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

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.