Summer '12 Flash Fiction Contest Runner Up: D.K. McCutchen

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
D.K. McCutchen MFA’d at UMass Amherst back in the Pleistocene. Lack of poetic-DNA led to a creative nonfiction tale of low adventure and high science in the South Pacific titled The Whale Road, which earned a Pushcart nomination & listed as a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Other literary thingies followed in Fourth Genre, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Identity Theory, Santa Fe Writers Project and others, as well as several Fish International short story anthologies. Resorting to flash fiction for that astonishing feeling of immediate gratification, her longer works-in-progress include a gender-bender post-apocalyptic novel titled Jellyfish (finalist for a 2012 Massachusetts Cultural Council grant), and its prequel Ice. Meanwhile she keeps her day-job, teaching writing to young science-heads from UMass' College of Natural Sciences, where she is managing editor for CNS student writing at IRL: Points of View in the Natural Sciences. She also cheers from her comfortable armchair for her family’s biocultural diversity research expedition Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple & Marine, which she is quite sure will end up as grist for her story mill. Visit her blog at: D.K.McCutchen: BooksArticlesReviews.

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on placing in the top ten in our Summer 2012 writing contest! What prompted you to enter the contest?

D.K.: I teach writing full-time and am a parent of two young storytellers. I have noticed that I send out shorter and shorter stories and essays each year – I even published my first poem last year. I am finishing a novel -- and started another over last summer -- but the time to write is often found in smaller and smaller increments. In fall and winter, I compose in my head during my afternoon commute (never the morning commute, then I have to think about my class lesson plans). Then, when I do get a chance, I have something specific in mind, which is often begging to be written.

Flash fiction, in that context, is very satisfying. It is something I can keep in my head, mulling over, for years if I need to. That may sound odd, but some stories do hang around that long before they make it to the page – at least in a final draft.

I entered the contest because I want to be an active writer contributing to the body of published work (or contributing to the ethereal internet cloud), and because this was a form in which I could write quickly (albeit from an old, unwritten story), edit intensively, and be finished with before the semester started.

I chose Women on Writing because I am a feminist to the core and I liked the idea. It sounds so very Virginia Woolf.

WOW: We'll take that last part as a compliment! What inspired you to write this particular story?

D.K.: This was one of those old stories, one that has hung-about in my imagination since my undergrad days. When I want a Flash Fiction story, I often dig around in my oral-storytelling luggage and consider which tall-tales might be told briefly without losing their punch. Then I test one out on paper and see what happens. I think since I’d told this one verbally and since I’d been thinking about first impressions of old friends, it jumped to the forefront and – irritating as it may sound – pretty much wrote itself – with a little help from me.

WOW: You’ve written fiction and nonfiction in various forms and lengths. Do you find one more challenging than the others? Are you drawn to one form more than the others?

D.K.: Flash Fiction is just pure fun really. I enjoy it a lot – when it works. The ones that don’t come together can be a bit of a let-down of course. But then one can move on, or just keep editing. Poetry is something I struggle with, though I’ve written it since childhood. I write it, but the Yankee in me wants everything to have a purpose, and I never even thought of publishing my poems (except that once, and it was a festschrift to a respected professor) so perhaps the form lacks that motivational drive for me. The novel I just finished (provisionally, I’ll probably revise it again), was also just pure fun. It got so stuck in my imagination that it became my daydream material, so every zoned-out moment became a composition opportunity. My biggest challenge was that, since I was writing it in such brief moments, it has a kind of snap-shot quality (not unlike Flash Fiction), that I struggled to make organic to the story. My first published book, WHALE ROAD, was nonfiction, mostly written at sea in waterproof notebooks. The big challenge there was also in revision, pulling everything together, once I was in my comfortable armchair at home, without losing those horribly uncomfortable yet dynamic moments on the water.

At some point during my graduate studies editing became as creative a process as initial composition. That has probably helped a lot in shifting genres. I'm a big fan of creative nonfiction. Overall I may be most drawn to fiction while being a bit more facile with nonfiction, perhaps? Ask me again after I get the novel published!

WOW: Do come back and tell us when the novel is done. What are some of the challenges and highlights of writing flash fiction?

D.K.: Challenges … choosing the right story to fit the length, perhaps, and then editing so that every word counts. I spend an inordinate amount of time editing Flash Fiction. Far more than I can on any three paragraphs of my novel (so far). I have certainly written some FF (mostly about my kids) which fell flat for a general audience. They were just photos of moments that were memorable for me, and might have been appealing to other parents, but not really for a wider readership. Sometimes I try to edit-down a much longer story into a Flash Fiction format, and that can also lose enough cohesion that it just doesn’t work. In general, I think FF is best for me as a new epiphany about an oft-told story, written in one sitting, with the bulk of the time spent on editing -- but not trying to find the short story in the longer piece, if that makes sense.

WOW: With a full time job and other responsibilities, how do make time to write? Do you have favorite tools or habits that get you going?

D.K.: “Productive procrastination” is my favorite. That means, when I have something I really have to do but don’t want to, like grading, I write instead. Don’t tell my students!

WOW: Writing does seem so much more appealing when there are other tasks that need attention. Thanks so much for chatting with us today, D.K.! Before you go, do you have any advice for beginning flash fiction writers?

D.K.: WRITE! “Words words words,” as Hamlet said. Or, as numerous writers from Red Smith to Hemmingway have been quoted as saying: “There’s nothing to writing, you just open up a vein…” It’s your choice whether to visualize that vein as producing blood or gold.


The Winter 2013 Flash Fiction Contest is OPEN
For details, visit:


Margo Dill said...

Congratulations, D. K. I love the productive procrastination. I think I have that when I have to clean my house. :)

Sarah Butland said...

Thanks for proving busy mom's can find the time to write amazing pieces. You give me hope, DK!

Thanks for writing and reading,

Sarah Butland author of Arm Farm, Sending You Sammy and Brain Tales - Volume One

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