This morning as I was browsing my Facebook feed, I saw that Jamez Chang, flash fiction editor for Counterexample Poetics, linked to an interview with the editors of WhiskeyPaper. It’s a nifty interview—it gave me a new publication to explore. But it was also just nice to see an editor interview. I see far more interviews for authors than editors, and as an editor myself I like to see how others explain their processes, philosophies, and aesthetic preferences.
A part of Loran and Leesa’s answer for what they look for in submissions particularly struck me:
… the heart of the story. Where’s the light? Why do we care about these people/this story? And also, we look for something that lifts the piece from the ordinary; we want a flash or spark in there somewhere, something that feels special.
Yes! That. Where is the light? The question so perfectly and succinctly sums it up. I think back to my last round of submissions for A Hundred Gourds and how I selected the 15 pieces I did. Like every round before, some pieces I snatched up immediately, while others I weighed against one another for the last available spaces. What was the ultimate deciding factor? Light.
What is the light?
Scientifically speaking light is electromagnetic radiation. More importantly, these wavelengths are what allow the human eye to see. Light may also be called luminous energy.
Loran and Leesa mention a flash or spark, something that feels special. Something that’s not ordinary. In essence: freshness. That ah! sensation. While there are tried and true topics and approaches that work again and again, they can lose their wonder if visited too frequently. If I’m torn between two submissions of similar quality and one is traditional while the other a little more experimental or different, chances are I’ll select the latter. Because I’ve not seen it before and it works, I get excited and want to share it with others. That flash or spark makes me see differently. And that’s why we make or interact with art in all forms, isn’t it? To create and experience new perspectives? To illuminate ideas?
In conjunction with freshness, originality, and spark, I’m reminded of the Japanese aesthetic akarui, which can include “bright, light, illuminated, brilliant, shiny, brassy, active, energetic, noisy, loud, happy, drunk, passionate, wild, playful, vivid, and boundless.”¹ I, for one, am certainly drawn to writing or art that oozes with passion and playfulness. It feels alive, organic, like it could jump off the page. It makes me as the reader want to get involved—something that’s also exciting for an editor.
This is not to say light resides solely in the realm of feel-good and happy. The light can also take us to dark places—dangerous places. Places that we’re not entirely sure how we or the characters/narrator are going to escape. Sometimes the light barely leaks underneath a door, or creates more shadows than reality. Nevertheless the light compels, if not eggs us to continue. We follow the light because the light gives us hope, and we have to believe we won’t lose it within the story. The moment the light goes out and we lose hope is the moment we cease to engage. There is no dimension or resonance in the dull and blasé.
Only halfway through writing this post did I realize I’ve been listening to the many remixes of Linkin Park and Steve Aoki’s “A Light That Never Comes”. A little dismal, title-wise, but the lyrics highlight persistence and determination against all odds—a will to fight. Electromagnetic radiation isn’t present (it may never be according to the title), but the song itself is no less luminous.
What I’m trying to say is that the light is the heart and spirit. I see it even in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in the midst of cannibalism, starvation, and abandoned homes. The toys in the grocery cart, the can of soda. The narrator introduces the cola to his son as “a treat”. These things are not necessary for survival; they are necessary for the boy’s humanity. The novel’s stakes and impact wouldn’t be remotely as high if he didn’t have it. In the middle of the night, the stars and moon not only guide us, but prove there’s something beyond, even if we can’t always see it.
Karumi translates as “light beauty with subtlety”² and is often considered to include an acceptance and connection with everything. Lorin Ford notes that the haiku master Bashō “likened it to ‘a shallow river running over sand'” and that “with that sort of river there’s a lot more water held within the depths of sand than is visible on the surface.”³
Light, by the way, is one thing all religions have in common with one another.
Where do I look for the light?
Individual moments, physical surroundings. The strength in characters. The unexpected. Language, atmosphere, and ambience.
Sometimes light comes in small details that create sparks (such as the McCarthy examples). Each spark, albeit small, adds to the whole, which ultimately carries through to theme and resonance, which stretch for lightyears. They create depth and more intriguing shadows; the unknown, not matter how frightening, is only interesting if the known can shine. For example, part of why this idea of light and its importance wouldn’t leave me is because of what I was reading after the interview. After two and a half books in the Inkheart trilogy, Cornelia Funke continues to build Inkworld, the trilogy’s fictional universe, with the tiniest details: “White moths were suddenly hanging from the bare branches like leaves made of ice, and gray-feathered owls had begun hunting the fairies” (Inkdeath 359). I already knew that the first fairies in the novels hibernated during winter, but I didn’t know the consequences of not doing so until this passage. Half a book to the end of the trilogy and my curiosity about Inkworld is still fully peaked. The details like these provide flashes of the bigger, boundless world off the page.
Over the last couple weeks I’ve also been leafing again through Sean Lovelace’s flash fiction collection Fog Gorgeous Stag. I read a few pages every night or so. Like any flash worth its salt, every word counts. The combinations of words flare like the blue static beneath my cats’ feet when they walk across my bedding on these winter nights. “One Mythology” from this collection glows with phrases like “A howl of fog light” combined with “of shrieking blade” (19). This journey of not even 200 words, which tells of an age where books are a rare, coveted, and possibly prohibited thing, simply concludes, “This is how we have birds.” Revelation, reverberations, connections, and dissonance (all things I think this sentence does or creates) are also forms of illumination.
The truth is I could go on and on, long into the night. But I’d much rather know what the light is for you, and where do you look for it?