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Musicality and Flash: An Interview with Kimm Brockett Stammen

with Assistant Editor Caroline Beuley



“Musicality is like any other element: when compressed, all the writer's choices are magnified in import.” - KBS

 

In the following interview, Kimm Brockett Stammen talks about her recent publication in Chautauqua, how music has influenced her writing, and gives us some advice for writing flash fiction. Kimm lives in Seattle, has been a concert saxophonist since the age of eleven, and her work has been published in Carve, Atticus Review, Litro, and Cleaver, among many others.

 

You published a flash, “Breakfast on Bainbridge,” in Chautauqua’s most recent digital issue. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write that piece and your process?

I guess "Breakfast" is technically a flash piece, because of the word count. I didn't actually think of it as flash when I was writing it, or even now, actually. To me, it's a story. A rather slow-moving epistolary story, that happened to peak and conclude at the end of one letter, ie the first scene. Although it does depict a single time, place and atmosphere, and there is a "flash" of insight/change/movement in the narrator. Perhaps it's the slow-moving nature of "Breakfast," its tempo, that made me think it's not really "flash". Can you have a slow flash?

Anyway, I wasn't thinking about what it was or might be when I began writing it. This actually began, and, if I have to categorize it, I would say it still fundamentally is a piece of memoir. My husband and I, many years ago, (when we'd only been married 20-ish years) had breakfast in that restaurant on Bainbridge, and we did read the paper in silence for a long time, (The food was really good by the way, and the place is still there, on the main street of Winslow. You should go if you get the chance!) and he did actually interrupt the silence with that exact line, and I did actually start laughing really hard.

And for some reason I wondered how we would appear/sound to an observer, and so the letter-writing guy appeared. I think now I instinctively shied away from writing it as a first-person memoir, because it's basically an ode (in a ridiculous way) to how great our marriage is, and self-congratulation is usually not effective or comfortable.

And now comes my explanation of my "process." (Which always seems the wrong word to me, because it sounds so intentional. Like I know what I'm doing or something. Which I do not.). My process generally involves writing something that is a big mess, working on it a while, getting discouraged and sick of it, and putting it away. And then when I go back to it, often so much later that I don't remember writing it, I somehow have gotten smarter and can revise it much more easily. The draft of "Bainbridge" sat in a file for about twelve years. Then I worked on it and put it away again because it still wasn't good. Then last year sometime I went fishing through my old files (something I often do, because I save everything, even the really stupid stuff) and I found it again, and—voila—I knew how to edit it and what parts to keep. And the Grandma became a character, too, and I understood why the pepper shaker fell over. And then I sent it out and unlike many of my writings, it was accepted quickly. Thank you, Chautauqua!

 

What drew you to flash as a form? What keeps you writing it now?

My attention span tends to be short. If something isn't working, I start something else. Or go back to something that's half-finished. Or re-edit something. Or do laundry. I therefore have a whole lot of unfinished stuff: parts of three memoirs, some portraits, a novella, 3/4 of a second story collection (the first is looking for a publisher, hint hint), many paragraphs with potential, and near-complete short stories about a log house, a blind piano tuner, a guy destroying his dining room, God taking Tuesdays off, two musicians who hate each other driving through northern Canada, and a chair.

Also, I think I fear the commitment involved in a novel or larger work. I think that a novel or larger unified work doesn't reflect or express life as it is actually experienced. Does your life have one main plot and one or two related subplots? Does your life have an overarching theme, is your life organized into one big arc of rising and falling action? I do not think so. Life is a mess of unrelated happenings, and sometimes one of these happenings makes some sense. That seems miraculous, so we want to capture it.

 

You have a background in music—both as a music instructor and concert saxophonist. Can you speak to how music impacts or influences your writing?

Gosh. I am not sure that I can. I would be most interested in what readers have to say. Can you tell from my writing that I was a musician? Is it musical writing in some way? I don't know. Because however musicality enters my writing, it is by instinct and not intention. So answering that question involves analysis and self-analysis, which are not my favorite things.

I can say I am attracted to alliteration and internal rhyme, that I am aware of often choosing words according to how they sound in a sentence—their rhythm, accent or number of syllables. Repetition is another powerful tool I want to explore more. Sometimes I think about form in terms of musical form; for example I have written several suites, (which are collections of short pieces, loosely related) and I am thinking about trying a rondo. I also really, really enjoy performing (reading) in front of an audience. Reading aloud is the best way to understand whether your sentences flow one to the next, whether your paragraph breaks are in the right place, where the sweet spot is, where you can slow down and actually say what you have come to say. Also, I think it possible that because of being a musician and performer I appreciate, more than someone who isn't, the uses of silence, of quiet, of white space, of the punctuations of rest.

 

What role do rhythm and musicality play in flash specifically?

Maybe, especially when writing shorter flash and micros, when you start taking away or questioning the value of every single word, and deciding maybe that things like articles and pronouns and adverbs are extraneous, that sentences can become less flowing, their rhythm can become either more choppy, or lyrical. Therefore their rhythms become more obvious to the listener and integral to the meaning of the piece. I’m just babbling here. I think really musicality is like any other element: when compressed, all the writer's choices are magnified in import.

 

What is one mistake beginner flash writers should avoid?

Beginning flash writers have probably already heard or read to omit anything extraneous, including beginnings and endings, and focus on the "flash" part, the moment of insight, happening, change or emotion. This is correct of course. Perhaps a mistake (not a mistake, a difficulty) that I think is the most challenging thing to avoid, for writers of any experience level, is not doing this omitting while creating the initial draft. No editing the initial draft! Everything goes in. All the idiotic parts, the parts that don't make any sense, the parts you don't know how to spell or what you're trying to say, the parts that you know will probably be cut later. Write them down anyway. When your brain says, "nah, that doesn't lead anywhere," ignore your brain, and write it down. A beautiful, finished, 50-word micro could originate from 8,000 words of drivel. You never know, and you can't decide when you're in the middle of writing the 8,000 words.

 

Any other advice or tips on how to write effective stories in so few words?

When you have no more to say, stop writing?

 

Finally, what is one lesson you've learned as a writer you wish you'd known earlier?

Oh, God, that one's easy. To embrace failure. Walk towards it, seek it out, revel in it. OK, I exaggerate. Failure sucks, don't revel. But failure and rejection are really not so bad, once you get used to them. It is fear of them that will stop you. So submit and submit, and gather up your rejections, and teach your support people to congratulate you for them. And soon, rejection will appear to you as it really is: part of the process, and a step forward in learning (Although sorry, it will also still suck).

 

To read “Breakfast on Bainbridge,” click here.

For more of Kimm’s work, visit her author website here.


Photo by Sarah Dao on Unsplash.

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