So far in these ‘Why It Works’ posts I’ve been looking at short stories, which is odd because lately I’ve found myself writing more flash fiction. Then I came across ‘Note to Self’ by Tracy Guzeman, published in the Vestal Review, and I admired it so much that I wanted to tease it apart and find out exactly what makes it work.
(Warning: the following analysis contains story spoilers. You have been warned. You should probably just go read the story yourself – it’s short! – before we proceed. Ready? Okay, let’s go.)
This piece follows a lot of the advice people usually give on writing flash. It doesn’t use too many characters, it is sparing with adjectives (though the ones it does use are razor sharp), and it starts practically at the end. But there is more to it than that.
‘Note to Self’ starts with a conversation. It begins, “I ask the doctor if it is possible to choose what I am going to forget.” I don’t know about you, but I began reading with absolutely no preconceptions about the story and I honestly thought it was embarking on a surreal journey, that we were entering a world where memory modification was not only possible but necessary and even routine. The next few lines don’t completely disabuse me of this notion, but I am unsettled enough and curious enough to keep reading.
The basic form for this story is a list. I love list-stories, don’t you? This one is a list of memories, some for keeping, some for letting go. And each memory on the list gives us a snapshot of a life, enough for us to fill in the blanks of what is left unsaid and build the character in our imaginations. We know enough about what makes her ashamed and what thrills and delights her, and what grounds and humbles her to build a more complete picture of her ordinary life. Her office job, her medium-sized house in a middle class neighbourhood, etc. Guzeman skips over that because no one really wants to read it and anyway it’s not vital to the story. And in flash a writer must pare away all but the most vital information.
Going through the list, I still didn’t fully understand the premise. That is, until memory number five, and it all clicks into place.
To Forget: The first time you couldn’t remember where you were: surrounded by cars, any of them could have been yours; the noise in the parking garage amplified and muffled at the same time. Like being dropped on a foreign planet, in a new skin, you cannot recognize yourself. How can you travel so far away from your life so fast?
There it is. Revelation. Understanding. But not the ending. Not the resolution of the conflict. That’s for the last memory. The one that resolves all the ones that came before. The conflict was internal and it was there all along. The character’s desire to love and be loved well. (If you don’t believe me, go back and read through the list again. Each memory was so carefully chosen.)
And then, the final line that explains it all. The one that, as David Gaffney says it should, rings like a bell.
‘Note to Self’ is that rare thing, a near-perfect example of its form. I love reading flash fiction, but I find when it is done well, as this one is, it’s best taken in small doses. That bell needs time to reverberate before I can start reading something new.
And that is what makes it so satisfying.