How You Are
  • It's in the way you set up the lab.

  • It's in the way you place everything on the benches: here, beakers in rows, two by two by two. There, a rack of test tubes, turned to face the fume cupboard.

  • It's in how you slip and dance between the freezers, how, as the years rain past, you are generous in your arranging and rearranging.

  • Everyone sees it, feels it. No-one looks up as you come and as you go, as if you are one more piece of equipment, while they pipette and shake and microscope.

When the day comes of your smash and breakage, no-one is there to see you pick and drop one beaker, pick and drop another. There are no witnesses to your feet meeting that rack of test tubes. The floor is glass and your shoes are where you left them by the door, so you are slivered too.

It is cool between the freezers, and you breathe and breathe and bleed, trying to make order of your cells. When finally you stand and see what you have made of it, how you have gone against your ways, you dream it all undone, walking on your toes towards where you left your shoes, down that corridor.

Inside you is a swan-necked flask.

And inside, matter is being altered.

Art by Eugenia Loli

Eugenia Loli is a filmmaker and collage artist. Originally from Greece, she’s now spent many years living in California. Before art took over her life she worked in the technology sector. Instagram: @eugenia_loli

Q&A with Tania Hershman,
Resident Writer 2019

What inspired this story and title?

The first line came to me: "It's in the way you set up the lab" and from that a whole character and story – and an atmosphere – burst out. This is how it often works, it's the voice first – either the character or the narrator. And I don't think too much, I just follow it. In fact, there's as little thinking as possible, I've learned over the years that it gets in the way of the kinds of pieces I want to write, which are generally quite odd and surreal.

I had science on my mind – but I often have science on my mind! I've been reading Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018, but this doesn't directly respond to anything in there. I love using the lab as a setting, ever since I was writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab in 2011-12. It immediately puts you in a different world, with its own sounds and tools and ways of doing things. The title came at the end, when I'd written the story. For me it's a play on "How are you", trying to say something about who we think we are versus how other people see us.

How did you think to lay out the piece like this? How important is structure to you in flash?

The bullet points came later, I really like being playful and this seemed to fit both the science setting, and also the two-part nature of the story, providing contrast. I've become much more interested in the structure of prose since I started writing poetry, about 5 years ago, which gave me huge permission to play around with everything I write in terms of shapes on the page. There's a long (and also science-inspired) short story in my most recent collection, which was reprinted in Best British Short Stories, which is told in three different voices: the first voice is always left-justified, the second voice is right-justified and the third voice is centred. Typesetters hate me! I believe that it's not just the poet's privilege, we prose writers can also make the page visually attractive to a reader, can delight the eye before they've even started reading. And, as with poetry, the layout, the choice of paragraph breaks etc..., affects the pacing, we can speed things up or slow things down. So giving those two final sentences their own lines, with all that white space around them, is something I did for a reason. I love playing, and I hope a reader enjoys it too!

Tania Hershman is co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers' & Artists' Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014), curator of ShortStops ( and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics. Tania’s third story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others (Unthank Books) and debut poetry collection, Terms & Conditions (Nine Arches Press) were published in 2017. Find out more: