There is no hard-and-fast word limit for “flash” prose, but 500-1000 words is a good general guideline. So, for busy moms like me, moms who struggle to find time to write, the flash genre should be perfect. Less writing time, fewer words, shorter pieces, right? Not necessarily. Short pieces do not come easily for me, or for many people. Under such a strict word limit, getting straight to your point is key. Often, this requires writing a longer draft and then editing and pruning.
Blaise Pascal summed it up nicely when he said, I would have written you a shorter letter, but I did not have time.
And yet, the more I read flash nonfiction in journals such as Brevity and Sweet, the more I admire and appreciate its conciseness, the way images jump from the page, and the emotional impact that could so easily be lost if the author gave up even one degree of precision. After spending some time with [booklink isbn="0984616667" title="The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction"], I am more committed than ever to practicing this genre, and more hopeful that it is possible to write tighter first drafts and "flashier" second and third drafts.
The [booklink isbn="0984616667" title="Field Guide"], edited by Dinty W. Moore (who is also editor of Brevity), collects advice and sample essays from 26 writers, editors and teachers. The contributions are grouped by topics such as how to add image and detail, finding one's voice, use of sound and language, experimenting with point of view; structure, and beginnings and endings. Each chapter begins with an essay on craft in which the contributor discusses his or her approach to the topic. The essay is followed by a flash nonfiction prompt, and the chapter ends with a sample essay to illustrate the points made.
The essays on craft are rich with information and perspective that take the reader behind the scenes of the authors' processes. For example, in the section "On Finding Your Voice," Sue William Silverman explains the difference between the Voice of Innocence and the Voice of Experience, and shows how both are needed for an essay to be successful. The chapter entitled "The Art of Digression" by Judith Kitchen led to a big "aha" moment for me:
In [reading] nonfiction...we end up "taking off" from the essay at hand, reliving moments from our own lives, rephrasing our positions on issues, meandering into the world of our own thoughts even as we follow the course of someone else's thinking. The reading process is...interactive, more like engaging in a discussion.
The writing prompts allow for in-depth exploration of all aspects of the flash nonfiction genre. There's a palpable sense of playfulness, making each exercise feel more like an adventure than an assignment. For example, Robin Hemley suggests writing descriptions of two photographs, one that exists and one that doesn’t, in such a way that the reader believes the false photograph is real and the real photograph false. And I love Jenny Boully’s idea for writing in a style that models nonfiction texts such as gardening or sailing books. The skills developed through these prompts are useful for writers of any genre.
The [booklink isbn="0984616667" title="Field Guide"] is remarkable on many levels. The essays at the end of each chapter could stand alone as a collection worth reading—even if you have no desire to explore writing in this genre. Brian Doyle's "Leap" is haunting, beautiful, and thoroughly unforgettable. In fewer than 300 words, Brenda Miller's "Swerve" not only communicates the essence of a relationship gone bad, but takes the reader inside it. And "Off the Top of My Head," by Patrick Madden, is a sweet story and a perfect example of how kids so often give us our best writing material.
If all this isn’t enough, [booklink isbn="0984616667" title="The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction"] is filled with resources for further study and reading. In addition to listing previous work of the 26 authors, the book includes references to other essays, books, and articles to help further one’s study of this genre.
[booklink isbn="0984616667" title="The Field Guide"] has all the qualities I look for in any book on the craft of writing. It's engaging, informative, and practical--a book I will turn to again and again.
For previous parts of this series, please see: