While I am historically a fiction writer, I’m always going to have an interest in writing the sudden essay. It’s good for me, as the one issue that plagues me in longer works is stamina. I tend towards the shortwinded, and suffer compositional stitches in the side during extended work. Will I ever be a cross-country novelist? Not likely. But here’s an interesting find: writing within the constraints of the sudden or “flash” form primes my work in longer forms.
How does a new marathoner prepare for race day? Not by running the entire 26 miles every week, but by tackling a series of shorter distances, then perhaps a 5K, a 10K, a half-marathon. Sudden forms teach us to cut the unnecessary, regardless of how enamored we might be of a superfluous phrase, sentence, or image. Flash pieces—both fiction and essay--tune our ears, sharpen our observational powers, teach us economic construction, and hone our editing skills. We learn to pack the singular, vital, splendid clue into an eye blink of space, and not jump the gun. Pretty discursive romps? Out!
Are flash essays meant for readers with short attention spans? If you’re asking me, I’ll say no. Flash essays are like Tibetan tantric poems: not very long, but one can scarcely tear through them in two minutes, flip the page, and move on to the next. You don’t do that with a brief poem, do you? Readers ought to be willing to read a poem more than once to obtain the full sense. There’s a time for strolling, and a time for sprinting. And a sprint, though swift, is scarcely a plain matter. Popular culture, with its penchant for the large, the continuous, and the grandiose, takes the fall for the erroneous presumption that short equals simple.
The sudden essay is a balancing act, wherein an author walks the beam between poetry and prose. I mentioned earlier that I tend to be shortwinded. Hobbled by this handicap, I need to take special care to abridge, rather than attenuate. In a sudden essay—or, for that matter, sudden fiction—readers should “hear” something coming, even if they can’t immediately identify what’s hurtling towards them.
Abridge, not attenuate. A tricky exploit, requiring some derring-do. How may we use subtle reference and indirect implication to make the most of a limited space? Condensation is key, but we’ve got to take care not to leave gaps that the reader can’t leap with us.
Charles Simic, known for his succinct, imagistic poetry, happens to be an exceptional essayist—and an inspiring one. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, in his 2008 Writers Chronicle article “Writing a Shadowbox: Joseph Cornell & the Lyric Essayists,” refers to Simic as an example of a master lyric (and compact!) essayist at work. (You may know that Cornell was a collector and self-taught modern artist best known for his shadow boxes; hence Fletcher’s article title.) Fletcher’s article is about lyric essays, not sudden essays, but his notion of being able to write a shadowbox comes very close to what I consider as writing the sudden essay. Simic himself—wholly apart from this article—had this to say about Cornell, images, and that necessary but nebulous quality that I referred to earlier as “hearing something coming”:
There really are three kinds of images. First there are those seen with the eyes wide open in the manner of realists in art and literature. Then there are the images that are seen with the eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes, however, are a third kind. They partake in both reality and dream, something that doesn’t have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s work, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes. Neither is sufficient. It’s the mingling of the two that make up the third image.
When I write a sudden essay, I glance—often—at the quote above to keep me in the right mindset.
Following, then, are what I consider the main takeaways from my sudden essay laps:
Marvelous, moving narrative supported with specific, concise descriptions is essential. Each sentence—perhaps every word in each sentence?—endeavors to advance the story.
Diction, phraseology, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, syllabic continuity or discontinuity, all carry heightened import in flash essays.
Endings need not be tied with neat bows. Endings, while not necessarily resolved or absolute, do need to be earned.
A beginning may well start in media res. The floor and ceiling of the work take shape during the telling. Which telling should be the fruit of a compelling delivery wound within a reduced, definable, space.
Remember Romanticist Robert Southey’s (1774-1843) wisdom: “It is with words as with sunbeams.
The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Joseph Cornell, visit http://www.josephcornellbox.com. It’s a neat site. And, if you’d like to try your own hand at writing a shadowbox, dig up the March/April 2008 Writer’s Chronicle. Fletcher’s article begins on page 44.
There you go. Feeling stronger?
Lyzette Wanzer (@INTJs_rock) received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. Read one of her sudden essays in the Winter 2011 issue of Callaloo, or see an excerpt here: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/callaloo/v034/34.1.wanzer.pdf A flash form connoisseur, Lyzette’s work has appeared in Tampa Review, The MacGuffin, Ampersand, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Fringe Magazine, International Journal on Literature and Theory, Pleiades, and others. She is a contributor to The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (Wyatt-MacKenzie, 2012) and 642 Tiny Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2015). She’s currently at work on an essay collection entitled Gelatin Prints. Visit her at www.linkedin.com/in/ lyzettewanzer.