Dec 18, 2014

What is Flash Fiction?

A few years ago, I guest blogged at Cheek Teeth Blog about the defining characteristics of flash fiction. The post quickly went to the top of that sites hits, and soon thereafter became the first link listed on most Google searches pertaining to flash fiction. That URL has since been sold out and locked down, the post no longer available. But since that time, I've travelled and lectured on flash to various audiences across the country, refining my understanding of the form and--most notably--successful approaches to teaching flash. We learn by example: by seeing what works, what doesn't work, and isolating the moment of creative decision that leads a story down either path. I teach to inspire and to help others isolate such moments in their own work, with the aspiration to empower writers to ultimately generate, revise, and coach themselves toward their own best work.

I'm delighted to announce I'll be teaching weekend and week-long courses at Interlochen College of Creative Arts on 4 occasions in 2015, the first of which is a very special weekend all about flash fiction, full scene, and how these skills can improve short stories and novels. Here's the full schedule and course registration links, and the flyer is below. It's winter, it's up north, and it'll be cold...but if you're like me, you may find that a blanket of white, a quiet artful campus, and all the permission that darkness affords are a perfect chemical mix for writing. I hope some readers of The Writing Life blog will consider joining me:

Dec 15, 2014

Jogging Writer: 10K Follow Up & Facts

Well...I ran the race and I answered one question: Can I do it? Yes, I can. But a whole host of other questions were raised, most notably, those referring to the actual distance of the race. A 10K is a 10K is a 10K, right? Wrong.
Here's a partial map of Bays Mountain Park's 39 miles of trails. The 10K included trails like Fern, Lake, Chinquapin, and Big Oak, among others.

Apparently, in the trail world of racing, distances are estimates. This is for the obvious reason that if a race course organizer needs to end a race a 6.2 miles but there simply aren't any trails that lead to an efficient finish line in the distance needed, the organizer can't exactly build a new trail. For this reason, the owner of Kingsport's Fleet Feet (and sponsor of the Rocky Top XTERRA 10K last week) explained to me, racing distances for single track trail races are close estimates. He also reminded me that because no two trail races are alike in tread conditions, grade, and elevation, it's not a good idea to compare a PR (personal record) time on one course with any times from another course. In the same way, races run on pavement--which can be exact, and in the racing world are completely expected to be exact--should never be compared to a race of the same distance on single track trail.

"I'm hosting a 50K in April," the Fleet Feet guy told me. "That's 32 miles. The course I've charted is actually 36.4 miles...but it's still billed as a 50K, it's still scored as a 50K, and that's the working understanding every runner who signs up will have."

He went on to tell me that the 10K I ran at Bays Mountain wasn't 6.2 miles, but 6.8 miles. I did a little math, figured out what my time would have been without that extra 6/10 of a mile, and further divided that by the number of miles in a proper 10K. What did I learn? That I ran almost exactly 1 minute per mile slower on race day than my personal record (also partially on single-track trail). That's a pretty safe and smart slow-down decision, if you consider the rainy and slick conditions that day.

All of that said, I logically concur that a race time for 6.2 miles on one trail shouldn't be compared with a race time for 6.2 miles on a different trail, but part me feels like getting roughly the same race time on either course is the point of training. After all, we train so we can consistently perform at our best, right? Same with my novel. Whether I'm writing with conditions of silence, solitude, and home baked lasagna or I'm writing in a crowded, loud, overstuffed Starbucks with burnt drip sentences still have to pull their weight and achieve the same, desired impact in the end.

The point of all this exploration? Learning. Plus, I feel better. It's not that I felt horrible about my race time (I did finish, after all, and had more steam to keep going). But I did feel disoriented. Now I know why.

I also know that what's been missing from my training is one run a week where I run at my own preferred pace, slowed down about half a notch. I've been so strict about following Matt Fitzgerald's 80/20 running plan (which I highly recommend) that over-focusing on pacing, heart rate, and endurance cost me a little in intuition and personal accommodations. I'm one week into my Half Marathon training and every Sunday between now and March 28th will be my "long run" for the week. Unlike the other runs--which aren't given a distance limit, rather, just a certain number of minutes per heart rate zone--the long runs have time, zone, and distance limits. But the way Fitzgerald outlines the workout, there's no way I can stay in the heart rate zones he recommends and run the full distance in the time allotted. I simply have to run faster to get the job done, which is something I've been wanting to do all along. Today I ran 7 miles and it felt great. I'm ready for more.

Dec 11, 2014

Barter Theatre's "Jingle All the Way" and 1 Wish Worth Hoping for

One of the great things about being engaged is that, all of the sudden, I have a big family! Coming from a tiny clan of 2 parents and 1 little me, the idea of multiples still baffles me. When Brad's family wants to go out to eat, they have to call ahead and make reservations--table for 9 or maybe 11 if my folks come, too. That's still small for some people, I realize, but it's over 300% bigger than what I'm used to. I love it.

Of all the family, there's one grandchild, a curious, outgoing, energetic 6-year-old that I get to call my nephew. My uncles and aunts were awesome when I was growing up and I take inspiration from their investment in my life. Even though we lived 3,000 miles apart, they remembered special days and, most of all, were really "on" and interested whenever I flew across the country or my parents and I made a trip for holidays. For my nephew E, I'm trying to get a sense for the pieces that make up his world--karate, school, cub scouts, football. In first grade, liking your teacher and finding friends are big deals. I figured it was time to see what they were all about...

On Wednesday, I got to travel with my sister-in-law and my nephew E's 1st grade class to the historic Barter Theatre in downtown Abingdon, Virginia for a production of "Jingle All the Way." My first thought is that I can only describe a theatre full of several hundred 6-year-olds as LOUD. But in truth, their sounds guided my ears toward gems of conversation. Gentle, high voices competed with each other with exuberant exclamations: "Look at that big box. That biggest red one, right there in the middle!" and "Did you see the elves? Do you think they have candy?" and "I have to pee!" rang like a Christmas Carol as we waited for the musical to begin.

I'm no theatre buff, but I do know narrative and I love a good tune--so let me just say that in less than an hour, this production delivered balanced doses of humor, action, hyperbole, cheer, and that good ol' holiday spirit (which includes a requisite dose of cheese). In a small town, in a small theatre, you might expect that one of the actors or actresses would be the "weak spot." Or perhaps, that at least someone would sing slightly flat or sharp. But through and through, this cast of six stayed in step. They were not just pleasantly in tune, they were marvelously musical and gifted. Sparkles (Kelly Strand) and Glitzy (Annie Simpson) sang remarkably high and fast, enunciating like it was easy (which I'm sure it wasn't). They smiled like Olympic ice skaters, grins evident from my back row seat. Santa Claus (Joseph Matthew Veale) revealed a more complex character, not just the "jolly" St. Nick we've come to expect. Tick Tock (Sean Michael Flattery) acted through a likewise complex set of emotions (I especially enjoyed his "flashback" to the hand injury) and played the part well. Jingle (Hope Quinn) and Jangle (Michael Vine) offered delightful duets and the kind of Broadway glee that's hard to take your eyes off of. Notably, whether through careful direction or self-restraint, Quinn's ability to exude an operatic pitch-perfect melodious bellow was used wisely--and by that I mean that her booming talent appeared when necessary, but did not dominate, as appropriate to the narrative and overall stage direction.

But perhaps the real show happened just outside the Barter Theatre's doors when the audience was released to return to their school buses and minivans and SUV's, hellbent on Chik-fil-A and hand sanitizer. Adults squeezed through the doors to the theatre in an attempt to exit toward the lobby. A human traffic jam quickly formed. The source of the hold up? A little boy with a nametag that read Charlie. As soon as he spotted the actor Santa Claus, he rushed up to him with an urgent message. His pale cheeks and chapped, pink lips made his plea appear all the more pressing as he addressed Mr. Claus with all the focus and intention he could muster. I watched as the line backed up, adults confused about why they couldn't get out. I watched as the Elves listened over Santa's shoulder to little Charlie, making his plea. He talked and talked, admirably unaware of the world and its schedules and lines and open doors letting cold air rush into the lobby. About mid-way through his wish list, a toddler (perhaps Charlie's brother) waddled into Santa's arms, pressing his face into Santa's costume. But Santa was not distracted, nor was Charlie. The two locked eyes and the wishing continued. What could possibly be so important, I wondered? But the noise of the crowd made it impossible to hear.

Later, as buses of 1st graders pulled up to Chick-fil-A and unsuspecting adults on their lunch break soon realized the chaos that was about to descend (for my part, I had flashbacks to my public high school cafeteria, a place I prefer to forget)...I saw that little boy Charlie again. Nearby, his mother sat with other parents, eating her lunch. When I asked her what Charlie's wish had been, she told me he asked Santa for "a remote control with 1 button on it that makes everyone in the world fly when you push it."

On the heels of "Jingle All the Way," which longs for "the good old days" and preaches the ills of sugar addiction, I found Charlie's wish hopeful. (Side note: For "dessert," a whispy-haired woman in a Chik-fil-A apron handed out peppermint candies to the ironic ending given Jangle's addition to said candy in the play we'd just seen.) Today's youth grow up with iPods and hearing about IEDs. They're plugged in and all the while, we're fighting war(s). I see many adults either plugged in next to them, or scratching their heads about how to "measure" a child's attentiveness and presence of mind in the digital age. But the imagination still runs wild. Some dreams and visions are still what they always were--the chance to fly, the chance to watch the world change one button and one little wish at a time. I jingled all the way home, plugged in the Christmas tree lights, and felt good about the world.

Dec 8, 2014

Jogging Writer: First 10K Race - 2014 XTERRA Rocky Top

After four days of rain, I woke on Saturday morning to...more rain! Determined to race anyway, Brad and I piled into the car in early daylight and headed for Bays Mountain Park. The Race, sponsored by Fleet Feet in Kingsport, TN, was held in a city park that has over 39 miles of trails and a reservoir. I didn't feel as nervous the moments before this race as I felt before my first 5K, and having Brad there as well as getting to start out with my running friend Zan really helped. Zan is 57 and has been running for many years. He's easy-going and genuine and when I asked if he'd run a 5K and 10K with me, he agreed. We run at our own paces, of course, but something in me wanted to be accountable to another runner in the same race, and the invitation rolled off my tongue before I really even thought through this whole "running" thing. Zan was a great comfort as we stood in the soggy trail waiting for the race to start.

I'd like to be that funny writer who expounds in great narrative detail about the lessons learned on my first 10K race day...but the early morning start to the race two days ago got me off schedule, then the celebratory pizza and soy ice cream threw me off that night (I don't eat much sugar, usually), then travel to Celo got me off my work schedule, and last night the full moon left me howling through fitful sleep. All the same, let's give it a try...

It's good to know these things, and now I do:

  • That you pin your racing bib on with 4 safety pins (not 2)
  • That you leave the rain jacket behind and rely on wicking clothing and your own body temperature
  • That you wear a hat to keep the water out of your eyes
  • That even in a points qualifying race people tend to be courteous
  • That lots of people show up wearing neon compression calf warmers and this doesn't necessarily mean they're Santa's elves on crack
  • That slick conditions are a good excuse to take it easy and have fun while still working hard
  • That you're not the only person who gets the running shits.

The running shits. Let's talk about that for a minute, because no one else seems to be addressing it. If runner's books are going to be as invasive and personal as to demand you evaluate your own body fat with calipers, why don't they also have a chapter called Race Day Running Shits? I know I'm not the only person who prefers to poo before a run and, based on the 22-minute line I stood in to go to the bathroom before the race, I also know I'm not the only one who gets a little nervous on race day and has to, with that.

Bodily functions aside, I was mostly pleased with my run because I finished, didn't fall, and had a good time. I was slightly displeased with my time, but I'm currently trying to figure out what distance I actually ran (more on that below), so I can't fully understand that disappointment as of yet. It was cold and wet and the course was hilly and completely covered in leaves. Wet, muddy, leaves--every single inch of the ground--just covered. Around mile 4, I started craving water and an apple--the first time I've really had a craving on a run like that--and I spent much of mile 4 at a very slow jog with my head bent and my arms pumping as I moved slow as molasses up the hills. A thickly-muscled woman about my age in a Cross Fit shirt (she had no hips, it was really quite amazing to run behind her and watch how legs move when a person has no hips) passed me on all the uphills, and in turn I'd pass her on the flats and downhills. At one point, I came across some runners actually walking (this is more common than I realized) and the Cross Fit woman hustled past them and let loose a warrior cry through the fog. "YOU GOT THIS!" was all I could make out, but I appreciated it. Like cattle caught in a storm, we responded to her bellow and collectively picked up the pace--the walkers starting to run again and the slow uphillers like me taking slightly longer strides.

I guessed that I must be somewhere near the end of the medium paced running pack, or at the front of the slow pack. I ran much of the race with plenty of elbow room, leap-frogging with the same six or eight people. I seem to find myself around 50-something men around 5'8" or 30-something women with bricks for muscles. I consider them good company. But during that mile 4...during that hill...something happened. I lost internal steam. I knew I'd finish and I knew I could push harder, but I just didn't do it. Why not? I'm still not sure. Yes, my hamstrings were objecting to the steepness and the cold. Yes, I was being cautious because I didn't want to injure myself. But where was that inner umph that I'd felt just four weeks prior when completing a test run on my own?

Then there was the distance thing, which I mulled over and over again in my head as I raced. I was running a 10K which is 6.2 miles. But there were also Half Marathoners competing that day, and they were told to run "two loops." We all started together and ran the exact same path and finished at the exact same finish line, but the 10Kers stopped at one loop and the Half Marathoners stopped at 2 loops...See the problem? A Half Marathon is 13.1 miles, so half of that is actually 6.55 miles. Did I run long or did the Half Marathoners run short? In this business of points, qualifying, personal records, and entry fees, that's not a discrepancy that anyone takes lightly.

In all the happiness of finishing the race, I forgot to ask officials about this on race day. I've emailed the race sponsor and will call Fleet Street running store later today. My time for Saturday's Rocky Top XTERRA 10K was 1:20:45. I placed 6th in my age group and 45th overall. Official results are posted here. My personal record for a 10K is 1:07:54 and before I began training, I ran one at about 1:20:00. So you can see why I felt a little disappointed by my time...but also a little disoriented. It's possible I ran more than 1/4 mile longer than necessary. It's also possible my pedometer is off. I know I moved slowly in the rain, but I thought I'd do at least a little better than that. Still--I finished with a fast sprint and a smile and have the bib, t-shirt, muscle, and memory to prove it!

Onward to half marathon training...yowzah!