Category Archives: Reflections on Writing

A Few Thoughts on Flash Fiction and Nonfiction

I teach a flash fiction and nonfiction class for Story Circle Network. Right now I am teaching flash nonfiction.  Flash is usually a piece that is limited to around 1200 words maximum.

Here are some thoughts on this type of writing.

Flash fiction and flash nonfiction differ clearly in content, but many of the needs are the same given the conciseness of the form.

In an excerpt from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Nathan Leslie in his article, “The “V” Word,” states, “By focusing on language, scene, voice, and character, my students often find themselves writing compelling and effectively ambiguous stories rather than cloyingly serendipitous and artificial ones. By doing so they learn that in flash fiction:

• Accomplishing one clear goal is of utmost importance.

• Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle, and minimalist writing overall, can work wonders—understatement and purposeful ambiguity are vital.

• Every word bears weight.

• Imagery is of the utmost importance.

• Many works of flash fiction can employ a sudden twist, turn, or realization.

• Irony is helpful.

• Beginning in the middle saves precious time and space.

• Length restrictions can bring out great art.

For flash nonfiction, book author and editor of the journal Brevity Dinty W. Moore states in an interview at River Teeth Journal that “The imperatives are the same, but everything is dialed up in a shorter piece. You need to move in and out of scene quickly, you need to introduce language, diction, and rhythm immediately, and you need to establish place, character, and conflict right away – usually in the first sentence. The first paragraph of a brief essay has to do what the first chapter of a memoir does.”

Here’s Dinty’s full interview.

 

Dinty Moore’s full interview can be found at http://www.riverteethjournal.com/blog/2012/01/09/focusing-on-flash-nonfiction-an-interview-with-dinty-moore

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Repost: Lessons from John Steinbeck

I have just begun reading John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a compilation of Steinbeck’s letters to his editor and friend, to whom he addressed a journal entry every day before writing his manuscript pages for his novel.

East of Eden is one of the first books I read years ago that grabbed me and twisted my thinking around. I thought I was reading one story and then halfway through everything shifted and I was reading another much more unexpected one. I will never forget that visceral sensation of being yanked into the world of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. That was the moment I fell in love with literature.

I’ve reread East of Eden in the past years, and now see that it is an imperfect book in many way, heavy on message and clumsy in some of its pacing. And yet, I still love it because it was the first book to demand my attention and make me think, “Oh, wow. This is so different (and better) than I initially thought.”

Now that I’ve written a memoir and have turned that memoir into a novel, I have some sense of how difficult novel-writing is. I am now in the early stages of a second novel and reading Steinbeck’s thoughts as he is working on East of Eden is a gift beyond measure. It is so helpful to read the unguarded words of a writer who is seeking to write the best book of his life.

Two of my favorite quotes so far are:

In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not very much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this has not happened to me. The same blind effort, the straining and puffing go on in me. And always I hope that a little trickles through. This urge dies hard.

I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way. I think I mean that. It is the ideal. And I have done just the opposite. I have written each book as an exercise, as practice for the one to come. And this is the one to come. There is nothing beyond this book – nothing follows it.

It must be noted that those “practice books” included Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and The Pearl, to name a few. Also, East of Eden was not Steinbeck’s last book, though he considered it his greatest one.

I will continue to read Journal of a Novel and to “strain and puff” as I work on my writing. I like the idea of approaching this new book as if it were my last. That makes sense to me – no holding back. Now comes the effort and the hope that maybe just a little of what I’m trying to do will “trickle through.”

I best get started.

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A Writing Focused Day

This has been a day spent on Story Circle Network’s Online Classes program and my college essay students. I have been evaluating proposals for the fall term, which is exciting since there are some great classes coming up. Also, I worked with three students over the phone so we can get a jump on the college admission process this summer and rather than waiting until school starts in the fall.

I also will be teaching a new course for SCN in the fall: An Intermediate Flash Fiction/Memoir class for students who have taken my Introductory “Writing Short” class. I’ve never taught this before and am doing so at the request of several students. I am excited about it because I will be working with students with whom I already have a rapport and we can dig deeper. Yahoo.

I have been focused for several hours on this. After a week of being outside in the heat, I must admit I’ve enjoyed sitting in the air conditioning and working on the writing part of my life. I also must say that sitting here in our Victorian is a pleasure in itself. It is such a quiet and peaceful place.

I am ready to relax now so I’ll say good-night. I hope you all had a good Sunday and are geared up to face Monday in the morning!

I’ll be checking in again tomorrow.

Startup Stock Photos
Startup Stock Photos

Delving Deeper for Great College Essays

I have been working with students on college essays over the past few days, using shared Google docs and the telephone. It is always an interesting process and this year is no different.

Part of the fun of college essays is that we dig deep, looking for experiences that carry real heft. This is not particularly easy to get to and requires a lot of prompting:

“Have you had a particularly challenging experience?”

“How did you feel? Sad, defeated, frustrated, demoralized?”

“What did you do after you felt those feelings?”

Most students are very uncomfortable talking about themselves in this way, but this is one sure method to get down to a person’s core values.

“And then what?”

Deeper and deeper.

Many of my students laugh in the middle of this process and say, “I’m telling you things I don’t usually share with anybody.”

This is the key. The goal of the personal essay is to communicate in 650 words an essential truth about the writer’s life experience and that is never going to happen by focusing on surface experiences and emotions.

I have helped many students write their college essays over the past sixteen years. It is one of my favorite activities because it is so personal and ultimately so rewarding. I’ve watched kids with average grades and SAT scores gain admission to top schools primarily because of their superlative personal essays and I’ve seen others with excellent grades and top SAT scores get unexpected full ride merit scholarships to top universities greatly aided by their strong personal essays. More importantly, I’ve watched all of my students find that nugget of truth that sheds real light for them on their lives and their struggles and who they are deep down. That’s the best part, no matter where they end up in college.

I am lucky to have this job. I always come away with a sense that we have accomplished something that goes well beyond the college application process. We have connected on a personal level and I have witnessed a transformation as my students have pushed themselves to ask important questions about who and how they are and what they see as their purpose in this world. We would all do well to have someone from time to time asking us to probe into our psyches for those answers. I suspect we’d create a better world for others and ourselves if we did.

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Prompt: When Do I Feel Most Free?

When do I feel most free?

Ah, I know. When I write fiction.

Nothing matches the sense of freedom I feel when I settle into a comfortable chair with either my laptop or notebook and pen, and write a random sentence or fragment of dialogue with no idea where it will take me. From there, the words just begin to flow, each word informing the next and each story choice setting a whole world into motion in my head. The outside world melts away as an inner one begins to take shape with houses and streets and people and problems and, ultimately, perhaps not a solution, but some sort of resolution.

Gone are my external worries. Who cares at that moment about mortgages or electric bills or phone calls to return or people to see? No, none of that is relevant. Instead, I am focused on characters who are facing a problem while they inhabit a place that may or may not be that different from my own spot in the world. But in this case, I can be a man, woman, boy, girl or any age in-between as well as rich or poor, black, white or brown, tall or short, fat or skinny, sincere or sarcastic. Whatever suits the story I am writing.

When I return to my life , I am either reluctantly pulled from the muse’s breast or else sated after getting the story out of the page. Either way, I’ve experienced life in another world and am aware I can return any time I wish.

Real freedom?

When I write make-believe stories.

The best part: I can write them at a cafe or at home or on the beach.  Location is not critical.

Just give me a few minutes to myself.  The freedom will follow…

 

woman-cafe

 

The Room Where I Write

The room I am sitting in has a red Persian rug, a brown leather couch, a green brocade wing back chair (plus ottoman), a green Morris chair (plus ottoman), a cane back rocking chair, an art deco blondish coffee table and a low oak table upon which rests our television set. The curtains (which are insulated blackout curtains) are peach colored and they match in color, purely by accident, a large photo we have of orangish sand and distant rock formations of somewhere in either Arizona or New Mexico. We also have an orangish antique Carrom board hanging at an angle on one wall, plus a vintage needlepoint on another. The needlepoint reads:

Give Me Time

Time for patience
For understanding too
Time to remember
Thoughtful deeds to do
Time to believe in
all fellow men
Time to perceive
The value of a friend.

The needlepoint has a clock flanked with flowers in the very middle between “…thoughtful deeds” and Time to believe…”, and there are backward and forward S shapes all around the edges. It is beautifully framed and is one of my favorite possessions.

There is another needlepoint on the far wall, plus a clock in an oak case, two pictures and a painting. There are also a couple of small tables, two lamps, a Mission Oak drop front desk plus oak desk chair, and an old round oak stool. It sounds like a lot of furniture for a relatively small room, but it all fits together nicely and gives the room a lived-in feeling. All the colors and textures work nicely together to convey warmth.

This room is right next to the kitchen and was the official diningroom before we arrived. We wanted our living room to be a television-free zone so we need a den, and this has been our den/tv room for the 21 years we’ve lived in this house. We have a big table in the living room that serves as a dining table for major events. We would need to be in there anyway since this room – our den – is on the smallish side.

When people come into this room, they often say, “Ah, it’s so cozy in here.” I agree. It’s a comfortable space in which to relax. It is also in close proximity to the kitchen, which is handy for a quick snack. There is a ceiling fan that keeps everything cool, plus a big bay window and two side windows that make it nice and light. We have a rectangular stained glass window that hangs in the bay window.

When my kids were at home, I used to see all my students in the living room. The den was part of our family space and was their domain for relaxing after school with a snack and a little tv time. But now I typically see my students in here because it’s pleasant and Ray will go upstairs if he needs family space. We have a door that can close if he is in the kitchen when I have a student. That way he gets the privacy he needs and we get the quiet we need for writing.

Because Ray and I have been antique dealers for a very long time, our home has an eclectic assortment of antique or collectible furniture and decor, all of which means something special to us. This room is no exception. I can look at every piece of furniture or needlepoint or lamp, table or picture and tell you where it came from and what the story is that goes with it. And if I can’t recall the story, then Ray can. That is just part of the deal when you buy and sell antiques. The story is almost as important as the function of the piece. In some cases, even more important.

I am happy to have such a nice space in which to write and work. I am surrounded with old and treasured possessions that help create an atmosphere that I find soothing. Plus, I have my beloved needlepoint with its reflection on time. I think this environment nurtures those who enter. I certainly hope it does since that has been my intention. It definitely nurtures me.

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My Need for a Little Daily Solitude

I have always liked small dark places where I could hide: closets mainly, but when I was little I didn’t mind under the bed or in a cardboard box with the lid slightly shut. I even had a secret hiding place behind a long drawer in my bathroom when I was nine or ten where I would take a flashlight and sit to get away from all the ruckus of growing up in a family with six kids, four of whom were pesky brothers. I also had a penchant for playing far back in the bushes all by myself. Right back by the fence so I could lean against it while I sat and played with doodle bugs. You might say all of my life I have had a need to spend some part of every day completely alone.

I didn’t actually recognize that need of mine when I married a man who preferred having people around all day and night long. Someone who loved to laugh and talk louder and louder as he got excited and who enjoyed nothing better than a roomful of people who were doing the same. No wonder we had so many arguments. Add three kids to the mix and I don’t think I had one moment of solitude for about fifteen years. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy many of the people who were our friends, or many of the non-stop activities that my energetic and extroverted husband thought we needed to engage in, it was just there was no down-time, no silence, no time to think.

After chasing the poor man around the yard one day with a crowbar with the intent to scare him to death – which I did – I started getting to live life a bit more in a way that suited me. Which only meant that I realized and asked for time to go into a room and write for a while everyday. My husband, who recognized that he was living with a woman on the brink, helped me set up a guest bedroom so that I had a desk and chair and a door that closed. Our marriage tension began to ease after that, and over the years has gotten less and less since I have remembered my need for a little space apart every day.

What did I do when I was alone as a kid? I daydreamed. I made up characters with names (I had a Dictionary of Proper Names to help) and I constructed elaborate stories in my mind of these people and their situations. Alas, I now know that I was simply doing what all fiction writers do – creating imaginary worlds. In addition, I made up plans for our house. We could make our big 2-story house into a camp where kids could come for fun. Three or four triple bunks in every bedroom would ensure a proper number of campers and we could do arts and crafts downstairs in the big family room, eat in the dining room, have singalongs in front of the fireplace in the living room and have races and playtime out under our big oak tree in the back yard. I even drew up a floor plan and showed my mother, who, bless her soul, was quite enthusiastic about how it would all work.

I am an odd duck in some ways; perfectly normal in many others. But when it comes to solitude, I am clear. I function best if I have time every day to sit and be quiet so that I can think or write. Not to read, however, though, I would love more time for that. But I don’t consider reading “alone time” since reading involves at least one other person – the author – and probably many more – the characters – and that starts feeling crowded.

A friend told me last night about a new finding related to introverts and extroverts. Apparently, there is a chemical that is generated in the brain when extroverts are around other people; that same chemical is depleted when introverts are around people. Now, the truth is that I love people – I have a genuine interest in hearing their stories – and most people who know me would automatically categorize me as an extrovert. But there is a moment when all that talking and laughing shifts and I feel as if someone has pulled the plug to my energy source. That’s when I need to excuse myself, and head upstairs to be alone.

My husband and I, over these thirty plus years together, have moved from our personal extremes to a life closer to the center, and the amount of time we spend with other people is reflected in that shift. Now we both agree that while company is great, alone time can be equally as pleasant. I still don’t get quite as much solitude as I would like, but enough so the crow bar hasn’t re-emerged.

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