“A Story Possibly Heard in Some Bar at Three in the Morning” by Pía Barros
“Be Drunken” by Charles Baudelaire
“The Man Who Hated Us and Then Forgot” by Karen E. Bender
“Thin Cities 5” by Italo Calvino
“The Dinosaur” by Augusto Monterroso
“Cannibals and Explorers” by Ana María Shua
“Icelandic Hurricane” by Tomas Tranströmer
Pía Barros is a Chilean fiction writer known for her work as a human rights activist against gender violence. We chose “A Story Possibly Heard in Some Bar at Three in the Morning” for the anthology because of the way she plays with a story within a story to create a never-ending loop of a narrative that captures readers and won’t let them go. Here’s what she has to say about writing short.
How do you define the kind of short-form writing that you do?
I define it the old-fashioned way: flash fiction maximizes the “signified” with the fewest number of “signifiers.”
How does your approach to writing in short forms differ from the other kinds of writing that you do?
I have published a few novels and short story collections, but flash fiction, it seems to me, is a challenge that matches our times. If in the past, we traveled by boat for almost two months, we needed books that were more than a thousand pages. Plane rides give us time to read a 100-page novel. But the subway gives us two minutes between every station. In a world characterized by immediacy, flash fiction is here to stay. The very short novel, the very short movie, and short theater pieces all form part of a contemporary reality where quick responses are necessary. In a lot of ways literature and life are tied up in a knot that cannot be untangled.
What demands does the short form make of its writers or readers?
From its beginnings, literature, and art in general, has been about synthesis. Synthesizing requires intelligence. Flash fiction challenges participatory readers because they are part of the writing itself. All human beings are creative, there is no doubt about that, no matter what they say. To dare to create flash fiction is to dare to survive.
Translated by Resha Cardone
Once upon a time, there was a book you loved more than any other. Imagine the book in your hands. How heavy is it? What is the texture of its cover? Are the pages crisp or worn with repeated turning? If a book doesn’t come immediately to mind, consider if another art form such as music, dance, photography, or film has changed the way you think and move in the world. Maybe it was Prince, in kohl-black eyeliner and a mermaid green suit during the Super Bowl half-time show singing “Purple Rain.” Or Lady Gaga stepping onstage in a meat dress. What place and mindset were you in when you encountered this new idea, and how did it change your thinking? Focus on both the internal change and external details of the experience by incorporating language that refers to the senses. Spend some time reflecting on this pivotal experience, then take ten minutes to write about it. Trade or discuss your free write with a partner. Do your reflections share any common elements? What conclusions can you draw about how art invites us to experience the world in new ways?
The summer before my senior year in college, I donned a hairnet, apron, and ergonomic shoes to work fulltime in the kitchen of my hometown’s Olive Garden. I’d applied to be a waitress, but a personality test administered during the interview determined that kitchen work best suited my introverted nature. I had answered the questionnaire truthfully: yes, I did “prefer a small group of close friends to large, noisy parties.” Once hired, my closest companions became the cooks with whom I communicated using a shorthand of eye rolls, winks, and shrugs over the crash of dishes, the grill’s sizzle, and the chirpy waitresses cussing about customers as they loaded their serving trays. For eight hours, I assembled salads, doling out handfuls of shredded iceberg lettuce, four thin bands of onion, three wheel-shaped tomato slices, two black olives, one pepperoncini, and a humble scattering of croutons.
While my coworkers took their fifteen-minute breaks to smoke in an adjacent parking lot, I sat on a curb and consumed, little by little, Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories edited by Jerome Stern. During those breaks, I immersed myself in another world. The dishes in my head stopped rattling. The constant loop of faux Italian ballads—“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie”—momentarily paused as I read Molly Giles’s “The Poet’s Husband,” which describes a broken relationship in a single, heart-breaking sentence. I bought the book because of its size; it fit neatly into my apron’s pocket, and I could read an entire story from beginning to end and still have enough time to look up, squint into the sun, and take a few deep breaths before heading back into the kitchen.
Pinned to my apron a button advertised, “Hot food fast,” the industry’s ultimate command under which kitchen staff and servers labored. Day after day, I hurried breadsticks into baskets, poured bags of soup into heating pans, and drizzled chocolate onto flash-frozen tiramisu under the watchful eye of the store manager who, a month into my employment, told me that I too might be management material if I applied myself. The manager was the mouthpiece for the chain’s rules and regulations, and because of that the kitchen staff took every opportunity to thwart him. When I could, I treated the customers to a few extra olives atop their salads. When his back turned to the register, a server would grab a breadstick, wag it like a giant cigar, and then eat it in two bites.
One afternoon while the manager was at lunch, I “accidentally” shoved my elbow into a box of tiramisu, and the entire kitchen staff huddled around it with forks to take care of the damaged goods. We had impromptu, minute-long feasts gorging on fettuccini alfredo, skirt steak, and whatever else was mistakenly prepared and bound for the garbage can. There was urgency both to the work and to the many ways we secretly revolted. During my short reprieves from the kitchen’s humid din, I found that same urgency reflected and somehow assuaged by the tiny stories in my apron pocket.
I’m telling you all this because me and flash, we go way back. I am drawn to the short form not because I have a short attention span but because of the way it artfully concentrates what little attention I have. Short-form writing is urgent, portable, rebellious, and it refuses to conform to any requirements other than the limits of the page itself. It is a reprieve from the cacophony of contemporary life—its constant barrage of texts, tweets, updates, and alerts—and presents the reader with a solitude that speaks volumes. In this book, we present you with a form that is not novel (and not a novel) but as old as storytelling itself, as deep as your imagination, and as exciting as eating an entire box of tiramisu in two minutes flat.
Word count: 653 words
What were those Paleolithic cave-dwellers thinking when they first picked up a burnt stick and began sketching images of bison on stone walls over 30,000 years ago? Was it a way to record a hunt, tell a story, pass the time, or educate the young? Perhaps it was a means of conjuring “hunting
magic,” as French priest and archaeologist Henri
Breuil speculated after extensive study of the drawings found in the caves of Lascaux, France, and elsewhere. Though we can only guess, this prehistoric moment marks an important turn in the human story.
When a form
of communication—either through words, images, or other means—moves beyond its functional purpose, we have entered the realm of art. The boundaries between art/not art and literature/not literature are subjective, determined by our cultural moment, our training, and our point of view. Yet, there is a critical transition when the sharing of information becomes something more. When does that happen? How do we recognize it?
The poet Lucille
Clifton once described the “first poem” as the moment someone “walked off a savannah or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, ‘Ah.’” It’s no surprise that Clifton’s imagined “first poem” is composed of a single word, more sound than meaning. The essence of this first poem reminds us that making art out of the written word requires us to simplify the stimuli of our world and to respond with attention to the wonder of what surr...