Dinty W. Moore is a prolific writer and editor. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction is only one of his many editorial products. The online flash nonfiction journal Brevity Magazine is another. Dinty is also a seasoned teacher. To prepare for his creative nonfiction writing workshop at the Kenyon Review, I thought I should read this book. I thought it would be necessary to get on his good side.
I was wrong. Dinty is a delightful human being. He welcomed us into his workshop, expecting the very best of each. Now that I have the warm timbre of his bass voice in my ear, I experience The Rose Metal Field Guide in a completely different way. The Field Guide features many voices, each an authority in their own way, none of them prescriptive. The essays are grouped in loose, associative ways to circle around topics like shape or sound or just being ornery.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me offer first the Dinty W. Moore definition of the flash essay
The heat might come from language, from image, from voice or point-of-view, from revelation or suspense, but there must always be a burning urgency of some sort, translated through each sentence, starting with the first.Dinty W. Moore, Introduction to The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction (Rose Metal Press 2012)
Keep It Short
I have always been under the misapprehension that flash, whether fiction or nonfiction, is another word for short. This is not the case. Flash, generally defined as 1000 words or less, does much more. The author does not have the luxury of extra words or the veil of fiction to protect herself. Flash exposes.
If we are essayists, our first instinct may be to keep adding more, making more connections, applying yet another angle on a metaphor. If we are literary nonfiction writers who’ve come to prose from poetry we may have taken up creative nonfiction in order to inhabit more space on the page than is usually possible with a poem. As storytellers we may wish to bring forward backstory, wander into history and context, proceed into what happens next, next, and next. Flash nonfiction allows us no such luxuries.Barrie Jean Borich, “Writing into the Flash: On Finding Short Nonfiction’s Decisive Moment”
Dinty gives us homework before his creative nonfiction workshop even begins. The 11 of us students are each required to introduce ourselves in a text of exactly 250 words. I like these kinds of challenges. The artificial constraint often aids inspiration. The Dutch like to say: under pressure, everything becomes fluid.
I’ve always been a person of few words, both in speaking and in writing, so flash nonfiction is a well-suited genre for me. I appreciate the compression and concision required by short pieces […] I enjoy the process of cutting back, pruning a piece so that only the strongest and most fertile words and sentences remain, small twigs that leave the fully blossoming shape to suggestion.Maggie McKnight, “Building a Frame, Giving an Essay a Form”
On day one of the workshop, Dinty give us a series of free writing exercises. Unsurprisingly, many of the exercises circle on concrete, sensory details. The smell of home or the taste of danger. From concrete, sensory details, it’s only a small sidestep toward the objects that populate all fiction.
In the Field Guide, I read about objects in flash nonfiction. For example, memory does not normally arise of its own accord, according to Rigoberto González. Instead, our memories are triggered by sight or sound or smell, the taste or touch of “a particular image/object/symbol”. The link between memory and object may be the thinnest of silk threads yet it is strong enough to tug a memory into the surface of our consciousness.
Once the object is identified, it requires motion in order to become an active image
when the writer avoids static meditation on, say, a grapefruit, and instead sets the grapefruit into motion by having it be tossed across a room by an angry child, for example, or carefully sliced into by a dying grandfather. There simply isn’t enough time in flash nonfiction for an object to take on meditative weight without an active force behind it.Anne Panning, “Paper Clips, Sausage, Candy Cigarettes, Silk: ‘Thingy-ness’ in Flash Nonfiction”
In my own Lyric Essay writing workshop, I ask my students to think of images as a trigger for memory or the focal point of an essay.
Compression is the art not only of crafting minimalist lines, but also of capturing a long story by honing in on a moment or detail.Carol Guess, “On Carnival Lights, Compression, and Mice”
Beginnings and Endings
On day two of the Kenyon Review workshop, Dinty asks us to write a story without any explanation. On day four, he asks us to subvert time and causation. In other words, to write without a beginning, middle, and end.
One of the hardest things for me to do as a writer of flash nonfiction is to know when to end. Is 150 words enough to get across my point? Why not 500 or 750 or 3,000? Some essays want more elbow room to stretch. I try to test this elasticity by compressing my essays down to 50 words and then doubling the word count with each new iteration. When it stops getting better (which, like obscenity, is something you know when you see it), I stop, too.
Philip Graham believes that “flash nonfiction doesn’t have a beginning so much as a point of entry, and a point of departure rather than an ending.” An essay may begin life as a description of three objects on a desk. It becomes a conversation about and among those objects, the story behind the story.
In workshop, Dinty encourages us to debate the proper definition of essay. We arrive at a pronouncement allegedly made by Eula Biss. It runs something like this: an essay is a small box that when you open it reveals a larger box inside. Or, to put it another way.
An ending tumbles toward you over and over again; an ending will not stay flat, will not stay put; an ending troubles and taunts; an ending is sleep lost.
An ending is a puzzle without a picture; an ending says that there is no more to be done because, despite whatever it is that one of us wanted, nothing more can be done.
The doctor tells the family of the dying patient: there is nothing more to be done.
An ending tugs and tugs and tugs.Jenny Boully, “On Beginnings and Endings
This Field Guide would not be a book edited by Dinty W. Moore if it did not end with his thanks. To the authors, the editors, and the teachers who contributed their ideas, exercises, prompts, and samples.
[They] must be thanked, thanked again, given a very deep bow, and offered an enthusiastic round of applause. They are a generous, brilliant, and inspired group of artists, and there would, of course, be no book without them.Dinty W. Moore, “Acknowledgments”
Dinty said something similar to our workshop group on our last day at Kenyon College. He said we were the best. We scoffed, of course. We said, you probably say that to all your workshops. He didn’t deny it but he said the fact was irrelevant. He still thought we were great and that was enough.
23 July 2022 | Karen Kao