Tuesday, January 19, 2016


guest post by Sheila Bender

As a poet and memoirist, I have studied flash fiction to gather strategic ways to write essential life stories. I am a believer in the idea that telling one’s life story effectively and movingly can be done in fragments because fragments evoke moments and when collected, as poems and essays are, the moments of perception accumulate into a whole.

Here are three strategies that I have used from my readings in flash fiction.


The short story writer Bruce Holland Rogers offers a short-short story in which he writes in the voice of a social service worker interviewing a woman whose boyfriend has abused her child.

Read the story "How Could a Mother." Then ask yourself whom you might interview to get out an important story of your life—your grandfather, grandmother, ex-boss or husband, for instance. 

What persona would you adopt for being the interviewer? It doesn't have to be an animate being--you might have the piano or brooch you inherited ask questions of your ancestor.

For example, you might take something that annoyed you about the person and have that thing be the interviewer: “The Naked Cardboard Cylinder He Always Left on the Toilet Paper Holder Interviews My Ex-husband.”

Sometimes the best way to examine truths of your own experience is through characters, inanimate or animal or plant, whose beings create a fictional dream in which we can explore human problems. 


Jim Heynen writes short pieces that examine human nature and what we do about it. My favorites of his stories are the ones he writes about “the boys” and their adventures and traumas while growing up on farms.

You can read one of them online: “Ice Storm.” After you do, think about incidents in your childhood when you thought differently than the adults around you. Write the story of when you demonstrated behavior that was in keeping with your feelings even though the adults would not have understood. Let the details show the experience as Heynen does. 


The epistolary (letter) form is a device used by fiction writers. 

One of my favorite novels in letters is The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson. 

On this USA Today website you can read two of the letters from the book – in this excerpt the main character, Olivia, is writing to her sister, first as a little girl before her sister is born, and then as a woman whose career is failing. In the longer letter, she is writing to a friend and at the end of the letter, reveals news about her sister.

Either of these letters might stand alone as a flash piece. I think they are good models for how you might tackle writing about your life, whether in a young voice or your current adult voice. 

Here are some questions to consider in finding your own topic: 
  • Who would you like to address that you have not met yet? 
  •  What would you like that person to know? 
  • Who might you write to about your life’s joys? Where would you be sitting as you write and what do you observe from where you are that helps you associate to past or present joys? 
  • Who might you write to about your life’s difficult situations? Where might you be writing from that would put you in transitional moment, a moment that you are moving from one situation to another and can open up about a big change in your life? Might you be on a plane like Robinson? Might you be on a train or sitting in the passenger seat of a car? Might you be in a waiting room at a doctor’s office? Find someplace to imagine you are sitting or remember you did sit, and write the letter, drawing from the action around you to create the setting, mood, and platform for associations. 


 Once you get going on flash nonfiction, you may become addicted to it as a form. Be sure to read in the genre for more ideas.

Brevity Magazine is an excellent source for examples. The flash authors also blog about the craft at this website.

Lynn chimes in:

The writing group I belong to (we call ourselves the Gang of 5) recently read a piece by William Zinsser titled, How to Write a Memoir, in which he encouraged us to "write small" and to "look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory." 

I think in this blog post Sheila has offered us a number of ways to hone in on some of those small memories. Next up for me: take these 3 strategies to the Gang of 5 and see what we come up with. 

Thanks, Sheila!

Sheila Bender is founder of WritingItReal.com, a community and resource for those who write from personal experience. A poet, memoirist and personal essayist, she offers online classes and often teaches at writers’ conferences.

Sheila's two newest books are now available on line under the Writing it Real banner: Writing In A Convertible with the Top Down and Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief.


  1. You are very welcome, Lynn. I look forward to hearing how the group likes the prompts and how they run with them.

  2. I loved the examples. I've been thinking of trying flash fiction or flash memoir, so this is a good nudge in that direction. Thank you!

  3. I am happy to hear the ideas are helpful. I write about writing from personal experience on my website http://writingitreal.com and enjoy sharing ideas with those who are wanting to write personal essay, poetry, and memoir as well as short fiction.

  4. I have been struggling with writing. This post gave me some new ideas. I had toyed with the idea of taking up my novel again and writing letters from my old self to my current self. This blog offers additional tools as I attempt to push on. Thank you.

    Myra L. Peak

  5. You really can get a lot of writing done with exercises like these--surprises come as you do them and it is the surprises that keep us writing.


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