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Student Example and Professor Commentary
By Chris Boss, UR Writing Consultant
(printable version here)

Transcribed below is a flash fiction story written by a student at the University of Richmond, followed by an analysis and the creative writing professor's (Dr. Stevens) commentary.


The oldly roughened soul moved on. He limped slowly down an aging cobbled path and looked to the sky, bold and vibrant blue, and then he looked back down. Within two moments he found a crop stand with a crate of earthy crop. Thensome later he turned and walked before it.

He said nothing so the vendor said, “Fresh and portly yams.”

A horsefly paced across a narrow space of yam. That selfsame orange yam which the old man pointed to. But the fly flew off when the vendor picked it up. Glazed, the old man looked onto the outstretched dirty yam. Then he raised his arm and took it.

Half way down the path he stopped and doubled back. Because a buzzing wasp or bee flew a slender single circle around his head and disappeared into the sultry sky. At the stand of crop again he rolled his eyes across the crate of yams. The simple salesman-farmer leaned back and produced a low contented melody.

That night the night was cool.

Carnell Ritholtz emerged from the greenhouse with a satchel of taters. He limped oddly because the venom of the bad bugs stung him where the satchel touched his shoulder. And the satchel was so heavy too! And its threading was like roughened rope, just like his roughened skin. “Someday,” he thought, in fact he thought aloud, “I’ll fumigate the lot of them.”

Student Commentary:

At first glance, a reader might say..."What?"

Using traditional standards, a reader might dismiss "Farmtown" as unfocused nonsense. But perhaps upon rereading he might noticed some threads binding the story together, lending it meaning. There are two country folk, perhaps in a rural village, perhaps in a marketplace, perhaps even in medieval times, communicating very slowly. It seems this Carnell Ritholtz is fed up with the bugs. And the story mentions bugs directly twice, and once indirectly with Ritholtz's bug stings. So the reader might sense their importance in some way.

Here are some possible complaints that readers may have, and why the story may actually rectify them.

1) Nothing happens.
It's true that nothing much seems to happen. But maybe the writer intended that. Given the structure of flash fiction, maybe the writer set out to establish a mood rather than a plot, to recount events as symbols rather than as intrinsically meaningful occurrences. If something more tangible had occurred, maybe the figurative poignancy of the story would have been diminished. This is not to suggest the writer succeeded absolutely, nor is it to suggest that the fundamental omissions are excusable simply because the story calls itself flash fiction. Maybe the reader objects to the broad tenets of flash fiction, or thinks flash fiction is an easy way out. That's okay. Flash fiction writers shouldn't let that dissuade them from writing, because critics and proponents exist for every form of literature and art.

2) The setting and characters are vague.
Some readers believe that vagueness in a story indicates incompleteness. Actually, the opposite may hold true. In this case, maybe the writer thinks that describing Carnell Ritholtz in detail will detract from the mysteriousness of his aversion to bugs. The salesman-farmer may not need further explanation, because his role is to provide a scene in which Carnell comes into contact with the bugs. He could, in theory, be replaced with any other character without much changing the message. If that is true, then why expand upon him? It might just waste words.

The writer embeds the setting partially within the story's minutia. He mentions the greenhouse, evoking more of a modern image (although, technically, greenhouses have existed for centuries). Ritholtz mentions fumigation, which seems like a fairly modern invention. Whether that means 1970 or 2011 bears little on the meaning of the story. Similarly, the messages remain the same whether this takes place in Brazil or Australia or Kenya.

Professor Commentary:

Below is actual commentary from Dr. Stevens.

Farmtown with commentary

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