Guest Post, Jonathan Duckworth: When the Hell Are We?

Some Thoughts on Flashbacks in Fiction

Let me begin by saying that I will never claim to be an expert in anything pertaining to narrative craft, only someone who enjoys reading and writing and has done a good deal of both.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to talk about an essential feature of fiction, one of the first devices that any beginning writer learns about: the flashback. In the fictionist’s (fictionista’s?) arsenal, flashbacks are possibly the most important weapon of a writer. Without flashbacks, a story is forced to mimic the limited trajectory of human experience: only moving forward into time. I’m sure there are great stories that don’t use any flashbacks, but I can’t imagine many of them are longer than a single scene, and even stories that don’t have obvious “he thought back to that distant day” (more on that later) transitions that mark out flashbacks often do flashback in subtler, briefer ways. Any dialogue that features characters speaking about prior events counts as a flashback, even the briefest memories that occur to characters are flashbacks. The reason we don’t always notice these is that when done right, flashbacks are unobtrusive.

A good flashback fluidly transposes us from one point in time to another: can seamlessly transport us from a disappointing family dinner of skinless chicken and peas and mashed potatoes (not touching each other, of course) to the chaff-clogged grain silo in Kansas where the character shared her first kiss with a corn-fed boy who could best be described as “Ned Flanders-hot.” Now, this is not to say that obvious flashbacks can’t be good, but I’d say the odds of a flashback being successful decreases the more clunky and noisy its execution.

Ways that flashbacks can be “noisy” include the following:

-Obvious transitional phrases like “that reminded him” or “she was transported back to the time”

-Ending flashbacks with some variation of the awful “he/she was shaken from her memories by a sudden noise” maneuver

I’m not saying I’ve never done these things in my own writing, but I try to avoid them if I can, and when I see them in fiction I tend to grouse a bit.

I don’t want you to think that all “obvious” flashbacks are bad. One of my favorite examples of a flashback comes in the opening sentence of my favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

This is not only a flashback but a flashforward, seamlessly transporting us between two—possibly three—time periods and simultaneously “spoiling” an event that comes later in the novel without actually telling us anything important (spoiler: the Colonel doesn’t die from the firing squad but does die later on from old age). This flashback derives its elegance from the beauty of the language and also the striking juxtaposition between a soldier facing a firing squad and him as a child experiencing a formative moment with his father.

Pet Peeves with Flashbacks

I have two main pet peeves when it comes to writing flashbacks in addition to those already covered above.

First, and perhaps most aggravating, is the use of dreams to convey flashbacks. This is an overused trope in many kinds of fiction, and even when it’s done well it annoys me. News flash: people don’t dream in complete memories, or at least no one I know does, and I’d question diet and sleeping habits of anyone who does. Dreams are not perfect portals into memory, they are more suggestive and elusive than that, and their place in fiction shouldn’t be as mere avenues of flashbacks when there are more straightforward ways to show us characters’ memories. An example of a good use of dream as flashback comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where in a dream Raskolnikov recalls a moment from childhood when a horse collapsed in front of him and an entire street full of people began to beat it in an attempt to get it moving again. The violence of the episode is likely embellished and exaggerated by the dream, but as a memory it shows us Raskolnikov’s empathy.

The second is a phenomenon I mostly see employed in genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, the odd detective story) where writers use italics to render flashbacks. An example of this comes from one of Jim Butcher’s (normally an excellent prose stylist) Codex Alera fantasy series, where he rendered a multi-page scene all in italics simply because it took place in the past, separate from the main timeline of narrative action. There are a number of reasons why this is bad and wrong, but the foremost reason is that reading an entire paragraph or page in italics can be murder on tired eyes, and that using italics for an entire passage misses the point of italics: that they are for emphasis. The other chief reason is that I suspect the use of italics to denote a flashback says two things about the author, neither of which are particularly good. Either the author lacks confidence in their own ability to communicate to their readers that they’re reading a flashback, or the author thinks the reader is an idiot.

And of course, we never want to think our readers are idiots–if you approach your writing that way, you’ve already failed.

Contributor Update: Michael Henson

Cover for Maggie BoylanToday we are pleased to share news about past SR contributor Michael Henson. Michael’s upcoming book Maggie Boylan is available for preorder from Ohio University Press here. Of the author, Amy Greene, author of Long Man and Bloodroot, says:“Michael Henson is one of the finest authors of literary fiction writing today. His Maggie Boylan stories give voice to those among us who are seldom heard. Maggie Boylan is an important work of art, beautifully rendered.”

The Girl Who Spoke Foreign” by Michael Henson can be read in Issue 10 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Michael!

 

#ArtLitPhx: “Cli-Fi Bodies, Heart-Born Worlds” with Lidia Yuknavitch

 

National bestselling author Lidia Yuknavitch presents her talk “Cli-Fi Bodies, Heart-Born Worlds” First Friday, March 2nd, 2018 in the Whiteman Hall at the Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85004) at 7:00 p.m.

A growing number of contemporary Cli Fi novels are changing what we mean when we say dystopian fiction—Station Eleven, Borne, American War, Future Home of the Living God, and The Book of Joan are all examples where authors are asking how we might radically reinvent our relationship with the planet, each other, and ourselves. What if we loved the planet the way we claim to love our partners or children? What if being meant understanding our existence as relational to eco-systems and animals? What if that stuff we are made of, the matter of the cosmos and universe, isn’t as “out there” as we pretend; what if the stories inside of us, including our biology and physiology, our consciousness and emotions, have everything to do with what is around us? What if parallel universes or timelines—as reflected in new scientific discoveries as well as ancient indigenous forms of knowing—are informing our present tense? New directions in narrative help us ask more interesting questions about ourselves and the world—or worlds—we inhabit.

You can find out more information about about the event at at the Virginia G. Piper Center website and tickets here, but here are a few more details:

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the National Bestselling novels The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction as well as the Reader’s Choice Award, the novel Dora: A Headcase, and three books of short stories. Her widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice. She founded the workshop series Corporeal Writing in Portland Oregon, where she also teaches Women’s Studies, Film Studies, Writing, and Literature. She received her doctorate in Literature from the University of Oregon. She lives in Oregon with her husband Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son, Miles. She is a very good swimmer.

 

Contributor Update: Terese Svoboda News

Terese SvobodaWe are excited to share that Terese Svoboda will be reading some new poetry along with Dennis Nurske at Local 138 on February 10, 2017. Terese has several other upcoming events such as The Lives of Others: Biography as Creative Nonfiction panel at AWP on March 10, 2018, and celebrating the paperback of  Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet at Book Culture with Ajay Chaudhary on March 12, 2018. For more information and events with Terese we recommend visiting her events page at teresesvoboda.com.

Terese’s appearance in Superstition Review begins with an interview in issue 5. She has contributed several guest posts, and has been part of our SR Pod/Vod Series, which can be found hereMadonna in the Terminal, a fiction piece by Terese, can be read in issue 7.

#ArtLitPhx: Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference

The Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference is three days of craft talks, panels, workshops and presentations at Arizona State University. With more than 50 sessions from over 25 faculty members in multiple genres and fields, the goal is to provide writers with opportunities to make personal and professional connections, advance their craft, and deepen their engagement with the literary field. View the full conference schedule here.

About the conference from the host, The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing:

“We are committed to creating an accessible and inclusive space for writers of all backgrounds, genres, and skill levels. Conference faculty and programming encompass many genres which can often go under served in the literary field, including Young Adult, Science-Fiction/Fantasy, Crime Fiction, Translation, Graphic Novels, Hybrid, and more.

Special topics like climate change, social justice, and other contemporary issues also feature prominently.

Publishing, editing, agents, and other aspects of the business of publishing are included as well.

Beyond sessions, attendees can also participate in receptions, discussion groups, after-hour socials, and other opportunities to connect with fellow conference-goers, develop relationships, and build community.”

The 2018 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference will take place from Thursday, February 22 through Saturday, February 24. Writers of all backgrounds and experience levels are encouraged to attend. Register here.

Authors Talk: Jack Garrett

Today we are pleased to feature author Jack Garrett as our Authors Talk series contributor. Jack attempts to understand his story “What Are You Doing?” by self-interview.

From the punctuation in the story’s title to the length of the lines to Jack’s singing voice, no part of the story is left unquestioned. What inspired Jack to create the story’s characters? Does Jack enjoy living alone? How do we know when we know something or someone? Such breadth makes this Authors Talk an interesting change of pace and a unique look into Jack’s work.

You can read and listen to Jack Garrett’s story, “What Are You Doing?” in Superstition Review, Issue 19.

Contributor Update: Douglas Light

Cover for Where Night Stops by Douglas LightToday we are excited to announce that past contributor Douglas Light will be releasing his latest novel Where Night Stops. The book will be released January 16th, 2018 from Rare Bird Books but is available for pre-order from Amazon now.

Our interview with Douglas Light can be read in Issue 9 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Douglas!