I recently dipped my toe into the sub-genre of so-called “flash” or “micro” nonfiction, the defining characteristic of which is an abbreviated word count. I regularly write blog posts in the 700-900 word range, which qualify as flash nonfiction under some definitions, but that length is comfortable for me. I wanted to try something shorter, so I went micro.
The task I settled on was an essay of no more than 250 words: something with a little meat on its bones, but lean enough to be daunting to a writer prone to wordiness.
That I am concision-challenged may be a reason why I drifted away from poetry, which I used to write back in high school. I eventually figured out that I preferred writing essays, which offered more space and were better suited to the pragmatism of my cognitive personality. I enjoy starting from a tangible core and spining ideas out from that empiric center. Lyricism comes hard, and feels forced. I’m also terrible at the conjuring of fiction. The results when I try are always stiff and I’ve never written a short story a reader would want to keep reading, much less one she could get lost in.
I haven’t strayed from the essay form in decades, but I knew the micro version wasn’t going to be a slam dunk. I can happily string images together, but I needed to go beyond the simple anecdote of “I saw….” I’d need locate a point of arrival for a reader—and do so quickly.
After I was done, I realized that I’d fallen back on my high school proclivities, writing within the framework of a form. This is a timeworn but effective device, one I’d forgotten about. The restrictions of the micro essay pushed me to think harder about how to use language and pacing. Once a writer learns how to use it, a set form can be wielded as another narrative tool, like metaphor or dialog. I’m certainly not good at writing short, but the micro essay took me outside my comfort zone without making me feel like the effort was irrelevant to my style, and I’ll play with it again.