Flash Fiction and Haiku

Flash Fiction and Haiku

Storyteller Dorotea Mendoza explores the intersection between two very short story forms

What do flash fiction and haiku poetry have in common? And how do each of these forms approach story in their own unique ways? Recently, I attended a workshop on Haiku hosted by Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one of the faculty members, storyteller Dorotea Mendoza, leaped into these questions.

The two-day workshop, billed as a “big tent” approach to haiku, cast the net wide to include traditional haiku, structured 5-7-5 poems, as well as free form verse and even visual haiku. Into this mix, Mendoza brought her refreshing look at haiku poetry through the lens of flash fiction.

A gifted writing teacher, as well as a playwright and fiction writer herself, Mendoza’s favorite story form is flash fiction.  “My hope is for us to deepen our relationship with haiku, to feel an intimacy with the form, by looking at another form, like a mirror.”

I had not realized that flash fiction doesn’t have an agreed upon definition in the writing community. Mendoza explained: “Some people define it as less than a thousand words. Others say it is less than five hundred words. Still others define it as less than a hundred words.”

The intersection between the two forms is distinct. “Haiku is direct and so is flash,” Mendoza said. “You start right in the middle of what’s happening. No explanation. And the end is really not an ending.” Both are pointed at the specific and the universal at same time. And both, if done well, have “the leap”—a moment of insight or recognition for the reader that takes a beat to realize. “A spirit of surprise,” Mendoza called it.

Reading a haiku poem by Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mendoza followed with a reading of her own flash fiction, a pairing that drew beautiful lines of connection and distinction at the same time.

The Issa poem she shared was this:

surrendering it

to the nesting birds

my hut

You can listen to Mendoza read her flash fiction piece, Caregiver, here:

If you’d like to learn more about Mendoza’s work, there are two great ways to do so: her own website doroteamendoza.com and the website of a women’s writing group that she has been part of for eighteen years Sari-Sari Women of Color Arts Coup.

Noting that “writing is a communal practice,” Mendoza also demonstrates that writing can be an act of service. Sari-Sari is not just a writing circle, it is a grassroots non-profit organization with a mission: 

“The organization is run by a small group of us who are unpaid (by choice) volunteers. Donations go to fund honorariums to guest teachers and public offerings. Currently those offerings include: a monthly writing groups for BIPOC; events around Export Quality; a play about sex trafficking based on stories of mail-order brides from the Philippines; and work with women organizers and activists in the Philippines to document their experiences.”

Mendoza noted that Sari-Sari does not have big corporate donors or governmental funders to support the organization. Remaining true to the spirit of their work, the group relies on support from grassroots contributors. If you’d like to donate, you can do so HERE.

Also, if you’d like to watch the recordings of the entire Haiku workshop, you can register HERE. Other faculty included Roshi Joan Halifax, Kazuaki Tanahashi, Natalie Goldberg, Lorraine Padden, and Billy Collins. Upaya graciously offers almost all of its programs for free and depends on donations keep them that way.

Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.

Lucille Clifton

Betye Saar’s Assemblage

Betye Saar’s Assemblage

The power of story told through Objects and Artifacts

Betye Saar has been creating art since graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1949. Now ninety-six years old, her body of work has been exhibited at so many museums and galleries and has received so many awards that it takes roughly seventeen pages to list it all on her CV. The New Yorker magazine has called her “one of the most significant philosopher-artists of the past century.”

Saar began her career in design and printmaking before developing her now signature style of visual storytelling through assemblage of found objects into sculpture and tableau. “I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology,” Saar says. “It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously. The art itself becomes the bridge.”

The photo of her at the top of the page, taken by photographer Michele Mattei, feels like a still-life assemblage of Saar herself. Posing behind the silver branch in her silver necklace, with her silver hair, she evokes both the wisdom of her years and the incisive social and cultural commentary of the pieces she has created throughout her career.

Since so much has been written about her, I will point you to profiles of her by The Hammer Museum at UCLA, Apollo Magazine, and The Museum of Modern Art, as well as to her own website to read more about her life and work if you are not familiar with her already.

In this space, I simply want to offer an acquaintance with her in her own words.  The first video, a two-minute studio tour, takes us into her space where she talks about how she finds objects and how the stories inside those objects reveal themselves to her.

In the second video, she describes making her sculptural tableau “I’ll Bend But I Will Not Break,” a moving piece that connects slave ships and the slave trade to an old wooden ironing board.

I make my art in silence. The materials conjure ideas. The ideas conjure images. The images conjure art. The art conjures feelings. The feelings are the goal.

Betye Saar

Story Triptychs

Story Triptychs

A Story Triptych by Performance Artist Leslie Grasa

Colorado based artist, teacher, and healer, Leslie Grasa uses the term “Story Triptych” to describe the performance piece she shares with us here. As part of her Capstone project for her Master of Divinity degree from Naropa University, she performed this short telling, in which she recounts a single story from her childhood three different times. Each time, she adds new layers to the narrative. In doing so, she deepens her understanding of the event, along with ours, as she goes.

Seeing this piece reminded me of a writing prompt I worked with several years ago in a workshop led by spiritual memoir author and teacher, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. Elizabeth asked us to take a familiar story from our lives and write it exactly as we’ve always told or heard it. After finishing this version, she asked us to “put on a different pair of glasses”—a new perspective from which to look at the event in question—and to re-write the story through that lens.

I had chosen a childhood story that always gets a hearty laugh, in which the punchline is that I was a precocious, mischief-maker as a five-year-old. My first thought when Elizabeth encouraged us to choose new glasses was Fear. But I sat for a long while with my pen motionless, not wanting to look at the story through those glasses. When I finally did, I had a moment of new awareness that stunned me. In the middle of a busy workshop, I had a transformative realization that helped me hear my own story, not the version that had always been told about me.

In Leslie’s performance piece, called The Fire Pole, this idea of reframing—of mining our memories for new understanding—is demonstrated with a warmth and fearlessness that draws me in immediately.

More about Leslie

In addition to being a performance artist, Leslie is a Reiki Master in the Usui Shiki Ryoho System, and has been initiated in the Hungarian Bacsa Shamanic tradition. She is also a Laughter Yoga Ambassador and Leader, facilitating laughter yoga for 150 people from around the world almost every night. “The magic of that process I can’t even explain,” she told me. “Language is not a barrier because it is unnecessary.”

Of her artistic mission, she says: “I weave the power of energy work, contemplation, and laughter with the world of theatre and story to support people in accessing higher levels of consciousness and remembering their Basic Goodness and the perfection of their own unique hero’s journey. Whether working with clients and students, or performing original work inspired by dreams and fairy tales, I am passionate about the ancient practice of using stories and ritual to bring healing to individuals and communities.”

For more of Leslie’s work, visit her YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@lesliegrasa9588/featured


Aliveness springs from our making something of what we experience and receiving what experience makes of us.

Ann Belford Ulanov

A Story Prompt

A Story Prompt

On a walk this summer, I filmed a variety of short video clips to familiarize myself with a new camera. Reviewing the footage afterwards, I chose what I felt were the best of the visual results to play with and edit.

I had no intention of creating a story or insinuating a story line. I simply stuck what I considered the best imagery together in a one minute video⏤collaging one sequence and leaving two other segments spare. My purpose was solely to keep a record of the results. On a whim, I decided to add music afterwards.

For me, the music instantly turned the random scenes into a story. Not one I had intentionally envisioned, but one that emerged for me out of my own personal history once I experienced the imagery with the spare musical notes.

One of my professors had recently commented that we could put any imagery together in an exhibit and viewers would make meaning out it⏤that our desire for meaning is so strong we will make associations even among unrelated things.

If you’d like to put the theory to a test, watch this minute-long piece and let me know if you sense a story in it. And if you do, what might that story be?


Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell a story. Make some light.


Dance and Bill T Jones

Dance and Bill T Jones

“Movement begins to negotiate the distance between the brain and the body.”⏤Bill T. Jones

For a class in my MFA program in which we explored our identities as artists, we were asked to choose an art form we’d never tried before and practice it as a means to gain insight into our own art. This is how I became acquainted with Bill T. Jones.

Although there is a photo of me in a pink tutu as a three-year-old and I look quite happy in it, I have never considered myself graceful in movement or anything remotely close to a dancer. The idea of dancing in front of others made me so uncomfortable, I think it was the enormity of my fear that goaded me into trying it for this class. In the process, I found a story muse in Bill T. Jones.


Born in 1952, Jones is an acclaimed choreographer, director, author, and dancer. In the early 1980s, he and his partner (in dance and life) Arnie Zane created their own dance company. Through their groundbreaking work together, they “redefined the duet form and foreshadowed issues of identity, form, and social commentary,” as noted by their dance company’s website. After Zane’s death in 1988, Jones brought his work to New York Arts Live and became its artistic director.

Still/Here, a 1995 dance created by Jones about people living with terminal illness, illustrates everything I love about his approach to story: he is astute at distilling complex narratives to their essence without losing the nuances of the details; he is brilliant at channeling emotion through his performances and his choreography; and he builds story by listening deeply to those with experiences relevant to his subject.

In an interview with Bill Moyers about Still/Here, Jones is shown working with the volunteers he recruited to help him create the dance. All were people living with terminal illness. With Jones’ tender and intuitive guidance, each person in the group was nurtured and encouraged to reflect on their life, even envisionoing their own deaths, and to translate their feelings into body movements. The experience is cathartic and transformative for all involved. These movements became the building blocks from which Jones choreographed the dance.

Jones’ work opened a world to me that I had ignored⏤the idea that we hold so much of our life story within our bodies; that our felt experiences leave residues within us which can linger long after we think we’ve moved on; that movement can unlock and express memory, emotion, and identity in ways not available in other art forms; and that dance is a healing story form every bit as powerful and maybe moreso than writing or any other form of story expression.

That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something.


Search for Original Face

Search for Original Face

“Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents were born.”⏤Zen Koan

When I first read this Buddhist saying, I was startled. It was an “aha” moment, finding a term for something I felt I’d been looking for all my life. Even though I had never heard this idea before and had yet to study what it means in Buddhism, I began framing my own inquiry into memory and identity as a search for my Original Face.

Of course, this idea has been the subject of lengthy discourses ever since it was uttered by Zen Master Huineng in the 7th century, but for the sake of brevity here (and with the admitted risk of oversimplifying), I find Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Sutherland’s distillation of the teaching to be extraordinarily clear:

“Before the engines of thought and feeling start revving, before you’re making judgements or starting to act out of some motivation like trying to win or please…before the whole mad story of You heaves into the picture, complete with family legacies handed down through generations…who are you?” (from pages 66-67 of Sutherland’s book Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans)

Does this concept conjure reflections on your own life? If not, how do you visualize or think about inquiries into identity? For you, is it an exercise of looking into the past, your own, or generationally? Is it an exercise of looking into the future? A little of both? Or something else entirely?

Whatever you carry out of your province, you carry out in your face.

Community Values

Community Values

So…there’s one more important housekeeping item we should think about before we begin. What are our community values? How do we want to give and receive responses to one another?

My thinking may be too simplistsic (and I hope you will tell me so, if that’s the case) but, for me, four key values come to mind to guide our posts here:


What else should be on the list? Are there things I am missing?

Photo Credit | Ironbound Community School: Newark (NJ) courtesy of Internet Archive.org

Because stories and identities are negotiated within communities, the re-writing and re-authoring of alternative stories can never be a solo endeavor.


Let’s Define Story

Let’s Define Story

For the record, I define story very loosely and plan to let each of us define it for ourselves rather than impose one definition. In fact, maybe our first act together should be to share how we define it.

OK, I’ll go first (full disclosure—I am a word geek):

Story is “a narration of a happening.” I tweaked this language from the listing for the word story at etymonline.com. Apparently, this use of the word dates to the year 1200. I like it because it is simple and allows a lot of room for going in many different directions. Yet, the word “narration” feels rather writing-centered and that is not my intent. So, I dug further. Looking at the word history, which is related to story, I found the Greek historia which originally meant “a learning or knowing by inquiry.” I like the idea of story as being centered around inquiry and exploration. So here is my working definition:

Story is a learning or knowing by inquiry that is shared in any art form.

What’s your definition?

I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty.




Welcome! Before we begin in earnest, I thought I should tell you who I am and why I created this space. So I wrote you a letter. If you’d like me to read it to you, you can click the audio player below. I assume you got here by first visiting the StorySpeak homepage, but if not, I suggest you hop over there to read a few more details about my plans for this site.

Please say hello in the comments section. If you are willing, I’d appreciate hearing what you think of this idea and if there are particular topics related to story that you might like to explore in community with other art makers.

Dear You,

a letter to tell you about this space