by Katey Schultz
I remember the day in graduate school when the highly regarded author, who was also my thesis advisor, looked at the 150 pages of creative nonfiction I had amassed and told me I’d written “the perfect corpse.” It was the best thing she could have said to me—a type A, beat-my-head-against-the-wall, determined, writer. I knewI’d write for the rest of my life. I knew I’d find a way to make a living as a writer, not a professor. But first, I had to learn a very hard lesson. I smiled and trembled all at once, humbly accepting my pages back from my thesis advisor. I had six months to find the life in my memoir, and the only thing I knew was that what I thought worked, didn’t even come close.
Hitting a wall had never felt so good, because somehow—perhaps it was growing up in a house of books, perhaps it was a high school English teacher who had made the work of the writer sound honorable—whether or not I’d keep writing was never at risk. I knew I was lucky in that regard, and finally, someone was going to help me see what wasn’t lucky about all that determination I’d been carrying around.
Writing the perfect corpse looked like this: I followed all the rules. I considered my balance of scene, summary, and reflection. I applied metaphor and concrete imagery at the line-level. Whenever possible, I also extended metaphors to address the broader narrative themes that I thought my essays about “growing up girl” in America addressed. I read deeply and passionately, studying a wide spectrum of creative nonfiction.
But through all my drafts, I’d never questioned the initial entry point into my memories. My brain often latched onto a story through a startling, frozen, concrete image locked in my mind’s eye. From there, I had my beginning. The rest was following the rules—and I had fun, writing both beautiful and not-so-beautiful sentences, thinking for sure I’d given it my all.
What I didn’t know at the time was that the initial spark of a memory frozen in my mind’s eye—that thing I’d become so dependent upon to get the work done—wasn’t always the best place to begin. Furthermore, the image or memory itself didn’t always signify the heart of the matter in a literal or direct way; that is, it wasn’t necessarily the best way to say whatever it was I was actually trying to say.
I could write a solid scene and stack several solid scenes in a row along a particular theme. But could I get at the emotional pulse of the predicament I was portraying? Could I articulate the stakes of the short-lived moments my memory kept telling me I needed to write about?
I could, but not through traditional memoir form. I’d written “the perfect corpse,” but it was a corpse because the writing didn’t have a pulse. The writing didn’t have a pulse because it wasn’t in the correct…body (to extend the metaphor). The initial spark of memory that told me to write my scenes and balance things out with summary and reflection did get me through to that 150 pages—but the approach came up short in terms of determining the truly correct form for future drafts. I ran my head into the same wall over and over again, making it more and more real with each blow, until I’d built it up so high that I mistook it for absolute. But the form (or body) I needed to tell my stories in wasn’t even made of walls, so to speak. I needed something entirely fresh; something that allowed for more pulse than a basic balance of scene, summary, and reflection could provide.
I needed flash nonfiction…that tiny, beautiful, little monster in the corner of the room that I hadn’t even known had a name until push came to shove my 4th and final semester of graduate school and someone finally suggested I “start writing short.”
Like magic words, this advice made that damn wall I’d been running into completely vanish. The pulse of my stories resided in the moment, there and then gone—as fleeting as the adolescence I was writing about. I wrote short and my own heart raced. So did my thesis advisor’s. I never looked back.
Interestingly, I never published a single piece of flash nonfiction from that final version of my thesis. But “writing short” hooked me forever, and I’m now known as a flash fiction author whose debut collection of short stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan helped open multiple sides of the military and civilian experience to average readers who “didn’t like to read about war.” They like to read about people, and “writing short,” helped me offer readers digestible glimpses into the lives of my realistic, fictional characters in ways that I’ve been told have allowed them to experience the “human side” of war.
Writing short didn’t prove to be enough, though. I became obsessed with helping others delight in this fun, magnetic form. It’s both accessible and challenging. It forces hard skills like word choice, imagery, repetition, and rhythm…but it doesn’t require 200 pages for a universal payoff. It solidifies a writer’s attention to scene, in particular, but also heightens a writer’s ability to trust the reader, omit extraneous details and backstory, and cut to the chase. Today, I offer a in flash form writing, a in creative flow and flash form writing, and for writers also drawn to this form. Life is busy. Life is full. Life is as alive and kicking as ever, and I’ve got the pulse to prove it.
Katey Schultz is the author of and editor of three fiction anthologies. She is also the founder of , dedicated to the principle that the right word in the right context, can change a life. Her novel, set in Afghanistan, is represented by Sobel Weber Associates.
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