This month’s FLASH on the FIVE comes from Barren Magazine. Barren puts out fantastic quarterly issues featuring a wide array of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, interviews and photography. In the latest issue, Rebecca Ackermann gives as a stunner in her flash piece “The Performer”. This is one of the stories that you’ll still be thinking about a week (a month?) after you read it. Check it out in the link below, and then come back for a brief Q&A with Rebecca to get peek behind the process of writing such a piece.
Favorite line: After I lost her, performing offered cool relief when nothing else could.
On the surface, this line is simple and straight forward. But it is exactly this directness that delivers the punch. Up until this point, we were merely voyeurs of this a bizarre Twilight Zone-Truman Show-Black Mirror episode. But when this line hits, everything changes -- "After I lost her..." There's no turning back from that. And I love that moment in flash fiction where everything is flipped on its head. Now we see the app and this woman and the relationship with her husband in a whole new light, one that won’t let us go until that brilliant, painful ending. So good! Needless to say, I was excited and honored to talk to Rebecca about the story:
1. I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “The Performer”?
I'm always interested in what's new in culture and technology, so I read a lot of articles (and headlines) when I should be writing. I read a Taylor Lorenz piece in the New York Times on how social media influencers were making money by polling their audiences on their daily decisions, and it made me wonder why anyone would want to give up agency over their own life. Then I thought back to all the times—especially over the past 18 months—when I didn't want to pick out what to wear or what to make for dinner because I was too exhausted by the relentlessness of the world. The idea of having someone else do it for me suddenly sounded like a relief in that context. So I wrote down that idea—outsourcing decisions as a grief coping mechanism—in my "Stories?" doc and off we went.
2. I love the opening line, how we are immediately thrown into this bizarre situation. And we are hanging on every line, but then at the bottom of the third paragraph you hit us with the gut punch of “After I lost her…” and the story and her “job” take on a whole new meaning. I think the decision of how and when to introduce her loss into the story is critical, and you nail it perfectly. Can you speak that decision-making process of the when and how to divulge this new information?
Thank you! I'm so glad it reads that way. The narrator has decided to disconnect herself from her thoughts and actions as a way to disconnect herself from her excruciating emotions. So I wanted the story structure to reflect how she's pushing away her internal life over the course of her daily routine but the grief keeps creeping back in. She coolly narrates her life to us, but at the introduction of her husband, she's reminded of how he's healing so much faster (or apparently is; I think we all know that healing looks different on everyone). That throws her back into her own pain, despite her efforts to ignore it.
3. The other really impactful surprise is that she is married. In the beginning, she seems so lonely that I assumed she was on her own. But then we meet Jeff about halfway through. And while he seems to say all the right things, we can’t help but notice she spends more time with her Patrons and with the dog than her husband. And his presence in the story, and the ease to which he seems to be healing, actually makes her seem even more alone. Can you speak to how you see their relationship and its evolution as you were working through the story?
I knew it was essential to speak to that aspect of grief and depression in the piece: Even if you have people who love you, working your way out of dark feelings is a solitary process. And sometimes having someone near you who's living in a different emotional reality can make you feel even lonelier than being alone. I went through versions of the story where she's angry at her husband for feeling differently, and versions where he was able to heal her. But ultimately, I realized that the story was about not just the loss of her baby but the loss of connection to her "before" life—which includes her husband. That disconnection was what led her to find comfort in other people online. That's something I think we can all relate to—I certainly can.
4. And wow, that ending! The “Forgive yourself” and the “I can’t accept this. I know it’s you.” Those lines are so powerful because they come as a shock yet simultaneously feel like it’s the only way this story could end. Did you see these ending lines from inception? Did they just come when you got to this part of the story? Something crafted in revision?
Definitely crafted in revision! Many thanks to my critique partners, writing group, and Katherine Tweedle's edits helping me arrive where I did. I knew that a sense of the uncanny was important to weave throughout the piece. The narrator is seeking something in the ether, a kind of zen state or transcendence that comes from giving up control. It made sense that she would find something there, even if it wasn't what she was looking for. She's looking for self-flagellation and catharsis to cope with the pain, but she finds forgiveness instead or maybe because of it. Healing is never a straight line; it's full of sudden emotional shifts from unexpected places.
5. What are you working on now, and where can we see more of your writing?
I'm so excited to have a flash piece in Hannah Greico's forthcoming anthology for Alternating Current Press, Parenting Stories Gone Speculative. I'm currently querying my first novel about a tech worker writing the voice of an AI who goes home to care for her unwell mother, and I'm in revisions on my second novel manuscript—about two sisters who find each other through genetic testing. As you can see, I'm really interested in the intersection of technology and our emotional lives. Which is to say, I'm totally addicted to Twitter and you can also find me there cracking weird jokes!