Writing Short, Writing Deep

Writing Short, Writing Deep

As a poet and memoirist, I study flash fiction and nonfiction for strategies to write one’s life story in accumulations of short pieces, each evoking important moments and newly learned perceptions that, when collected, present a whole.

Abigail Thomas’ What Comes Next and How to Like It, Meri Lisa Johnson‘s Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, Tarn Wilson’s The Slow Farm, and Kim Stafford’s 100 Tricks Any Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared are memoirs built from accumulations of short pieces.

Tom Hazuka’s anthologies of flash fiction—especially Flash Fiction Funny and You Have Time for This—and Flash Fiction Forward, edited by Robert Shapard are favorites. The Vestal Review prints flash fiction online. I also admire flash stories by Jim Heynen and Bruce Holland, some of which are online.

And literary flash non-fiction appears regularly online in Brevity Magazine. In addition, anthologies such as In Brief, In Short, and Brief Encounters offer scores of memorable flash nonfiction stories.

Here are strategies from my readings for getting to the heart of using flash for writing life experience:


How Could a Mother,” available to read on Bruce Holland’s website, is a story all in questions, as a social service worker interviews a woman. Read it and ask who you might interview—your grandfather, grandmother, ex-boss or husband? What persona would you adopt for being the interviewer? It doesn’t have to be an animate being—the piano or brooch you inherited can ask questions of your ancestor. You might take something that annoyed you about the person and have that thing be the interviewer: “The Naked Cardboard Cylinder He Always Left on the Toilet Paper Holder Interviews My Ex-husband.” Inanimate or animal or plant beings can create an avenue to explore human problems.


Read Jim Heynen’s “The Ice Storm,” about boys hunting. After you read the story, think about incidences when you thought differently than the adults around you. Write about a time when you demonstrated behavior in keeping with your feelings, though adults would not have understood. Let the details show the experience as Heynen does


The epistolary (letter) form is a useful literary device for writing short. At the US Today website read two letters from Elisabeth Robinson’s the The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters. In the first, the main character, Olivia, writes as a little girl to her sister who isn’t born yet. In the second, she writes to her sister when her own career is failing.


Who would you like to address that you have not yet met? What would you like that person to know?

Who might you write to about one of your most important life’s joys? Where would you sit as you write and what would you observe from there that helps you associate to past or present joys?

Who might you write to about one of your life’s difficult situations? Choose a place that puts you a moment when you are moving from one situation to another and can open up about a big change in your life. On a plane like Robinson? On a train or in the passenger seat of a car? In a waiting room at a doctor’s office? Write the letter from there, drawing from the action around you to create the setting, mood, and platform for associations.


Borrowing flash strategies, you may easily find how very deep your writing takes you.

Sheila Bender

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