Paying Attention to Form in Flash Nonfiction
Brenda Miller writes about how paying attention to form in creative nonfiction can invite the writer to make “inadvertent revelations where the writer no longer seems in complete control.” She says, “Form essentially becomes the writer’s inky courage.” Here, then, is a writing activity I developed that asks the writer to work with metaphor as a way of coming at emotional material indirectly. If it works, the activity should make the following possible (again, quoting Brenda): “Revelation or discovery emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.” Sometimes our material is too emotional for us to face head-on. Sometimes we need a form in which to contain it. By paying attention to the artistry, we can discover what we have to say. Here, then, are the steps of the activity, followed by the essay I wrote in response to the prompts.
1. Choose an abstraction to write about, something large and intense like grief, or sorrow, or love, or joy.
2. Daydream a list of particular emotional memories that the abstraction calls up in you. Write a paragraph focusing on one of those memories. Begin with the line, “I remember. . . .”
3. Now do a bit more daydreaming. When you think of the moment you’ve portrayed in the first paragraph, what other memories come to you? Grab onto one of them and make that the focus of your second paragraph, moving forward or backward in time.
4. In the third paragraph, concentrate on a particular object that comes from one of your memories. This object will be the title of your 750-or-fewer word essay. Describe the object. Put it into action. Gather the details that will lead to your final paragraph.
5. In this last paragraph, let the object grow into a metaphor for the intense emotional meaning rising in the essay. Write a simile, such as “That sloth is as slow as grief.” (From Jill Christman’s “The Sloth,” a much better example than my own essay.)
6. Find a fact with which to open the essay. Add a sentence to the beginning. Find a way to evoke that fact at the end.
A buoyant object floats in the air without using energy. It goes as it goes. I remember an afternoon in April—this was forty years ago—when I drove home with the sort of carefree delight that an eighteen-year-old boy can have in spring. My parents were waiting for me, and had been for some time, but I didn’t know it. My father said, “Where have you been?” My mother’s face was set with what I now know was worry. I was to drive them to the hospital, she said. My father had been ill in a way that I took little note of, and now the doctor was admitting him for tests. It was my Easter vacation from school, and I’d been at the state park with some friends. We’d been flying kites, and I had no reason to think that my parents might be in need of me. A sunny day, a cloudless sky, daffodils in bloom, the smell of grass, a fresh wind—I thought I had all the time in the world. But when my mother said, “We went out looking for you,” I knew that I was wrong. Standing in my house, I felt cut loose from all that was familiar and safe, swept up in time’s irrepressible current, and yet anchored to all that was yet to come.
Days later, in the parking lot of the hospital, my mother told me, “Your dad has cancer.” Just like that, something inside broke free and left me forever.
I’ve never forgotten the way I held onto the string as overhead the kite tugged at me. I bent back my head and watched it flit and dip and soar. I heard the plastic shudder and pop on its balsa wood sticks. I felt each change of direction, the kite going slack or taut.
Now I think of quail and goldfinches and the way they bob and dip. Swallows swoop and arc. All according to their instincts for flight. All in a beautiful and graceful motion. But this kite, glorious as it was, shook with the wind, rose and fell in a ragged and unpredictable way. No fault of its own. It was plastic and light wood at the mercy of the air currents. I did my best to hold it steady. I felt the strain of it trying to keep itself aloft. I thought, This kite is as stupid as misery. How easy it would have been to open my hand and let it go. In the end, I couldn’t save my father, nor can I save myself or anyone I love. Still, that day, only a length of string between me and the sky, I kept faith. I believed in the miracle of flight. I held on.
This is so helpful. Writing about something when it is loaded with emotion is difficult. Here you’ve given us an excellent of example of how to make it a successful piece of writing.
Thanks so much. I’m not sure how well my example hits the mark–as with all writing activities, there are things I’d probably work with more in revision–but I’m glad that you found it helpful. I appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment, and I’m also glad to discover your blog. With all good wishes–Lee
I always love your prompts, Lee. It amazes me how useful they are for students, and I realize I should use them more myself!
Thanks, Richard. This is a new exercise, so I’m really curious about its results. I’ll see how it worked for my MFA students tomorrow.
I was a little confused by the instructions for this prompt, but once I read your flash piece using them, I instantly understood. I love this prompt. I love all your prompts, but this one really spoke to how we can use metaphor (even extended metaphor) in our work. Thank you.
Thanks for the comment, Sarah. I’m sorry that the prompts were confusing at first. This is a new exercise I’m trying, so it’ll be good for me to revisit those prompts to clarify them if I can.
the last few years i’ve had a difficult time with sticking to the more demanding time and attention novels take. in discovering flash fiction years ago, i discovered a new form for personal story telling, much as you’ve described here. my mother has often said that our family on both sides are filled with such characters and odd events that i will always have plenty to write about. personal epiphany as well comes in these bits and so i have been practicing for awhile putting them in story form. i thought i was unique in this—but i see that it is a form that is practiced by many! i’m not one for “rules” but appreciate the encouragement and structure for those who are also setting out on the adventure of personal revelation. as any child or artist, i’m a bit excited by completing my latest one and would like to offer it to your blog and open for comment—with your permission. may i send it privately first? actually, i posted it on my blog the day before you posted this. love that kind of synchronicity. i look forward to hearing from you–
Hi, Kimba. I was out of town over the weekend, so my apologies for just now getting back to you. I’d love to see your piece. Please send it to me at email@example.com
Great stuff, Lee. Beautiful essay on the kite, which, is not about kite at all. I look forward to employing this exercise. I love that you offer concrete step-by-step exercises with an end in sight. Or perceived end. Or would that be a beginning?! Both good. Thank you!!!
You’re welcome, Naomi. This is a new exercise that I’m trying out, so I’m interested in the results that people get from it.
Hello, Lee. I’ve had your website bookmarked for some time now. I enjoy reading your posts and plan to link the site to my Turtle House Ink blog/site. I’ve been writing mostly poetry lately and my blog reflects that interest. But I also write fiction, so I want to tell the prose writers who come to my blog to check out yours for more about fiction writing. I’m interested in trying your flash fiction ideas from this post. Thanks!
Gee, Vicky, thanks so much. I hope the flash fiction ideas prove fruitful for you and others. I’m so glad that you left this comment. Many, many thanks.
This is brilliant. I could write 100 of these.
Thanks very much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. May all your writing days be good ones!
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