Ingrid Jendrzjewski was the winner of the 2016 InkTears Flash Fiction contest, and has been a prize winner in our previous Flash contests too. We thought we'd have a chat with her, to learn more about her approach to writing, and see if we could uncover a few secrets about how to write good short fiction.
Ingrid, you have been very successful with our InkTears judges. Looking back over your entries, they often seem to centre around very intelligent dialogue - either internal, or between a couple. Are those real conversations, or dialogue that runs in your imagination only?
For the most part, the conversations are made up, although I really did have a debate about the relative fishy-ness of Moby Dick with an ex-partner. With a little tweaking, that piece could move into non-fiction territory! ‘Heat Death’ was based on two people I saw on a train one day; the girl was fanning herself with a thick book and nattering loudly about being hot to a young man who looked utterly disinterested. I wrote the first draft right there on the train. I felt a bit sneaky, putting words in their mouths while they were sitting just across the aisle!
Do any of the people you've written about know they have appeared in print, and did they approve?
As for Moby Dick, I’ve all but lost touch with the person in question. In the unlikely event he came across the piece, my suspicion is that he wouldn’t remember the conversation. However, even if he did, I doubt he’d mind; we may have been ill-suited, but he was a lovely person. As for the couple on the train, well, I imagine the story is so different from reality that they’d never recognise themselves.
Given that you say many of the conversations were made up, are you crazy?! [At InkTears, we once met a famous author with a prize winning book, who told us she'd written the entire book in her head over the course of a year, sitting in a chair imagining other people sitting in the other chairs in the room, and holding a dialogue with them. We came away thinking that if she wasn’t a best-selling author, she might be in a care facility!]
Yes. No. Wait, um, probably. Aren’t we all a little bit crazy? I guess I do imagine a lot of conversations between people and, erm, things. Although I am aware that it is completely illogical, I’ve bought loads of broken things from stores because I feel bad for them, and I don’t like to eat sweets or chocolate shaped as bears or Easter bunnies or Father Christmas. I would never admit this, however. Unlike the famous author, I’m usually just listening in on the conversations, not participating.
I realised rather recently that most of my stories involve inner monologues, reported speech, or descriptions of people thinking or doing things – there is almost never direct speech. ‘Sign, Signifier, Signified’ was an attempt to break out of that and try to actually make two characters communicate with each other on the page, but even that story is about some of the latent difficulties in communication!
There is also a split between art and science in your work, and between your characters - and also in your qualifications! [Ingrid studied Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Evansville before going on to study physics at the University of Cambridge.] Do you find many people are comfortable with both art and science, or do you think these are two sides of a different philosophical approach to life that causes conflict?
Oh, what an interesting question! Personally, I think it’s strange when people see art and science as such different entities. Writers, scientists, artists, mathematicians – we’re all concerned with creativity, inquiry, speculation, investigation, beauty, truth. If you look at the ‘Beauty in method’ section of the Wikipedia article on ‘Mathematical beauty’, half of the bullet points describing what factors make a mathematical proof ‘elegant’ could also describe a poem or a piece of flash fiction: ‘unusually succinct’, ‘derives a result in a surprising way’, ‘based on new and original insights’. [Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_beauty#Beauty_in_method]
Certainly, studying physics has made me a better writer. I don’t think much has changed about the way I approach the initial burst of writing, but my editing is much more ordered, rigorous, and precise. I think of each piece as having an internal logic that can be identified and developed during the editing process, much like the setting or solving of a puzzle.
I find a lot of people who don’t have a science background sound somewhat intimidated when they talk about maths and science, but often enjoy reading about it, if the author can explain concepts clearly. When I write about science, I always run it by my critique group to make sure it makes sense and is interesting to non-scientists. I’m lucky in that although it’s a reasonably small group, there are two other regular attendees with backgrounds in physics, so they can review the science in my stories as well as the writing! (And no, none of us knew each other before we started writing.)
Why do you write fiction?
I really don’t know. I had a little health scare in my mid-thirties which made me stop and re-evaluate my priorities. I discovered that there were two things that I cared deeply about that weren’t part of my life at the time: children and a regular writing practice. Now, I’m the mother of a dear, cherished four-year-old and I spend the vast proportion of my free time writing. I’m also happier than I ever remember being.
Do you prefer writing flash fiction, short stories, or are you secretly working on a novel?
Oh, busted! There is indeed a novel hiding in the closet.... It’s currently a dreadful mess, but now that I have a little more dedicated writing time chiselled out each week, I’m trying to dust it off. I actually started writing flash fiction when my daughter was born and I was failing at making progress with the novel. My writing and edits were terribly bitty and disjointed and I couldn’t keep track of the whole story in my head, so I decided to take a step back and set myself some short writing exercises so that when I did have longer stretches of time, I’d be ready to hit the ground running. Before long, I found I was enjoying writing these pieces as much, if not more, than novel writing. In April 2014, I heard about a 100-word story competition and thought I’d give that a try. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know what flash fiction was at that point – I was just looking for a deadline and a challenge – but I managed to get an entry together, and I won third place. ‘The Bird Women of Wells-Next-the-Sea’ was written not long after [Editor: a prize winner at InkTears].
The older my daughter gets, the longer my average word counts get. I still write plenty of flash, but I’ve now finished multiple short stories and am halfway through a novella. I hope to get this novel into shape one of these days, but at this stage, I don’t think I could give up flash if I tried.
If you could give other writers 5 tips on how to write great flash fiction, you would say…
- Ideas. Embrace exercises, prompts, challenges, constraints, or whatever gets you writing outside your comfort zone. Really amazing stuff can come out of the most unexpected places, and flash is short enough that the pain won’t last long.
- First drafts. The bum-on-seat method works nearly 100% of the time for flash. If you sit there long enough, a first draft will emerge, even if the first draft of something other than what you thought you were writing. You may have to free-write absolute nonsense for a while, but eventually something will start taking shape. (Long-form writing may require walks, hot baths, mind maps, outlining, etc., but with short pieces, I don’t find these things to be anywhere near as reliable or efficient as sitting down and pushing through.)
- Shaping. Leave enough gaps that the reader is drawn into the story, but not so many that confusion sets in. Trust the reader to flesh out the skeleton you provide. Connect the bones; remove the fat.
- Editing. Cut. Stuff. Out. Then cut out some more. Quite often, the beginning and end are the first things that need to go. Most explanations can go. When you think you’ve cut out enough, read the story aloud until you find more things that need to go and cut them too. Then, put the thing in a drawer for a couple weeks. When you finally take it out again, try to find at least one more thing to cut.
- Framing. Not everything needs to be a story. If you have something a little less narrative and you’re having trouble wrangling it, you might find it easier to move it forward if you recast it as a poem, a vignette, a description, some sort of hybrid, or something else entirely.
Which writers inspire you most?
Oh, there are so many! This is such an impossible question! Jorge Luis Borges is close to my heart. I didn’t know what hit me when I found my parents’ copy of Labyrinths on their bookshelf, and I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered. Those short stories exploded my concept of what fiction could be. I can’t remember how old I was, but my guess is 13 or 14. It was my first foray into magical realism, and I fell in love. In terms of flash fiction, I’m a huge fan of Lydia Davis. She uses language like no one else I know. It’s precise and it’s understated and it’s clever. It is never tired or sloppy. Even when I don’t like one of her pieces, the way she deploys the English language sucks me in.
Some of your writing is quite intimate (which makes it powerful). Are there boundaries you won’t cross?
I don’t think about boundaries when writing, but I do when thinking about what to do with work once it’s written. I try not to publish things that would hurt a living person. For example, I’ve written a piece that includes a detail from someone else’s life that the person might recognise, even though the characters and situations in the story are very different from reality. I’m not meant to know this detail, and I suspect this person might be upset if they saw it. I’ve not published the piece, although I am considering submitting it to print-only publications (which I am certain they would never read)....
I also don’t tend to publish work about my loved ones out of respect for their privacy, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule. An exception is my parents; they’re both visual artists and I’m confident they understand that a representation is just a representation and nothing more. (Besides, there have been many instances where I’ve gone to one of their gallery openings only to discover an image or two of myself hanging on the wall. Turnabout is fair play!)
Would you ever give up your day job to write full time?
Short answer: in a heartbeat. Longer answer: it depends on what you mean by day job, and what you mean by writing full time!
I find writing extremely fulfilling and when I have time to myself, it’s the main thing I want to do. I’m not particularly interested in trying to make it as a freelancer or blogger or anything that actually brings in regular money, but I’d happily give up pretty much any form of paid employment to write the things I enjoy writing full time. That being said, if I’m able to have another child, I’d be delighted to have parenthood as my day (and night) job again, even if I have to moonlight with the writing for a spell.
Thank you so much for talking with us Ingrid. We are sure that your daughter will inspire many interesting stories in the future, and while we hope that you continue writing flash and short fiction, we look forward to reading your novel!