Mon 30 Apr 2012
Writing comes naturally to me—I have been a diarist since age thirteen—writing succinctly has not. About a decade ago, I wrote a 160,000-word draft of a memoir that consisted of a dense, expositional narrative juxtaposed against over-long passages of dialogue. I abandoned it. What I had written only a masochist with a machete could or would slog through.
Honestly, I did not know how to write differently. However, by focusing on the short form, the conventions of writing flash, I have become a better writer of the long and have refined my skills to shape memoir moments into “story.”
About three years ago, I received an invitation to the Flash Factory, an office at Zoetrope.com, an online writers’ site. I had no idea what flash fiction was, but I jumped into the weekly prompts. I had a lot to learn and unlearn. My first flashes were arc-less non-stories, or moments/ mini scenes. Scenes I could do. I have a theatrical background. Literally and figuratively. What I did not know was how to write a compressed piece of prose with an arc where something happens, that something is resolved, and changes.
Flash taught me how to hone dramatic moments. In Something About Your Mother below—a “memoir flash” based on a true event—I compressed a long scene into a dramatic moment where a cruel child tells a terrible lie to another child, leaving in only the most relevant words, details, and dialogue. In memoir, the writer uses fictional devices to create “story” based on personal memory versus pure fictionalization. Ditto “memoir flash.” What could have been a fifteen-hundred-word chapter is now less than five hundred words.
In the story, I introduce the protagonist Lucinda playing a game. Immediately, the antagonist, Cam, arrives and interrupts her play with a lie. This happens within a few short sentences. Upset about the lie, Lucinda runs home to her grandmother and the two of them go onto Chestnut Street to learn if the lie is true. When Mama rides up on her bike, the effect of the lie on Lucinda and Mamoo allows the reader to see the three familial relationships and reveals a universal truth about the cruelty of children.
Did the actual event happen in such a compressed period? Of course not. Things like dinner, baths and or phone calls interrupt real time events. However, what flash has taught me is that fewer words said well are better than many words meandering around with no end in sight.
I have become a better writer of memoir because of the skills I’ve learned from writing flash fiction: to strive to make every word count. I even do a bit of fiction on the side, which is great. It gives me a break from myself!
The 440-word flash below originated from a prompt—to write something about your mother.
Something about Your Mother
Busting ass backwards out of the Lime’s driveway, I laughed. “See if you can catch me.” I raced to the corner of Chestnut and Second.
I looked at the short, blond-headed girl two years older than my twelve who blocked my escape path with her expensive French bike.
Her eyes scanned my Tomboy-scraped and bruised knees. I scratched my arm irritated by a sting and stared at my neighbor, Cam Mercy. Her younger brother Phinizy was my friend. Phin, I liked.
“Lucindah,” she said, playing with the pronunciation. “Or do you prefer Kemp-e?”
“Ya’ll have funny names.”
With a mother named Jay, a brother named Phinizy, and an uncle named Walker, well, what could I say? Bait her? No. I waited.
“There’s something I have to tell you about your mother,” she said, smiling in a way that didn’t look happy. “She’s been in an accident…on her bike. A car hit her. I think she’s dead.”
I looked at her bright white sneakers.
“Did you hear what I said?”
I heard loud. I flew around the corner, pushed open my front gate, and tore up the three front steps. Pounding on the door, I screamed. “Mamoo, Mamoo!”
My grandmother opened the door.
“Mama? Where’s Mama, Mamoo?”
Mamoo looked startled.
“Camille Mercy said Mama was killed by a car.”
Mamoo’s eyes got big as raccoons. She grabbed the top of her sweater with her little hummingbird-sized hands. “What? No. She went to Zara’s….” She walked past me, down the steps, past the gate and out onto Chestnut Street. I followed behind her.
“To Zara’s for cigs, on her bike,” she muttered, turning to me, her face ashen as an elderly gnome. I came and stood beside her and together we looked towards Jackson Avenue. I could see Cam, in her yard cattycorner from our house, watching us.
Mama, I thought, no, no. Mama who took me to the bars. Mama who brought strange men home. Mama who told me daddy was crazy. Mama who I hated to love. Mama who I loved to hate, please don’t go. I squeezed Mamoo’s hand so hard she gasped.
We stood staring down the street when a figure on a three-speed Raleigh appeared in the distance. A figure wearing Bermuda shorts and a Greek captain’s hat rode up and stopped the bike right in front of Mamoo and me.
“Poots! Mother! Why how delightful to have a welcoming committee!”
I smiled bigger than I had in years. I looked across the street into the Mercy’s yard. Cam had dissolved into a puff of smoke, her bike tossed on its side.
[The Dirty Debutantes’ Daughter]
My journey from long-winded expositional narrator to flasher reminds me of the A.A. Milne story, In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle, where Pooh and Piglet get lost taking the long way around a short bush.
One further plus I discovered. Flashing in public is an addictive habit that is actually good for you.
Lucinda Kempe is a writer and memoirist. Flash Fiction Chronicles, Fictionaut, MudJob, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and The Short Humour Site have published Lucinda’s flash. Upcoming work will be at Metazen and Referential Magazine. Lucinda loves flashing and lives to do more of it publicly.