand you, or feel they are at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number minus one from that. That’s how many supportive adult family members you will have left when you begin publishing as a literary writer. Again, it is good you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one friendly member remaining will be added to a negative 1 which is a retroactive situation in which a previously divorced spouse left you, partly because he hated your writing, so it is a wash, darling. When your child grows up to be an adult and if he/she feels proud you are a writer, consider yourself a diva. If you have more than one child, and/or nieces and nephews who grow up to become adults and proud of your writing, you are blessed.
- If you plan on compromising your writing to please your friends and your family, take away all points in 2 and 3. It is not looking good for you, sister. But if you say: Come what may, I will write according to my voice, I will follow what it tells me, I live in a free country and no matter what, I will say what I believe through my stories, you may keep whatever gains you have made in equations 2 and 3. If a few of these gains drop off because of your exercise of freedom, you will not have lost anything, in fact you may gain which leads to the next test question.
- If you exercise your voice and speak regardless of risk to career opportunities, dating opportunities, marital status, social life, family approval, religious sanction, legal protection, your soul may be crushed down so that you feel you are operating in the negative numbers for soul vitality but you may – at that point – begin reaching the ground floor of your artistic competency. It is a subjective judgement how much one has sacrificed to reach this ground level competency, but nothing less than total sacrifice in at least a few areas most citizens believe are critical for well being and stability is what is necessary. The only way to know for sure if you will become a competent literary writer in the United States of America in the 21st century is to start writing. If your effort and passion equal infinity, the chances are good you will become a competent writer. You may at least learn how to spell a few words and meet a few nifty people.
- Actually, since you are a woman and mostly likely by now have experienced a phenomenon wherein no one cares about your words written or spoken, you have to learn to deal in extreme invisibility scores. You will see a huge downward spiral into the abyss of negative soul points. Give yourself at least negative 30. That said, you are your own most powerful weapon for in your invisibility and absence of indulgence from others you stand the highest chance of all demographic groups of achieving a greater than normal levels of competence. In fact it is surmised by the test creator that you are likely on the edge of a kind of an invisible greatness as contradictory as that may sound. Nonmonetary value you have in spades my friend. Wear it as a laurel on your head. Know this: It is very unlikely the male colleague, the husband, the boyfriend will even notice. In fact your written words will be invisible to them or obscured. Soul crushing is your effectual pen. Bleed it and speak.
Here is the scene that has informed my romantic imagination since girlhood: Father and Mother, in the living room, dancing to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” Father still in police uniform, his hand upholding Mama’s delicate hand in his as if cradling something delicate and pure, his other hand enclosing her waist.
He sings the words directly to her and she smiles at him as if this is the first time he has ever sung words about two lovers dancing until the night became a brand new day. The soaring orchestra, Neil Diamond’s gravely voice, the poignant, wistful tune. Most of the time, Father in all his uniform trappings – the loaded police duty belt, his heavy shoes – produced a cacophony of squeaks, but I never noticed this during “September Morn.” It was like the two of them were born of air.
This is how they ended every day when Father came home after work. Before dinner. Before he said hi to me, my sister, or my brother, before he took the dog out, before he tasted what was on the stove.
Mother dressed for his arrival too, a full skirted dress, heels, makeup, smoothed down hair.
My parents have been married for forty six years. When I was young and used to watch them dance I thought I would want a husband like Father.
I still want a husband like my father. But it has not happened for me. Or maybe I could never figure out to be more like my mother to get a man like my father.
These days it gets to be demoralizing to eat every single meal alone, something I would never have envisioned for myself when I was young. Of course, I eat watching movies or the news. But sometimes I try to eat at my table without turning on the television or checking social media. However, by the time the next meal rolls around, I have given in.
This morning I decided to go to a restaurant close to me I had never tried before called The Breakfast Club. It’s a diner that only serves breakfast all day long.
After situating myself in a booth, I saw a man sitting by himself at a table in the middle of the restaurant, the only other person who was there alone. The room was noisy with couples, people from work, families.
I watched his face. He seemed to be the kind of man to be embarrassed for not many reasons at all, just something I felt I picked up in his demeanor. And his face was red. But that could have been because he worked in the sun. He was wearing work boots like many of the men there.
I caught his eye. He had a not unfriendly face, white hair, fairly athletic build. He broke eye contact but I knew he caught me looking at him.
I myself am middle aged, not bad looking, though no longer young.
He never came by my table. Nor did I pluck up the courage to go say hi to him.
I left the restaurant, but interestingly, he walked out not far behind me.
I yearned for the courage to turn around and simply say something but I felt I couldn’t.
When I was inside my car, I knew I must listen to “September Morn.”
I opened sunroof and let the music flow out into the sunny, cool day.
I saw him glance at me on the way to his car. But I still couldn’t bring myself to introduce myself.
On the way home, past trees and neighborhoods as my car took me further away from that spot where I noticed another’s loneliness that was equal to mine, a place I could not reach out to be vulnerable, I felt my sense of failure, of feeling trapped.
As I listened to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” over and over and over, I felt I would always live in memory of my father, in a bubble, a dream, I would keep recalling those moments of watching them dance as if I were caught in a loop, observing their young glory, their victories, their dignity.
I took note of how messy and chaotic my house had become, the telltale signs of an insomniac, a depressive.
I should clean up, I thought.
And I thought to make note of the time and the day I had eaten at the restaurant so I may return next week, just in case.
There once was a man who lived in a pine forest. Every evening, he laid a woman’s nightgown beside him in his big iron bed. Every evening, he set two extra places at his broad table. Every week, he bought food and clothing for the family he did not yet have. He bought toys for the child, jewelry for his wife.
Every night he prayed to his god fervently: “God, please give me a wife I can love and cherish, please give me a child. I am prepared to be your humble servant in all things related to these matters. I am a man, full of love. I will love my wife as my own flesh, my child as the flesh from my wife’s womb.”
One morning, the man woke to two tiny feet pressing against his shoulder. A baby! The man praised his god. He clothed the baby in the garments already bought for the child and gave him the milk stored in his home.
But he was puzzled how to present the child to the town since he was unmarried. He knew he should trust god and bravely and simply said, when anyone asked: “This is my new baby, praise god! I was alone in the world and god has seen fit to grant me a son.”
Adoption laws being what they were, everyone shrugged, congratulated the man, and went on about their own hectic lives. The man would know soon enough how hard it was to be a father and if he had strength enough for it he deserved the fulfillment of his prayers, for good or ill.
One night after the child had gone to sleep, the man sat on his porch. The pines creaked and the sound of the wind soughing in the bows amplified his loneliness and he prayed: “God, you brought me a miracle. You see how I have handled what you have seen fit to give me. If a bad father gives a stone to the son who asks for bread, how much more will you give?”
Carried along on the wind was a sound barely distinguishable from the soughing of the pines. It was a woman crying. The man searched his porch, but he could not find the source. He went out into the woods and there among the shadows was a woman, dressed in a white gown, shivering.
“Where have you come from?” said the man, putting his heavy wool coat around her shoulders and lifting her from the forest floor so she would not further damage her tender feet.
“I have given you a child,” said the woman, “a child I had no means of supporting. And now please sir, I wish to hold my son.”
The man’s heart filled with pity and with something else besides for the woman was very beautiful and young.
“You may hold your son for as long as you wish. I will make it possible for you. I will give to you whatever you require.”
And seeing there was no ring on the young woman’s finger, he made her the bride of his heart and did not question anything, only praised his god for his good fortune. When the woman slept in his bed, holding her son, the two the image of peace and warmth, he knelt all night in the wood in wonder.
There once was a man who was tired of his wife. It was well known how many errors she had committed, and the number of errors was well past her ability to make up for them, even if she began engaging in acts of contrition the first moment he expressed his discontent and worked continuously, around the clock.
His wrath had built up. Number of laundry baskets not completed per day. Number of times the dishes were stacked in the sink. Number of times she was with her foolish friends rather than at the market. Number of times she was late getting the children to school. Number of pounds she had gained since their marriage. Number of times she did not attend worship services. Number of times he had come home from work to see her face and hair in their natural state. Number of times she had indulged in her projects and made cold meals rather than cook. Number of times she expected him to help her while she pursued her education. Number of times she disappointed his extended family.
And so, she became a terrible wife among those who worshiped his god, became an outcast and despised.
He prayed: “Oh god, why have you given me such a terrible wife? As a young man growing up, I tried to do the right thing, and yet you did not see that I was worthy of your favor?”
He prayed this at night, on his knees, in the living room, so that his wife heard, though their children slept the sleep of the innocent. It frustrated him how much they forgave her.
Being a man of ambition and righteousness, he knew the ways of the unrighteous and what would eventually befall her. Here is what he knew: The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.
Frustrated with his god, he existed in the house with his wife, neither praising nor belittling her, pouring his love and attention onto his children so that even if she became an angel to them, he would be even more perfect.
As it happened, she became wayward and ruined and he was enabled to be rid of her in all good conscience in the sight of his community.
“Thank you, God,” he said, “for this opportunity to start again.” And all the man’s wishes were granted, according to the dictates of his god.