Screen Porch

Uniting Humanity — in a Flash!


Brittany Ackerman

When writers think of flash fiction, we tend to think of a story that completes itself in a perfect arc in a very short amount of time and space. But, this isn’t so!  I love what Kevin Wilson says of short fiction: “Short stories are stealing a car and crashing it and walking away from the wreckage.”

I think it’s time to demystify some misconceptions about flash writing, starting with the falsehood that flash writing can only be for the beloved genre of literary fiction.  Flash writing can happen in any genre: creative nonfiction, memoir, horror, science fiction, fantasy, thriller, young adult, and even romance.  There are plenty of ways that writers can use the constraints and limits of short prose in order to reveal character, express emotion, and capture a moment in time.  

Flash writing is a great space to practice artful language, to play with poetic depictions, to experiment with scene.  I personally love writing in a flash form, as I find it beneficial to practice different techniques without the pressure of having to write an entire essay or story.

Pieces can focus on an image, on a perspective or a point of view, on an idea.  Take, for example, Lydia Davis’s “Everyone Cried.”  The opening line reads: It is not easy to live in this world.  The piece that follows is a beautiful, funny portrait of crying.  On a deeper level, it’s about the common thread of sadness in humanity, of commiseration and unity through that co-misery.  

The piece is 468 words in length, and it works at said length.  It uses the second person plural point of view in order to create empathy, to invite the reader, and the rest of the world, into the experience of “unhappiness” that we all face.  But it’s not all doom and gloom.  The humor comes from the example of unhappiness in the workplace where Lydia Davis uses the exaggeration of adults crying in the office, of protesting against doing work.  For me, this summons the image of babies in a nursery, screaming and crying while refusing to take a nap.

And the metaphor totally works.  Babies cry when they are hungry or tired, when their basic needs aren’t being met.  And so do adults.  We get upset when our needs aren’t met and yet we have to go on working, go on living.

We’ve all been there.  We’ve all had jobs we hated, moments of despair that felt inescapable because…they are. No one in this life is immune to pain and suffering.  But Lydia Davis gets us through it in “Everyone Cried” because she reminds us that we are all human.

She does this all without a protagonist, without an arc, without any real story.  But it works as flash writing because she crashes the car of our hearts by stirring the feelings we all feel, and then she walks away from the wreckage.  However, she leaves us shrouded in comfort, the consolation of knowing that “Everyone is constantly upset by the small things that go wrong” and that “This is natural.”

The piece is reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” a poem that calls us to remember that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live takes part in the shared experience of existing, of living.  Whitman states:

“It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not, 

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence, 

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt…”

In this way, we are never really alone.  We are all united by the mere fact of being human. Whitman accomplishes this feat in under 2,000 words, by the way.

In these examples, both writers are able to use different genres to unite the human spirit.  But we can use flash writing in any genre in order to send whatever message it is that we want to send with our work.  We can inspire, connect, call to action, wax nostalgia, thrill, make light of, shed light on, and so forth.   

Something I always try to achieve in flash pieces is a moment of change.  Not that a solid change has to happen, but I aim to have the piece realize that a change must be made.  This, I guess, is my attempt to unite humanity through my writing.

We can use our own real life experiences.  We can fabricate characters and scenes.  We can delicately choose our diction.  We can express our fears, our obsessions, our passions.  

In my own writing, something I always try to achieve in flash pieces is a moment of change.  Not that a solid change has to happen, but I aim to have the piece realize that a change must be made.  This, I guess, is my attempt to unite humanity through my writing.  We all have many qualms with the world and its inner workings, and it can be easy to want everything around us to change.  But the hardest thing for us to do is to look inward and examine ourselves.  

In my writing, I always try to look within.  Whether it’s memoir or essay or purely fiction, I find something in my own life that I'm grappling with and take to the page in order to wrestle with it.  It’s often uncomfortable, usually painful, even sometimes cathartic.  But I truly feel that it’s a fair fight worth fighting.


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