hen I’m in need of inspiration, I often look to author Sarah Freligh. I crave the exacting nature of her work, especially the way she can evoke a time, a place, or a mood with a minimum of fuss. Her stories of women and girls are drawn with a poetic precision that cuts like a knife.
Sarah is the author of five books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and A Brief Natural History of Women, published in 2023 by Harbor Editions. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Sun Magazine, the Wigleaf 50, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018), Best Microfiction (2019-22), and Best Small Fiction (2022).
Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.
WOW: Welcome, Sarah! Thanks for taking time to talk with me. You’ve been busy this summer! Let’s start with your newest collection, A Brief Natural History of Women. I love the way these micro stories draw me in to a clear and sometimes devastating view of the lives we lead. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind these stories, and how these characters came alive for you? Do you have any tips for authors struggling to embody their own characters?
Sarah: I’m so happy to be here, Myna. Thanks!
The stories in my new book are, in a way, a continuation of the micros that were included in my previous collection, We. I was intrigued with and inspired by the first-person plural point of view, the so-called voice of the collective, and the possibilities therein for who might be speaking and why and how; that is, what they might be inclined to say given the safety one finds in a crowd. The characters in those stories are less singular, more archetype, and it was fun exploring how that would work within the word limitations of a micro. For instance, by focusing on the collective in “A Brief Natural History of the Girls in the Office” (Milk Candy Review), I was able to cover a lifetime within a particular office in a relatively short compass.
My process for exploring character is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. I’ll usually start with a basic description—“X is Y”—and work toward the details that convey that character’s uniqueness, starting with a physical description. “Blond, blue-eyed and tall” is a great description of the thief who stole your purse, but it’s not particularly useful for capturing a character’s particularity. A crescent-shaped scar above his eyebrow from when his father threw a bottle opener at his head? Now we’re talking. I do the same with action and dialogue and thought and see what shakes out. I get to know that character, know which details to select from the accrued pile of them that best captures and conveys their essence. In doing so, I often begin to formulate and understand the underlying conflict that fuels the piece.
WOW: One of your recent stories, “Girl Talk” (Fictive Dream), was selected for the prestigious Wigleaf Top 50. I think this story is a great introduction to your work. What themes does this piece explore? How does this dovetail with your body of work?
Sarah: The Wigleaf 50 was such a lovely surprise in a month filled with lovely surprises! It occurred to me, in rereading the story online, that I’ve started more than one story in which girls or women sit around drinking and talking—and not only talking, but talking frankly. I explored that again earlier this year in another Fictive Dream publication, “A Way.” The fascination for me, I think, is that they’re in a safe space and the barriers inhibiting these women from speaking truths are dismantled in those spaces and so anything is likely to happen. I go back to that well often for inspiration.
In “Girl Talk,” the narrator listens but doesn’t disclose her relationship with Buzzy, however brief and one-sided. It’s something she keeps to herself, like a diary you might lock and hide from your sisters. Ultimately, there’s the push/pull between what’s being said out loud by her friends and what she’s thinking, which is quite different and tender, even, in its own way for what will never be again.
“I’ll usually start with a basic description—‘X is Y’—and work toward the details that convey that character’s uniqueness ... I get to know that character, know which details to select from the accrued pile of them that best captures and conveys their essence. In doing so, I often begin to formulate and understand the underlying conflict that fuels the piece.”
WOW: You’re an acclaimed poet, as well as an award-winning flash writer. How do these forms converge for you? Do you make a distinction between prose, poetry, and prose poems? When you begin writing a new piece, do you know which form to take?
Sarah: Lately, a lot of stuff has begun with a first sentence containing the elements necessary to ignite a story—character, conflict, a sense of place and a bit of mystery—and I’m off on a new story.
That can work the other way, too. “We Smoke,” which was included in my book Sad Math, started its life as a poem. For months, I fooled around with various structures and line breaks and it stubbornly refused to yield up anything surprising or new. Frustrated, I took down the fence of line breaks and let the horses out and—voila!—it was a story, the first written in the collective POV of “we.” More importantly, writing felt fun again, new in a way that it hadn’t for a while. Which is a longwinded way of saying that that particular piece, later included in the Norton anthology, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, reminded me that it’s best to start with an idea, inspiration and let that take shape. Let the words fill the form, determine the form. It will tell you what it wants to be, if you listen.
I think a flash can also be a prose poem but—my two cents—the terms are not interchangeable. There’s causality in a story, an implicit if/then that isn’t necessarily required of a prose poem. A prose poem is images and sound without lineation. That’s it.
WOW: Reading your new collection, I wondered if your stories, “Oh, The Water” (Empty House Press), and “That Girl” (X-Ray Lit), began in a different form? Or did these come straight to the page in prose form?
Sarah: Both started as prose, but the structure initially was more linear in both—and the stories were much, much longer. I started fooling around with a mosaic narrative, pieces or glimpses of images that, taken together, allow the reader to see the entire picture. Elmore Leonard once advised writers to take out everything the reader skips over and it was true here. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, too much of it, actually, especially in “Oh, the Water” that didn’t add anything to the story or to our understanding of the characters and their conflict. They’re moving farther away from their terrible tragedy—and each other—but it’s really rooted in those places, each of them marking a different place in their grief journey.
WOW: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the brevity of your work. One of my favorite of your stories is only 50 words (“Those Girls” in 50 Word Stories), but it contains so much life. Do you feel the micro form is significantly different than traditional flash? How do you layer so much atmosphere and emotion into such short pieces? How does the use of metaphor come into play?
Sarah: Like most of my stories, this one was much longer in the initial draft—that throwing-things-at-the-wall method of writing that I mentioned above. Hundreds of words later, I realized that the POV was not that of a single narrator, but of a Greek chorus of disapproval. Unlike some of my other “we” stories, where the group is central to the story, this one is narrated from the periphery—we know about them only through their tut-tutting judgment of Olga. I realized at some point that a simile—like a car—would take it sideways, make it longer and that I had to go straight for the juicy and make Olga the fast car/girl. I fooled around for a long time with the car details, so that the comparison to Olga would resonate, but not lose any of the economy of the form. That’s what metaphor does, I think—more bang for your buck.
WOW: I was fascinated when I heard how your story, “A Brief Natural History of the Automobile” (Smokelong Quarterly), came together for you. Please share this experience with us! And, with that in mind, how do you know when a story is “ready?” What would you say to a writer facing a similar quandary with a story?
Sarah: It feels absolutely right to be talking about “A Brief Natural History of the Automobile” and “Those Girls” in the same space, as writing one allowed me to finish the other.
I began writing “ABNHOTA” in the late nineties. The reason I know or remember that is because I found an early version of the story in some electronic files that were pulled off a long-ago desktop computer—a GIGANTIC HP that took up my entire studio apartment—and the address on the story was that very studio apartment. So I must have been sending the story out for possible publication and eventual rejection. Every couple years or so, I’d go back to the story and fool with it, changing the point of view from first person to second person and spatchcocking the narrative into fragments.
In the fall of 2021, I was taking an online workshop with Sara Lippmann and I volunteered, dumbly, to hand out for the first round of critiques. This was a week before class started and I had nada, zip as far as anything prepped and ready and so I dived into some old files and unearthed this story. Having written “Those Girls” allowed me to see how the metaphor of the car could be expanded to encompass the entirety of the narrator’s life—i.e., she IS the car—and how that, in turn, allowed me to understand the change that’s vital to a story: She’s driven and ultimately she drives. I did a quick revision and the version that I handed out to the class was very similar to the story that Smokelong published.
I guess I’d say, “Don’t give up,” but that’s pretty facile and hollow. It’s maybe more that we write what we write when we’re supposed to—when we’ve accrued the knowledge that allows us to pull off what we couldn’t before. So, yeah: Don’t give up. Hang around until you’re ready to write the story.
“We write what we write when we’re supposed to—when we’ve accrued the knowledge that allows us to pull off what we couldn’t before. So, yeah: Don’t give up. Hang around until you’re ready to write the story.”
WOW: I want to talk about your poem, “Wondrous,” (listen at The Slowdown). This piece encapsulates love and grief in a way that sneaks up on the reader, and I cry every time I read it. Four years after Sad Math was released and seven years after it first appeared in The Sun Magazine, this poem received more than a million shares on social media. I’m struck by the wrongness of a million people sharing your work without purchasing it. How did you react to this? And how do you reconcile it now? Has this experience changed the way you approach the business side of writing?
Sarah: That was a very wild time, the end of National Poetry Month in 2019. A friend was sharing a poem a day on her Facebook page and asked if she could include “Wondrous.” This friend is a very good poet so I was honored that she chose that one. At the end of a week, I think the poem had gotten 750,000 shares and a lot of comments as well—I actually tried to acknowledge each one with a thank you for the share or thank you for reading my poem. The original post included the publisher and the year of publication, which was great. It was free publicity and that viral post sold a lot of books.
Since then, the poem’s been shared without acknowledgment of the publisher or the book or—at times—the author and that’s just wrong. Moon City Press does good work and I want to see them remunerated for it, but that’s not going to happen if the poem is out there, unacknowledged.
That said, I do wish I had a nickel for each time the poem is shared on social. It would be great if social media linked you to an author’s PayPal or Venmo where you could drop a nickel into the till and THEN read the poem. But alas . . .
WOW: That would be a nice solution! Now, let’s talk about your workshops. Your foundation class, “Less is More,” sells out months in advance. So many award-winning stories have originated from these entry-level classes! How do you drag so many great ideas out of your students?
Sarah: Like any good dinner party, you set the table just so and invite some good people and give them a couple of things to talk about. With my classes, it’s talk AND it’s write. I comment on everything that people post and try to respond to the comments as well. Asynchronous can be lively and interactive and highly collegial and my classes always are—all credit to the wonderful writers, like yourself, who show up!
WOW: Thank you. I always look forward to your workshops. Your prompt style really clicks for me, and I always love interacting with the other writers. As a teacher, do you see any common stumbling blocks that plague new flash writers, either in your classes or in general?
Sarah: Yeah, the write it and immediately send it syndrome. Some pieces do come out fairly whole and perfect, but I don’t know of any story that doesn’t benefit from a little time away from it prior to revising—enough time between the heat of creation and the cooler head of revision. There are always little tweaks (and sometimes big, monster tweaks) that a story can benefit from.
WOW: Your advanced workshops attract some of the top micro writers in the field. How do you keep people coming back? Do you structure the advanced classes differently?
Sarah: The prompts are a tad more challenging, I think, and go beyond the basic aspects of craft. I try to make the prompts open-ended as a little creative wiggle room is necessary for really good writers. And it’s important to scaffold, much like the New York Times crossword: Monday is going to be gentle and Friday’s prompt is going to be a little trickier. The third Friday of a three-week class, then, is the corker.
“Some pieces do come out fairly whole and perfect, but I don’t know of any story that doesn’t benefit from a little time away from it prior to revising—enough time between the heat of creation and the cooler head of revision.”
WOW: Do you vary your prompts and discussion topics from one year’s classes to the next? Is there any specific style of prompt that students seem to connect with most easily?
Sarah: I vary the prompts now and then, but really prefer to add classes. It’s fun to design them, to do something new and different and see how it flies. Last summer, I was building the Five by Five class and the work has come out of that has been nothing short of stunning. I’m ENVIOUS. This summer, I’m working on the Get It Down/Fix It Up. It’s pesky but it’s coming together.
As far as prompts go, I don’t think there’s one with universal appeal. Some people love visual prompts, others run as fast and as far as they can from them. A prompt that seems to have struck a chord is the first one in the Five by Five class, the literary territory one that involves the map.
WOW: “Literary territory” is such an evocative term. Can you share another prompt with our readers?
Sarah: Sure. Here’s one from Much More Than Less that’s generated some really wonderful work:
- Start with a how or why title—“How to Make Your Mother Cry,” “Why I Live at the Laundromat,” “Why I Don’t Date Men With Children,” “How to Lasso the Moon”—and on and on.
- Now write a story that answers the question—or better yet, don’t!
250 words or fewer.
WOW: That’s sure to generate some interesting ideas! What about your own new ideas? What’s next for you?
Sarah: I’m going to do another informal “August Micro a Day Challenge” and invite others to join me. I was 31-for-31 last summer, despite traveling, and I’m happy to say that one of those micros, “McDonald’s,” was chosen as the second-place winner in the October 2023 Bath Flash Fiction Contest.
I’m also working on a series of longer stories that revolve around a sort of clueless guy named Chuck, all of them narrated by various women throughout his life. So maybe a novel in stories about Chuck, though Chuck never steps to the plate (or hasn’t yet).
WOW: Can’t wait to meet Chuck! We have to wrap up now, but it would be a shame if we ended the interview without a quick mention of your superpowers!
Sarah: I am a very good swimmer and a master of parallel parking, a superpower I acquired when living in Philadelphia. Also, I’m among the 3 percent of drivers who know how to drive a stick shift, which maybe guarantees that my Kia won’t get stolen.
From parking to prompts to poetry—thank you so much for talking with me, Sarah!
And now, writers, are you ready to join Sarah’s August Micro a Day Challenge? If so, give her a follow on Twitter @sfreligh. Or, if you’re looking to level up your flash, or compress your micro writing to diamond-sharpness, take a look at her upcoming class schedule. You can see more of Sarah’s work on her website!
Myna Chang (she/her) is the author of The Potential of Radio and Rain, now in its second printing. Her writing has been selected for Flash Fiction America (W. W. Norton 2023), Best Small Fictions, and CRAFT. She has won the Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction, the New Millennium Writings Award in Flash Fiction. She hosts the Electric Sheep speculative fiction reading series. More at MynaChang.com or @MynaChang.