The hardest thing I’ve ever done is be a single mother. It saps almost everything and takes the rest—your energy, time, creativity, hope, and . . . did I say energy? Parenting is hard work. Single parenting is hard work x 100. You get by on little hugs and kisses and gifts of pebbles and growth milestones and that utterly contagious, spontaneous child’s giggle. Writing space shrinks dramatically.
I count myself very lucky to have two books coming out within a year of each other. But this is a totally new accomplishment, and reflects the way my life is being lived today—my son is 13 and pretty self-reliant, and my new husband is supportive and pretty self-reliant too! But before that, there was a long stretch of almost a decade where I had to concentrate on monetary and emotional survival.
Flash fiction is a genre that is becoming increasingly popular, and I want to promote it as a particularly appropriate genre for prose writers who are facing the demands of single (or even dual) parenting. Flash, loosely defined as between 250-1,500 words, takes as much skill as writing a longer story, but for the most part it takes less time. In the moments when your child is napping or watching a video, you can have a near-to-complete story. Even if you need 10 more naps to finish and revise it, the mental energy that small story will ask of you is much less than a novel would. And, if you’re a writer (by this I don’t mean you need to be published, just someone who feels depressed or cranky when they can’t write), the tiny goal of writing a few paragraphs that can later be molded into something complete spurs you on and gives you spiritual and mental energy to replace the physical energy you lose when parenting.
Admittedly, it was easy for me to turn to flash as I had learned how to write in very short form early on. But I still recommend it for newcomers. Even if you don’t get it published, it’ll satisfy the writer in you and keep you going till you can devote yourself more fully to your craft.
Below is a story I wrote in an hour. More hours went into editing, but I was able to take one small idea I had—to write about that damn catalpa tree that plagued my existence as a woman with no in-house or hired landscaper to help clean up after it constantly—and make something of it. I chose this particular story to reprint here because buried into the narrative is my personal frustration about the endless tasks I was faced with at the time: You see my frustration as witnessed by a daughter observing her father; you see my final relenting and acceptance of the beauty and appreciation we can have, even in moments of irritation, much as a parent can experience when dealing with a child. This story of the catalpa didn’t have more to offer me than this little bit of prose (even if it did, my mind wasn’t prepared to dwell on it much longer), so it was perfect for flash form. (Note I tend to experiment, so it’s in two sections, both introduced by a fragment and opposing statement.)
My father. This is who he is: He is a man who grumbles all autumn at the catalpa tree that shades our side porch. The long, dry, weapon-like pods fall as if they were calculating an insult to his sensibilities, conspiring to keep him raking all spring. Cursing them for knowing how to escape the tines of his rake, he says, Not like leaves, which know how to give themselves up into his swift, harried movements. No, he says, these damn pods slip right through, like they know. He carts bushel after bushel to the back of the property. The next day a wind drops more, pushing some end-first into a lawn that is soft from recent snowmelt. The pod shells stand erect, and he goes about bending and pulling at them as if he were pulling at Excalibur, while my mother watches and shakes her head and smiles, knowing he will come in after an hour or so to complain over lunch. He is a man who sighs deeply when the sweet-smelling flowers start to quit their hold, drift down like a heavy snow, wither, and stick to the banisters and porch floorboards, leaving sepia shadows behind when he attempts to brush them off the white paint. And then the sugary droplets appear, sticky residue from the aphids that feed off the catalpa flowers, and he is there again, scrubbing and cursing at the mildew that erupts and spreads, like black crystals expanding, in the sap that is tacky hard.
My father. This is who he is not: He is not a man to pass by the porch’s windows and ignore the catalpa after a summer downpour, when the large, elephantine leaves catch and hold the morning’s hard rain, and the sky clears, and the sun comes out bringing with it a breeze, which knocks the rain off the leaves and sends the water spilling, so that it looks like it is raining liquid sunshine only under the catalpa, not anywhere else on Earth.
So look for your own small moments, small ideas, fragments of characterization. As noted writer Stuart Dybek recommends, keep a Great Thoughts notebook, a great source for flash ideas when you have that tiny break to write—in the carpool line, at the playground, in the next room over. And enjoy a few moments of getting out of yourself and your everyday routines. Just as you might take a coffee, tea, or chocolate break, take a flash break.
Tara L. Masih is editor of the acclaimed Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (2009) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories (Press 53, Feb. 15, 2010). She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, Flash, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer). Several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. Her website is www.taramasih.com. “Catalpa” © by Tara L. Masih, from Where the Dog Star Never Glows, originally appeared in Fragile Skins.