A new manual for flash nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore. Rose Metal Press, 179 pp.

They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work the little money coming worked out well
C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

—Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell (Teenage Wedding)”

When I was in school I hated creative writing exercises. They were just diversions from what I wanted to write. Now that I’m a teacher I see their great value and wish more teachers had made me use them. They surprise the planning mind, which may be cunning but struggles to soar. So for my classes now I peruse my growing file of other teachers’ exercises or hunt inside Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis.

Before a prompt I like to play a catchy story song—for instruction and inspiration—because songs are so structural and so compressed (I make sure the students are holding a printout of the lyrics in their hands as they listen).

Now comes Dinty W. Moore with more helpful prompts in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. It joins the Press’s guide to flash fiction, a genre that, Moore notes, stimulated short nonfiction efforts as it expanded in the 1980s. In his helpful historical overview Moore defines concise creative nonfiction as that of up to 2,000 words, though most is much shorter, 500 to 1,000, and 750 is the upper limit he’s set for his own journal, Brevity. His new guide features exercises, thoughts, and tips by masters such as Lia Purpura, Lee Martin, and Sue William Silverman, as well as their own published essays.

Here’s Purpura’s twist on the usual read-aloud advice:

I have found it clarifying to read my essays-in-progress in environments that are wholly different than the environment in which they were initially drafted. In this way, I reconstitute the sense of essay-as-letter, even if it’s addressed only to myself and is in its infancy. Take an essay you’ve been working on and read it aloud to yourself in a fresh place. Reading in the car at a red light allows for an urgency of hearing, and a close, fast, focused, intensified listening. Reading in a coffee shop (best if it’s in another country) allows for a form of intimacy created by ambient, atmospheric bustling—that sense of being happily on the sidelines. Reading a work-in-progress in a library, a space of enforced silence, can make the encounter feel different, too: almost chatty, in a private, slightly secretive kind of way.

As a writer I’ve found concise essays fascinating and challenging. They lend themselves to at least starting with prompts. In their imperative to make every word count, they underscore the affinity between poetry and creative nonfiction. Like great songs they often begin in media res and set in motion whole worlds in readers’ minds. While pulling off a publishable piece is as hard as for any form, they foster a freer and freeing approach. Writing that feels like cheating? That lightens one’s heart? Give me more.

And for anyone, success is apt to start in low-stakes exercises like those in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. You never can tell.


Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, essay-concise, experimental, fiction, freewriting, MFA, NOTED, REVIEW, teaching, education, working method

14 responses to “A new manual for flash nonfiction

  1. Richard, Though I stick strictly to the fiction side of the street in my own work, what you do for others writing non-fiction is impressive. It almost makes me wish I had the nerve to tackle it, except that I really, really don’t have the courage to say more than I do in writing posts about other people I really know. I don’t want to offend anyone, and sometimes it’s just not possible to know what exactly will do that. I remember Rushdie said something about modesty or writing mainly about oneself and one’s own experience, but there always comes a time when people’s tracks cross and comment seems inevitable. Anyway, thanks for another great post.

  2. Thanks, Victoria. I understand your reticence. The truth element is a real constraint, along with being locked into point of view, more or less, in personal nonfiction. In my memoir I have gone to fake names and some obscuring details for everyone but close family and a friend or two. As you note, and as I learned in sharing drafts, one cannot predict what will set someone off. When I went to pseudonyms I found myself writing with much greater freedom and truth, while not being mean or distorting.

    Fiction writers get to pick more of their own rules, of course, such as point of view. But at least in memoir and personal essays, as distinct from literary journalism where people are sometimes interviewed for their points of view, I think that constraint has helped fuel the structural innovations and therefore the excitement in creative nonfiction, so it has been salutary on balance.

  3. This is such a great post. I am creating a memoir writing course for adult learners and looking for creative ideas to engage them. This is great advice! I love it and I’m headed off to read more of your posts!

  4. I have read Dinty Moore’s book, and I heartily commend it as a resource for writers and teachers of short, creative nonfiction. The variety of examples and prompts in such a relatively short book is most helpful. Something for everyone here.

  5. Another great post, Richard.
    Vis a vis Victoria’s comment: in the memoir I just completed, I expose that my hero father,after coming home from WW-II, beat my brother and I repeatedly for waking him up due to making too much noise in the morning. This was most likely some sort of PTSD reaction from the war, and by the time my younger siblings came along this aspect of him had disappeared. They were shocked. But I am 71 yo and my father and all his friends are long gone. I could never have written about this complex bond I had with my brother – only recently deceased – until now. With my sensibilities, memoir writing is only possible because I am old.

    • karenalaniz

      @J.V. I just had to come back and comment on this. Your father most definitely had PTSD. It could have been a number of things, but more than likely wasn’t just that “the kids were too loud and woke me up.” More likely it was tied tightly to a war experience. I’m sorry you had to endure that as a child. My father too, is a WWII veteran. My experience is very different, but while researching for my memoir, Breaking the Code: a Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything, I discovered that many of my father’s behaviors as I was growing up were because of PTSD (undiagnosed).

      For example, whenever we were on vacation and driving through a city, me and my two sisters had to be absolutely quiet. His reasoning was that if we talked, or giggled or anything else, he could wreck and we would all die. Well, I recently spoke to the director of our local Vet Center and he asked Dad about his feelings when we were loud. Long story-short, my father’s brain tied it to wartime experiences where if you made a noise, someone could die (and possibly did in his presence). My father’s subconscious motivation was to protect us from harm. Anyway, PTSD does not excuse someone’s behavior, but I think it does help to understand it better.

      I’ve often said that when someone has PTSD, their whole family has it. My best to you, Karen

    • My sister just read my memoir manuscript and we had a long talk about our different perspectives of our father. She is nine years older than I so we had different experiences. I am grateful that they were all good experiences, but your comment just made me think about what a major difference time can make.

  6. Great article-thank you very much. I agree with your perspective on honesty – less than honest isn’t going to cut it, and I like that you found ways of doing this ( change names, etc), that keep the stories authentic without causing unnecessary pain and friction. I chose to not use names at all in my memoir (The Long Hello) and it both freed me up in the honesty arena and invited a less structured, more lyrical form – which turned out to be essential.
    Have gone immediately to your website and am enjoying other articles, so thank you!
    Cathie Borrie

    • Thanks for this perspective, Cathie. There is indeed more than one way to skin a cat. As in all art, the constraints seem to spur creativity.

    • Judy

      Cathie–I’m more than intrigued by your memoir without names. While it sounds clean, concise and unfettered, how does that work? And, a more lyrical form–you have my attention. I’m writing memoir–at this point 3-4 in progress–and I’ll definitely check out The Long Hello. Thanks to you and all memorists who go out on a limb, sometimes, to tell their stories.

  7. karenalaniz

    As far as names go, I changed only one name in my memoir. There was good reason for that. It was a man who my father served with during WWII, who was suicidal after getting “Dear John” letter. People have guessed who it might have been, but I won’t tell anyone, at any time. The man came home to remarry, have children, and grandchildren. There was just no reason to upset anyone. I did contemplate contacting his children; he is deceased. But decided against it. My father kept that secret for more than 50-years. I wanted to honor that. Karen

  8. First, that song reminds me of Pulp Fiction because it’s on the soundtrack! Quentin Tarantino pulls together remarkable, perfect soundtracks.

    I love the idea of getting students started with a story through music. My favorite “storytelling” musician/lyricist is Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum (yes, I’m a Minnesotan!). I never thought of using his music in writing instruction, and I look forward to experimenting with that.

    I recently bought the Rose Metal Guide and am slowly working my way through. I feel a little “stuck” lately in that I would like to have some new essay topics, and I was hoping the book would spark ideas. I just haven’t had a lot of time lately to really brainstorm and play.

    I saw your comment on Tri-Quarterly about the essay that’s receiving a lot of attention. Are you going to blog about that? I have some ideas (I was one of the anonymous commenters).

    • Thanks, Rachael. I probably won’t blog about the Tri-Quarterly essay but hope you will! It hit me wrong and I shot from the hip. I have not gone back to see others’ comments or whether I got flamed.