The flash in “flash memoir” refers to its brevity, yes,
but it also—and more importantly—refers to its “flash” of insight into human experience.
Memories come to me in flashes, short moments filling my mind with fleeting images, crystal-clear in their clarity while they last. Then, in the same way fog sweeps over mountain ridges, obscuring trees that stood moments before in stark relief against pale blue morning skies, those memories disappear in an instant.
A few months ago, I chose to chase down my memories, to wrestle them to the page, come what may. And I decided that the technique of flash memoir might work best for me, given the seeming conciseness and temporality of my memories. I likened these to pearls strung as a necklace, one by one, together forming a larger whole.
But I discovered something very interesting when I dug deeper into the whole concept of flash memoir. It’s not just a question of writing tight, clocking a certain number of words – usually less than 2000 and ideally around 1000.*
Effective flash, I’m learning, is more than a glance into a moment of life. More than a snapshot, though it is that, too. Memoirists must crack open the meaning of that moment, get behind the images and plumb the subtext. In other words, flash memoirists join literary hands with the earliest storytellers, who buried deep, universal insights in their tales. Hearing or reading these stories unveils the nature of being human. Those sages captured timeless truth, the themes of lives lived.
Family. Joy. Loneliness. Adventure. Loss. Awakening. Ambition. Defeat. Failure.
All this flash memoir must provide. And that’s very hard to do. The process requires deep introspection and a willingness to face the shadows of personality. Glossing over truths, or near-truths anyway, sets the stage for unreliable narration and a lack of connectedness between the reader and the writer.
Putting it all out there on the page is not for the faint of heart.
It’s a question of seeing the forest for the trees, it is.
Some examples of memoirs written in flash mode. Not all ideal, or even close, but nonetheless sturdy guideposts to grab on the journey!
Etel Adnan – In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country
Theodor Adorno – Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life
Beth Fennelly – Heating and Cooling
Penny Guisinger – Postcards from Here
Amy Leach – Things that Are: Essays
Denise Levertov – Tesserae: Memories and Suppositions
Maggie Nelson – Bluets
Michael Ondaatje – Running in the Family
Alexis Paige – Not a Place on Any Map
Mary Louise-Parker’s – Dear Mr. You
Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
Sarah Ruhl – 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas
Patti Smith – Woolgathering
Rebecca Solnit – The Faraway Nearby
Lawrence Sutin – A Postcard Memoir
Nicole Walker – Micrograms
*Some publications go even lower in defining the genre as 750 words and no more (Brevity).