Barry Yourgrau: My Go-To Flash Fiction Author

9780385313766Almost every autumn, I facilitate a two-hour workshop for high school students that explores and encourages the writing of extremely short fiction. Through nearly a decade of iterations, this workshop has evolved, expanded to encompass Mac vs. PC commercials and Ben Loory’s “The Girl in the Storm”, while contracting to only mention rather than consider the stories of Alan Lightman and David Eagleman. But even with all the exciting new developments in short-form media (the advent of hint fiction, resurgence of interest in short films, etc.), I always have my students read and discuss work by Barry Yourgrau, a pioneer of flash fiction who excels at telling adventures in mere pages or even paragraphs and is a master at mixing the mundane with the magical. Maybe you’ve never heard of him. He seems to be often overlooked, and if it weren’t for one evening over ten years ago, I too might never have heard of him.

514ZP725MELI don’t remember how I ended up there; it was probably mentioned by my creative writing instructor. But what matters is that I did end up there, at a most delightful and extraordinary event for his book The Haunted Traveler in the MIT Media Lab building, where Barry Yourgrau embarked us upon a safari into a realm of literature I’d only glimpsed, acquainting me with a place so enchanting I have never since left. Throughout that evening, over and over, mere minutes with his words would bring me deeply into, through and, before I knew it, out of some strikingly peculiar situation, perhaps humorous, definitely relatable. A man stalking a woman with Cupid in tow, the relationship between a ghost and the music teacher he comes to love, the strife ensuing from furtively watching the dreams of sleeping lover. These stories were uniquely, marvelously enthralling, only roughly characterizable from past experiences as something and nothing like Roald Dahl meets Edward Gorey meets O. Henry. And I was hooked. There was then little choice but to become a denizen of Barry Yourgrau’s universe of mini-worlds that foray into varied topics from familial relationships and perilous travel to romantic affairs and monsters. So many of their scenes and escapades are too good not to share with avid readers and aspiring writers. Continue reading

Hazardous Substances

The shock waves rocked several city blocks and could be heard from miles around, but fortunately there were no injuries—to people, that is. The negative emotions containment facility had been evacuated expediently at the first sign of trouble, all safety precautions enacted without delay. And while those precautions ultimately could not prevent the blast and its ensuing conflagration, they did contain it and ensure the wellbeing of the community. I was asleep at the time, but my roommate woke me up after hearing the frightening boom resound throughout the city. Together, we watched the news coverage on the television, which he had immediately turned on to find out the source of this thunderous sound. On the glowing screen before us, we saw the raging flames of the monstrous firestorm engulfing what was left of the facility and the surrounding wooded hills, the blaze reaching up high into the starry sky. Behind the reporters, containment teams were working furiously to bring it under control with hoses blasting chemically treated water. By morning, it was over, leaving the charred skeleton of the facility, burnt up forests full of ash and clouds of dark smoke hanging over them, blown slowly east by the wind to the plains upon which they would later rain their caustic waters.

The storage facility was situated on the outskirts of the city, placed in such a remote location in case anything like this ever happened. It was designed as a holding station for hazardous human substances before they could be properly disposed of at the treatment facility, which despite operating at maximum capacity, was always overrun dealing with these environmentally and socially destructive materials. It was meant as a temporary measure to safely house these things until another treatment facility could be constructed. Continue reading

The Time of Heroism

I still remember that morning when the incredible, astonishing truth was revealed to us, the truth you have come to know so intuitively and intimately. I watched it live on the wall-mounted television, sitting silently with my peers in the company cafeteria, the air still and cold, some of us sipping coffee. After some introductory remarks (dominated by the discouraging conditions of the economy, the nation’s morale and the environment; yes, in that order), our leader announced this simple, defining, revolutionary fact. We are all heroes. More precisely, we are all latent heroes, all capable of championing myriad causes, each in our own way. It was a shocking revelation, one long suppressed by generations of oligarchic rule for fear that this crucial knowledge would jeopardize their power. But now they realized they were in desperate need of heroics, to undo the dilapidation their elitism had incurred on us all.

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Salad, Savagely

My friend eats her salad savagely, like she’s been stranded on a remote island without salad, or any conventional food for that matter, for days or weeks. With supreme unconcern for etiquette, she devours the lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and croutons eagerly, voraciously, viciously. She’s still using her fork but in a rather grotesque manner, like she’s invented a new way to be barbaric with silverware. It’s quite unbecoming, especially with the hat she’s wearing. A perfect example of discomplementarity, in fact. The hat and her salad-eating are just repulsive in their spatial and temporal juxtaposition, simply aesthetically odious in combination.

But for the sake of our friendship, I keep these opinions to myself.

She looks up at me, her lips slathered with ranch dressing, her fork suspended in the air at a hideous angle, an obscene amount of salad components affixed to the prongs. I wince at the horrendous sight. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to notice this irrepressible manifestation of my disgust.

“Halogen lamps?” she mumbles, intermittently revealing a mouth- ful of chunky, partially manducated vegetarian hodgepodge with her words.

“Yeah, I like them better than ordinary incandescent ones,” I reply, averting my eyes from the appalling mess.

“But the…energy consumption is…still quite high,” she says, her enunciation still hampered by her continued mastication of salad.

“Well, I know, but I can’t quite get used to the feel of fluorescent lighting in certain places,” I tell her, then take a sip of my espresso.

“Mmmnnn,” she murmurs.

I can’t tell if her utterance is in response to my remark or the salad. I’m about to overlook it, but I start to sense an air of condescension about it, disapproval or even scorn towards my choice of lighting. Maybe this feeling is just my imagination, but it bothers me nonetheless.

What?” I can’t stop myself from saying rather confrontationally.

“That piece of radish was just awful. Clearly several days too old,” she says, jabbing at the remaining greens with evident vexation.

I’m glad to hear the salad is the object of her irritation, but then I start to think I’d rather be the one who has irked her. She’s clearly paying more attention to the salad than me. And I realize that I’ve never been subjected to her savageness and further realize, reluctantly, that maybe I would like to be, just once. To glimpse what lies beyond our very civil relationship.