How to Know When to Be Quick: Writing Flash CNF

I just finished teaching an online workshop in flash creative nonfiction for the fine folks at Word Tango. I loved this group of writers who were fearlessly vulnerable as they captured those illuminating moments that surprise us at the end of a good piece of flash.

One question that arose was how to know when our experiences are better suited to fiction or nonfiction. As someone who writes both, I often get this question.

For me, the answer has much to do with what Patricia Hampl once said about memoir never being about the past, but instead about the future. When I sense that there’s something in a past experience that merits my attention because it will lead me to knowledge or understanding I need to carry on into my future, I turn to nonfiction. Nonfiction allows me to claim an experience as mine and to announce that in a piece that interrogates something about that experience, something I need to know. My first book was a collection of short stories, nearly all of them about sons and fathers in difficult relationships. Then I wrote my first memoir, From Our House, a book about my own difficult relationship with my father. Writing that book was an empowering experience in a way that treating that relationship in fiction couldn’t rival. When I named the facts of my father’s accident, the rage he brought into our home, my mother’s faith and endurance, and my own rebellion, I had to confront everything I’d sidled up to in fiction. I had to think about the story of my family in a way that changed me in a number of good ways. This is the payoff for putting your life story on the page.

A second question that came up this weekend had to do with how you know you have something that the flash form of cnf will serve well. It’s true that not all material will fit the flash form. Usually, there’s a crystalline moment, often small in nature, that stays with us. If you have one of those moments, one of those instants in time when something profound happened for you, then you should be able to fit it into the flash form. Those pivotal moments from our lives, those illuminating flashes that opened our eyes, if only temporarily, to ourselves, others, the world around us. Those moments that shook us and helped shape the people we are now and will be in the future. Those are the moments that the flash form can contain.

Think of those moments from your past that you’ve never been able to forget. Think of the emotional complexity associated with them. Think of a spark, a burst of light, a window going up and allowing you to see more fully. Tell that story. Start as close to the flash as you can, and once the light is on, stay there as long as you can until it makes the meaning you didn’t even know you knew.


  1. Jolene McIlwain on August 22, 2016 at 8:23 am

    Thanks again, Lee, for an incredibly helpful and thought-provoking class. Your writing and your teaching–both so inspiring!

    • Lee Martin on August 22, 2016 at 10:37 am

      Thanks so much, Jolene. Keep doing the good work!

  2. Joy Gaines-Friedler on August 22, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Great class Lee. I especially enjoyed reading everyone else’s work and your positive and clear stated comments. My piece may have been too ambitious for Flash NF. I tried to connect the murder of my girlfriend to my mother-in-law’s experience of missing her missing girlfriend during the Holocaust. Not a “crystalline” moment for me – more like a conceptual connection between the two experiences. Not sure. But loved writing those 664 words.

    • Lee Martin on August 22, 2016 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks, Joy. Maybe it’s time now to take those 664 words and add more, go deeper, question and speculate, etc.

  3. Jennifer Kircher Carr on August 23, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    It was a great class, Lee, and we were honored to host you at WordTango! I’m grateful for all of your wise direction. I love the idea here that memoir is not about the past, but about the future.

    • Lee Martin on August 23, 2016 at 4:58 pm

      Thanks so much, Jen. What an impressive group of writers!

  4. Jayne Martin on August 24, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    I feel like everything I already knew about flash and about CNF finally merged in this class. Big epiphanies! I think much was due to the specific prompt you gave us that, opened up a whole memory chest filled with stuff I didn’t know what there. I was able to tap into feelings I had covered with snark or jokes in the past. Your lecture on revising was like having you hold my hand and walk beside me. There is such a huge difference between my first draft and final, which I just put the polish on this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever come away from a class with a piece I was this proud of. Ready to hit some submit buttons. Thank you, Lee.

    • Jayne Martin on August 24, 2016 at 7:16 pm

      Typos! Grrrr!

    • Lee Martin on August 25, 2016 at 9:07 am

      Thank so for your comment, Jayne. I’m very glad the class was a good experience for you, Good luck with the submission!

  5. Richard Gilbert on August 29, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks for this post, Lee, a real nugget of gold for the test of what you need from the past now, to carry into the future.

    And your class was the gold mine itself. You have the ability to put your finger on the one thing, or few things, that a piece really needs to work. Impressive! I learned, I gained. I bow down . . .

    • Lee Martin on September 1, 2016 at 12:32 pm

      Richard, it was a pleasure, as always, working with you.

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