Tonight’s guest blog post is brought to you by flash fiction and non-fiction author Jane Hertenstein.
Writing Flash Memoir
When I first started submitting to journals, both on-line and print, a short story might take a year of rejections before eventually finding a home. Now, the acceptance period has whittled down to as short as one to two months. In one instance — or perhaps the right word would be instant — I submitted, and five minutes later received an e-mail reply saying it was just what they were looking for.
Of course this means I am always generating content. I work full-time and write in my off hours. Naturally through the years I’ve begun to adapt the pieces I write for the small screen. More and more readers in this digital age are getting their material from hand-held devices. So I’ve learned to write for the web and submit stories that can be read quickly, yet still stay with a reader long after they’ve powered down.
Where do I get my ideas?
I mine material from my busy, every-day life. Just like how a camera focuses and gives us a snapshot, I freeze-frame a memory from the past, something that actually happened, crop it or enlarge it, and bring it into focus. Flash!
In one 12-month period I’ve had over 20 such flashes accepted.
In Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir I de-construct the process of stirring up memories and then writing about them. By freeze-framing, I isolate or seize a moment and then distill it onto the keyboard as if picking at a loose thread and eventually unraveling a story.
Sometimes, though, memories are not what they seem.
The day after the Challenger disaster Emory University professor Ulric Neisser asked his students to write down their feelings. I’m sure this was cathartic for them. But also, interestingly enough, before they graduated a few years later he asked them to again write personal essays about the Challenger disaster, specifically about what they remembered about that day.
He found three things. First, the memories of the students had dramatically changed: “twenty-five percent of the students’ subsequent accounts were strikingly different from their original journal entries. More than half the people had lesser degrees of error, and less than ten percent had all the details correct.” Second, people were usually confident that the accounts they provided two and a half years later were accurate. And third, “when confronted with their original reports, rather than suddenly realizing that they had misremembered, they often persisted in believing their current memory.”
Our memories are flitting fireflies, one minute we see them like the light of day and in the next instant we are floundering in darkness.
Stephen Colbert of the comedy show Colbert Report often “jokes” about truthiness. The notion that something can be true if it is almost true. Or true because we want it to be true. The same could be said of memoir. We might think we have it right, only to discover that family myths and pathology play a large part in how we view and interpret our personal narrative. Thus, most the time we end up with something memoir-ish.
Many of us are looking to write memories—either in the form of literary memoir or simply to record family history, in order to pass down stories to children or grandchildren. In Freeze Frame: How To Write Flash Memoir I look at memoir in small, bite-size pieces. Not all at once, but in small bursts of flash. I treat the page like a friend, like a sounding board, or like the poet Frank O’Hara has described as phone calls.
Flash is a relatively new genre. Other terms for flash include: Sudden, micro, postcard, short shorts. The roots of flash lie in the vignette or scene. Early forms of flash were fables, short pithy object lessons that contain a moral or an epiphany. There is no widely accepted definition for the length. Some journals are asking for no more than 100 words. Six Minute Magazine is looking for quality fiction that can be read in under six minutes. The upper limits of flash might be 1,000 words. Regardless of length—flash is hot. Publishers of literary journals are eager for flash, the haiku of prose, where every word counts.
At the lowest limit of word count is the 6-word memoir. Ernest Hemingway might be considered the grandfather of the 6-word story: “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn” is attributed to him. In 2008 Smith Magazine put out a call for 6-word memoirs. Not Quite What I Was Planning, was the end result. Contributors included Dave Eggers (Fifteen years since last professional haircut), singer Aimee Mann (Couldn’t cope so I wrote songs), and comedian Stephen Colbert (Well, I thought it was funny). The collection has plenty of six-word insights from everyday folks as well: Love me or leave me alone was scrawled on a hand dryer in a public bathroom; I still make coffee for two was penned by a 27-year-old who had just been dumped.
EXERCISE: Describe yourself or where you are now either physically or emotionally in six words.
Even if you think you have lived a boring life, all of us have anecdotal moments, snapshots that if freeze-framed and cropped can offer entertainment / education / refuge for fellow readers. In Freeze Frame I developed a number of exercises intended to prompt the memory as well as the writer. I’ve also included a large section that I keep updated on where and how to submit flash memoir.
So let’s flash.
EXERCISE: Here is a list of several prompts where you can flash—nothing over 500 words!
Your first date
Your first kiss
Your first break-up
It’s okay. To digress, get distracted; to let go.
That great. I love flash fiction (and write it mostly for 5pm fiction) so it’s really interesting to see someone else’s take on it. Thank you, Jane. I’m off to write some 6-worders… and in fact I now welcome them for the Flash Fiction Friday slot!
Jane Hertenstein’s current obsession is flash. She is the author of over 40 published stories, a combination of fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre both micro and macro. Her latest book Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir is available through Amazon. Jane is a 2-time recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. She can be found blogging about Flash Memoir at http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com.
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