Abbie Barker is a creative writing instructor living with her husband and two kids in New Hampshire. Her flash fiction is featured or forthcoming in several publications including, Berkeley Fiction Review, Cutbank, Cincinnati Review, Superstition Review, Pithead Chapel, Atlas and Alice, and Best Microfiction 2022. She earned a degree in fiction from the Mountainview MFA and an MA in literature from Fordham University. She loves the ocean, large dogs, and coffee shops. Read more of her work at abbiebarker.com or connect with her on Twitter.
----------Interview by Renee Roberson
Read Abbie's winning story here and then return for an interview with the author.
WOW: Hi Abbie, congratulations on your 2nd place win in this contest! Your piece contains a unique structure with three different segments. How did you first get the idea for the the story and what inspired you to format it this way?
Abbie: Thank you! Like many of my stories, “Store Aisles I Passed Through Before Leaving Town” was first drafted in a workshop. This one transpired from a Sarah Freligh prompt. Her micro classes are wonderful, and I recommend them for anyone wanting to sharpen their skills writing tiny, distilled stories. I won’t share the full prompt, but in general, we were asked to write about a character or narrator’s specific memory while focusing on concrete, sensory details.
When drafting this story, my initial intention was to focus the entire story in the cosmetics aisle. However, one thing that excites me about any workshop is how a prompt provides a starting point, or a way in, but as the writer, we have to find our own way out. It didn’t take me long to realize that the larger story happened outside or beyond that first interaction with the mother. At the time, I was also in the middle of a bathroom renovation and had spent several hours in Lowe’s staring at tile, so that second scene was pulled directly from life, and then tweaked to fit the story and narrator. When possible, I try to pull from my own settings and experiences and those details find their way into my work in a variety of ways. This helps me keep my fiction more concrete and specific. Once I had written two segments, I knew I wanted to write a third to round out the story. So, I chose a third store aisle that I hoped could provide another glimpse into the lives of these three characters while creating movement. In segmented flash, I love playing around with white space and what’s been left unsaid, and it was a lot of fun tying these segments together through the store aisle setting.
I feel fortunate that I discovered the structure in the first draft. Subsequent drafts focused on tightening the language and finding the right title. I first titled the story, “Store Aisles I Remember,” which was functional, but I really liked the idea of choosing a title that could do a little more “work” and perhaps hint at the aftermath. This is one of my favorite titles that I’ve written, and I’m glad I waited to send this piece out until I landed on one that excited me.
WOW: That sounds like an amazing class. Speaking of classes, you also work as a writing instructor. What are some of your favorite college-level English courses to teach and why?
Abbie: I have been teaching college English courses part-time since 2009 and have taught several different composition courses, as well as a few literature courses, and now I teach creative writing online. My favorite course to teach is a beginning fiction workshop. My students spend the term working on a 6-8 page short story (twice as long as the stories I’ve published!) and I’m tasked with guiding them through the process of writing a complete and contained work of fiction over the course of eight weeks. While I love helping students sharpen their skills, what makes it so fun is how passionate and excited my students are to be there. Most of my students are creative writing majors and the rest are students that choose the course as an elective because they enjoy writing and want to pursue that interest at a deeper level. When I taught composition, I always had to work hard to convince students that they could become stronger writers with patience and practice and beyond that, I had to encourage them to put effort into that practice. Now, when I teach fiction, my students generally show up excited to write, and my biggest challenge is helping them maintain that excitement through the process of drafting a complete story (because we all know the process is sometimes frustrating and even discouraging).
WOW: You have an impressive list of publications. What advice would you give writers hoping to break into literary journals?
Abbie: Thank you! I’m sometimes so focused on “what’s next” that I forget to step back and acknowledge what I’ve been able to accomplish so far, so I appreciate you saying this. I wish I had something new and profound to say on the topic of lit mag publishing, but for me it simply comes down to patience and persistence. It’s easy to become focused on the final product and lose patience in the writing process. I have to remind myself to slow down and give every story the time it needs. I am a slow writer, so this is why I enjoy flash because even the slowest writer can complete a story of 1,000 words or less in a reasonable amount of time. Sometimes I miss submission deadlines because a piece is not ready, but I remind myself that these journals will open again for submissions in a few months or a certain contest deadline will come around again next year, and hopefully I’ll be better prepared by then. I’m in my early forties, so I’m not a particularly young writer, and I’m always balancing my own sense of urgency to get my work out there with the necessary patience required to wait for the right opportunities.
I have also spent a lot of time researching literary magazines. I read ranked lists and the annual “best of” anthologies, including Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Wigleaf Top 50. Spending time reading a wide variety of literary magazines has helped me find the right home for the work I have been fortunate enough to publish. There are a range of opportunities out there, and I think it’s important to focus on publications that excite you. Beyond that, it’s also important to not give up when the magazines you admire turn you down. The selection process is both competitive and subjective! One of my stories collected over 30 rejections before placing in a contest that I am thrilled to have placed in. Publication success will come, but it requires this careful balance of patience and persistence, or in other words, learning when to stubbornly submit, and when to take a step back and stubbornly revise.
WOW: What is your writing process like? How do you know when a piece is complete and ready to find a home?
Abbie: This is a challenging question to answer because I feel like my process is always evolving and I don’t fully understand it. Sometimes first drafts come together quickly for me, and other times I have to fight my way through them. When everything (including my kids’ schools) went remote in 2020, online workshops were crucial to my writing process – I wasn’t completing story drafts without them. I needed the deadlines and regular feedback. Earlier, while I was earning my MFA in fiction, I wrote much longer stories, and I hadn't received any formal training in flash, so I craved instruction specifically on the form. A workshop I took with SmokeLong Quarterly in 2020 was crucial to my understanding of the form and led to some publication success in my first year of submitting. This year, I’ve been enrolling in fewer workshops, so I’m not drafting nearly as many stories, but I’m spending a little more time with each draft and finding my own pace and rhythm. I really enjoy editing at the sentence level and also cutting out extra words or even entire paragraphs, but I’m still learning how to take bigger risks in the revision stage. In my response above, I mentioned the importance of patience, and I’m still figuring out how to be patient with my own work and how to gauge when a story is ready for publication. Sometimes I have to send a story out to one journal before I know whether or not it’s ready. Hitting “submit” tends to crystalize my feelings. There have been a few times where I stopped submitting a piece after only one rejection because I recognized the need for more time. I am also involved in a wonderful group of flash writers who are always willing to offer support and feedback when I’m stuck. Knowing when a story is ready for publication mostly comes down to a gut feeling, and to be honest, I still sometimes get it wrong. I’ve gradually grown more confident in knowing when to submit, but this confidence has come with experience and receiving generous feedback along the way, beginning in graduate school.
WOW: It's good that you know without workshops and submission deadlines you would have difficulty finishing drafts. It sounds like accountability is crucial in your writing process. “Blue People” was nominated for The Pushcart Prize. How hard was it to develop and revise what must have been a highly personal piece of writing?
Abbie: It was such a huge honor when Cease, Cows nominated “Blue People” for the Pushcart Prize. This was my third story accepted for publication, but the first piece of flash fiction that truly excited me in the process of writing it. Like many of my stories, the idea began with the first line and from there, the voice of the narrator snapped into place, and I was able to draft the story rather feverishly without the aid of a deadline or workshop. I appreciate that you recognize the personal nature of the story. It is fictional, and while most plot elements are made up, the core of the story does come from a personal place; writing it became an indirect way for me to reflect on my relationship with my sister and how those dynamics might change once our mother is no longer here. (I will say, the Blue Man Group detail is true). When composing "Blue People," I was meeting with a couple writer friends in person, and they provided me with some tremendous feedback on the first draft. I’m so glad I had sensitive readers; they both had intimate knowledge of schizoaffective disorder, which gave me the confidence I needed to send the story out after revisions. I ended up removing a scene from that first draft and making it into a separate flash, which was later published in Monkeybicyle. I have since written a couple other pieces that explore this sister relationship in different ways, and I have certainly considered expanding these stories into a larger project, but have not made that leap yet.
WOW: Thanks again for all this great information, Abbie. I know our readers will find this helpful. We wish you continued success in your writing journey!