Write a Flash Memoir: Word Count Counts!
“The urgency of having to fit the content into an abbreviated frame is what makes it powerful.”
Last week’s article defined flash memoir, and pointed you in the direction of the online magazine Brevity: A Journal of Concise Nonfiction so that you could read a handful of Brevity pieces with an eye toward identifying their deeper story truth.
To review, a flash memoir centers around a defining moment and ultimately delivers a flash of insight that imbues even the shortest piece of memoir with meaning.
Think of the defining moment of your flash memoir as a moment of change in your life—a “before and after” moment that indelibly changed you: you were not the same after the defining moment as you had been before it happened.
Now that you have a sense of this deeper meaning as the heart of flash memoir, it’s time to write your own flash memoir within the structure of a chosen word count.
6 Steps to Writing a Flash Memoir
1. Brainstorm Your List of Defining Moments
As a form of prewriting, brainstorm a list of defining moments in your life. (For a more focused list, brainstorm defining moments in your life as a female. For example, the day you got your period, giving birth, breast feeding, losing your virginity, abortion, miscarriage, first kiss, rape, the moment you realized your sexual identity, etc.)
Set your timer for 5 minutes and generate a list of these moments. Don’t worry about chronological order. Just capture them as they come to you.
2. Choose a Defining Moment
Review your list. Which moment carries an emotional charge for you? Which moment resonates with you and wants to be written now? Circle that moment.
3. Freewrite the “Large Sense” of Your Defining Moment
How did the moment you circled change you? What do you know about this moment now that you did not know then? To quote Vivian Gornick (again!), “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Set your timer for 5 minutes and freewrite your understanding of this moment. Focus less on what happened than on the sense you can make of what happened.
4. Choose a Flash Memoir “Word Count” Frame
First, choose a Brevity essay that you are particularly drawn to, and size it up for structure with one simple question: How many words does it have? (You can copy and paste it into a Word document to determine its word count, or use a free online resource, such as Word Count Tool.)
By imposing a word count on your flash memoir, you are in fact imposing a structure that will “force” you to practice the art of brevity, which is the art of teasing out your flash of insight, i.e., the heart of your memoir story.
5. Write a Draft of Your Flash Memoir
Time to write! Try to do this writing in one sitting, getting your defining moment and the sense you make of this moment onto the page. Feel free to fold material from your freewrite in #3 above into your draft. Have your word count in mind, but know that it’s fine to go over your word count at this early stage. Step 6 will give you the opportunity to revise.
6. Revise Your Flash Memoir
As the saying goes, all writing is rewriting. Once you have written a draft, read it aloud to yourself, listening for the deeper story truth. Does your flash memoir contain a flash of insight that makes “large sense” of what happened in your defining moment? Does it stay within your word count?
Revise your flash memoir with these two things in mind: word count and insight. Delete any unnecessary words and extraneous “clutter” that overshadow your flash of insight. (Hint: if an image or detail or thought does not drive forward your understanding of what happened, consider it extraneous and delete. You can always put it back if it ultimately serves your deeper story truth.)
Think of revising as an opportunity to “re-vision”—to see anew—the material you are working with. Revise your flash memoir until it delivers your “flash” of insight within the art and frame of brevity.
Which Brevity essay did you model your flash memoir after?
What was your experience with writing into a word-count frame? Would love to hear from you in the comments below.