lessons from a distance

lessons from a distance

A Lesson with Kim Magowan

Last July, a couple of my writer friends and I were feeling stuck, unable to get stories off the ground, or even to imagine how to begin them. So we decided to do a six hour flash marathon, where from 6 AM to noon (PST—Michelle Ross and Yasmina Din Madden are on different time zones) we would take turns emailing each other prompts, write madly for an hour, then put the new, messy, raw thing aside to begin a new prompt. That wild, speedy churning out of material produced for me three awful things (wet clay keeling over on the pottery wheel), but also three first drafts that I shaped into flash stories I published. So, one piece of my “lesson” here is to team up with a couple of writer friends, circulate prompts, and try for yourselves this Tasmanian Devil-style whirlwind writing. It’s tailored for the kind of remote contact and social distancing in which we’re all currently enmeshed. See if you can pull anything glittery out of the dust storm. Below I’ll include two of the prompts; make of them what you will!

Triptych/ “Anagram”

One of my all-time favorite stories by brilliant flash goddess Kathy Fish is “Three Likely Stories.”


Kathy’s story works for me almost like a fiction version of a sestina, or a narrative anagram: I’ve never seen anything quite like it. What I mean by an “anagram” is that each “panel” of this triptych (each “likely story”) includes the same elements, but the elements get rearranged and repurposed. They emerge, familiar but strange, in the next story “panel,” but with some crucial change made that alters the next step, skewing the story in some unpredictable direction. The thing extracted from a pocket morphs from keys (first story) to gum (second story) to a gun (third story).

Here’s the list of elements in “Three Likely Stories”:

*  three characters (a man, a waitress, a cook)
*  setting: a diner
*  a peach
*  something extracted from a pocket
*  a mess on the floor that needs to be mopped
*  “Well, shit, I just finished mopping” (dialogue)
*   “You wasted my peach” (dialogue)
*  a moment of intimate contact between two of the characters
*  the third character watches this contact

So, here’s the prompt. First, compile a short list of elements that you will recycle and rearrange in a story that splits into thirds. You need three characters, a setting (not all of the story needs to be “set” here, but the setting needs to cast its shadow over each panel), two or three important objects, and a condition (like the “mess on the floor” in Kathy’s story).

My list for the story this generated came from a prompt Yasmina gave Michelle and me that same marathon morning called “Title/ Subtitle”. Yasmina gave us a title (“It Always Ends This Way”) and a list of subtitles. The two subtitles that snagged my attention were “At the beach” and “Jam Jar.” My first crack at writing a Kathy Fish-style triptych had horribly crashed, but armed with Yasmina’s title list, I was able to develop a new set of images to scramble and rearrange:

*  Three characters (a woman, her brother-in-law, her sister)
*  setting: beach
*  condition: sunburn
*  jam jar
*  bubble wrap

With humbled awareness of how poorly my own story stacks up against Kathy Fish’s ingenious one, here’s the triptych that exercise generated.



Bedtime story

One of my favorite stories we published last year in Pithead Chapel is this gem by Al Kratz, “The Slippery Footed Man.”


This prompt is a loose one: feel free to use anything that grabs you about this superb story. Here are some things I love about Al Kratz’s piece:

—The complicated “step” relationship. Note in Kratz’s story the intriguing collusion between the narrator and his stepson. Lately I keep writing about step-families, and part of what I find so fascinating about the step relationship is its contingency, the way it forces strangers into intimate proximity. That proximity can be surprisingly affectionate and warm: it’s clear in this story that the narrator adores his stepson.

—The monster theme. Who is the intruder? Who is the protector? What is under the bed? I love how in this story that typical location for where the monster hides in a child’s room—under the bed—gets brilliantly repurposed.

—The late reveal. This story clicks together in the last third, which entirely rewrites the story we think we’ve been reading. To return to the monster under the bed, it turns out in the story there is (or was) a real domestic threat, aimed at the bed, and on some subconscious level, the child intuits this.

This is the story I wrote during that flash marathon inspired by Al Kratz’s. It’s a dialogue masquerading as a monologue, because the stepchildren’s questions and responses to their stepmother’s story are erased from the page. You’ll see that I was inspired by Al’s secret story, the story that emerges at the end, the story “under” and “about” the bed.


Happy writing, all!

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapelwww.kimmagowan.com

Artwork by: Raphaël Menesclou