Oct 6, 2015


I've been waiting for today since April, when I first learned that my work was being considered for the Queen's Ferry Press Best Small Fictions anthology. Today, the 2015 collection launches and if ever there were a time to buy it, that time is now. A few clicks and this book's ratings will go up, word will spread, and you'll have in your hands one of the very best collections of short fiction around. Buy indy through bookstores like this one, or buy online through Amazon--whatever suits your fancy or your wallet--and then sit back and enjoy what I know is going to be a historically notable collection of top-notch work.

My flash fiction story "The Last Thing They Might Have Seen," published last year in KYSO Flash, was nominated for consideration in this anthology and made it all the way to the list of 105 finalists. Even here, to have a story listed alongside the likes of legendary Stuart Dybek, for instance, felt quite exciting. From this list, 2015 judge Robert Olen Butler read blindly and chose 55 stories to be published in THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2015, and while my story was not selected, my name does appear as a finalist on the back of the book.

But what excited me even more about this collection is the fact that it serves as a great entry point for those writers new to flash fiction, as well as a trustworthy source for diverse voices for those writers practiced in the form. If you're looking for top-notch, current flash fiction, this anthology is the book to order. Teaching a class? Become familiar with the form, get introduced to great writers, and enjoy the broad spectrum of stories as you explore which pieces you might want to use in your classroom.

Want more info? Here's the official press release, and follow publisher Queens Ferry Press on Twitter or like the BSF FB page for updates on readings near year. Have you had a story published in the last year that you think is worthy of nomination? Have you read one published elsewhere that knocked your socks off? Notify the editors of those publications and encourage them to make their nominations for next year's collection now.

Oct 2, 2015

Flashes of War at the US Air Force Academy (part 2)

Continuing the conversation from earlier this week, I want to share some of my encounters with the cadets during my visit to the United States Air Force Academy. This blog is somewhat like a public sketchpad for my writing life. When I'm really trying to understand a new idea, I may go on a little long. Next week, we'll be back to regularly scheduled programming. Promise.

This trip has been full of "firsts" for me, not the least of which was my first time critiquing a teaching writer's work in front of his own students. My gracious main point of contact at the Academy shared three of his flash fiction drafts and asked me to select one for critique. He then shared the marked-up draft with his students and when we gathered for class, his story was the topic at hand. I have no doubt the cadets respected their professor's vulnerability in this regard, as did I.

When we reached an opportunity to talk about Flashes of War, the cadets in this non-majors class wanted to know about "the most common mistakes" early flash fiction writers make. (I told them new flashers take on a topic or timeframe that's too big, or that they fail to realize what's "at stake" for their characters and to show that on the page by way of reaction.). They wanted to know how I conducted the research that lead to Flashes of War. They wanted to know "how long it takes" me to write 3 pages. (Thirty-six years, a.k.a. the number of years I've been on the planet!) And they wanted to know which of my own stories was my "favorite." To this last point, I told them (half-heartedly) that they should all just buy my book and then give it away as a gift when they were done reading it. (Note: Having your stories included in a college course doesn't mean everyone buys your book; it means a lot of people are making photocopies..."Fair Use" constitutes 10% of a book, and many of my stories are online, so there are plenty of freebies out there, though most writers I know wouldn't mind 40 more book sales that could have happened. In my world, the honest-to-goodness honor of being included as required reading in a college course makes up for it, for me...for now.)

This notion of a "favorite" story intrigued me, and rather than tell them what single story of my own to read, I sent them to Steve Almond's "Geek Player, Love Slayer" from My Life in Heavy Metal, which was one of the first short stories I read that really affirmed my belief that anyone could write about anything. If Steve Almond could teach me something about being a woman in my thirties because he wrote so damn convincingly, then surely I could write about war. Our "favorite" stories, then, are those that teach us something unforgettable--and in the case of many writers, those that give us permission to push our own boundaries on the page.

The other two classes I met with were for upperclassmen and mostly (all?) English majors. The first class began with the faculty member saying, "None of you better ask Ms. Schultz what authority she has to write about war," followed by a very succinct explanation of why, before he opened the floor to questions. This was completely unprompted by me and I admired the professor's directness. He wanted to hit the ground running with meaningful conversation. By getting "authorization" summarized at the outset, we were able to do just that.

Immediately, these cadets were ready to go deep into the work. They wanted to know how I choose one word over another in a sentence (this meant I got to talk about verbs, which is basically my favorite thing to talk about other than Gus the Superdog). Another wanted to know about my background in philosophy and how that informs my love for language (this meant I got to talk about the web of words, Socrates, wonder, and the imagination). Another said that she normally "freaks out" when non-veterans write about the war experience, but that she didn't have that response to my work. "They were different; these stories. There was something different about. What was that?" she asked. This opened the door to a conversation about the role of intent in the imagination. If the intent is to indoctrinate, appropriate, or destroy, then that's going to show up in the work--and all of the cadets, I said, surely know when someone is trying to feed them a line of crap or persuade them of something for ulterior motives. I didn't approach Flashes of War with the feeling that I might actually know "what's right" and "what's wrong." I'm glad this young woman was able to see and feel that. There's nothing (other then a contract for my next book!), that I think I want more as a writer, in fact.

Finally, I found an entry point into the topic of growing concern in my own mind: Is the imagination valued at the United States Air Force Academy? I've spent a lot of time thinking about research and the imagination, but it was only this week that I felt prompted to ponder discipline and the imagination. The warm-up to this topic, I'm certain, occurred during my phone conversation with Academy alumnus, veteran, teacher, writer, and go-getter Jay Moad, who I spoke to before my flight. Jay helped me realize that in order to get through to the cadets, I'd need to speak to issues on their trajectory, namely, the fact that they are being trained as future leaders. (There are less kind words besides "leader" for a cadet...such as "premeditated murderer" or "reluctant killer"--two labels I heard off and on during my visit, which startled me.) Jay rightly explained to me that if a cadet wants to be a good leader, he/she needs to be able to relate to and understand those men and women serving around them. How do we relate to people, especially those from different walks of life? By using our imaginations, of course, and I'd add to that, by using empathy.

Furthering that thought, why not meet these people different than ourselves by studying them first in fiction? Why not explore the greats and the contemporaries, then ponder how they did what they did and got it right, and what can be gained from these endeavors? We may not be able to "teach imagination" like we can teach chemistry, but we can nurture its possibility by creating the causes and conditions from which the imagination is born. Tomorrow's leaders should study the "how" of literature not just because "it's something to major in," but because it is, in fact, a life-saving skill

I also told the cadets that if they could understand the men and women they were trying to lead, those people would "work that much harder for them" (Jay's words). Then I told them about my experience on the 6th floor of the library, in a place where apparently no one goes, which also happens to be the only place on campus where I saw obsession and the imagination at their best. "I've only been here a few days," I said, "and I have the feeling you all have discipline down pat." They nodded. A few smiled.

"If you can do formation," one woman said, "then that means you know how to pay attention to details. Details matter."

I told her I couldn't agree more. "But discipline by itself only makes you get really good at doing what's already been done," I said. "Or doing the same thing over and over again. Discipline alone is limiting, and discipline without the imagination is, in fact, a failure."

The cadets didn't balk. They were right there with me, and I'm certain that the open environment this professor has created in his classroom was a big part of that. When I asked them whether or not their training encouraged them to imagine, whether they were learning how to nurture and regard the imagination, and whether they felt that the imagination was valued as a tactical military skill, I was met with a universal shaking of heads. No. No, no, and NO.

"We're taught to 'know our people,'" one young woman said. "But we're taught that that means knowing their names, where they're from, if they have siblings, what their hobbies are, etc. But I guess...." here she paused. "...I guess that's not really 'knowing' someone."

Quite suddenly, we were out of time and class ended. I felt a sense of immediacy; I wanted to grab the bright minds in that room and form a cadet committee devoted to curriculum overhaul, in short--to the possibility of actually teaching someone that real changes begin with unadulterated inquiry and wonder. From there, we apply the imagination and our intelligence to make change happen. Add discipline into the mix and, quite truly, you have the power to change the world for the better. But if we don't know how to smell a rat (a.k.a. an agenda), then we'll never really be able to get to a place of true openness and understanding. And if we found an institution with the agenda that we have a universal right to defend our lives and "our soil" to the death (and sometimes, pre-emptively), can we even gain access to unadulterated inquiry? Can we imagine outside of ourselves just as effectively as we can fly a fighter jet? Can we ever, really, actually, "win"?

I think of Kunduz, Afghanistan, in particular. I think of ISIS. I think if Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. We've built our wall of military might and ambition so high, all we can do is beat our heads against it over and over. How can we possibly see over that wall? How can we venture around it? By imagining, of course, and although I'm writing metaphorically, I hope my intent is clear: We'll die and die again, taking thousands along with us, if today's military leaders and the cadet-leaders of the future don't start thinking like fiction writers, too.

This line of thought is not without flaws, I realize. My view is not all-encompassing. One might, for example, argue that the display I saw of every military-issued [gun? rifle?] since the civil war is, in fact, humankind's imagination at its very best. A meeting of technology and endeavor. Perhaps...but I keep going back to intent...I keep going back to agenda...and while I do believe there can be a "just war," I'm not sure I've seen one executed that way, start to finish.

Fast forward a few hours and a few more classes, and I'm on the 6th floor of Fairchild academic building, looking over the terrazzo. [Rank X] is with me, my host for lunch. He's spent 12 hour shifts in bunkers for months on end, working missile defense drills and waiting at the ready, in the event of a land or air attack over U.S. soil. His smile today, outside the confines of that bunker, is wide and welcoming. Later, I'll meet equally wide smiling officers--some who have moved American cash across deserts and borders, one who transported a captive with a bag over his head, another who agonizes over an upcoming PT test and waistline measurement, another buying diamonds for his wife, another working on an essay for academic publication, and still another who can't say a damn thing about what he did or where. But here, now, with [Rank X], the cadets are lining up for formation on the terrazzo just before lunch. (See the ones jogging in this video? Those are the freshman. They can only jog [never walk] on the outside line of the pavement, they can only carry their backpacks in their left hands [never wear them], can only use certain staircases [not the convenient ones], and cannot speak outdoors unless spoken to, among other notable orders that will change as they progress through their education at the academy).


And here's the view mere moments later, before the cadets march into Mitchell dining facility, a large kitchen which feeds 4,000 growing bodies in under 20 minutes.

I wanted to stop time, overlooking this "garden of gods" filled with "reluctant killers" or "future leaders." I wanted to pull the tape from the reel and watch it fall onto the floor. I wanted to stomp my feet, to shout, to pound the glass with my fists. More than anything, I wanted the sun to stay warm and steady in the sky for a little longer while all those cadets fell out of formation, lounged in the grass, and settled in with a few good books and the permission to imagine beyond. Beyond. And beyond again. Can't you see it? Their blue caps in the grass, their shiny shoes reflecting that crystal Colorado sunlight, the pages turning, turning, and all the smiles of youth lit across their faces like so many lives being saved.

Sep 29, 2015

Flashes of War at the US Air Force Academy (part 1)

It's been an interesting two days, with two more to go, and my mind is buzzing with fragments from the conversations I've been able to have so far during my visit to the United States Air Force Academy. Today's post will focus on the faculty. Friday's will focus on the cadets.

To address the Faculty of the English and Fine Arts Department, I was invited to read a few pieces from Flashes of War and then speak about my process (notably, as a civilian). I decided to begin by reading "While the Rest of America's at the Mall," "With the Burqa," and "Poo Mission." It takes 7 minutes to read these stories and when I feel like I want to introduce folks to the work, this is my go-to triumvirate. (Many had read the book, but not all--their are nearly 35 of them teaching 4 sections [including core classes] to 4,000 cadets.)

I spoke briefly about flash fiction as a form, quoting Charles Baxter who once wrote that "the novel can win you by points but flash fiction has to win you by TKO." I described flash a precise exploration of an intimate moment in time, typically involving a situation that outsizes the character. In my stories, that situation is the wars, but it doesn't always have to be so large. A mother grounding her teenage daughter for a month presents a situation that outsizes the character (of the daughter) and likewise a perfect set-up to write a flash focused on that daughter's reaction to her circumstances. I also described flash as leaning heavily on that reaction; it's the reaction that gives our characters nuance, even in a story that's just 1-3 pages. Reaction, when handled precisely, can reveal that the truth (of our desires, of our predicaments, of our failures, of our potential) is in the immediate details of our lives. That's why flash doesn't have to "go big" and build monumental settings or epic character arcs and plots. It can stick to the small--indeed, bully the reader with the small--and in so doing, evoke the grandiose.

In order to explain "why I write about war" or "how I wrote what I did," two questions I wanted to answer before they were even posed, I paraphrased the epilogue of my book by explaining my interest in language. I showed a brief video I'd made, "Where Research Meets Imagination," and talked about parallel imagery, imagery as gateway, and using researched language and imagery to bring myself to a moment of disconnect. In short, I explained that my process for writing the book became a matter of researching my way toward a moment of disconnect--a moment where I felt speechless, a writer without words--which then prompted me to imagine exactly the right words and scenarios that would enable me to write a story I could believe in.

The questions that came over the course of the next 40 minutes were smart, open, and thoughtful. The fact that I was sitting in a room full of PhD's, many of whom were also high-ranking officers, was not lost on me. Indeed, I confessed that I hadn't taken a literature course since my senior year of high school; I found the English Department at my undergraduate school profoundly intimidating. I know that the USAFA's faculty questions prompted me to talk about doing purposeful work in life. I know I discussed the limitations of discipline (more on this tomorrow). I know there was an inquiry about the people's army and the role of the political on the spectrum of research and the imagination. Others wanted to know about why I felt it was important to get the facts right, even in fiction. We likewise talked about the different "brain" it takes to write flash versus writing a novel. But what I want to talk about in this post is the very first question that came at me, or at least, the very first question that got my heart thrumming: "Did soldiers ever get angry at you for writing these stories?"

This question has come at me, and many other civilian war lit authors, in so many different forms, that you'd think I'd have my response down pat. But here's the thing, and I'll be frank here: It's a question that hints at the endless debate about authority and authorization in fiction, and that debate tires me. The debate also frustrates me, because it has a way of making me feel suddenly very distant from most humans and therefore very isolated. Let me try to explain...

In anticipation of this moment, I'd leaned heavily in the war lit friends I've made over the last 2 1/2 years. Fine folks like Matthew Hefti, Colin Halloran, Emily Graay Tedrow, Jerri Bell, David P. Ervin, Peter Gordon, Ron Capps, Peter Molin, Kayla Williams, Charlie Sherpa, Jay Moad, and Roxana Robinson--all of whom have helped me in one way or another by sharing their thoughts on this topic along the way. I also re-read Roxana's fine essay for The New York Times, titled "The Right to Write." And then I did a few deep breathing exercises, because, honestly, when I have to talk about authority in fiction it makes me feel like the world has failed to value the imagination, and a world without the imagination is a world that is beyond stagnant; it's a world not worth living for.

Maybe that's hypersensitive, but that's the place I go--in my mind and in my heart--when I have to hold the torch and start defending the imagination again, because somehow we've forgotten its power, indeed, it's necessity--not only in great writing, but in the survival of our species. (To be clear: The person who asked me this question, in fact, knows full well about the significance of the imagination; his intent was literal--he wanted to know if I'd run into other people who did not understand the imagination and therefore got angry with me, though that's not how he phrased his question. I answered his question [No, no one got angry, not to my face] and then proceeded to talk about authority in fiction, because that, of course, was the underlying issue at hand.)

How did we get to this place as a nation? Have we always been so literal, so uncertain about something we can't hold or touch? When did discipline trump the imagination? When did the imagination take a back seat in classrooms, in teacher trainings, in tactical military training? What is it, precisely, that we are so truly terrified of--our own minds, our own capabilities? The imagination isn't something to fear; life without it, indeed, a nation or a military run by anyone without it, is damn near the scariest thing I can call to mind. Just yesterday, I saw a 600 year old book in a glass case in the Academy's special collection room. The book details Alexander the Great's "dream set up" for warfare, in which he'd have a high, scaffold-like structure with large birds (which a soldier could ride upon) posted at each corner for overseeing battles. That's the imagination. This room also had early sketches of humankind's fascination with flight, further evidence of dreamers and of the mind at its creative best. The [ranks] who showed me this room had only been in it twice during their 4 years at the academy: once on their tour of the academy, and once by chance (with me, in that moment). They were too busy, they said, to explore a special collection such as this one. I have no doubt they were too busy--they're all working their tails off here--but what if they had been invited to dream for a little while in that room, as part of their curriculum? What if...
From the USAF Academy's aeronautical history collection.

Maybe we do still imagine with our military might. Someone schemed of "man bats" a century ago. Someone likewise schemed of un-manned planes. Now we have drones. Surely that's the imagination at work, you might say, but where's our moral compass that goes along with it? I'm not sure the use of drones is fueled by genuine inquiry--that is, without the intent to indoctrinate or appropriate (or destroy). I don't know...I just don't know, which is why this line of thinking can very suddenly make me to go a dark place and why I didn't say a single word of that previous paragraph in my presentation to the faculty.

Back to the task at hand, in that room, with 35 insanely bright minds waiting on me: I explained that anyone can write anything they want, so long as they have strong writing skills, a willingness to research, effective empathy, and a genuine imagination. I told them I believe that experience isn't the only teacher and that curiosity goes a  long way toward genuine inquiry--which is to say, research infused with a sense of discovery, rather than an agenda to indoctrinate or appropriate. Finally, I expressed that coming at literature from the question of authority was, in fact, to come at it all wrong. Writing, I told them, can have a lot in common with serving your country--both require empathy, integrity, skill, and...yes...the imagination (the ability to think outside the box). At the end of the day, nobody owns the copyright on these skills. Nobody.

How this relates to being a leader in the United States Air Force is something I'll talk about later today, with the cadets. With a little more gusto, I'll talk about that dark place, too, and maybe see where the conversation can take us. Stay tuned...

Sep 25, 2015

On Writing: The 5 S's of Flash Fiction

I'm delighted to share this brief, instructional video with my readers today. This was filmed last February at Interlochen Center for the Arts, an amazing arts center in Michigan where I teach four times a year. Their YouTube channel is full of inspirational videos, including this series of mini-lessons from faculty members like myself. I use this lesson in classrooms ranging from third grade to adult, varying the complexity (and the number of S's, for the younger kids) and the types of examples provided. Short and powerful, just like flash! Here goes: