The big advantage of thinking small.
Wondering how to approach your memoir? Today there are essentially two schools of thought. The conventional way is to think big, focusing on one’s signal achievements, and the key turning points that took you through your particular journey in life. This method may produce a perfectly serviceable text, but it does have some disadvantages. One is that the storytelling tends to become abstract, draining the color and texture out of the life you lived in a particular time and place. A more serious drawback is that the focus on “major” and “meaningful” can make the prospect of tackling such a project even more intimidating than it would be otherwise.
Enter a new alternative: telling your story in a short format – like flash. While it may be better known as a short format for fiction, flash is becoming increasingly popular for creative non-fiction, and that includes memoir.
Most flash stories average less than 750 words – that’s about a page – and can be as short as six. That may sound like a challenge for telling your whole life story, but that, in a way, is the point: recounting your biography in near real-time is the one thing you do not want to do to a reader. Unlike a Wikipedia entry or history textbook, a memoir prioritizes focus of story over completeness of information.
Often it comes down to the selection of evocative details. Like Proust’s madeleine cookie dipped in tea or Nabokov’s fluttering blue butterflies, one vivid image from the past can unlock a whole storehouse of memories.
Try this exercise as a way of writing a 500-word flash memoir:
1. Start from the senses: What were the smells, sounds and tastes that made up the scenery of a certain period of your life?
2. Locate the struggle: Even if it wasn’t earth shattering, what was your most immediate goal at that moment, and what stood in the way of accomplishing it?
3. End with a twist: What happened that you weren't expecting?
If a book-length memoir is the documentary film, think of flash memoir as the snapshot. No need to strive for the perfectly composed Instagram image, however; a blurry Polaroid is an equally valid aesthetic choice.
And while writing in this way is infinitely less daunting than taking on a novel-length project, that’s not the only benefit of flash memoir. By shifting focus from momentous life events to the little details you thought you had forgotten, it gives you the opportunity to enjoy the process of discovery and play on the page, instead of always working so hard.
And that’s big!