Years ago, when I lived in Boston and worked for The Horn Book Magazine, novelist and children’s author Alice Hoffman read her work at a local bookstore. After her reading, a woman in the audience asked Hoffman what she recommended for an aspiring writer who had started several novels but hadn’t finished them.
Without missing a beat, Hoffman replied, “Start short.” She explained that short stories provided an opportunity to practice craft on a scale more manageable and easier to sustain than the long-form demands of a novel.
Since that gathering back in the 1990s, short form narratives have proliferated, and the “short-short” story, known as flash fiction, has become increasingly popular.
Memoir, too, has its short forms. The “memoir essay,” to borrow a phrase Adam Gopnik uses in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2008, is an essay-length memoir, generally in the neighborhood of 2000 to 6000 words.
Short-short memoir essays—those under 2,000 words but more commonly in the under 1,000-words range—go by the term “flash memoir,” or “flash creative nonfiction.”
What Is Flash Memoir?
First, let’s define memoir in general.
Memoir is a sliver—or slice—of your life experience. (Memoir is not the story of your entire life—that would be autobiography.) This slice of life becomes the lens through which you tell a particular memoir story.
At the heart of every memoir, beneath the surface story of events, is a deeper story truth. This deeper truth imbues the memoir with meaning as the author makes sense of her experience. I always come back to Vivian Gornick on this point: “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.”
If a book-length memoir is a slice of life, then a flash memoir is a moment. But that moment is not necessarily bound by time. It is, rather, a singular instance of insight—a “flash,” if you will—that imbues even the shortest piece of memoir with meaning.
What do I mean by meaning?
In his preface to In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones, Bernard Cooper writes, “To write short nonfiction requires an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens, so to speak, until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.”
The flash in “flash memoir” refers to its brevity, yes, but it also—and more importantly—refers to its “flash” of insight into human experience.
Like a book-length memoir, a flash memoir engages readers at an emotional level so that they come away changed by a new level of understanding, however subtle, into what it means to be human. In other words, a brief memoir essay carries with it the power to move readers.
As Cooper also says in his preface to In Short, brief memoir essays provide readers with the opportunity to experience “the disproportionate power of the small to move, persuade, and change us.”
Writing Flash Memoir: Start Small
Maybe you’ve started writing a book-length memoir but, like the woman at Alice Hoffman’s reading, haven’t completed it. Or perhaps you aspire to write a book-length memoir but don’t know where to start.
Well, in the words of Alice Hoffman, why not “start small.”
Writing flash memoir—starting small—is an excellent way to practice the craft of writing memoir, and to prepare for the long-form demands of a book-length memoir. The brief form will require you to explore your deeper story truth and make sense of your experience (for yourself and for your reader) within a short page span. No space to wander down rabbit holes that take you away from the essential deeper truth!
Trying your hand at flash memoir also situates you to produce some beautiful memoir pieces that may, in fact, deepen your understanding of the subject you want to write about in a longer memoir. This understanding may provide you with invaluable insight—a flash of human experience—that will, ultimately, “move, persuade, and change” your readers.
Today’s Flash Assignment
Begin by first acquainting yourself with the flash memoir form. The online journal Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction offers a treasure trove of flash creative nonfiction pieces that are 750 words or less.
- Poke around and read whichever essays catch your eye.
- Hone in on five essays that move you.
- Reread each of these essays with the following questions in mind:
- What “large sense” does the author make of his or her experience?
- How, exactly, does this piece move me as a reader?
By pinpointing how a piece of flash memoir moves you as a reader, you are in fact practicing the art of reading like a writer and cultivating a writer’s sensibility for how to engage your readers at an emotional level when you return to the page.
Reading short memoir essays in this way—“seeing beneath the surface” of a piece to the larger sense the author is making—will make you a better writer when you try your hand at writing flash memoir and longer memoir.
I’ll offer another Flash Assignment next week. For now, enjoy reading like a writer and seeing beneath the surface of the memoir pieces you read.
And let us know in the comments which Brevity essay especially moved you.
Extra credit: Let us know how it moved you. : )