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The O:JA&L Masters Series
Flash Fiction
Craft Essay

Featured Writer Roberta Allen


To explore more of Allen’s work, click on the link First It Happens, Then I Make It Up to access her free PDF chapbook from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.

Real life is a mess. Fiction is not. I take lived experience and turn it into fiction. It’s not what happens but what the writer makes of it.

My process can be summed up as follows: First It Happens, Then I Make It Up. In first drafts, I look for the energy which makes me want to write more and/or delve deeper into what I’ve just written. If the writing feels dead, I throw it out. But if a single word, phrase, or sentence from that otherwise dead draft attracts me, I use it to write a new first draft.

If the energy is there, I start to revise which I like to think of as playing around. I add and subtract based on feeling and thought while always being mindful of the energy. It may take a few or many drafts until it feels right. I don’t know in advance what will happen though I do have a sense of the path it will take. I know my short short works if it reads as though the piece could not have happened any other way.

Each of the three sections in the short short below were written originally as three separate shorts over a period of years. They never worked but at various times I thought each one did and sent them out individually to journals. A bad habit I still have. Often, after I send out a short short I realize it isn’t finished. Of course, by then it’s too late!

But sometimes the act of sending to journals gives me the freedom and/or distance to see that the piece isn’t finished. A habit I certainly don’t recommend.

If possible, to get some distance, tape yourself and play it back. Or at least read it out loud to yourself or to a friend. Notice when you slip on a word, phrase, or sentence. The rhythm may be off or some word choices may need work. Or simply and this is best, wait a few weeks or even months, then read it again before sending it out.

The contradiction in the title of this short short: What Is (Not) Made Up questions the space between fiction and nonfiction.

Originally, I worked on the three sections as three separate pieces at different times until I felt each one losing energy, so I stopped and put each one away. Some short shorts that don’t work I forget about completely and only discover by accident in my files years later. That’s what happened here. In the original three pieces I found there was still enough energy in a word or phrase even after a long break, so I returned to each piece. I’m a hoarder of my own drafts—especially the first ones. I never know when I will find a word or phrase or sentence with energy I didn’t expect to find in something I started years ago.

It was only by playing around that I realized I could condense these three short shorts to make a single story though each one takes place at a different time and in a different location. In order to do that, the woman and the places are unnamed. Instead, I chose to focus on the spiders, the grasshopper, and the lizard. The creatures had the most energy for me.


hat is (not) made up is the cocktail party in a city where the host tells the woman that she will never go to a tropical rainforest because of the spiders. But she gets a thrill hearing about them because they are so far away. When the woman describes them, the host laughs and scrunches up her nose. But when the woman mentions the spiders in this city, the host stops laughing. “Right here are spiders that rival those in the rainforest,” the woman tells her. “There’s the white-tail spider and the black-house spider which have very painful bites. The only lethal spider is the red-back spider. But it hasn’t killed anyone since 1955. I saw one spinning a web on the grape vines in the garden of my friend’s house. He refuses to kill any creature, no matter how dangerous.”

The host suggests they talk about something else.The woman can’t think of anything except the news she heard this morning about the mosquitoes plaguing the city. She’s not sure which of several viruses these particular mosquitoes cause, but she doesn’t think it’s the potentially deadly Murray Valley virus. All the viruses cause serious illness, the announcer said. There are no cures or vaccines.

What is (not) made up is the fact that the woman is not an expert on grasshoppers. She is not even sure this is a grasshopper. It is huge, bigger than any grasshopper she’s ever seen. But everything in the rainforest is huge. The grasshopper has made itself at home on the soiled white hat of the squeamish woman’s husband. The squeamish woman is making faces at the grasshopper, or maybe she is making faces at her husband, or maybe she is making faces at them both. The grasshopper is perfectly still while the others in the group take pictures. It doesn’t seem to mind the squeamish woman’s revulsion, but her husband does.

A member of the group says he knows a lot about grasshoppers. That is what he says. But what he knows is not much more than what the group already knows. “They’re great jumpers, plant eaters,” he says. The woman repeats, “Plant eaters?” She has never thought about what grasshoppers eat—despite the “grass” in their name. The “expert” says they’ve been around for about 250 million years. But even the “expert” isn’t sure about this one. The grasshopper—if it is a grasshopper—is still on the hat of the squeamish woman’s husband and she is still making faces when the group spot a beautiful lizard with a blue iridescent tail.

What is (not) made up is the tour guide who says. “When the first settlers arrived in the desert, they continued to dress for winter. In summer, women wore layers of petticoats and high-necked dresses despite the heat.” The woman wonders how they survived until she is distracted by a lizard on the footpath. This lizard is without a tail. Was it born this way? Is it native to this country? She is curious. The woman thinks she remembers seeing a picture of it somewhere. She doesn’t ask the guide about the lizard because she doesn’t like him. It’s a chemical thing, she tells herself.

Later, she tries to find a ‘tailless lizard’ online. But all she finds is a ‘legless lizard.’ This lizard is not leglessPerhaps a predator lopped off its tail and the creature is lucky to be alive. After that she loses interest in the lizard but that doesn’t mean her thoughts return to the arrival of settlers in the desert. She decides what she already knows is enough.

“WHAT IS (NOT) MADE UP” by Roberta Allen
Published 4-6-23 in New World Writing Quarterly


About the writer:
A Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction and a Yaddo Fellow, ROBERTA ALLEN is an American micro and short story writer, novelist, and memoirist with nine published books, including her latest story collection The Princess of Herself. She taught creative writing at The New School for many years and has taught at Columbia University. Since 1991, she has taught private writing workshops. She is also well-regarded internationally as a conceptual artist.

Image: Untitled photograph from the Secret Worlds 2 Series  by Roberta Allen. Manipulated in camera. By 2023. By permission.

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