Siân Griffiths directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. She holds a BA from the University of Idaho and an MA and PhD from the University of Georgia, where she specialized in fiction writing. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, American Short Fiction, Redivider, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Quarterly West, Ninth Letter, and Baltimore Review, among many other publications. Her poem “Fistful,” first published in Ninth Letter, was included in the 3rd edition of Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses, a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, was inspired, in part, by her work with the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1999-2000. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse and is at work on her second novel.
To read an exercise on grounding a story’s hook, inspired by Griffiths’ story “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” click here.
In this interview, Griffiths discusses her favorite advice about structuring flash fiction, using tense shifts, and the different creative impulses that drive poetry and fiction.
One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is from Ron Carlson, who says that a story has two parts: the story and the world the story enters. I was struck in “The Key Bearer’s Parents” how clearly you lay out both. The first paragraph introduces the characters (clown parents, resentful son) and then next paragraph shifts gears pretty dramatically, introducing the possibility of nuclear war and the “key bearer plan.” The juxtaposition is unexpected and exciting. Was the story always laid out this way? Or did you have to discover this structure?
It was definitely one I discovered as I drafted. I knew where the story was going before I started writing, which is actually fairly rare for me, but in my first draft, the key bearer plan came in much later, closer to when the son volunteers to fill the position. I’m lucky to have a husband who’s an amazing reader, and he asked if I had considered introducing that element earlier in. As soon as he asked, I knew that was exactly what the story needed, and I realized that Congress would have been debating this for some time, and so the story of the bill’s creation became a story running on a not quite parallel line to the son’s. Each plot line culminates at the moment they intersect.
I recently heard someone say that flash fiction takes places within a scene, but not this story. It covers decades. Did it start out longer? Did you ever try out different chronological frames?
My favorite advice about structuring flash fiction is something that the writer Pam Houston said, which was that in flash, the conflict doesn’t need to resolve, but the key image must resolve. I think that may be true of this story, though it’s less obviously true for me here than in other flash I’ve written. For this one, I had the ideas that I wanted to put in this story for some months before I figure out how I could weave them together. It was the voice that got me. As soon as I had “We were good parents,” I had all the pieces I needed and wrote it quite quickly (that is, if we’re defining writing as the actual putting into words and not the lengthier conceptualizing part.) I think because it takes that voice–that of parents telling their story–it’s able to jump through years quite quickly. It acts like the kind of story we tell our friends at a party or a bar–or, maybe in this case, sobbing over a coffee. It takes on that kind of relationship to time, where hindsight allows us to see the relevant events that led to the current moment.
I also love the tense shifts. For example, near the end, the story shifts from past to present tense: “Our son was already filling out the online application. And now that he’s been selected…” This is the sort of thing that writing workshops tend to chew up, but it seems to give you great flexibility in moving through time in the story. Was it difficult to get these tense changes right?
Oh, that’s well spotted! Honestly, I think that move came instinctively, arising out of that voice and the moment of the narration. I wanted to capture the voice of these parents right in the moment where they’re dealing with this new reality, the moment of fear and not knowing what will happen next. For me, that’s the moment of honest emotion. If it’s further ahead in time, when they know whether the son will be safe or not, then I think it would lose its heat.
You’re a poet in addition to a fiction writer, a not unheard-of combination but also not very common. Are the impulses to write a poem and story similar? Do you sit down to write and discover, as you write, what form the piece will take? Or are the two forms separate in your mind: poetry on Tuesday and fiction on Wednesday, so to speak?
Yes—I’ve never been any good at sticking to a single genre, which was always a bit of an issue in both undergraduate and graduate school, where I was asked to specialize. I tend to write prose most often—essay/memoir or fiction—but poetry has definitely always been an interest and I’ve just drafted my first screenplay, which was a whole new challenge. I feel like each genre offers its own possibilities and limitations. For instance, a poem doesn’t necessarily have the same push for closure as a story, so if I start with an image or bit of language and just want to kind of languish there with it a while, then I tend to write a poem. If I want to explore a character or a situation, then I write a story. If I want to talk about a real life incident I can’t stop thinking about, then I write an essay. Everything starts in my journal as fragments and notes, many of which go nowhere. The once that have heat stay with me and bug me to keep writing about them. Each piece comes with its own impulse, and I tend to know what I’m writing when I start.
“Tend to” is the operative phrase here, though, because I’ve definitely been wrong. For instance, I wrote this poem that I wrote that I really loved, but every time I sent it out, it was rejected. I couldn’t understand it. I was as proud of that poem as I’d been of anything, but I stopped sending it out, deciding I needed to figure out what was wrong. A year or two later, I read a Steve Almond essay suggesting that some failed poems might actually be flash fiction. (For those interested, the essay is called “Getting the Lead Out: How Writing Really Bad Poetry Yields Really Better Short Stories” and it’s in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.) I pulled out my line breaks, revised a bit, sent it out again, and sure enough, it was quickly picked up by a great journal. And so I learned that sometimes I need to loosen the reins, and that as much as I think I know what I’m writing, I always have to be ready to be wrong and let the piece become something else.