Writing fast and furious is the goal in “flash” fiction and nonfiction because by doing so you outran that pesky little character called your “inner critic,” which is that mean and shaming voice in your head that tells you everything you write is stupid and not worth the time, effort, and concentration you’re spending on it. Writing fast also allows your Muse to get a word in edgewise and toss in a phrase or a thought that you otherwise would immediately delete as unacceptable, embarrassing, too revealing, or just plain too honest to do anybody any good.
Alas, these wonderful (and frightening) words and phrases are what Pia Z. Ehrhardt focuses on in her fine article, “Plaster Dust and Sleeping Jockeys: Tapping Your Story for Load-Bearing Sentence in The Rose Metal Guild to Writing Flash Fiction. Just read what she has to say about these “slips” of decorum:
Load-bearing walls in houses run perpendicular to ceilings made of joists. They hold weight and oppose downward forces, which got me thinking about how flash fictions contain joist-like sentences, but also sentences where the energy settles, the focus tightens, and the truths that bear (bare) the story become clear. Sometimes this clarity comes toward the end, sometimes it’s in the first paragraph. In my own stories, the load-bearing sentence is usually a line that feels like a mistake, a change in direction—oops! How’d that get in there? The better question is: Why’d that get in there? Often it’s a line that embarrasses me, like flashing open your bathrobe and then, too late, covering up again, because once someone sees you naked, you can’t take it back. The line presents itself. I wrote it and now it’s on the page, holding up the story. What do I want you to know about my characters that shames and frightens—or exhilarates—me? And how did my story go from something I wanted to tell you to something I’m afraid for you to know, but that I must now talk about?
A Story Example
My father brought home a turquoise Porsche with red leather upholstery. My sister and I were small, eight and six, and fit tightly in the jumpseats behind my parents.
We went for a ride, tooled around Rome, circled the Colosseum, showing off for the people looking. My father made us listen to him double-clutch because he said that this was good for the car. The sound of this felt like a struggle for the engine, a hesitation, and then the car sped on. We’d parked along the Via Veneto, the car within eyeshot so my father and mother could admire it at the curb. My sister and I ordered gelati and my parents had coffees spiked with grappa. Everything alcoholic in Italy tasted like licorice.
We lived in an apartment building with a steep driveway, and the car stalled half a block from home. My father made us get out, and he pushed it, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the open door. When he got to the top of the driveway he thought he would push it and then jump in, coast to the bottom, and park it in the underground garage, but when he pushed the Porsche the car took off. He tried to hang on but it was heavy. The car dragged him and his shoes skidded along the driveway and my mother and sister and I watched in shock. I remember thinking then: You can’t hold back a moving car.
The car went down the incline and over a wall and it fell two stories below onto a street that was usually filled with children. It fell obscenely with the bottom up, like a girl on her back with no underwear. (This is the load bearing sentence in this story).
People came running from everywhere, and my father walked down, calmly, to look over the wall. No one was killed, but the car had flattened and my sister and I watched the tow truck pick it up, turn it over, and bring it away. The pretty blue paint had scraped
away and the car was smashed up and gray.
My father never spoke about this and my mother didn’t either, until they’d divorced and we were on her patio having a glass of wine. She admitted he’d been drinking, but that’s all. Not that he had a trip-up on commonsense, shit logic—man, car, incline, fast, crash, death that escaped him that night—and for the next thirty years I was on the lookout for the other things he might do.
—Pia Z. Ehrhardt, from McSweeney’s
Prompt: Write a flash fiction story in 20 minutes and ignore your critic. Write, write, write and let yourself say things on the page that you’d usually let go unsaid. Then look at those sentences and see where the “load-bearing” ones are. Congratulate yourself on not being afraid and then explore what those sentences reveal about that story you just wrote and what you’re really trying to tell.