How did you read when you were a child? I read the backs of cereal packets and shampoo bottles with the same hope for something interesting as I did The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I am sure I was not alone in this. I’d suck down poetry (like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes), a simple book on art theory, a book with things in pockets, a book on how faith and evolution could be reconciled, an illustrated dictionary cover to cover, a book with handwritten lettering curling over the pages. It was all words, and they were exciting, for the worlds they gave me and the thoughts I had about them and the daydreams and the jolts of fear or disgust—and I didn’t need to know what sort of form something took to feel the various joys of reading it. Perhaps you, as a child, read just as indiscriminately. Then something may have happened.
Here it is: You know what you like. You read a particular type of book, but you won’t venture into certain territories, because they are boring, or they are Not For You. You don’t “get” poetry. You only get poetry of a certain type. You only read macros on Instagram. You don’t see the point of flash fiction. Short stories are fine (but you haven’t read any all the way through in a few years). Harry Potter inspired your adoration for reading, but nothing has lived up to that thrill. You only read books that your friends have endorsed, since there is a bewildering amount of choices, and lots of disappointment awaits. You hate-read the latest bestseller for tweens or what is categorized as for the horny middle-aged women demographic. Anything non-realist is twee territory; anything realist is so boring it makes your eyes water.
Gone from you is the big drink of childhood reading, replaced with caution, or doubt, or self-doubt, or exhaustion. I get it. We’re all tired. There is not enough coffee growing in little red beads to rejuvenate our weary bloodstreams. We read too much that’s disparate: 20 tabs open, a video playing ASMR in the background, someone sending us a text that just reads “yeah,” but they want—something. Modern life challenges us, and I’ve not come along to bemoan it; we choose what we read, and we can all individually decide if we are reading too much ephemera (or not enough? maybe we need more longform Internet essays in our life?). Who has the energy to engage with books and shorter pieces that require a different set of considerations to evaluate? That are hybrid and confusing or wilfully obtuse? Why not just read what’s a comfort, what seems made for us?
False argument, obviously. I’m saying here, now: writing which is not a comfort is also there for us.
Take a deep breath in.
Set aside the tiredness, and there is, perhaps, a lingering dislike of books that comes not from their contents, but from other people’s expectations of our understanding. The books you loved as a child, on the other hand, you loved because they were your books (whether you owned them or not), and no one, for the most part, expected you to love them, told you to understand them in this way or that. If they did, and you still loved them, chances are you studied English Literature at university. For those who didn’t, it’s worth remembering that there will be no tests, no judgement (unless we read in public—you can’t stop a prying eye or two—but most of us have bedrooms in which we can pick up whatever we like). You don’t have to tell anyone on social media what you are reading. Likewise, you don’t have to read simpler or popular books because they give you ready currency online, or because lots of people keep talking about them. You can read obscure, weird, or difficult stuff without feeling awkward. Because you don’t have to present your opinion to the world on the books you read in a digestible, effusive tweet or a picture of the book next to a mug of tea and an aloe plant. I know you know this, that you don’t have to have an opinion at all. Many voices make reading one type of book or another a performative act that marks you as a member of a particular tribe. But all that needs to exist is you and the words. Because they are yours if you want them.
Yes, even the most discomforting, iciest, troublesome text, the one that is made of a single sentence, the one that is condensed into a drop 400 words deep, the one drummed tight into meter and assonance—these texts are there for us. It’s all for us. Instead of asking us to work hard, either in reading or in self-presentation, writing that is Not For You is only asking you to slow down and manage your expectations.
This holds true of most things we can read with our eyes: If you read slowly, you will get something out of even the most unfamiliar and daunting read. If you read it at all—even if you don’t know what all the words mean, even if the themes elude you—you will have read it. This is what got me and you and every other reader through books when we were still learning our mother or other tongues. Doggedness and sometimes a dictionary. Letting go of what we don’t get, without shame. Nobody’s watching. Sometimes there’s not exactly anything to get, more a feeling to inhabit (aren’t we all watching the new Twin Peaks thinking, no one can give spoiler warnings for this because, well, that would be impossible?), or the writer was playing around with some words, and what’s left on the page is a record of that, to do with what we wish.
The truth of it all is what it always has been: A poem or piece of writing that seems impossibly hard is still your poem. You can’t get it; you pass through it, unbidden, until it’s yours. Might take a few goes, a little sitting with it, but the poem is always yours. Or it isn’t, but at least it was your place of passage for a while. You can have opinions on it, or you can have no opinions on it at all, and this too is fine. You can be silent, knowing you have read the poem, and its lines briefly flickered in your mind. And this is, after all, what the writer of the poem wanted, unless they crumpled the poem up and burned it before anyone could look at it: Writers write for themselves and the reader, and as we all know, books and stories and poems exist in the bridge between their imaginations and yours, and this can be a horror, a wonder, or a simple fact.
I happen to think we can pretty much all engage with anything if we take our time with it, and, to just upend some things I have said, especially so if there’s someone—a textbook, a person on YouTube—to break it up into pieces for us. That’s the plus side of life in the Internet age. Opinions are awful, but also, Knowledge is there to be had, like writing, for everyone. Elitism is a term used by politicians to draw squares around their enemies, to make the rest of us feel like certain things are Not For Us, that certain books, certain poems are Pretentious, which means they Don’t Want Us, are Closed Doors, which means they are Pointless. But that’s all a scam. All writing is for you. If you need time, that’s fine. If it seems impossibly difficult, and you need to look up a bit of it, or abandon it for now and come back to it when your head is in the right place, that’s fine. If you need a guide, that’s okay. If you disagree with the guide, fine. If you need to just close the laptop and squint, that’s fine fine fine. All art is for you. All writing is for us. I’m going to say it til I die. Tired or not, the world crumbling and edged with despots, you have so much of the words open to you, brilliant and difficult and resisting.
To get a little specific in terms of how to read something, or rather how to manage your expectations going in, so that something that feels withholding at first opens its grubby little fist to you, revealing its treasures or its empty, clammy palm: Possibly you don’t worry about this issue of understanding and access, perhaps you’ve never been intimidated or left cold or baffled by anything—in which case I salute you for making it this far through an essay that assumes you have (how off-putting this must have been…). I have thought a bit about one type of writing that is very popular with writers, but less, I think, with readers: the flash fiction.
Plenty of essays and articles exist on the writing of flash fiction—how to sharpen and pare until nothing but a needle of text is left to transport the lightning to the reader’s brainstem. But fewer pieces exist on how to read flash. So here I attempt it. All of my thoughts here are only suggestions, of course. They come from a place of love, but also a place of never again wanting to read a criticism with my own two eyes that begins “this was too short” or “this could so easily have been made into a longer story.”
Flash fiction is so short, micro, sudden. It is easy to skim through and to think, is that all? But brevity doesn’t suggest a lack of things to say, but rather that saying things in a condensed space allows particular words and phrases to take on more weight than they would in a baggier text. Between the starting point,(generally at the top of the page) and a stopping point (somewhere about a thousand or five hundred or thirty words down) is the space you are given in which to live out a moment, an atmosphere. You are being asked by the writer to take one side of an active part in creating a world from the details they have provided (slight as they may be), asked to charge the language with all the associated meanings that you bring with you.
What am I looking at? Language use in very short fiction has a kinship with poetry, but folk keep trying to read and evaluate it like a paragraph from a realist novel. Attend to the language of flash fiction in a more open-hearted way, less unsettled by unconventional grammar or word usage, as you would be in longer pieces, taking it for a sign of failure. These choices are, by any writer who has been published and edited (almost all writers you will read, then) are just that: careful choices. The language might be opaque and tricksy, or it may be realist, apparently straightforward. Unlike in much realist fiction, there may be uses of techniques like repetition, or even a few line breaks thrown in to add tension. But unlike say, poetry, there is always something happening. I am not saying this as a diss on poetry. Flash fiction is distinct from the similar-looking prose poem in that, in flash, narrative is possible, whereas in prose poems there is less that can easily be understood as a story. In flash there is some path through, an advancement, a shift from one way of thinking to another. Sometimes, though, a flash fiction and a prose poem might be identical, and it’s just a matter of a label stuck on where none needs to be there. Read it regardless, paying heed to the language. Go along the path until the path turns to leaves and bear traps in the undergrowth, and keep going.
There may be metatextual elements that are at first hard to identify as such—flash is a form that is new, and peripheral. Often a writer links their work into the larger literary tradition by including a call-out, a fragment from another poem or a reference to a book, painting or film in order to expand the allusive landscape of their piece. This can be puzzling, even alienating when the reference isn’t one you know—in the small space of the flash, with the limits imposed on the language, a fleeting reference can easily become dreamlike, the word that slips your tongue. If something fails to connect with you, consider that even a gap in comprehension can tell you something about what you know and don’t, what the writer assumes, and allow space for you to germinate other, unexpected connections. You can still be moved or challenged by a line that you don’t fully grasp. For me this challenging happens a lot when I go to a modern art gallery—I know very little about the history or context or theory of paintings, but sitting with an image for a while, something coalesces in my head, and I go away with an expanded, private feeling—and even if that feeling is mostly frustration, the art has done something with me.
Like all art, flash really needs to be dwelled in, mulled over, frowned at a while, in order to appreciate all the elements that have been layered within it. And the words are meant to crackle with all the words that are not written around them. By this I mean they are as much about what is left out as what has been highlighted. In a painting, the place in which an object appears in the canvas—on the background or foreground—changes how you might understand it. A limited color pallet draws a particular mood. You don’t have to take a scholarly approach to this picking over. Consider, if you have difficulty with a particular flash, some more radical options:
- Print out several copies of the flash on edible rice paper. Read the flash, then eat the paper you have read. Take the next rice paper, read the flash. Consume the words slowly, letting them melt on your tongue. Do this again. Ignore the lengthening stares of your flatmates.
- Message a former colleague via your preferred medium. Make it a person with whom you had an awkward relationship based no more on what plans they had for the weekend and whether they had finished that big report they were working on. Say, can I send you something? And if they say yes, take a picture with your phone of the flash that is bothering you. Send it to them. Wait for their reply. Consider all that they do not say in that reply. Read the flash again.
- Read the flash aloud to the pet who is least tolerant of your behavior. Note their reactions, if any. Note the feeling of the words in your mouth as you say them. See the ways in which your understanding shifts, wonder if your cat is hiding some great literary criticism in its small mouthings of the single word it gives you in response. Read the flash again. If the dog leaves, consider chasing after it, reading the flash again in a more upbeat, “fetch the stick!” sort of tone.
Finally, you will have read the flash. You may not have fully absorbed it yet, but it has been there, with you. You have animated the flash in your head—the essential thing in order for writing to exist is for readers to read it. You can always come back to the flash, read it again, like the piece is a spell that your reading incants. Before you turn the page, or close the tab, allow the piece to expand through you, like a drop of tint blooms through a jar of water. All I write is for you. All you read is for you.
Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, won the Saltire First Book of the Year in 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, was published in 2017. She can be found @HelenMcClory. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.