Flash Memoir and Night Trains
Learning a new genre
On Friday, I posted a Note on Substack requesting input on a short passage I had written some time ago. My question was whether it would classify as a story or vignette.popped up and explained that, due to a lack of conflict/resolution, it is a vignette, a “window” as he described it. also remarked that a short story’s conflict could end in a cliffhanger. That comment produced a light-blub effect that clarified much of what I see in short stories—the conflict is often unresolved, left for the reader to fill in. It is the rare novel that concludes without most, if not all, of the various threads tidied up by the end. confirmed Scoot’s observations and noted the more passive nature of a vignette, and that adding an obstacle for the character to overcome can turn a vignette into a story.
It’s funny that I know all about conflict and resolution for long-form storytelling, but this micro form lends itself to a more subtle arc of movement or change. And allowing for unresolved endings makes Micro, Flash, and Short stories stand apart from most long-form stories.
These are the pieces I’ve been missing from my grasp of the shorter genres. Now I know better how to read them.
Thank you, Substack MFA!
And so, here is the vignette. It is, in fact, a memoir and not fiction, but it could be read either way:
Night Train to Bucharest - 1992
Squeezed onto a hard bunk, high up the compartment wall, she settled into the night journey. She would not see the countryside slip past the black window below. But she was alone, on a train, and headed to a far-off city that only three years earlier had been forbidden.
On Christmas Day, 1989, after crackers and pudding, she had gaped with others at the TV screen—BBC images of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, bullet-ridden.
Now she lay in the dark, the ceiling so close her breath circled back to her face, aware of the other women in the cabin—crinkling paper, digging about in baggage, whispering in an unknown tongue. The piercing whistle. The ka-chunk, ka-chink, ka-chunk, ka-chink. The shush. Shush. Shush. The steady rocking of the bunk—so began the long night.
She did not sleep but lay in adrenalin-fueled alertness, absorbing every metal-on-metal screech, every curve in the track, the way her center of gravity shifted on the vinyl and pressed against the compartment wall.
Through the mesmerizing rhythm, a new sound broke. Stomping, clapping, fiddling. Young men’s voices singing patriotic folk songs built to a crescendo as the train reached a station, the celebration fading into the distance as it moved further east.
Throughout the night the same pattern: mid-night celebrations, rising and falling, as new recruits set off to join the army in a changed world.
I will upload the vignette separately under my “Flash Memoir” Section.
To the same Note thread, I posted the following passage. Another night train. This time I was not traveling alone but with an associate who had my nerves screeching like the rails by the end of a month. But, it made for great memories and much fodder for Flash.
Here it is:
Mombasa to Nairobi - 1992
We’re running late—again. He says.
Our train won’t make it from Mombasa to Nairobi in time to greet some important visitor at the airport. How could a guy who’s lived in Africa for five years keep getting this wrong?
What does he do? Come to my compartment before light and tell me we need to get off. I slide out of the dark upper bunk, hoping I won’t disturb the other passengers.
Get off where? Where are we? Not sure? Just need to get off? Oh, walking to Nairobi will be faster? Hush, hush. You’ll wake the sleepers.
He’s spoken to the conductor. There’s a village coming up. They’ll stop the train so we can get off.
He grabs my bags. I follow down the narrow corridor, stumbling side to side through broken fluorescent light. What else to do?
We drop into a sleepy village, earth and huts amber in the rising sun. People stare. They’re drawing water, washing, building fires for breakfast. A Korean guy and a white girl with packs are traipsing through their world at dawn.
We reach the main road. Dead straight and empty—both directions. Just scrub, asphalt, and sky. In the middle of Kenya. But we’re late. So, I guess walking makes sense.
When the eastern horizon becomes a large, dark sedan, he sticks out his thumb.
We climb in. Two men. I’m thinking—we’ll never be heard from again.
Turns out, they are headed for Uganda. Returning home from a business trip. Will be going right through Nairobi.
We make it to the airport on time.
Maybe our train would have too.
I hope to make time for more Flash Memoir. (Including more trains!) It’s a whetting stone for sharpening skills and taps a rich reservoir of material that will otherwise dry up with my bones. My primary focus must stay on my long-long form WIP (historical fiction set in 7th Century Syria and Persia) but there’s a lot of satisfaction in calling something finished.
As always, thank you for being here. Let me know if you have comments on the passages or anything to add to our vignette vs. short story dialogue.
Or, any night train stories for us?
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