Poetry & Flash Fiction with Kim Lozano

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Today creative writers at GCAA talked poetry, creative nonfiction, and flash fiction with writer and creative writing teacher Kim Lozano.

Here are a couple things we discussed…

  • Honing our ability to see originally
  • Writing specifically
  • Avoiding vague words like “beautiful” and zeroing in on imagery
  • The idea that specificity & imagery apply to fiction, creative nonfiction — all types of writing
  • Embodying emotions in the form of objects: What can I do to show the reader that I’m angry?
  • Show, don’t tell is a creative writing cliché but it’s true –> learn the rules first and then break them
  • The power of our work is in our details
  • Think about gestures – for example, what a character does with their hands
  • Under-utilized element for a lot of poets is the title

Then we read…

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Power
By Corrine Hales

No one we knew had every stopped a train.
Hardly daring to breathe, I waited
Belly-down with my brother
In a dry ditch
Watching through the green thickness
Of grass and willows.
Stuffed with crumpled newspapers,
The shirt and pants looked real enough
Stretched out across the rails. I felt my heart
Beating against the cool ground
And the terrible long screetch of the train’s
Braking began. We had done it.

Then it was in front of us —
A hundred iron wheels tearing like time
Into red flannel and denim, shredding the child
We had made — until it finally stopped.

My brother jabbed at me,
Pointed down the tracks. A man
Had climbed out of the engine, was running
In our direction, waving his arms,
Screaming that he would kill us —
Whoever we were,
Then, very close to the spot
Where we hid, he stomped and cursed
At the rags and papers scattered
Over the gravel from our joke.

I tried to remember which of us
That red shirt had belonged to,
But morning seemed too long ago, and the man
Was falling, sobbing, to his knees.
I couldn’t stop watching.
My brother lay next to me,
His hands covering his ears,
His face pressed tight to the ground.

In this poem, the title Power hints at the physical power of a train, the power of little kids to pull a prank, and the kids realizing their power at the end of the poem. As this poem does, it’s wise at the end of your work to leave it a little unwrapped.

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Feared Drowned
By Sharon Olds

Suddenly nobody knows where you are,
your suit black as seaweed, your bearded
head slick as a seal’s.

Somebody watches the kids. I walk down the
edge of the water, clutching the towel
like a widow’s shawl around me.

None of the swimmers is just right.
Too short, too heavy, clean-shaven,
they rise out of the surf, the water
rushing down their shoulders.

Rocks stick out near shore like heads.
Kelp snakes in like a shed black suit
and I cannot find you.

My stomach begins to contract as if to
vomit salt water,

when up the sand toward me comes
a man who looks very much like you,
his beard matted like beach grass, his suit
dark as a wet shell against his body.

Coming closer, he turns out
to be you — or nearly.
Once you lose someone it is never exactly
the same person who comes back.

As this poem demonstrates, you’re choosing metaphors and similes, think about the world you’re in and the kinds of images that fit with your theme. In other words, choose descriptors that fit your emotional angle. Descriptions convey mood, tone, and message. Description shows how your character feels.

Writing Exercise Number One

Given the emotional angle you take, you can generate really different descriptions of the same place. Given that, try one of the three following writing prompts…

  1. Describe this classroom from the perspective of a person who has time-traveled here from ancient times. Do not mention time-travel.
  2. Describe this classroom from the perspective of someone whose favorite pet has just died. Do not mention the pet or death.
  3. Describe this classroom from the perspective of a snake. Do not mention the snake.

Here one of our responses to prompt #3:

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Nobody in here has a clue. When all these ridiculously behaved kids file out each and everyday, I give a good stretch like the sun spreading across the horizon. Then I have my fun. A quick slide down the cold metal bookshelf, gleefully unfurling myself in the black wire bins of wrinkled papers. “An artist cannot fail; it’s a success to be one.” If only Mrs. O’Donnell could watch me strut across those black letters when she shuts the door behind her at night —

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Review of Creative Nonfiction 

  • Not talking about reports, newspaper journalism
  • Nonfiction is true to the best of my ability — there’s room to play with things that are incidental– things that are major have to be true
  • The creative part of creative nonfiction is sensory details, imagery, figurative language, using the techniques of fiction: dialogue, plot, metaphor, simile
  • Examples of creative nonfiction: memoir, travel writing, humor pieces, blog posts

Intro to Flash Fiction

  • With the internet, it’s become super popular to write short pieces
  • Flash just means short — definitely under 2000 words; there’s not a set word limit, but often 750 words; depends on the editor or magazine

Flash Nonfiction Toolbox

  • Need “heat” from the first sentence
    some sort of urgency, word one, sentence one
  • Focus on one thing
    Don’t trim a long piece down, flash fiction is like a poem, it’s a distilled form
  • Offer a fresh perspective
    Everybody has a fresh perspective, but beginning writers tend to rely on their first thoughts or rely on language clichés
  • Energy hinges on a rapid-fire of information
    Use specific details/avoid the abstract/turn your emotions into objects – set a mood
  • Waste nothing. In other words: every image must carry weight
  • Show the most, tell a little bit, and never explain
    a cliché of creative writing, know all the rules, then break them
  • Weave in your own reflections
    This isn’t the same as ending with a formulaic conclusion or a “moral of the story”
  • Don’t just label the work with a title. Make your title do double duty.
  • Revise, revise, revise – very little creative writing comes out in one shot
    Writing that is easy to read is hard to write. 

In general, think of writing like a good magic show. There’s not real magic happening — there are tricks. In writing, you’re the magician, and you know the tricks. We learn the tricks that make people feel a certain way, and we tug on that (similes, metaphors, alliteration, the list goes on…)

The following flash fiction piece is written by Naomi Shihab Nye. She has an American mother, a Palestinian father, and is known for her poetry. She wrote this piece after 911. This is a piece about family, relationships, plants, confusion… She uses a lot of the tools in the flash fiction toolbox in this piece:

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Someone I Love

Someone I love so much cut down my primrose patch. It looked like an oval of overgrown weeds to him, in the front yard, beyond the stones of the flowerbeds, near the black mailbox on the post. He did not know that for weeks I had been carefully tending and watering it, as a few primroses floated their pink heads above the green mass, unfurled their delicate bonnets. With dozens of buds waiting to shine, we were on the brink, everything popping open, despite the headlines, all sweet flower beings from under the ground remembering what they were supposed to do.

He mowed it down with the old push lawn mower. I was out of town – he didn’t ask his father, who knew how precious it was to me – his father was in the back while this was happening and didn’t see – there wasn’t a second thought – why would we have such a tall patch in the yard – what does my mother do when she comes out here with the old shovel and the bucket and the mysterious sacks of rose food and mulch, poking around in the earth, trimming, the clippers in her pocket, beinding to the wild tangle of jasmine on the fence, the Dutchman’s-pipe, the happy oregano, the funny cacti crowded together in complicated profusion like a family, the miniature chiles – what does she do, why is this here?

He just cut it down. It wasn’t easy.

He must have pushed really hard to get it to go.

When I stood outside in my nightie the next dreamy-sweet morning at dawn after returning home on the midnight plane, watering my bluebonnets snapdragons butterfly bush lantana, wanting to feel tied to the earth again, as I always do when I get home, rooted in soil and stone and old caliche and bamboo and trees, a hundred years of memory in their trunks and bushes we didn’t plant, and the healthy esperanza never losing her hope, and the banana palms poking out their fine and gracious greenery, when I suddenly saw what was gone, what wasn’t there, not there, impossible, I was so shocked I let the hose run all over my bare feet. The cold stun of fury filled me, sorrow rising and pouring into questions: who could do this, why, why, how could anyone? I thought of the time my daddy cmae home to find every head cut off his giant sunflowers fight after they had opened their faces to the sky, and only the empty stalks remaining, heads slashed to the ground, his disbelieving sorrow as he went to his room and lay down on the bed and closed his eyes, and I thought, I will not mention this, I am too sad to mention it, this is the pain of people everywhere, this is the pain this year deserves.

But at breakfast I went a little strange like the lady down the street who shows up at people’s doors with a snarling dog and a hammer in her pocket, I went wild and furious and he swore they just looked like weeds to him, why hadn’t I warned him, why did I only tell Dad?

I pointed them out to you weeks ago, I said.

He said, I don’t remember flower things like that.

And it was the season of blooming and understanding. It was the season of pulling weeds in other corners, hiding from headlines, wondering what it would do if the whole house had been erased or just the books and paintings or what about the whole reckless garden or (then it gets unthinkable but we make ourselves think it now and then to stay human) the child’s arms or legs, what would I do? If I did not love him, who would I become?

Another flash fiction piece worth reading is Confessions by Amy Tan from…

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Writing Exercise Number Two: Flash Fiction

Generating Ideas…

  • Recall a house in which you once lived
  • Recall an incident that filled you with dread
  • Recall something dangerous you did as a child
  • Recall something that happened at a holiday get-together
  • Recall an important or magical person from your childhood
  • Recall an incident that happened at school

Choose one of your ideas and write as many specific details as you can recall. 

  • Ask yourself what impact the incident had on your life. Why do you remember this? Was it a moment you grew or changed? Did you learn something important about yourself or the world? Was it something that wounded you deeply?
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