Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, and hike/ write. He has facilitated these at locations like Alverno College, UWM, Fox Valley Technical School, JMWW (online), Red Oak Writing, The Clearing and Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. He leads writing roundtables in Milwaukee, WI. He was twice a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction (2013, 2014). His short fiction, ‘A Box’ will appear in the Best Small Fictions 2016 (Queen’s Ferry Press). Vaughan is the author of four books: Microtones (Cervena Barva Press, 2012); Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits (Deadly Chaps, 2013); Addicts & Basements (CCM, 2014). His newest, RIFT, is a flash fiction collection co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press, 2015). He blogs at www.robert-vaughan.com.
- You’ve been senior flash fiction editor for JMWW literary journal for six years and have also been fiction & poetry editor for Lost in Thought Magazine and guest editor for Smokelong Quarterly. What makes a piece of flash fiction stand out for you?
My favorite flash fiction pieces are those that stop my heart from beating or make me gasp! Unusual characters that grab you, setting details that seem fitting, sensory touches that are illuminating. A certain amount of tension to hold interest, and the element of surprise. Also a balance of white space- what is “left out” of the piece is as important as what remains on the page. Typically, there is a haunting or lasting element that stays with me beyond the brevity of the work.
- You write both poetry and flash-ficton. Would you say the two forms are siblings, close cousins or more distant relatives?
I think there are links drawn between flash fiction and prose poetry. There are two wonderful guidebooks, both edited by the amazing Tara Masih from Rose Metal Press that illuminate the differences and comparisons quite succinctly. I like to fuse the two “genres” or make my own hybrid construct quite often. I can’t really say how that happens, it seems to occur on a deep level for me. Organically, I do tend to blur lines, do not follow rules well, rarely start at the beginning, and enjoy innovation.
- Teaching creative writing is another one of your writing activities. In the roundtables at Red Oak Writing and elsewhere, how do you support writers in improving and extending their flash-fiction skills?
In workshops, we look at current examples of flash fiction/ prose poetry that exemplify the best of the genre(s), discuss craft and techniques based on those examples. There is plenty of time to generate new work/ ideas, or edit pieces that writers might bring with them. I also try to provide an experience beyond the writer’s expectations, however that might occur.
In my Milwaukee Red Oak Friday roundtable, writers bring work in any genre, and follow certain formatting guidelines. They bring copies for everyone, and read their work aloud in turn. Everyone receives written and verbal feedback, during which the author is silent, actively listening.
In general, I try to support writers by being enthusiastic about their own successes. Let’s face it, few of us are in this for financial reasons. In this sense, the independent writing community has been a great source of comaraderie, of exchange, friendship, and fueling creativity. I also suggest reading as much as a writer possibly can, in various genres.
- Which three flash-fiction stories or collections would like to have with you to read over and over if you were marooned on a desert island? Have you any other recommendations of flash-fiction for people to read?
Hard to choose only three! Well, I already referred to the Rose Metal Press Guides to Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction (can I count that as one?!!!) Also, Len Kuntz’s I’m Not Supposed To Be Here And Neither Are You is phenomenal. And even though it’s not technically flash fiction, I’d include Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I’ve been carrying that book around with me for weeks, reading, re-reading. It’s heart-breaking. Various other collections I highly recommend would include Karen Stefano’s The Secret Games of Words, Meg Tuite’s Her Skin is a Costume, Sara Lippmann’s Doll Palace, Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime, and Some For the Day, Margaret Malone’s People Like You, Ben Tanzer’s The New York Stories, Donald Barthelme’s Overnight to Many Distant Cities, Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Tomas Transtromer’s The Great Enigma. I will also add that I am an active member on Goodreads, and it’s a great resource to see what other flash writers have read or are currently reading.
- What do you think writers most need to pay attention to when they are writing to a 300 word limit? Would you say different skills are involved than writing longer flash-fiction?
I try to write a first draft without tending to a word limit. No restrictions. Let that first draft WHOOSH OUT of you as much as possible. Then the difference might come in the editing phase. A workshop technique is to take an original of 1000 words. Cut it in half (500). Then do that again (250). Look at what you have, then possibly alter or add very little content- plumb verbs, remove unnecessary words. Add one or two word sentence fragments. Read the piece aloud a few times. See if there is a rhythm or sounds that please you (and might a reader).
- Can you give your best tips to anyone writing a flash-fiction piece for this competition?
Take a risk and enter! Choose your best piece from the past year- maybe it’s one that’s been rejected, and you can revise? Try a new prompt, give it a shot! Read past winner’s flash pieces. Read some work at the venerable journals like Smokelong Quarterly, PANK, Literary Orphans, Wigleaf, Blue Fifth Review, JMWW and more. Know the difference between borrowing admirable techniques from a writer you revere, and stealing. Try a new point of view, write in a new location, take notes on a trip. I like to play with form, so try a numbered piece, or break up the sections with white space to indicate where time jumps ahead or backwards. Eavesdrop at a busy cafe, and incorporate the topic into your piece. Remember that “realistic fiction” is not the same as “flash fiction!” Dazzle us with your prowess! Practice, perfect. Practice, perfect. Practice, perfect.