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.