ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: F is for Flash Nonfiction

Posted by on Jul 11, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

IMG_0117Flash Nonfiction

‘The fact that you’ve included a word in the sentence you’re making says nothing about its necessity . . . Every word is optional until it proves to be essential. Something you can only determine by removing words one by one and seeing what’s lost or gained.’

Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing

Flash nonfiction, just like flash fiction, is a story shrunk into miniature form. It’s a single story, a moment, or a scene shaped and compressed into a small capsule, usually 750 words or less. This can be a challenging yet immensely rewarding form to work in. For the creative nonfiction writer, regardless of whether you merely dabble in flash nonfiction or master it, it’s a useful tool to have at hand.

Short form prose mimics memory by recalling a story in bits and pieces, in fragments and flashes, in smells and sounds. From there, the feelings and deeper meaning behind why that moment has been remembered can be explored through the writing.

How often do you find yourself in the situation where you know the story you need to tell but can’t seem to find a way into it? By giving yourself the constraint of a low word count you may create a piece of writing that you might not have otherwise come to as quickly, if at all. My memoir-in-progress is a collection of flash nonfiction pieces. Early on I found myself struggling to fit my stories into the traditional long-form essay and in trying to do so was getting tangled in unnecessary detail. I decided to try the shorter essays instead. It was as though I’d unplugged a dam. Memories came rushing out and flooded the pages. I didn’t end up using them all for the book, but through flash nonfiction so many moments were unlocked and brought to life, now there for the picking to use in future works.   

Another benefit of flash nonfiction is its duality of function. By this I mean that it’s both an easy and difficult form to work in. It’s not intimidating to begin a short piece – all you have to do is tell yourself to write up to 750 words. This is great for those days when your writer’s brain feels empty and void. When taking a huge bite seems daunting, but taking a nibble feels doable. Once the piece is written the real challenge begins, but you’ll be warmed up and ready to tackle it.

To better that piece of writing you’ll have to look for opportunities to whittle, mold, shape, pull out and exchange words, use punctuation to your advantage, and through all this learn the ultimate art of brevity. This form teaches one of the most valuable lessons of writing, and often one of the more difficult to conquer: understanding the importance of word choice and making each one matter. Of course we can learn this with longer writing, but it is easier to slack off when you have a 3,000 or 5,000-word limit, or no limit at all. People take up the space they are given. When you move from an apartment to a house, furniture gets bought to fill in empty corners; paintings and photographs are hung on bare walls. When we have an ocean of blank pages to work with we undoubtedly fill them with words to swim in. The art of choosing the perfect words is something the poet masters quickly, but the prose writer can spend a longer time wrestling with this.

Flash nonfiction, for all the constraint it provides can be liberating. It offers a freedom that allows the writer to play and experiment. Depending on the tone, voice, and moment that you’re working with, this form can look and sound more like prose poetry, or it can easily be turned into a hybrid genre by mixing in some fiction or poetry. You can write multiple flash nonfiction pieces separately and begin to see a thread that connects them. When you see this thread you can braid those pieces to create a longer essay. These are just some of the opportunities that come from working in such a limited physical space. The distance you can go is immeasurable and you will find there is so much you can do with so little.

Here’s a little writing exercise to get you started:

  • Choose a memory to write about – the first one that comes to mind. Perhaps it’s the fight you got into on the playground in the fourth grade, or when your mother taught you her famous cake recipe. It can be anything. Don’t spend too long thinking of a memory; go with what comes to you first – this is the story asking to be written right now. Ideally, you’ll work through these three steps below all in one writing session. Of course you can choose to write the first draft and then come back to the two subsequent revisions at a later time. But if you can, try and do it all in the same sitting and watch the piece transform right in front of you and see what you get in that final 200-250 words – what is the heart of your story?
    • First write the story in 700- 750 words.
    • Then revise it and reduce the word count to 500-550 words.
    • Do one last revision and reduce it even further to 200-250 words.

Flash nonfiction resources to check out:

Books that utilize flash nonfiction:

  • Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn
  • Safekeeping, by Abigail Thomas

Amy Shea has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Her essays have appeared in Spry Literary Journal, Fat City Review, From Glasgow to Saturn, and her memoir-in- progress was long-listed for Mslexia’s 2014 Women’s Memoir Competition.

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