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Writing in Short Form: the Power of Flash Nonfiction by Christi Craig

For today’s Wednesday Writing Prompt, I’m delighted to welcome Milwaukee-area writer Christi Craig. We met for coffee recently, and we talked about a passion of hers, flash nonfiction. She’s here to tell us more about the genre and challenge us to a flash fiction writing exercise. Ready, set, enjoy!

CCraigWriting in Short Form: the Power of Flash Nonfiction by Christi Craig

There are certain stories my gut wants me to put down on paper.

Like the one about the summer I turned twenty-two, when I climbed into a tiny Isuzu Trooper and rode in the back seat all the way from Norman, Oklahoma to the Catskills of upstate New York. So much changed for me during that trip, change embodied in the vision of Pennsylvania’s vibrant green hills rolling along side me like waves.

Or how, the week after my mother died, I desperately clung to whatever artifacts of hers I could, from her bible to that pair of gaudy glasses she wore in the late eighties. Why did she keep those glasses, and why couldn’t I let them go?

And then, the story of how, preeclamptic, I gave birth to my son three weeks early, in a state of frenzy. Then, I walked around in a slight haze of post-partum depression for the next six months, so much so that getting him and myself from the upstairs to the downstairs floor of our house by day’s end was cause to rejoice. In a ball of tears. Because everything about motherhood frightened me.

I want to write these stories. In fact, I’ve tried to write all three. But, I’ve struggled to transform the power of those memories onto the page. My early drafts read long and convoluted and nothing like what I envision: a brief moment where I take the hand of the reader and say, Just let me tell you this one thing, and ask, Can you relate?

I say, “brief moment,” because that’s how I see these kinds of stories working best: not in pages and pages of material, where the intensity of the emotion gets lost in drawn-out prose, but in a compact space like that of flash nonfiction, where word limit is set at around 800. On flash nonfiction, Dinty Moore (editor of Brevity Magazine), says, “the energy of the piece hinges on the rapid-fire sharing of information,” adding that the “urgency of having to fit the content into an abbreviated frame is what makes it so powerful.”

Moore edited The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, a book dedicated to unpacking the tight form and giving writers insight on how to tackle challenges inherent in the genre. I can’t say enough about this book. Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of the craft, like where to begin or end and how to deal with “the constraint of telling the truth.” And, each chapter ends with an essay that demonstrates a specific technique, proving this short form carries as much weight and clarity as a longer piece.

One aspect of flash nonfiction that I love is its unadulterated use of details. As Moore says:

The brief essay needs to be hot from the first sentence…. The heat might come from language, from an image, from voice or point-of-view, from revelation or suspense, but there must always be a burning urgency of some sort translated through each sentence, starting with the first.

With flash nonfiction, I can’t go on and on about every road-trip revelation I had from Oklahoma to New York or the bottles and bottles of face cream my sisters and I discovered under my mother’s cabinets. Each image I include, each word I choose, must, like Brenda Miller says in her chapter on the importance of detail, “carry some weight, and…gradually evolve into more meaning as it goes along.”

Barbara Hurd uses details to such great effect in the first paragraph of her essay, “Wordwrack: Openings” (read the full piece here):

A nor’easter smacked into Cape Ann last night, and this morning the wrack’s dark line lies tangled and heaped. Hundreds of shells have settled sideways and tilted on the beach, half in, half out, sand-dribbled, seaweed-draped, partially rinsed. On the outside, they’re a riot of spires and pinpricks, ribbed turbans and knobby cones. Ivory, copper, pinkish, twisted, scalloped, hinged.

As the essay unfolds, the next detail, and the next, reveal more and more about her state of being. Absolutely nothing is wasted.

Flash nonfiction is a wonderfully challenging genre, so satisfying when done with success. I’m a firm believer, too, that every lesson I learn when I attempt this short form translates well into my work on longer forms. Tell me, what’s your experience writing memoir or essays? Have you ever attempted a piece shorter than 1000 words?

If not, try this: Write an essay, 700 words or less, on the prompt, “After the storm.”

About the author: Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer. She leads a creative writing class at a retirement center and a Roundtable at Redbird-Redoak Writing. She is a regular contributor at Write It Sideways and an Assistant Editor for COMPOSE: A Journal of Simply Good Writing. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she was a Finalist in Glimmer Train‘s Family Matters Competition. Visit her website at christicraig.com, subscribe to her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

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