hen I think about the art of flash writing, one name immediately springs to my mind—and I bet many of you, especially fans of evocative, memorable flash, will be familiar with our next guest. Please give a warm welcome to writer and teacher, Kathy Fish!
Kathy Fish’s award-winning short stories, flash fiction, and prose poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Washington Square Review, Waxwing Magazine, Copper Nickel, Electric Literature, Guernica, Denver Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Yemassee Review, Indiana Review, and various other journals, textbooks, and anthologies—including The Norton Reader and in five volumes of The Best Small Fictions (2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, 2022). Kathy taught for six years for the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She’s been published in five collections of short fiction: A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (Rose Metal Press); Wild Life, as well as Wild Life: Collected Works from 2003-2018 (Matter Press); Together We Can Bury It (The Lit Pub); and Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan (CreateSpace Publishing).
Kathy is a recipient of the Copper Nickel Editor’s Prize and a 2020 Ragdale Foundation Fellowship. Her highly sought after Fast Flash© workshops, begun in 2015, have resulted in numerous publications and awards for the hundreds of writers who have taken part. She publishes a free newsletter, The Art of Flash Fiction, which includes craft articles and writing prompts.
WOW: Welcome, Kathy!
Kathy: Hi Ann! Thanks so much for having me!
WOW: You’ve got a lot of irons in the fire! Teacher, award-winning writer, workshop creator, retreat leader, published author, and all-around flash guru—to name just a few! Let’s start off with your Fast Flash workshops offerings—which is how I first became aware of your work via the writing community on Twitter.
I love squeaky tight writing (as all writers should) that surprises me with a takeaway I never saw coming. Hard to pull off, in such limited real estate! You’ve built a well-earned reputation as a master flash writer and instructor who not only demonstrates this skill in your own award-winning work, but is able to inspire and guide writers to create their own beautiful flash pieces. Can you share why you started these popular workshops, and what inspires your curriculum? Does each new workshop share fresh inspiration?
Kathy: Thanks so much! I truly enjoy teaching. Back in 2014 or 2015, I was approached by David Hicks to serve as a faculty mentor for the new low residency MFA program he was starting up with Marty McGovern. I was both flattered and flabbergasted. I had done no formal teaching up to that point, but encouraged by David’s faith in me, I agreed to join the core faculty of the Mile High MFA program and I had a year to prepare. Meanwhile, I’d been writing craft articles on flash fiction and posting them on my blog. Some of my readers suggested I teach flash fiction classes online. This is years before the pandemic, mind you, and at that time there weren’t a ton of online offerings. Of course, now there are!
So I began with one class I’d invited eight writers to take part in as my beta testers. The class was a success and they just grew from there via word-of-mouth (Twitter). I taught for the Mile High MFA program for six years but ultimately had to step down in light of the growing popularity of my own classes and the retreats I’d begun running with fellow Denver writer, Nancy Stohlman.
I discovered a deep love of teaching. My teaching philosophy is built on positive feedback, reinforcing those things a writer does well, as a means of building confidence. It’s amazing to see the transformation of newer writers even in the course of one workshop!
WOW: I remember seeing on Twitter how some in my network would “nab a spot” in one of your workshop lotteries and how excited they were to reserve their space. I was intrigued and signed up for your free newsletter where, a few months later, I secured my own spot for a Flash Memoir Weekend Intensive. Now I see what the fuss is about—your workshops fill up quickly and for good reason! The one I took was fast-paced, inspiring, and fun!
Heads up, readers: Kathy’s lottery system is designed to give everyone an equal chance to try for a workshop spot, no matter what time zone they’re in. Writers add their names via a form for all workshops they’re interested in taking during an open call. If selected by random drawing for a spot, a writer’s name is removed from consideration for any other workshops. So Kathy, how often do you open your workshops and do you cap attendance?
Kathy: I prefer to register a bunch of classes all at once, so I only open up new classes a couple times a year. My classes are limited to 15 participants which seems like a workable number.
WOW: There seems to be no shortage of interest in your workshops, but how do you keep writers coming back for more? And, what can they expect?
Kathy: I think word-of-mouth has really been my friend through all of this. People who’d taken my workshops were publicly enthusiastic on Twitter. Also, I think creating a supportive environment keeps folks coming back to the classes. My exercises and prompts are such that they can be repeated and result in completely different stories each time. So I think it’s fun for writers to return and try their hand at the exercises again.
WOW: I recall one of the micro CNF examples you shared in the Flash Memoir Intensive I took. It sums up a child’s love and need for her mother across a lifetime—and her heartbreak for what is coming—in just 51 words:
At 83, Mom is shrinking. I don’t think about it during the day, but at night I dream I’m holding her. While we hug, her weight drops from 140 to 65 pounds. My arms are wet. I don’t know if it’s condensation from my mother’s evaporation, or if it’s my tears.
~ Desirée O’Clair
My 87-year-old mother lives with me (in very good health, knock wood). I remember when I read this in your workshop in 2019, I was immediately in that writer’s shoes as the eventual inevitability of her ending hit me. I wanted to write something as beautiful and sad and tiny and true. That’s the kind of inspiration and challenge you set down for your workshop attendees. How does it make you feel to inspire writers, share craft tips with them, and see them stretching their writing muscles as they mine for these gold nuggets?
Kathy: As I mentioned earlier, it’s exciting for me to see the transformation that takes place, often with newer writers, who gain the confidence to stretch and try new things. Everyone, even new writers, have artistry within them, a degree of natural ability. Once you point that out to them, they feel more comfortable with taking creative risks. I love that you were so inspired by that piece I shared!
WOW: Once a year, you host a “Reunion Weekend” writing extravaganza that you open to all writers who have taken a flash workshop with you. What a fun concept! Past participants are invited via email to log into a password-protected site for three days of flash writing—and it’s free! How many years have you offered this? Can you describe what one of these weekends typically looks like?
Kathy: I began that the first year I taught my online classes. I think it was 2015? And at first there were maybe 40 participants. Now, my list of past participants is huge. But even if someone only took one class from me several years ago, they have a standing invitation to the reunion. What happens is everyone gathers on the site and I post a writing prompt each day. Actually, the evening before each day, to accommodate all time zones. Writers are encouraged to give positive feedback to at least five other participants for each story they post. My involvement is just administrative as there’s no way I could read and respond to everything and I wouldn’t feel comfortable only responding to a few. Lots and lots of “reunion” stories have gone on to be published. I love that.
WOW: Readers, I encourage you to sign up for Kathy’s free newsletter, The Art of Flash Fiction, to try to snag your own spot in one of these wildly popular workshops. Speaking of wildly popular things, let’s move on to Kathy’s published collections, one of which carries the name wild in its title.
Kathy, I read where your flash fiction collection Wild Life: Collected Works is in its second print run. Exciting! You’ve also authored additional books (we’ve dropped links to each in our introduction). How do you decide which flash pieces to include? And while writing your pieces, did you envision seeing them in a collection one day, or were some of them written as standalone pieces that then fit into one of your collection themes down the road?
Kathy: Thank you, Ann! I write everything as a standalone story. I’ve never written with the idea of a collection in mind. That said, I would very much like to! I feel like as a writer I like to try a lot of different things, so I struggle when pulling collections together. I try to give a sense of cohesion and artistic intention rather than saying, here’s 30 stories I wrote and put together for no apparent reason, ha. But what I find interesting is that even if you don’t set out to create patterns and themes they tend to rise from the work organically. I print out my stories and lay them all out on my large dining room table and just circle and circle the stories, reading them, making notes, seeing how I begin and end them. I eventually arrive at the stories I want to include and the order I want them to appear in. It’s a fun process actually!
WOW: I love your dining room table approach! Can you tell us more about the road to publication? Since A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness is a collaboration with four authors, were you approached to submit work? How did that unfold?
Kathy: Rose Metal Press used to run an annual chapbook contest for prose. I think I entered pretty close to the deadline. I had zero experience with publishing a book at that time or the process of putting together a chapbook. I went on instinct. Claudia Smith’s gorgeous chapbook won the contest, but mine was chosen as a finalist. The press decided to compile Claudia’s with the finalists into a book. That was their first and they published a number of chapbook anthologies after that.
WOW: How did your other books come into the world?
Kathy: I was very lucky to have been solicited by the presses to publish collections of my work. After A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness came out, Randall Brown of Matter Press asked to publish a collection of my stories, and soon after that, Molly Gaudry of the Lit Pub did as well. Later on, Randall suggested an updated collection and that’s how my most recent book, Wild Life: Collected Works, came into being. I am so grateful for the faith Molly and Randall had in my work. I also did the collaborative collection with Robert Vaughan and again, this was at the suggestion of Bud Smith, who was running Unknown Press at the time. That book was lots of fun to pull together.
WOW: What throughline or theme binds each collection?
Kathy: My Rose Metal Press chapbook has a throughline of girlhood. Most of those stories are loosely drawn from my childhood, growing up in the Midwest in the 60s and 70s. Wild Life includes some of my more experimental pieces. I liked the idea of “wildness” in human behavior and unpredictability.
My favorite collection is Together We Can Bury It. I feel like those are my most polished, intentional stories. They are run through with sadness and loss, but also the strange beauty of life as well. Rift, as I said, was a hugely fun collaborative effort. Robert and I wrote like our pens were on fire, over the course of a year. We traded prompts and critiqued each other’s stories. We settled on “Rift” for a title as there really is a theme of things breaking apart, lives, relationships, patterns. There’s an unsettledness to those stories I quite like.
Then the newest collection, Wild Life: Collected Works is meant as an anthology of my stories over a decade, many that had been published in the first Wild Life. And there, I was working with themes of Animal Kingdom, Humans in the Wild, and The Knowing (Hu)man. This was my attempt to group the stories in some cohesive manner and I hope I was successful.
WOW: Such variety! And I hear you’re now writing a craft book. Can you tell us more about that?
Kathy: In fits and starts, yes! The book is based on my workshops and methodology, as well as my monthly craft newsletter. There are so many craft books out there and I’m hoping to bring something new to the mix, blending bits of memoir and my own particular teaching philosophy.
WOW: This is the perfect segue to shift to a discussion about craft. What in your opinion makes a flash piece memorable? What do you advise writers to include? How about with editing? How does one choose what to keep and what to cut when there is often little real estate to work with?
Kathy: I think it’s true that there are no completely new stories, but memorability stems from taking a new approach or outlook to those stories. I love when a story makes me see something in an entirely new way. I love innovation and boldness. Precision of language. All of these things are achievable with revision. Compression and distillation are so important in flash. You can have a very short story that is not very distilled, if that makes sense. The story must “feel” larger than the space it takes up on the page. That means cutting anything the reader doesn’t need. Trusting the reader to understand. Taking out unnecessary words. There are so many of them! If you set a story aside for a week or two it’s so much easier to see what can safely be cut. I always advise writers to allow their stories to “cool” before going in to revise and edit.
WOW: I’m a big believer in allowing work to cool before approaching it with fresh eyes. Hard to do, however, when we’re all eager to get our work out into the world!
How does flash fiction differ from flash nonfiction, if at all? Are different elements emphasized? Should there be a different end goal to writing flash fiction versus flash nonfiction? Should readers feel differently after reading each? How so?
Kathy: Well, not as different as you’d think. Writers are still beholden to the rules of good writing. Even “true” stories need to be vivid and engaging. Readers still need to be entertained, compelled forward, immersed in whatever world the story takes place in. The difference with flash memoirists or nonfiction writers is that they have a duty to tell the truth. There’s no fudging when it comes to facts.
I love that last question and I think readers should come away from any story feeling more connected to the world, with a greater understanding of themselves and others. I think fiction writers and nonfiction writers are really aiming to engage the reader’s empathy, to tap into our shared humanity.
WOW: Our shared humanity—yes! Beautifully stated. And, what role do prose poems play in the flash world? How are they different from micro CNF? I’ve been writing more prose poems in the last 18 months—with a few published!—and I’d love to hear what you look for that makes a prose poem sizzle?
Kathy: Congratulations, Ann! I love prose poetry. I love what Charles Simic says of the form:
For me, the prose poem is a pure literary creation, the monster child of two incompatible strategies, the lyric and the narrative. On the one hand, there’s the lyric’s wish to make time stop around an image, and on the other hand, one wants to tell a little story. The aim, as in a poem written in lines, is to arouse in the reader an unconquerable desire to reread what he or she has just read. In other words, it may look like prose, but it acts like a poem.
~ Charles Simic, from the essay, “The Poetry of Village Idiots” (1996)
I think micro CNF writers and flash fiction writers are beholden to the idea of “story” much more than prose poets are. There needs to be some significant change from beginning to end. I think Simic’s idea of “a little story” may be more within the reader’s mind, in a sense engaging the reader to “sense” a story somewhere in the subtext or white space. It’s nice to have in a prose poem, but absolutely necessary to fiction. I really don’t come to prose poetry expecting “sizzle” so much as I love to get that “ah ha” feeling that I also get from haiku, only with more space to play around, more room for image and language play. All the things I get from poetry, only in prose form.
“I love when a [flash] story makes me see something in an entirely new way. I love innovation and boldness. Precision of language. Compression and distillation are so important in flash. You can have a very short story that is not very distilled, if that makes sense. The story must ‘feel’ larger than the space it takes up on the page.”
WOW: Regarding word count, I see where some journals consider flash to be 750 words, some say it’s 500, and others say it’s 1,000 words. I’m the Flash Nonfiction editor with Barren Magazine and we cap it at 1,000. I argued nobly for 750 words—shorter is harder—but was overruled. LOL. Here, at WOW, we have a 750 word limit on flash fiction (it used to be 500!) and a 1,000 word limit on creative nonfiction. What do you think the sweet spot is (or should be)? Why?
Kathy: I’ve been asked this before and it’s a great question. The more flash fiction and flash CNF evolve, the more I think writers are “nailing it” in 750 words or fewer. When it gets longer, that very distilled essence begins to loosen up, and my feeling is that what you have then is a story that actually needs more breathing room. In other words, if you couldn’t tell the story in fewer than 1,000 words it’s likely you need even more words to truly do the story justice. You have a traditional length short story that hasn’t been given its due, truncated to fit the flash category. As writers become more adept with the form, I’m seeing the “sweet spot” become shorter, around 500 words. This is all very subjective of course!
WOW: I agree, and feel it’s easy to spot when a writer is trying to “shoehorn” a story (that needs to be longer to do it justice) into the flash form. It doesn’t work. I also want to mention that you were a recent Guest Selecting Editor for the Wigleaf Top 50. Can you tell us more about the importance of this list in the flash world?
Kathy: I was very honored to be the selecting editor for the Wigleaf Top 50. They have a group of roaming editors who do the hard work of reading hundreds and hundreds of flash published online for a given year, which they winnow down to what they consider the best 200 or so. The selecting editor’s job is to choose the Top 50 from that list. The Top 50 is a hugely valuable, entirely free resource for readers and teachers. It’s all links on the Wigleaf site. I’m always so excited to read it and I’m particularly proud of the stories I chose. That’s one incredible long list, too. My job was tough!
WOW: What was your process for narrowing to a longlist and then ultimately naming the Top 50?
Kathy: My process was to read the entire list of stories straight through, taking note of the ones that were especially good. On first read through, I didn’t eliminate any stories, all remained in the running. My second read through was more critical. I had to make hard decisions. I paid special attention to opening paragraphs. Also, having read the stories once, which ones did I immediately remember? I think “memorability” is a good indication of a story’s power. If, on repeated readings, I was still in awe of a story it stayed in the running. In the end there were probably 10-15 stories I cut that, on another day, I may have kept. They were that close! Every selecting editor has their own preferences and biases so the list really reflects individual taste. I highly value freshness of language and approach, and emotional power.
WOW: Let’s take a look at some of your own award-winning work! Which of your flash pieces are you most proud of, and can you tell us about your inspiration in writing them?
Kathy: The piece I’m most proud of is “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild.” It was first published in Jellyfish Review and has been widely shared and taught and anthologized. I wrote it in response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas and in response to every school shooting and mass shooting that preceded it. I have mixed feelings about it though as it deals with such a painful subject and it’s not at all a comforting piece to read. When I see it shared a lot again, I know there’s been yet another mass shooting. I think folks share it because it tells a hard, necessary truth.
I think writers always love their most recent work best and I quite like “Unfettered and Alive,” published in Waxwing. “Chicago” was published this year in Wigleaf. “You Were Only Waiting for this Moment to Arrive” in Ghost Parachute.
WOW: Each of these pieces is so tight and leaves such a lasting impression. Wow. And, how many drafts do you typically move through before you feel like one of your pieces is ready to submit?
Kathy: I’m going to confess something here: I don’t save early drafts of my stories. I just keep working on and saving the same draft. I spend a lot of time tweaking sentences. Sound is hugely important to me. I go over the stories many times. It takes a long time for me to feel satisfied with a story. If I get to a point where I read it straight through and it sounds good to my ear and the story feels fresh and moving and alive I call it finished and send it out.
WOW: I can’t let you go without asking about the writing retreats that you co-lead. Who doesn’t love a retreat, especially one with a beautiful locale like the one you held in Andalucia, Spain, this past summer? What makes these writing retreats special, how long have you been doing them, and how can our readers learn about upcoming ones in 2023?
Kathy: The retreats are just a stunning experience. Writers come away feeling energized and inspired. There’s something magical about working with like-minded souls in a supportive, nurturing environment. Nancy Stohlman finds venues that support creative immersion and provide creature comforts. The retreats have been very well reviewed and sell out fast. Nancy is currently taking registrations for retreats in 2023 to France, Grand Lake, Colorado, and Iceland. Those who are interested can get more information here.
WOW: In closing, where do you see the flash form in the next five years?
Kathy: Oh, everywhere. Flash is such an exciting, fluid, innovative form and it’s really starting to get its due in the literary world. My hope is that it will be taught in MFA programs as a distinct specialty or emphasis by actual practitioners of the form. One can dream!
It’s been such a treat to chat with flash guru, Kathy Fish! If you’d like to try one of Kathy’s flash workshops, be sure to subscribe to her newsletter where she shares workshop lottery openings as well as flash tips, writing prompts, and links to some of today’s best flash pieces. Find Kathy on Twitter and at her website.
Until next time!
Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary journals. https://annkkelly.com/.