Flash nonfiction: Good news and a field guide recommendation

Vintage postcard: Bungalow scene in Santa Ana, Calif.

Good news

I’m happy to share that my flash nonfiction piece “Handwashing Dishes” has been published online by The Southeast Review.

The Southeast Review, established in 1979 as Sundog, is a national literary magazine housed in the English Department at Florida State University, Tallahassee, and is edited and managed by its graduate students and a faculty consulting editor.

I especially appreciated working with Nonfiction Editor Liesel Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate in nonfiction writing. She asked smart questions during the editing process, and her attentions truly made the piece better.

What is flash nonfiction?
“I am including creative nonfiction work up to 2,000 words, though the great majority of what is discussed is briefer: 500 to 1,000 words, and sometimes even fewer…. [L]ike literary fiction and poetry, the nonfiction we discuss is marked by the distinct, often peculiar, voice and sensibilities of the author and these works examine the deeply human—and often unanswerable—questions that concern all serious art…. [T]he work itself is individual, intimate, exploratory, and carefully crafted using metaphor, sensory language, and precise detail.” (xiv)
—Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction  

Flash nonfiction field guide

If you’re interested in writing flash nonfiction, I recommend The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore. As the subtitle says, the book offers “advice and essential exercises from respected writers, editors, and teachers.”

The chapter “Memory Triggers and Tropes” by Rigoberto Gonzalez of Rutgers University was especially helpful in drafting “Handwashing Dishes.” The prompt Gonzalez wrote starts with a useful distinction:

“Recall a memory that has emotional (not sentimental) value for you. To differentiate, an emotional response is attached to reason or thought and makes you ask (and want to answer) who, what, where, why, and how; a sentimental response is attached to feeling and simply asks those same questions without seeking to assess or investigate them.” (35)

Emotional vs. sentimental

The idea of a memory with emotional value immediately made me think about the dishes. They helped me unlock the memory of flying across the country to check on my mother’s welfare after being called by the Phoenix police. I needed to write about the state of my mother’s kitchen and family memories I’d been trying to make sense of for years.    

As I drafted and re-drafted the story, finding the right point of view held me back. A straight reportage third-person version (she/they) seemed too detached and clinical. Meanwhile, a first-person version (I) was too much about me. The second-person point of view (you) offered a balance between emotional distance and experiential immediacy that fit.

Two chapters from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction focused on writing in second-person. When I read Dinah Lenney’s chapter, “All About You,” I saw similarities in our approaches to second-person narration.

Hey, you! (second-person narration)

We both started with research. I remembered the second-person point of view in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City from grad school. Lenney of the University of Southern California offered a longer list. She included “Carlos Fuentes, Marguerite Duras, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Beckett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rumer Godden, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Italo Calvino, William Faulkner, etc.” (100).

But what about specifically nonfiction examples? These were more elusive. I added Mary Karr’s Cherry: A Memoir to the list because the book starts with a second-person prologue.

In Lenney’s chapter, she used her flash nonfiction “Little Black Dress” as an example while pointing out what using second-person narration allows a writer to do. She writes, “it slows down the pace of things so that the story happens to you and your reader at about the same time—both of you there, in the middle of whatever it is, however delightful or excruciating” (102).

This slowing down that Lenney refers to helped me see the bigger picture connected to a scene worthy of a squalor documentary. It wasn’t just a weekend of trying to set things to right, there were things that couldn’t be fixed simply with a clean kitchen.

Research (library databases)

The key was further research. I read about the work-related trauma that can impact medical professionals. Mom used to tell me operating room stories—mangled motorcycle riders, disfiguring cancer surgeries, and aneurysms where blood pooled on the floor. She and many career nurses work through physical hazards, such as back injuries from lifting heavy patients, as well as mental trauma. Research into the toll of the health care professions acknowledges the effects of these traumas and helped me see the connection to my mother.  

The combination of research into Mom’s work as a nurse—as well as into the craft of flash nonfiction and second-person narration—helped me make sense of lingering images from her house. To borrow language from Rigoberto Gonzalez, the flash nonfiction form allowed me to highlight a “moment of awareness or awakening that will resonate for a lifetime” (34). The writing helped me get closer to answers that had eluded me.

Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

Postcard bridge on Pennsylvania Turnpike 20_0810 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)