Communal and Personal Voices in Flash Nonfiction

This week’s post comes from my contribution to the Dinty Moore-edited, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. I don’t recall why, but at the time Dinty asked me for a contribution, I was pondering issues of voice, possibly because flash nonfiction is often voice-driven, or at least it is for me.

I remember one of my writing teachers, Gerald Shapiro, saying that he thought a good writer was usually a good mimic. I’ve always thought that a writer’s voice comes in part from the voices that surrounded him or her in childhood, a chorus of voices rising up from various communities: town, neighborhood, church, family, etc. , and in part from the individual speaking either in concert with those communal voices or in resistance to them.

Ancient Greek drama becomes an interesting way of thinking about how this works. In those plays, a chorus provided a cultural backdrop from which a single actor spoke. The voice of that actor was more personal, more lyric, giving the drama a more textured sound of an individual speaking from, and being considered by, a community.

Being aware of the communal and the personal voice when we write flash nonfiction can create a more textured sound. It can also lend a note of urgency, particularly if the juxtaposition of communal and individual creates a tension in the speaker. This tension pushes the piece along as the different voices rub together, providing the conflict of sensibilities crucial to the quick exploration of subject matter and character.

Here’s a writing activity that will help you practice this dance between the communal and the personal voices. Allow yourself no more than 750 words.

1.  Recall a saying from one of your communities (e.g. family, church, school, scout troop, neighborhood, town) and write an opening line that contains that saying.

2.  Keep writing using the language of the community to introduce a character. Here’s an example from the opening of my essay, “Dumber Than”:  A box of rocks. That boy–oh you know the one.

3.  Put that character in action. Again, an example from “Dumber Than”: Dropped his cat from that second-story sleeping porch just to see if it was true, what they said about cats always landing on their feet.

4. Find a place to step forward and to speak more personally. Extend the narrative or create a new scene: Once at Halloween, I caught him soaping the windshield of my ’72 Plymouth Duster.

5.  As you turn toward the end of your essay, consider how the persona you’ve established for yourself is fitting into, or separating itself from, the persona of the group. Be aware of any tensions that exist between the different aspects of yourself and how what you’re writing invites you to do a quick exploration of your own character.

6.  At the very end, find a way to blend your personal voice with the communal voice of the group: That’s when we got all righteous. Don’t act like it’s not true. Dumber than a bagful of hammers, we said. Now that’s one thing we always knew for sure.


  1. Richard Gilbert on October 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    I was just reading this book today, Lee. Your explication here is very useful, and this exercise, while essentially the same as the book’s, breaks it into helpful steps. I imagine I will be trying this in class.

  2. Ruth Ann on October 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Lee, I think I do this Everyday~~I just don’t put it in writing.

  3. Lee Martin on October 18, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I took this exercise on a test run in an undergraduate class this week, and some of the students reported good results. I’m going to try it in my MFA workshop today.

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