Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

Interview: Featured Writer Wayne Scheer

“Flash Fiction: Literary? Or Mainstream?” 

Pamelyn CASTO for O:JA&L: Wayne, we go back several years and I’ve always enjoyed working with you and reading your stories. I’m most familiar with your prolific flash fiction writing. I was delighted to learn you’ve been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes. That is wonderful news! Have all the nominations been for flash fiction? Is flash fiction your primary focus or do you also write other things?

Wayne SCHEER: Pam, I’ve admired your work, especially your scholarship helping readers to see the artistry of good flash.

First thing you get to know about me is I’m not the most organized person in the world. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve been nominated for four or five Pushcarts, never yet which stories were selected. However, I know one was for a flash non-fiction and I believe one was for a longer story, or maybe that was for a Best of the Net? The others were for flash. I write primarily because it’s fun. The accolades are nice, but if I take them too seriously, I’m afraid I’d start thinking of myself as an artist, and never in-joy writing again. That or I have a deep-set fear of success and need serious therapy.

I follow two pieces of writing advice. One is from Jack Kerouac in his novel Big Sur. “Always pull back—and see how silly we look to God.” The other is from a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut I once heard. I paraphrase—You know the adage about an infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters creating something beautiful? “Well,” Vonnegut said after a long pause, “the internet disproves that.”

I need to begin what will likely be a serious interview with those parameters in mind.

To get back to your question, most of the writing I’ve been doing lately—the past ten years or so—has been flash fiction and poetry. I like thinking in terms of specific details that tell a story or elicit emotion rather than an extended narrative. I like thinking in terms of what I can leave out of a story rather than what I need to add. I also enjoy editing for the same reason—to see what I can edit out of a sentence. So my work has gotten shorter and shorter and it seemed natural for me to try poetry. At first, my poems were long-winded because it’s easier to say a lot than a little. I’m working on cutting them to haiku size.

CASTO for O:JA&L: I think I read this week that you’ve recently won a fifth Pushcart nomination. That’s terrific news. (I’ll get you organized yet!) I also read online that you’ve spent twenty-five years teaching creative writing at the college level. What do you think is the most important thing a creative writing teacher can teach aspiring writers? Can students be taught how to write or is it more a matter of prodding, nudging, and encouraging those who already have writing talent? What genre of writing (short story, poetry, essay) resulted in the best pieces from your students? 

SCHEER: I wish I had spent twenty-five years teaching creative writing. I spent most of that time teaching the dreaded English 101—the academic essay—and English 102—the research paper. But I also taught American Literature and World Literature, so I read a lot of good writing and tried to “prod” my students to articulate what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy. I think students who read a variety of works can be “nudged” into writing well.

Mainly, I worked with students who were afraid to write, afraid that they didn’t know where to put commas and they’d be chastised for a run-on sentence. Although I had to ultimately “correct” their grammar, I tried to stress writing as talking on paper. Talk first, then work on the niceties of the language. It didn’t always work, but those students who were readers understood.

CASTO for O:JA&L: Do you consider your work to be mainstream or literary? Do you think there is a difference between the two types of writing? How might you identify each type? Do you think there is a need for both? 

SCHEER: Of course, there is a need for both mainstream and literary writing, just as there is a need for a couch and a chair. They serve different purposes. Although I dislike labels, and really don’t know if my work is literary or mainstream, I think we can agree on a basic distinction, such as literary works pay more attention to the beauty and vitality of the language to keep readers engaged while mainstream writers focus on the details of the plot to keep the reader entertained.

But a good “literary” artist has to put her characters through hell and maybe get them back just as a mainstream writer does. And a good writer of detective novels—Robert Parker comes to mind—has to be as much of a stylist as Hemingway.

As to my work, I’m a little of both. It depends upon my mood. Perhaps I don’t understand my work well enough to say more than that.

CASTO for O:JA&L: I like the way you describe the distinctions. As you know, I’m an admirer of your piece that was turned into film, “Zen and the Art of House Painting. Readers can see it at I’ve viewed the film several times and found it delightful every time. The characters are so great for the parts. It’s also so funny. How did that film come about? 

SCHEER: That’s one of the few questions I can answer with clarity. I published the original story/essay– “Zen and the Art of House Painting” –in a print anthology and the editor thought it would sell better if he could include a couple of CDs of short films made from some of the stories. A director friend of his chose my story for the anthology. He revised the story for film and did a fantastic job of filming it. He made significant changes in my original story, and I now understand why literary writers and screenwriters don’t always see eye to eye, but the screenwriter/director did a fine job. I watched the film the other day and was impressed with it. Of course, what impressed me the most was how he managed to retain my funniest lines. 

CASTO for O:JA&L: I read how the people behind the film used a fundraiser for the production of the project. I thought that was clever in that it helped fund the project and helped call attention to their worthy effort. Which, of course, is your project. Did you get to experience any of the behind-the-scenes-goings-on? Did you decline their request to be the star painter? (I’m glad you don’t act.) Did you participate in any way in the filming of the project? I love how so many flash fiction pieces, from so many talented writers, are being turned into short-short films. It’s an area I enjoy exploring. So much creativity is shown in that area, too. 

SCHEER: No one ever asked me to star in the film. Which is a good thing. Incidentally, I love the actor who plays the house painter. The look on his face is perfect. The child actor is very good too, but in my version, he was a not-so-bright young man who narrated the story. I had nothing to do with the film and have never spoken with the director.  

CASTO for O:JA&L: I’d guess you’ve written hundreds of short-short pieces. You’ve gathered some of them in Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories. I enjoyed reading the interview John Haggerty did with you at The Forge Literary Magazine and was quite moved by “A Quiet Man.” I thought that piece was intensely interesting. I see too that it’s the story that won you a Best of the Net nomination. (See? I’m helping you get organized!) Do you plan to publish more collections? Which piece is your favorite in Revealing Moments? I also like your idea of keeping the past in a box in the back of a closet. I never quite know what to do about the past and mostly subscribe to Nicolai Berdyaev’s notion of “the isness of the was”—it’s always there in whatever I try to do. 

SCHEER: As you know, I’m in a group (Internet Writing Workshop —IWW— that requires me to write a 400-word flash each week. I’ve been in the group for about ten years now. I’m also in a poetry group that used to require a poem a day and has only recently relaxed its requirements. I’ve been in that one for over five years. So, yes, I’ve written a lot of short-short stories and a lot of poems. Some are even good.

Which ones do I like best? It’s like choosing a favorite child, as many novelists have said of their books. Is it enough to say I like best the story or poem I’m working on at the moment? Probably not. Although it’s somewhat true, often enough I develop a story or poem just for the exercise and forget it almost immediately after it’s written. So I would say the stories I like best are the ones I remember.

That said, “Blind Date,” “Morning” and “A Lonely Choice” come to mind from Revealing Moments.  I also like the story from the point of view of a boy up in a tree escaping his father’s wrath and the one about the female strippers preparing to go on stage. The “Old Lady in a Faded Dress” includes one of my favorite endings. (See what you’re doing to me by making me choose?)

But I’ll focus on the first three stories to come to mind.  I like “Blind Date” because it’s me having fun with my younger self and I like “Morning” because it’s about the possible loneliness of my future self. So maybe what I like best are stories that fictionalize my own life. I hadn’t thought about it like that before. “A Lonely Choice,” which is written from the point of view of a divorced woman whose mother is dying is also, come to think of it, somewhat about me because I recall driving about 600 miles to see my mother in a hospital bed with the Do Not Resuscitate sign over her bed. Like the other two stories, most of the plot isn’t really from my life, just bits and pieces, but the main character is more like me than I care to admit, at least on some deeper level than the one I normally exist on. 

CASTO for O:JA&L: Your stories so often have a delicious and delicate wry sense of humor working in them. Do you think humor works best in shorter pieces? Why might that be?

SCHEER: You say I have a “delicious and delicate wry sense of humor.” (I’m repeating that in quotes to make sure my wife reads it. God knows she wouldn’t use those words…) At any rate, I like humor. I normally go for a “heh-heh” rather than a belly laugh, so sometimes my jokes can be more arid than dry, more sarcastic than wry, but I think humor is an effective tool for a writer. My favorite moment in “A Lonely Choice,” for instance, is when the woman listening to the doctor telling her how near-death her mother is, sneaks a peek to see if he’s wearing a wedding ring. It’s obviously not funny, but it momentarily relieves the tension and it deepens the character’s loneliness. I think it’s also intensely human, a moment readers can identify with. Whether humor works better in flash or longer stories, I can’t say. A well-placed humorous comment or slip-on-a-banana-peel vaudeville shtick can work anywhere if the timing is right. I like Steven Wright and old Monty Python equally.

CASTO for O:JA&L: Who are some of your favorite flash fiction writers? Can you name some of your favorite stories? Who are some of the writers who have most influenced your own writing? 

SCHEER: I think Woody Allen and Tom Robbins have influenced my writing as have J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac. I enjoy reading Lydia Davis’s short pieces as I do Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Will you let me get away with saying whomever I am reading and enjoying at the moment is my favorite? 

CASTO for O:JA&L: Yes, I can let you get away with that since I tend to read “favorites” on an almost daily basis myself. I’m also a fan of Lydia Davis’ work. And admit I love Russell Edson’s work too. Speaking of Davis and Edson, do you have strong opinions on the differences between flash fiction and prose poetry? Have you written pieces you’d call prose poetry? 

SCHEER: Strong opinion, no? As a reader and writer I’m pro-choice. Have I written prose poetry? I think if you look up the meaning of prosaic in the dictionary, you’ll see my picture. Honestly, I think my stories are more “poetic,” in that they may contain moments that take you out of yourself and place you in a world of raw emotion, than most of my poems. But that’s because as a poet, I’m still a storyteller.

CASTO for O:JA&L: I think flash literature has managed to escape literary radar for years. But now that the radar has picked up on it, I think it’s here to stay. Do you think the popularity of flash is a temporary fad or do you think it’s now a solid literary genre? I think that as people become overwhelmed with information, the need for short pieces of human wisdom will be more and more necessary and appreciated. What do you think? 

SCHEER: I agree with you. I’d also add that our attention spans are shortening. I can’t imagine myself sitting in a rocking chair by a fire reading Middlemarch or Moby Dick, not if I have access to a tv or a computer. (If any of my former literature students are reading this, I deny saying what I just said.)

CASTO for O:JA&L: Wayne, as always I’ve enjoyed your company. I’ve noticed over the years that editors who choose for their readers enjoy and appreciate the many “revealing moments” you have had to offer. It’s likely you’ll have many more to offer in the coming years. Thank you for telling us a bit about your world of creativity. Now, please do get busy putting together a new collection for us to admire. Thank you, Wayne.

SCHEER: I’ve enjoyed this interview with you as well. I’m flattered by your compliments on my work. About another collection—if there’s an editor out there wanting to work with me on putting together a collection of my work, I’m open to the challenge. Without a good editor, I have no idea how to put a book together and, honestly, I have no interest in putting together Wayne Scheer’s Greatest Hits just for my own ego. I am not adverse, however, to creating such a collection with the hope of earning enough money to pay for printing ink. 

CASTO for O:JA&L: I’m betting the possibility will come along. Best to you, Wayne.


About the interviewer:
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. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Wayne Scheer:
Wayne Scheer lives with his wife in Atlanta. After twenty-five years of teaching writing and literature in college, he is trying to follow his own advice and write. Several times a Pushcart Prize nominee, his stories have appeared in such varied publications as The Christian Science Monitor, Sex and Laughter, The Pedestal, Flash Me Magazine, Cezanne’s Carrot, The Binnacle and The Better DrinkA larger sampling of Scheer’s writing is available under the title Zen and the Art of House Painting available in the 2022 Chapbook Series from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.