I remember a story about Yogi Berra trying to explain the fine arts of hitting a baseball to another player and then realizing that he really couldn’t explain. “Let me show you,” he said, and he proceeded to demonstrate. Yogi was also known to say at some point, “How can you hit and think at the same time?”
I’m thinking about this as I start responding to readers’ requests, the first being to discuss the flash form of creative nonfiction. Let’s say we’re talking about 750 words or fewer, the size of essays that our friends at Brevity publish. Believe me, there are plenty of folks who are smarter about this form than I, but I’ll do my best to make what I hope will be some useful points, and maybe, like Yogi, I’ll even try to show you.
To write flash nonfiction, you have to:
1. Get comfortable with not knowing. When I start a piece of flash nonfiction, I feel as if I’m a horse who has blinders on preventing me from seeing anything extraneous. I can only see as far as the sentence I’m writing takes me. I don’t want to know where the piece is going. I want to be surprised when I get there.
2. Proceed with urgency. There’s no time to get comfortable. Writing flash nonfiction is like being pushed into a river, one with a strong current. You have to survive. Every movement you make means something. It’s life or death. Better start swimming. Better keep it up. The flash form demands this intensity even if the subject matter is quiet. You can’t waste a single word.
3. Let the voice guide you. Others may see this differently, but for me writing flash nonfiction has always been a voice-driven enterprise. Sometimes I find a communal voice that sweeps the essay along; at other times, I find an intimate, vulnerable personal voice that does the same work. A piece of flash nonfiction is in many ways a musical composition. It’s important to be aware of the sounds your words are making and to use those sounds to take you where you’re meant to be.
4. Be brutal. You have to be willing to restrain yourself while you’re urgently writing. There’s no time for explanation or much exposition. Flash nonfiction lives in the present moment even if you’re writing about something that’s long past. Remember that horse with those blinders? No time to notice what’s around you. Stay grounded in what’s immediate. Keep moving.
5. Be open. To me, being open involves being willing to think in terms of opposites. I might begin a piece with a voice of certainty, for example, as I do in my essay, “Talk Big”:
Nights like this—a Friday night at last call after too much Pabst, and Jack, and Wild Turkey, and Seven and Sevens—we talk big. Why wouldn’t we? We know who we are— the lowlifes, the no-accounts, the pissants, the stumblebums. All liquored up. Ten foot tall and bulletproof. . . .
From that first line, I’m on the lookout for the moment in the essay when the pressure of language, narrative, and imagery will turn that certainty into something that’s quite the opposite. This, after a violent death, is the ending of that essay:
Afraid to be alone, afraid to shut our mouths, let our tongues go dead, our words dry up.
What’ll we be then?
Scared to death.
This is the place I didn’t know I was headed when the essay began. Here’s a link to the entire essay: http://brevitymag.com/nonfiction/talk-big/
I often rely on the compression of narrative, the urgency of language, the attention to details, to create an organic moment of surprise, a moment of resonance. A piece of flash nonfiction can’t be quiet at the end. It can make a quiet sound, but it has to make an unforgettable noise in your readers’ hearts and minds. You have 750 words to make sure that no reader will ever forget the end of that essay.
Writing flash nonfiction is like something else Yogi Berra said: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.”