April 19th, 2013 / 11:43 am
Craft Notes

Ekphrasis Flash

There used to be some CW pedagogy on here. Maybe there still is, I don’t know. Been away for a few days. My microwave died recently, etc. Anyway, I just remember a lot of people didn’t like it or something, so I thought I would go ahead and add some more.

Ekphrasis sounds like a skin disorder, but is actually when one medium of art attempts to relate to another medium. Like dancing about architecture or fucking about radishes, for example, etc. This can be a fructiferous exercise for a class (or workshop or, you know, just a group of people who like to write [It’s Ok to write just because you like to write, just like it’s OK to run just because, you know, you like to run or collect cats or whatever]). This exercise is ofttimes done with poetry and that’s OK I suppose, but I’d prefer you tried this exercise with flash fiction.

I’ll define flash fiction as under 750 words, since defining the genre any other way—by style, history, worldview—is reductive and wrong.


You’d probably want to show an example. An example actually cracks open the synapses. In fact, writing directly after an example (not with a lag) is a little teacher trick I’ll pass onto you. Sort of like your knowledge is lighter fluid and imagine your students have heads made of charcoal. Pour a little knowledge on their heads. Then toss in the match. The match is writing. This analogy is pretty forced, but it makes a shard of sense.

If you want to use the word “multi-media” on your salary review document, you could show this video, an ekphrasis by Pamela Painter:

Now you can say, “I like to use multi-media in my class…”

But you could also just link to the story at Smokelong Quarterly, an excellent place for flash fiction, a genre that can be theoretically read in the amount of time the average person takes to completely smoke one cigarette (an average person takes 7 minutes).

Or you could even take your class to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (while in town, hit up Las Teresitas for a sausage taco) where this painting resides, though I doubt your department has the travel budget, though maybe in the past it did before the wheels/wills fell off everything and the weeds returned to all their rightful monologues, etc.

OK, or hit up “Boy with Cherries” by Adam Golaski:

Red: hat, fruit, face and hands. Reds in the brown background and coat. Reds in the green; the wall that is green and the lettuce leaves. Manet’s studio was dark. He was well liked by men and women, for different reasons, though he was taciturn and apt to take a razor to any canvas that bore a likeness he did not admire. Here is a boy with cherries and yet only the smallest areas of canvas are illuminated.

So, there you go—have the people read that, please. See, there’s a beauty of flash fiction: just give them the text and they read it right there in front of you. See that? It’s economical that way. One time I taught a class with a long Baldwin story (Yeh, the heroin one) and I looked up at the class and it was all glazed eyes like a fish. They had not read the story. This is a very practical reason to teach flash, though I can think of many more nuanced and complex pedagogical reasons to teach flash.

Anyway. Here we go:

DISCUSS the two flash fictions. Use both hemispheres of the brain. Talk about structure, yes, but don’t forget language. A little Caliban, a little Ariel, get it? A little chocolate pie, a little meringue. The pit and the peach fuzz. You get the general idea. Maybe break the group into three groups? You could give one group STRUCTURE, one LANGUAGE, one THEME. Or whatever your way. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.

Now, get out your instruments of writing. FIND an image or a painting. You could do this at a museum. Or you could have the class bring in an image. Or you could get online.

Ever been to Bright Stupid Confetti? A great place for images and art and other things to blow your student’s minds and also either raise your student evaluations (aren’t those important!) or dramatically lower your student evaluations…

(The Jamie Iredell thing up there right now is rather good.)

CLOSELY describe the painting, image, sculpture, etc. I mean go DFW on the object—really describe it! Take notes about the object. Use similes and metaphors. Five senses? Specifics and naming. Get close! There’s a Zen koan about just sketching a thing. Slow down. This is an exercise.

Example? Here’s a banker (an Englishman born in St. Louis, MO) describing yellow fog:


The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,   

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,        

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.


Note rhyme and repetition (and personification). Hell, note everything.

Let the class Fugue: Let the mind wander. How do you respond to the object? What do you think? What does this painting mean? How do you feel? What attracted you to this object? Etc. This is the flaky part of the exercise, but pretty much necessary. I wouldn’t be talking about this aspect all around the department, since the people in the department have assumptions that you, as a CW person, do seances and things in your classroom. OK, get past the flaky part.

The class (time at shop, whatever) is about over. You filled these moments with literature then did some “active” work with groups and you’ve got people seriously considering some art, like slowing down and closely inspecting, and you more than likely taught someone at least one new word, so basically you should feel pretty good right now as a teacher.

OK. Now just tell the class to write a flash fiction draft “inspired” by all of this doing, built upon ekphrasis, upon the image (or sculpture, possibly). Turn it in next class. Make it less than 750 words. Typed.

LASTLY: Next class have your students turn in this flash fiction. Hand it back to them. Say, “Well done, now go rewrite it in under 600 words and turn in next time we meet.”

There you go.

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  1. A D Jameson

      You’ve reminded me that I want to do more CW pedagogy here. Thank you.

  2. deadgod

      That “banker” grew by a big river. He grew to wear his hair ‘wet’ and parted on the side, and the cuffs of his trousers rolled. Two women married him, one nervous and one not; he married each. There was a store in his youth, downtown, locally posh, a furniture store, and through the windows of a Sunday, you could see handiwork abscondita, clutching yellow fog, and you could beat an old tin can, lard pail.