| Don’t Write Alone
Toolkit When Flash Nonfiction Strikes You
After contact, you may feel exposed, raw, tingly. Learn about flash nonfiction forms and what to do if you want to write flash of your own.
Bedroom Strip the bed down to its bones. Smell the sheets before you wash them. Alternatively, get new sheets so you stop smelling for someone that is no longer there. You will do it with the new sheets. You will never stop smelling for the someone that is no longer there. (excerpt, “Spring Cleaning,” Michael Todd Cohen )
“Spring Cleaning” was the title of one of the earliest pieces I published with a literary journal (Stone of Madness Press). It wasn’t about spring cleaning. It was about the loss of my husband and the grief that followed. A subject that felt, to me, enormous—at times insurmountable.
But the title and the form it suggested—an instructional list—allowed me to talk about the complex feelings of pain and longing through a manageable lens: innocuous, everyday, mundane tasks. In that first year after the fire that took my husband, these were often the only things I could focus on. “Spring Cleaning” absorbed the enormity of grief and for a brief time contained it—in 309 words. This is the power of flash creative nonfiction.
But what exactly is it?
Flash creative nonfiction is somewhere between the lyricism of poetry and the narrative potential of prose. It is usually no more than one thousand words, but often less. Brevity , a flash nonfiction magazine, founded over twenty years ago, as the form was emerging, allows only up to 750 words.
Dinty W. Moore, the editor in chief of Brevity , speaks of flash in abstract terms : “. . . like the moment you see a figure illuminated across the street during a brief middle-of-the-night flash of lighting.” He highlights its “concision of language,” its frequent focus on “the importance of a single image.”
In the flash below, published in HAD , Nicole Oquendo captures a brief, brilliant moment of illumination, not unlike Moore’s description:
Nicole, today was a prayer when you painted the glue along the back of the eyelashes, and we’re not going to call them fake or false because they eventually became a part of you, when you used that weird tool and pressed them just above your own eyelashes that were already starfishing out because of the mascara you tried too, and then the glue held, hallelujah, everything clamped together, again the tool, and you brushed the color along your eyelids to mimic a sunset but that’s the thing, there are infinite variations of color when the sun shifts and lights the world all over, so you had to be the sunset too.
There are several elements at play in this piece: repetition (tool, eyelashes, sunset); concision (the entirety of the work is a single sentence comprised of one hundred and twelve words); an epistolary form (it’s addressed to someone, like in a letter). These elements, along with several others, form the conditions of a flash work. I say conditions, not ingredients, because if flash is a passing storm, as Moore suggests—a white-hot crack of focus and illumination—then we, as writers, have to think about the correct conditions to employ that encourage it to arrive. We’re not cooking up flash so much as conjuring it.
Oquendo’s work is titled “TFW the Zoom Party Is in Four Hours but You Start Getting Ready Anyway,” revealing another condition of flash: titles as both context and content. The title, a sentence unto itself, rather than a coy hint at what’s to come, becomes both part of the work and the contextual key to understand the underlying tension in it. In the body of the work, Nicole is no longer solely putting on eyelashes, mascara, eyeshadow—they’re readying themselves for a Zoom party. The entire work is a moment of anticipation. The frisson in the air before a storm breaks.
Not every title in flash creative nonfiction is a sentence. Nor is every title long, but many play with the idea that a title can embrace the totality of its root titulus : not solely “label” or “placard” or “heading” but “inscription.” Oquendo’s work, then, takes on sharper context when viewed with the knowledge that there is an event—a party—imminent. They leave us to wonder at what kind of party it might be, but the fact that they’re readying themselves early, fussing over what makeup to apply, painting on the colors of a stunning sunset—it is clear it’s important to them. The title conjures up the circumstances; the body delivers the flash of insight.
Oquendo’s work takes an epistolary form, but other flashes include hermit crab forms like lists, crosswords, directions, choose-your-own-adventure, instructions (as in “Spring Cleaning”). To understand these forms’ relationship to each other, consider the way a hermit crab inhabits or “borrows” a shell other than its own. In one thousand words or less, flash’s constraints force an inventive potency. They are full of surprise and precision.
Recently, I asked writers on Twitter why they write flash CNF (creative nonfiction). Casey Mulligan Walsh answered: “I find things pour out when conventions are suspended,” which suggests that the flash genre is as surprising for the author as it is for the audience. Take away the strictures of traditional storytelling and a new, electric world opens up. Why not write this way all the time, then? Where are the memoirs-in-flash? The bildungsroman-in-flash? The nature-writing-in-flash? In fact, they are emerging.
Recent books like Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House heavily employ the structures of flash while also tracing a narrative line of memoir (the lifespan of a fraught, abusive relationship). Machado’s work shows the power and potential when “convention is suspended.” Yet there are detractors. There are always detractors.
strange to have come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination (Dostoyevsky, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner) & now find yourself praised & acclaimed for wan little husks of “auto fiction” with space between paragraphs to make the book seem longer . . .
Joyce Carol Oates is having none of it. Joyce Carol Oates, National Book Award winner and three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, is having none of it. The tweet above , from March 16, 2021, set Twitter aflame: a cascade of “just over here writing my wan little husks” jokes flooded the timeline.
Oates is speaking mostly of fiction, but the essence of disdain for suspending convention is there. The idea that great novels (or memoirs) need be blocks of unbroken prose is limiting, to say the least. While Oates may attribute her reverence to “coming of age” with such imposing (and physically heavy!) works, the world we live in now is considerably more fragmented. Oh, the irony in tweeting her lament of new forms. We write stories now in blocks of 180 characters (Aziah “Zola” Wells King, anyone?) read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. Oates’s age isn’t the issue; the issue is classicist, academy-minded rigidity.
We can’t write into a vacuum. A world with shrinking attention spans, fragmented social commentary, fast-moving feeds everywhere, requires, as writers, that we meet it where it is. Flash creative nonfiction is the form of the moment. At least according to Moore, who in a 2020 Literary Hub article asserts, “Brief nonfiction is perhaps at peak popularity.” So how do we, as writers, embrace its potential? Here is where the rigid academy mind can be useful: We taxonomize to understand.
What to Do When Struck by Flash: After contact, you may feel exposed, raw, tingly. Evaluate the impact with these simple questions:
1. Did the flash take the form of something else? For example: Is it a commentary on body image encapsulated in a doctor’s note? Is it an exploration of alcoholism set to a cocktail-bar menu? Is it a choose-your-own-adventure with only harrowing choices meant to represent abuse? Is it washing instructions for joy? A classified ad for lost dignity? A party invitation to love yourself? If you answered YES to any of the above, you have been struck by one of the multiple variations of HERMIT CRAB flash.
2. Was it a letter to someone or something, including yourself? If you answered YES, you have been struck by an EPISTOLARY flash.
3. Was it a concise meditation on a singular moment of beauty or horror or surprise or elation or . . . ? If you answered YES, you have been struck by a LYRIC flash.
The forms flash takes are variable but united in their brevity. If you find yourself vulnerable in the presence of approaching flash, do not run . It is safer for you to endure the (brief) flash than to take cover in the comfort of tradition.
Of course, this is a cross section, not a comprehensive guide of flash spotted in the wild. The medium is still evolving. Aaron Burch’s “American Lake” in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine is a good example of flash bound by the constraints of length but not by any of the forms above. The title is not title-as-content nor does it introduce tension. The tension, in this work, is in the form of questions, which are the sum total of its 628 words.
These hyper-specific questions reveal the experiences of the writer but leave open the possibility that the reader may have experienced something similar (or not at all similar, but they may trigger memories of the reader’s own childhood):
Did you ever get in trouble for using her automatic garage door like a toy—hitting the button so it would retract up and then grabbing the metal lip at the bottom and letting it carry you up in the air, when you were still young and little enough for that to work? [. . .] Remember how the trail was pretty well hidden, snaking its way between two houses, two private properties, but it was supposed to be for everyone? [. . .] Have you revisited that lake as an adult? Parked at the end of the cul de sac, next to a “Public Property, No Access” sign right where the trailhead used to be?
While not expressly a hermit crab—in that it isn’t necessarily using an expected form to express unexpected meaning—it does evoke the intersection of familiarity and revelation: a game of truth or dare; of a late-night inquiry by campfire; of the pass-the-time discourse of the back seat of a family car. It’s indicative of the evolving nature, the mutability and flexibility, of flash. In the words of memoirist (and contributor to Brevity ) Lee Martin :
Anything is possible within flash creative nonfiction. You want to tell a story? You can do that. You want to work with image and metaphor? You can do that. Personal essay? Check. Nature Writing? Check . . . Maybe you want to explode the form and see if you can turn it into something else, maybe something more fragmented . . . something folks might call “experimental.”
To this end, in “ A Reminiscence of High School Required Reading That Triggered My Search for the Black Protagonist ,” published in HAD , K. B. Carle takes the notion of title-as-content and makes a work in the form of a list, entirely out of titles. It’s a clever inversion of expectation (body as title, title as body) in order to illuminate a larger theme: the lack of Black representation in classic literature, especially classic literature as taught in high school:
Great Expectations | The Odyssey | Greek Tragedies | Henry the Fourth | Upon the Head of the Goat | Medea | Out of Many: A History of the American People | Sons and Lovers | The Great Gatsby | Mrs. Dalloway | The Tempest | Paradise Lost | A History of US: Making Thirteen Colonies | Of Mice and Men | The Things They Carried | Walt Whitman Selected Poems | Pride and Prejudice | A History of US: A History of the American People | The Catcher in the Rye | A Raisin in the Sun | To Kill a Mockingbird | Othello | The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Death of a Salesman | Dante’s Inferno | Their Eyes Were Watching God | As I Lay Dying
“Anything is possible,” says Lee. Flash is both anything and one thing, which makes it hard to pin down. After all, the forms in the “What to Do When Struck by Flash” guide above could also be categorized as an essay. We have hermit crab essays, lyrical, epistolary—but I believe limiting word count gives flash some of its edges of definition, in addition to two other chief characteristics: urgency and potency.
Sticking with the idea of a sudden storm—like in summer, when a thunder crack cuts through birdsong and a deluge ensues—urgency is immediately understood. In these moments there is energy, action, alertness. We gawp at the power that passes as quickly as it arrived. In a matter of several seconds, in a matter of several words.
But, if we look harder, it is not just the suddenness that strikes. The sky broad, blue, empty—then full of gray clouds, swollen with rain. A compressed experience carries potency. At its best, I believe flash allows us to harness a potent instant—a death, anxious preparation before a party, the juvenile exhilaration of trespassing to get to a lake—and pours it into a compressed form that reflects its energy.
After all, says Gina Harlow, a columnist and creative nonfiction writer who answered my Twitter call: “ Real life is blessedly full of flashes of experiences. ”