The ABCs of Flash Writing: F is for Focus

Posted by on Apr 23, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The ABCs of Flash Writing: F is for Focus

When I think of “focus” in flash writing–fiction or creative nonfiction–I remember the joys and the challenge of learning to use a 35mm camera years ago. In those pre-digital days when cameras required film rather than a memory card, auto-focus was an available feature on a mid-price Canon but the instructor of the community ed class required us to focus our cameras manually so that we’d learn–by doing–to experiment with composition and depth of field. What’s in the frame and what’s not. What’s centered and what’s sidelined. What’s foregrounded, what’s backgrounded and–depth of field–how close to the front of the frame is the focal point. It turns out that I have little aptitude for photography but I do love what that class gave me: some direct understanding of how a photographer’s technique captures and directs my gaze, and in that way evokes atmosphere, and by that means stimulates emotion in me.

In any creative writing that seeks more to evoke than to impart, attention to focus is important. In flash writing, where the word-count constrains exposition and sharply limits development of character or arc, images and their associated atmosphere are often the most powerful way to impact readers.  The best flash writing, I believe, unsettles readers–leaves them thinking or feeling (or both) anew. It achieves this because it 1) captures the reader’s attention by unexpected juxtaposition of images in its composition and then 2) focuses the reader’s gaze aslant from the expected center of attention by the surprising way it weights (through length or intensity of language) some of those images.

For instance, here’s a bit of my own writing, excerpted from my memoir and published as flash creative nonfiction  a few years ago in Prime Number. I offer this piece as example not because I think it’s “the best” flash writing but because it’s easy to grant myself permission to use it here:


My daughter J took her first steps in the worn and grassless backyard of a secret safe house for battered women on a backstreet of a working-class hamlet in mid-state New York.  I sat on the wooden stoop, a volunteer visiting for my weekly hour or two, flanked by women who’d come there to hide from men who, on bad days, wanted to kill them for failing to please.  I’d begun this gig before I was a mother, soon after I quit my job in investment banking to stay home and write.  I continued to visit while I grew bigger and bigger with pregnancy, and once J was born I carried her there with me, strapped in a front-pack until she got so heavy and wiggly I put her down and let her cruise.  Without ever quite admitting to myself why I went to the shelter I sought it out regularly, learning what I intuited I needed to know: how to run, what my rights were, and just how difficult and profoundly unsafe it would be to assert them. 

This June day was warm and soft.  All of us wore shorts.  I glanced away from J and back again, and she’d done it: turned loose of my knee and set off down the gravelly path.  At nine months she’d blacked an eye the first time she tried to walk with nothing to hold on to, but this time, at eleven months, she didn’t fall. 

Off you toddled in summer-gold light, unafraid—leaf shadow on your shoulders, and three bruised women behind you cheering your impulse to get on your feet, and go.

For me, this piece serves as an example of my effort to work with frame and depth of field because it crowds into a small piece a number of pleasant or neutral images–a pregnant belly, an infant in a front pack, an adventurous toddler who’s blacked her own eye taking a risk, women in shorts seated companionably on a back stoop on a pleasant summer afternoon, a rundown house in a low-rent neighborhood that is nonetheless a refuge–while raising much darker issues: domestic violence, economic privilege or lack thereof, and the price women pay for asserting their rights. The pleasant images are foregrounded–given more weight or space–and the dark issues are shadows, bleeding through the foreground here and there so that by the final line, the words can be read two ways, as affirmation and as defeat.

When I wrote this piece I concentrated first, as I always do when writing from memory, on projecting  myself back inside that time and place. I felt on my skin the heat of the sun and the stickiness of the humidity. I felt in my mind the odd mix of ease and constraint I always felt, hanging out with the shelter residents, whose life circumstances, at least at the surface, were so different from mine. And I felt in my heart the push-pull tangle of pride and concern I’ve always felt watching my children move away from me into their own lives. However, I felt these complicated emotions only gradually, after I recalled the simple, clear physical details of body and place.

By focusing first on sensory details, writers prime the pump of memory and imagination–for themselves during the drafting process as well as for their eventual readers. The more sensory details you write, the more you’ll remember or (for fiction writers) imagine. The more vivid and unique the images you create thus, the more wondrous and complex the emotions your writing will evoke, in you and ultimately in your readers. The more you can, at least while drafting, give up controlling the composition of your message in favor of allowing your deepest and most surprising feelings to shape and shade your work, whatever its form or function, the more you invite organic, authentic theme to manifest.  And, in doing so, you’ll grant your readers the agency to feel what they feel–intensely–as they experience your art.

It’s a truism that photographers are sometimes surprised by what’s in the frame–off-center or in the background or even the near foreground–that they never saw when they took the shot.  Likewise, I hope your most vivid, compelling flash writing surprises first you and then your lucky readers.

Christine Hale is the author of A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations (Apprentice House Press, 2016). Her prose has appeared in Role Reboot, Arts & Letters, Spry, Shadowgraph, Hippocampus, and Watershed Review, among other publications. Her debut novel Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press 2009) received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards. A fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ms. Hale teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, NC.  Learn more here


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