THE MYTH-ING LINK
(OR LINKING UP TO MYTH)
An updated version of the article that originally appeared in Field Guide to Writing Flash fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field. Ed. Tara L. Masih. Rose Metal Press, Brookline, MA, 2009.
Definition of Flash Fiction
Flash fiction is difficult if not impossible to define–and should be allowed to remain so. Because this type of writing is protean, like Proteus of ancient myth, it takes on various shapes and uses different strategies to achieve its goals. These shapes and strategies are too dissimilar to confine flash fiction to a too narrow or too specific definition. Flash fiction should not be fitted to a simple procrustean bed (the method used by mythical Procrustes). These short-short stories are as endlessly metamorphosing as myths themselves. But I would tentatively define the best flash fiction as short-short stories that manage to reveal the hidden, accentuate the subtle, and highlight the seemingly insignificant. Such stories allow readers, as William Blake said in another context, “to see a world in a grain of sand.” The best offer insight and understanding of the human experience as they deepen and broaden reader awareness in a short space of text. While the stories as a whole often provide a quick flash of revelation they are also read by serious readers as slowly and carefully as they might read good poetry. These highly charged stories often go well beyond their surface details and manage to expand in the reading.
Notes On Flash Fiction From The Virtual (Internet) Field
Due to my heavy involvement with flash fiction via the Internet, in many ways a modern day labyrinth containing many hungry minotaurs, I have seen countless shapes and strategies for writing flash fiction. Flash fiction on the ‘net ranges from the simple, uncomplicated quick story–many times written by beginner writers to appeal to beginner editors–to highly complex and rich stories written by talented and experienced writers. For over fifteen years I ran a highly active online flash fiction critique group that focused on this type of writing only. We critiqued stories, discussed flash fiction writing theory, did story analyses, and wrote to story prompts. Thousands of stories from hundreds of writers have appeared on my computer screen over the years (some great stories and some that miss the mark). Further, for about six years or more, two or three times a year, I taught online interactive four-week courses in flash fiction). During the intense online courses, which always filled to capacity (which seems to indicate a strong interest in flash fiction) participants read stories written by some of the best writers of flash fiction, analyzed these stories, read articles and ideas on flash fiction, discussed writing theory, tried various writing exercises, and critiqued resulting stories. One popular and highly productive segment of the course was the study of and writing from myths. Participants read several old myths, mostly Greek myths, and then looked at ways modern flash fiction writers continue to make use of these enduring stories in a variety of ways. Some of the most interesting and memorable flash fiction written by those who took my course came out of the myth segment and several participants went on to have their myth-inspired stories published as well.
Writers Working With Myth
Over time many fine artists, poets, novelists, and short story writers have drawn upon myth for their work. A few of those writers are Eudora Welty, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Barth, Christa Wolf, John Updike, Anne Carson, William Golding, Mary Renault, and C. S. Lewis. Beginning in 2005, Canongate Books’ Myth Series launched the first of its series of reimagined myths in short novel forms, a major and ambitious project involving many publishers and writers worldwide. A few of the writers involved in this project (who rewrote Greek myths) include Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Victor Pelevin, David Grossman, Salley Vickers, and Michel Faber. Many more such novels in this series, including novels based on myths from around the world, are now or will be available in the near future. Myths continue to intrigue writers and readers alike.
Many writers have also written outstanding flash fiction based on myth. Some of the best short-short pieces I’ve read include “Pygmalion” by John Updike, “Scheherazade” by Charles Baxter, “Silver Arrows” by Barry Yourgrau, “Orion” by Jeanette Winterson, “To Every Man His Chimera” by Charles Baudelaire, “Daedalus and Icarus” by Zbigniew Herbert, and “A Little Legend of the Dance” by Gottfried Keller. All these pieces are in the length range of flash fiction and all illustrate outstanding reuse of classical and well-known myths.
RE-CREATION WITH MYTHS
Reworking myths allows writers to join in on the great conversations that have gone on through the ages. Through the study of mythology writers can also renew their own store of writing ideas. A good general mythology handbook or a ‘net search on classical myth can yield all sorts of myths begging to be reexamined and reshaped. Re-creating myths can be done in many ways, of course, and those ways are limited only by a writer’s imagination and willingness to try something out of the ordinary. But two highly productive strategies involve showing how a myth is still alive today (through a type of literary shorthand or condensation) and reshaping stories by defamiliarizing older myths.
STRATEGY: Allow an Old Myth New Life
(Method of Literary Shorthand/ Condensation)
“Myths are things that never happened, but always are.” This statement, from Sallustrius in the 4th century A.D., reminds modern writers that what is old can also take on new forms, can undergo new metamorphoses, can assume new transformations, and generate new and interesting perspectives. Such stories represent, in the words of Nicolai Berdyaev, the “isness of the was.” Myths are never out of style, never lose their relevance—they merely metamorphose and serve different visions. Flash fiction writers can, to good effect, continue the long tradition of working with myths. These enduring stories can be freed from past confinement and undergo metamorphosis over and over again.
Ernest Hemingway compares an effective story to an iceberg, where the largest percentage of the iceberg is submerged beneath the surface. Drawing upon characters or archetypes from mythology provides a way of making use of underlying stories—an effective literary shorthand method of telling a story, a way of condensing or compressing a modern story by drawing upon an older story. This strategy can aid in creating good and expandable flash fiction since the older myth would also be at work beneath the surface details.
For instance, merely through the use of an appropriate name from myth, in a character’s name or in a story’s title, a writer can imply an iceberg of information without having to actually provide that information. In his short-short story, “Pygmalion,” John Updike did not have to tell readers that this story involves a man who tries to create the ideal woman. Instead Updike shows us how this well-known archetype from myth continues his pattern into modern times. In Charles Baxter’s “Sheherazade,” Baxter names the myth character in his title and shows her living in modern times and involved in a modern situation (and he also gives the traditional story an interesting twist). Through Baxter’s story, Sheherazade continues telling stories to prolong a life. Names drawn from myth, used in a character’s name or a story title, can be a way to deepen a story as when the part stands for the whole or the whole stands for the part, and which draws upon or is supported by a story or stories that came before—as the larger part of the iceberg beneath the surface details.
Karen Armstrong, in her A Short History of Myth, which serves as an introduction to the recent Canongate Books’ series of myths in novel form, says “Like science and technology, mythology… is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.” Writers who study and become aware of the many myths that continue to inform our lives can create even more interesting and meaningful stories by drawing upon this rich store of writing possibilities.
Defamiliarization, a concept developed by formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his Art as Technique, is a productive strategy for creating memorable flash fiction from myths. Shklovksy says “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
The process of defamiliarization of a familiar myth disturbs readers’ normal perceptions and understandings and encourages them to read more attentively and carefully. Making the familiar unfamiliar helps renew perception and aids in breaking the deadening habit of easy interpretation and assumptions. A defamiliarized myth will not meet readers’ usual expectations and consequently pushes readers to see things as if they are new. It allows readers to perceive the myth or the specific situation in a new light and they are then put in the position of living/ reading more intensely—since their previous knowledge is called into question and they are outside their safely familiar assumptions and understandings. Such a strategy disturbs comfortable knowledge, unsettles usual perceptions, and of necessity prolongs reader contemplation. Such stories allow a reader and writer to live more intensely within the newly written defamiliarized myth.
Robert Hill Long’s story (below) serves as outstanding example of a writer drawing upon a familiar myth to create a new metamorphosis through the method of defamiliarization. The usual or common understanding of the myth of the Sphinx is that she destroyed herself when Oedipus answered her riddle. But Long subverts the known myth, makes it counter common knowledge and understanding, and achieves a new transformation of the myth. Long’s defamiliarized Sphinx continues to present her riddle to readers. As a result, the story makes a fascinating addition to the endlessly mutating, forever metamorphosing forms of myth.
by Robert Hill Long
It is not true that the heroes died because the sphinx was terrifying to behold or her riddle too hard. When one sauntered up, full of youth bravado, she put away her knitting needles, folded the wings behind her back and asked in a demure voice where he had been so long and whether he wanted anything to drink. At the sight of milk dripping from her full breasts, he fell into a speechless baby-gurgle and in a day or two died of thirst at her feet. Oedipus already knew whom he was going to marry: he simply wanted lion-claws and eagle-wings to impress her.
Nor is it true that the sphinx killed herself because Oedipus used her to perfect his habit of drop-dead retorts to every question. Yes, his indifference to what she might do afterward, the way he averted his eyes when he answered, these things infuriated her. But not even a myth of guilt existed yet: destroying herself before his eyes would have been pointless. Instead she assumed the formlessness of the horizon. From this vantage point she could survey the whole course of Greek tragedy degenerating into barbaric romances, situation comedies, thirty-second ads for hair replenisher.
She is still there, shawled in heat-shimmer or in a cold drizzle. Though her milk dried up centuries ago, it still gives her pleasure to watch the tiny hordes of question marks trying to approach her, like tourists. At sunset it is possible to imagine her faint, flushed smile as she savors the moment Oedipus raises the familiar knitting needles and plunges them into his eyes.
Get a good general mythology handbook or do a ‘net search for Greek myth. Then take any well-known myth character and show how the archetype continues to live in the modern world. Or take any well-known myth and defamiliarize it. Below are some starter possibilities you might consider.
- Echo cannot initiate conversation but is doomed to repeat the words of others. What sort of job modern day might she have? What if she accidentally said something original?
- Pandora and Eve are both the “first woman” created in two different traditions. Try a Q & A type story where the two are interviewed or put on trial.
- Adephagia is the goddess of gluttony. What form might her self-indulgent excesses take today?
- Procrustes is known for his odd habits as a host. When he had visitors who did not fit is guest bed, he either stretched them or lopped off their extremities to make them fit. Maybe set his story in a modern hotel, motel, or bed and breakfast.
- The Graeae are two old white-haired women who had only one eye and one tooth between them, and which were stolen by Perseus. Try putting them in a nursing home where they tell their story—their way.
- Priapus is a fertility god who possessed enormous genitals. He got into a bragging contest with a talking ass over who had the larger size. Priapus lost. (A modern note: one of the side effects of certain modern male enhancement drugs is a condition known as priapism—named for Priapus. )
- Hestia, one of the Olympians, remained a virgin and chose not to marry. She tends the home fires of her parents, Cronus and Rhea. Could she also represent a victim of agoraphobia?
About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers.
Image: “Sphinx in Sand” by Oscar Bernal (1945-2016). Oil on canvas. 36 x 48 inches. Released into the public domain by the estate of Oscar Bernal.