How To Write A Short Memoir Essay

Years ago, when I lived in Boston and worked for The Horn Book Magazine, novelist and children’s author Alice Hoffman read her work at a local bookstore. After her reading, a woman in the audience asked Hoffman what she recommended for an aspiring writer who had started several novels but hadn’t finished them.

 

Without missing a beat, Hoffman replied, “Start short.” She explained that short stories provided an opportunity to practice craft on a scale more manageable and easier to sustain than the long-form demands of a novel.

 

Since that gathering back in the 1990s, short form narratives have proliferated, and the “short-short” story, known as flash fiction, has become increasingly popular.

 

Memoir, too, has its short forms. The “memoir essay,” to borrow a phrase Adam Gopnik uses in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2008, is an essay-length memoir, generally in the neighborhood of 2000 to 6000 words.

 

Short-short memoir essays—those under 2,000 words but more commonly in the under 1,000-words range—go by the term “flash memoir,” or “flash creative nonfiction.”

 

What Is Flash Memoir?

 

First, let’s define memoir in general.

 

Memoir is a sliver—or slice—of your life experience. (Memoir is not the story of your entire life—that would be autobiography.) This slice of life becomes the lens through which you tell a particular memoir story.

 

At the heart of every memoir, beneath the surface story of events, is a deeper story truth. This deeper truth imbues the memoir with meaning as the author makes sense of her experience. I always come back to Vivian Gornick on this point: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

 

If a book-length memoir is a slice of life, then a flash memoir is a moment. But that moment is not necessarily bound by time. It is, rather, a singular instance of insight—a “flash,” if you will—that imbues even the shortest piece of memoir with meaning.

 

What do I mean by meaning?

 

In his preface to In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfictionedited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones, Bernard Cooper writes, “To write short nonfiction requires an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens, so to speak, until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.”

 

The flash in “flash memoir” refers to its brevity, yes, but it also—and more importantly—refers to its “flash” of insight into human experience.

 

Like a book-length memoir, a flash memoir engages readers at an emotional level so that they come away changed by a new level of understanding, however subtle, into what it means to be human. In other words, a brief memoir essay carries with it the power to move readers.

 

As Cooper also says in his preface to In Short, brief memoir essays provide readers with the opportunity to experience “the disproportionate power of the small to move, persuade, and change us.”

 

Writing Flash Memoir: Start Small

 

Maybe you’ve started writing a book-length memoir but, like the woman at Alice Hoffman’s reading, haven’t completed it. Or perhaps you aspire to write a book-length memoir but don’t know where to start.

 

Well, in the words of Alice Hoffman, why not “start small.”

 

Writing flash memoir—starting small—is an excellent way to practice the craft of writing memoir, and to prepare for the long-form demands of a book-length memoir. The brief form will require you to explore your deeper story truth and make sense of your experience (for yourself and for your reader) within a short page span. No space to wander down rabbit holes that take you away from the essential deeper truth!


Trying your hand at flash memoir also situates you to produce some beautiful memoir pieces that may, in fact, deepen your understanding of the subject you want to write about in a longer memoir. This understanding may provide you with invaluable insight—a flash of human experience—that will, ultimately, “move, persuade, and change” your readers.

 

Today’s Flash Assignment

 

Begin by first acquainting yourself with the flash memoir form. The online journal Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction offers a treasure trove of flash creative nonfiction pieces that are 750 words or less.

 

  • Poke around and read whichever essays catch your eye.
  • Hone in on five essays that move you.
  • Reread each of these essays with the following questions in mind:
  • What “large sense” does the author make of his or her experience?
  • How, exactly, does this piece move me as a reader?



By pinpointing how a piece of flash memoir moves you as a reader, you are in fact practicing the art of reading like a writer and cultivating a writer’s sensibility for how to engage your readers at an emotional level when you return to the page.

 

Reading short memoir essays in this way—“seeing beneath the surface” of a piece to the larger sense the author is making—will make you a better writer when you try your hand at writing flash memoir and longer memoir.

 

I’ll offer another Flash Assignment next week. For now, enjoy reading like a writer and seeing beneath the surface of the memoir pieces you read.

 

And let us know in the comments which Brevity essay especially moved you.

 

Extra credit: Let us know how it moved you. : )

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This guest post is by Clint Archer. Clint is a pastor and author. He and his expanding family live in Durban, South Africa, and he pities anyone who doesn’t. Read Clint’s blog, Café Seminoid or follow him on Twitter.

Photo by Woodley Wonderworks

As a child I was intrigued by how exciting my friend Josh’s life was. At every recess, he regaled his huddled audience with a riveting narrative of how he missed the bus and had to hitchhike without his mom finding out, or how his bicycle light failed him on a dark street at night and almost led to his early death.

Then, I realized that his stories were all everyday events that could have happened to anyone. The difference was that he crafted the story well. He set up the scene, introduced conflict, and brought the resolution with remarkable flare, and usually a twist of humor to boot.

And his vignettes came with a built-in platform because we all identified with his experiences. It wasn’t something happening in space or in the 1800s. The canvas was always everyday life.

This is the power of the memoir genre.

I have found that what I lack in the novelist’s imagination—it’s exceedingly difficult for me to create a story ex nihilo—I compensate for with my ability to see and describe drama ensconced in an ordinary setting. I have learned to cull plot lines out of my week.

Whenever I notice dramatic irony in my telephone conversations, poetic justice visited on my nosey neighbor, or a motif of rain at every birthday party I have attempted, I find fodder for a story.

Tips for Writing a Memoir Short Story

  • Write in the first person. This is your story.
  • When introducing someone new, be sure to use names of people as if they were already familiar to your readers. In other words, don’t introduce your wife as “Suzy, my wife,” just mention Suzy and use context to show her role.
  • Decide on one point you would like to convey. Use the story as the vehicle.
  • For fun: add some flare by alluding to a great literary work your readers would have heard of, or a current event with which your readers would be familiar.
  • Write with a particular readership in mind (e.g. your parents or your co-workers), and then sent them the story to read, as a gift. Create an eBook, print it on fancy paper, or simply e-mail it to them to cheer their day.

PRACTICE

Take a moment to recall an everyday event that struck you as odd, irritating, coincidental, or serendipitous.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please comment on a few other posts, too.

Have fun!

Here’s my practice:

“LOVE IN A TIME OF MEASLES”

by Clint Archer

I always wondered if there was a worse title for a love story than Márquez’s “Love in a Time of Cholera.” But now I get it.

Kids are a breeding ground for infectious disease. The playground is a veritable petri-dish of viruses, bacteria, and various other contagions. Sometimes when my children snuggle up with their lubricated upper lips to kiss me goodnight, I wish I was wearing one of those sealed helmets Dustin Hoffman wore in the movie Outbreak.

This Valentine’s Day Kim and I spent a snotty, quarantined night at home with our infected offspring. Not exactly what Hallmark had in mind. We were both a bit put out by the anticlimax, sealed by cancelled reservations and a cowardly babysitter. But at least we had our health… sort of.

Though our three spotty, slimy littlies looked like they were auditioning for the role of a pizza topping, we were both unaffected by the plague. Immunity instills a flaming sense of invincibility. I can understand why people join the diplomatic corps.

Between intermittent vista to the bathroom with our viral wards in tow, my wife and I shared stories of our own childhood encounters with germ warfare. It occurred to us both that the reason we were now immune was due to the seemingly sadistic forethought of our mothers.

My imperviousness to measles of all stripes, chicken pox, mumps, and pretty much every other disease, came from an old-school type of inoculation: the “Please sneeze on my kid” exposure system.

When my mom heard that a child at school had been booked off for say, chicken pox she would urgently, and with some unmasked glee, schedule a play-date with patient zero.

Her theory was: Get all the sicknesses out of the way when you’re young, and then when your kids get it, you are healthy enough to look after them. It’s brilliant, in a macabre, sadistic kind of way.

But it was only this Valentine’s Day that the realization became lucid, like opening your eyes after the conjunctivitis has subsided. My mom got me sick because she loved me. It couldn’t possibly have been beneficial for her to have me whining like a delirious addict (I couldn’t recover gracefully from any malady). She was serving me, and her future grandkids in an act of unpleasant altruism.

On this near miss at a romantic evening, Kim and I could enjoy the benefits of our parents’ love for us, and pay it forward to our own whiny clan. I guess Kleenex, more than chocolates, helped me learn about love in the time of measles.

 

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