Writers are always asked where they get their ideas.
Readers want to hear about a magical power source and how an author, tapped into it, was given characters, a plot, whole stories wrapped in swaddling silk smelling of honey.
That’s not how it works. But writer Sarah Layden makes it seem that way in her new collection of flash fiction, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, published by Sonder Press and releasing Friday, Sept. 7, with a reading at Indy Reads Books (911 Massachusetts Ave, 7 p.m. with Kate Gehan).
To believe Layden tapped into a magic is to discredit the hard work she committed to crafting these stories, some dating back a decade. Still, each page crackles with energy you’d expect radiating from a wand, not from short prose.
Layden set out writing the stories as a post-grad school experiment. “It surprised me when I was working on these different pieces,” she said. “I didn’t go in with any intention. [In grad school] you don’t really have strict rules but you are thinking ‘what would my professor think of this and what would my classmates and peers think of this.’ It was post-graduation so now I was asking myself ‘what do I think of this?’ and it went to some really weird places.”
Layden, who published the novel Trip Through Your Wires (Engine Books) in 2015, said she wasn’t familiar with the term flash fiction to begin with, but it was something she was reading a lot of in online journals. She was also trying her hand at poetry, only to have friends tell her that her poems were too narrative and that she should instead write a story.
For those unfamiliar with the format, flash fiction is a short story that measures between 500 to 1000 words, though Layden says the length is debatable. “It’s a story that does a lot in a very short space,” she said. “It’s really a glimpse—like a flash on a camera capturing a moment.”
The moments captured in the collection range from a man who calls an ex repeatedly (though Layden paints a picture that transcends the creepiness of the action and instead shows both the comfort and hurt the calls create), a woman with no skin wearing a special suit which attracts words like dust, another woman who is a house, unable to escape the baggage it holds.
Then there’s Marv, a Harry Dean Stanton-esque sad sack who can’t quite accomplish his 12 steps. Layden leads the reader in and out of her characters’ lives with care, describing their circumstances in ways such as “They had failed together. They had been together and failed. Together they had been failures.”
Loss permeates nearly every story, something Layden often contemplates. “A condition of living is learning to live with loss,” Layden said. “That’s a life question I’ve always had on my mind and probably always will.” Yet the stories never feel dour. They feel human, lived in, like our own personal tales.
In one of the collection’s best pieces, “He Waits, Wants,” a man lies with his legs in the air post sex, hoping for a pregnancy. “I’m really interested in the question of nature vs. nurture,” Layden said. She described her sons playing with their female cousins when the boys decided it was time to play war, a notion the girls rejected.
“I’ve never said to my boys ‘be really aggressive’ but [war] is something they are interested in and really thinking about, whereas the girls have no interest in it at all. And my boys—raised in the same house in the same way—are completely different people in terms of how they express themselves and even in the way they express gender. Same with my nieces. It’s an interesting question—how we are born versus how we are raised versus what does society at large say about that? All of the intersections there are points of potential conflicts.”
And this is not to say that the book is full of protest. The ideas are there. The questions asked. But they come naturally alongside the worries, the loss, the life. Layden has created a collection of stories that spin our world into something we’ve never seen before but we feel every day. And she’s done it so well it seems like magic.