Flash Memoir: my definition

In my work as a personal historian, I often coach people on how to write, via workshops  and 1:1 coaching. This keeps me interested in new techniques and ways to approach writing. In the past few years I’ve become aware of the “Flash Fiction” movement, and I’ve wondered, don’t those techniques work as well for creative nonfiction—i.e. the memoir genre? I often bring fiction writing techniques into my workshops. Bringing “flash” techniques into writing memoir just made sense to me.

Over the next few months, I’m going to share some material from my Flash Memoir workshops, starting with definitions. For me, what defines Flash Memoir as a genre is that these essays are:

  • Free of preambles—They start at the flashpoint—the moment when conflict ignites tangible action that drives the story forward.
  • Scene-based—They frequently take place in one run of time, without jumping around.
  • Observant—They tend to feature not the “I” but the “eye.”
  • Insightful—Like a flashlight illuminating a dark corner, they explore something that provoked an insight.
  • Specific—They stick with concrete, observable events and actions rather than abstract concepts.
  • True—As a subgenre of creative nonfiction, Flash Memoir must uphold the nonfiction contract that what is reported actually happened.

Now, let’s play a game. Which of the following is NOT a Flash Memoir essay? Here are four examples: The links will take you to essays published on this blog.

Post your answer to the comments section! And stay tuned for Part 2 of this four-part series on Flash Memoir.

© Sarah White 2018

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Genetic Engineering is Child’s Play

By Faith Ellestad


To my beloved sons,

I was thinking back to my childhood, and thinking forward to my children, when it came to me.  Guys, its not my fault.  It’s the fault of summer in the ’50s. Let me explain.

The modest neighborhood of my early childhood was newish, and the street, when we first moved there was partially occupied by new construction in a pattern reminiscent of a jack-o-lantern’s smile, missing every third or fourth tooth. The smile rapidly filled in, each new house bringing more kids to play with.  We all had friends our own age, but sometimes, in the summer evenings, age lost its importance and we all played together, games like king of the hill, tag, red light green light, hide and seek in the scary forest (one double lot) or sneak to the creek, which was probably specific to our neighborhood, and extra exciting because it was totally forbidden.

Porches were for the adults to gather on, smoke a pipe or cigarette and discuss parent concerns while they kept an ear open for the occasional fight or hysterical screech that usually indicated blood was involved.  As a rule, the injured child was ushered home by a cadre of concerned friends, all proclaiming their innocence.  While the escorts milled about anxiously, the victim would be blotted off, sprayed with Bactine, bandaged and sent back outdoors, the hero of the evening.

It was during these summer nights we taught each other valuable child survival skills such as, if you hold your eyes really wide open, and make your mouth very round when you say, “It wasn’t me”, you look much more believable. No one will ever blame you for accidentally letting the dog out if you look like that, either. And, if you punch a hole in two paper cups and connect them with a long string, you might possibly create a primitive telephone, handy for talking to your friend next door. (I never personally had much luck with this method of communication, but some of my friends swore by it.)  Also, if you jump off the slide holding an umbrella, the umbrella does not work like a parachute. You will probably end up with a sprained ankle and be unable to participate in certain activities. Just ask your uncle. This may have been why he became a lawyer and not an aeronautical engineer.

In any case, daylight savings time was a miracle to us.  We stayed out playing until we could barely see each other through the falling darkness, and moms started calling us home. Woe betide the naughty child who was sent to bed early as a punishment.  It was torture sitting in your room listening to all the other kids shouting and laughing while perfectly good daylight mocked you through the open window. It was rare for a child to endure that punishment more than once a summer. No one wanted to miss playing out after supper.

Of course there were rainy nights when you couldn’t play outside. Those were the nights you might entertain yourself counting fireflies through the screen, or watching TV if your family happened to have one.  But rainy nights were ok because they brought mosquitoes, and mosquitoes led to the most magical nights of all: the arrival of the DDT truck.

Oh, how we loved that DDT truck. It only came around once or twice a summer and you could hear it grind and hiss for blocks.  As it inched ever closer, the excitement was palpable.  Doors swung open and entire families flooded out on to their lawns.  Parents pulled out folding chairs and children danced around in anticipation.  The moment the truck lumbered onto our street, kids raced out to be first in line behind it.

Back then no one knew much about DDT other than it had miraculous mosquito-killing properties, so we were allowed unfettered access to the clouds of toxic chemicals that sprayed out in a wide arc from a big nozzle at the back of the truck.  We were inexorably lured by this giant, poison-belching mechanical Pied Piper, with its unmistakable chemical-sweet smell, starting our magical journey at one end of the block, and keeping up with the possibly gene-altering cloud all the way to the other. The game was to make ourselves invisible in the thick vapor. A horde of little illusionists, disappearing and re-appearing at will, and not a mosquito in sight!   Consequences? No way.

By the late 50’s, the trucks no longer came, and a few years later, reports of DDT dangers began to surface in the news. I have always worried about this, and recently after a health scare, with some chagrin I asked my very young, earnest doctor whether all those trips behind the DDT truck could have had adverse consequences.  She thought I was kidding, and as I told my tale, I knew she must have been thinking, “Who would be that dumb?” But she did consider my story with admirable gravity, reassured me, and even made a note in my medical record.

So far, so good for my overexposed siblings and me, and I can only hope you kids were unaffected by the folly of those happy summer evenings so long ago, because I will need you to take care of me some day.  So I apologize now for all your future troubles, just in case.




© 2018 Faith Ellestad

Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist.  When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI with Ivy, their beloved old Belgian Tervuren. They have two grown sons, (also beloved), and a wonderful daughter-in-law.

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Aboard Ship, Part 1

By Suzy Beal

This is the third episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas. Click here to read the earlier episodes.

The Augustus

We boarded our ship the next day.  Once aboard the Italian Line “Augustus,” a trans-Atlantic liner, we found our cabins below decks in the depths of the ship.

Notes to Harbor Light

(The editor of our high school newspaper had asked me to write to him about our travel experiences.)

As we sailed out of the New York Harbor passing the Statue of Liberty, I wanted to wave at her, but I didn’t want to appear foolish. When our ship sailed past her, she looked smaller than I imagined her to be.  I remembered stories and pictures I’d seen of the immigrants coming to this country and seeing her for the first time.  My heart swelled with a sense of pride that my country had been a haven for so many.  I felt as though I was going the wrong direction.

By sheer coincidence I’d chosen to read “Exodus” by Leon Uris during this voyage across the U.S. and the Atlantic Ocean. I spent hours reading and living the life of the Jews leaving their homelands. My voyage didn’t compare, but I understood what it meant to leave home. Everything for me now was about leaving, leaving friends, my horse, our home, our town, our country, and now the Statue of Liberty.  My thoughts are with you all back in Newport.

Our first day and night out, we encountered rough seas and four of us got seasick.

“Mom, is this seasickness? I think I have to throw-up.”

“Yes, honey.  Throw-up if you can, it always makes me feel better.”

“Will I be sick for the whole five days crossing the Atlantic?”

“Probably not, you will get your sea legs and then it isn’t as bad.  Maybe the ocean will calm down, too.”

I was nauseous with the rolling of the ship and seeing Mom sick added to my fear of this huge ocean.  Mom kept Frank and Conrad with her in the cabin.  Jan and I stayed below decks helping to entertain them while Dad and the older boys spent their time on deck.

Carl came rushing in “You guys should come on deck and see the huge waves crashing over the bow, it’s so wild up there.”  He was trying to keep us informed of the happenings on deck, not that we cared.  I couldn’t imagine wanting to watch the ocean and I feared we might just roll over and never come up again.

Suddenly, loud buzzers sounded filling our stateroom with noise.  Mom, Jan and I stared at each other. Dad appeared at the door saying, “It’s just a drill, it’s just a drill, but you need to come on deck.  The ship’s crew need tell us what to do in a real emergency.” Mom moaned, but we drug ourselves on deck to the main lobby.  They showed us how to put on life preservers.  They directed us to where the life boats hung off the side of the ship. My mind swirled with the possibilities. I’d read of the Titanic, but I never thought we faced the possibility of sinking.  I didn’t want to know we were vulnerable.

Once our seasickness subsided, we joined the others at mealtimes.  Since the ship was of Italian registry, most of the waiters and ship’s personnel were Italian.  They assigned us a specific table we shared with other passengers.  We couldn’t make our likes and dislikes known in a foreign language, so we had to accept whatever they served to us.  A salad served for lunch one day proved to be the first of many culture shocks.  “Mom, what are these things with legs?”  I lifted the lettuce leaves and found my plate loaded with these creatures sliding around in the oily dressing.

“I think they are pickled baby squid,” Mom explained.

“What’s a squid?” we asked in unison.

“You don’t have to eat them, just push them off to one side.”

Not eat them! I wasn’t going to eat the lettuce they touched!  My stomach lurched again.  The waiter shook his head at all the baby squid left on our plates.

It was our youngest brother, Frank, who broke the class barrier first.  We learned upon boarding we had tourist class tickets, which entitled us to certain liberties and not others such as First Class luxuries. There were whole decks off limits to us.  This became a challenge for my brothers. One day little Frank went missing.  Mom panicked, although she never said it out loud, we understood what she was thinking.  Dad tried to reassure her.

“Check out the enclosure around the entire ship, he couldn’t have fallen overboard.”  Mom didn’t look convinced.  We spread out over the decks calling his name, but we kept coming to the doors we couldn’t open.  Dad explained our distress to a crew member, and he ushered Dad onto the First Class decks. There Dad discovered Frank swinging on the knee of a gentleman seated at the bar.  At six years of age, blond hair, blue eyes, and a smile that came from his heat, he charmed everyone.  The older gentleman, delighted with Frank, didn’t know to whom he belonged. He didn’t speak much English and Frank didn’t speak Italian, so they only exchange smiles.

Mom became friendly with the wife of a missionary.  They were returning to Africa with their young daughters.  She told us stories of living in Africa that worried me.   Would we have to use out-houses? Would there be doctors to cure our illnesses?  The missionaries told us bananas were the only safe fruit to eat without becoming sick as other fruits needed washing, but the water carried dysentery.  “What is dysentery, Mom?”  Mom frowned and her eyes squinted as she listened to these stories. I tried to remember Dad and Tom’s visit to Mallorca a few months earlier to pick out a place for us to live.  They didn’t talk of these hardships.  Their pictures and reports showed civilized towns.  Our only other source had been that National Geographic magazine article on Mallorca.  I kept remembering those pictures while the missionaries talked of the awful conditions in Africa.  I wondered why they returned year after year with their little girls if it wasn’t safe.

© 2018 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted on the last Wednesday of each month! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.



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The End

This short essay is an experiment in “The Rolling Now,” a structural technique I’m learning to use, taught by my mentor Ken McGoogan at the U-Kings MFA residency in August 2018. We were asked to shape an in-class free-write with three “now” moments and two flashbacks. “Like rocking back and forth, between past and present,” Ken said. Imagine a “W” with the present at the top and the past at the bottom points. The success of this technique depends on choosing the right moment for the “now”–a moment that represents a turning point, about which you have enough detail to write a vivid scene. 

“The End”

By Sarah White

It was late May 1991. I took a seat–near, finally not at–the head table in the banquet hall outside Campobasso, Italy. The Governator’s Cena was the capstone of the Rotary District Conference that was itself the capstone of our five-week tour as “Outstanding Young Professionals” in a Rotary International Group Study Exchange.

To my left sat my husband Jim, just arrived to join me. To my right sat Ron, bane of my existence for most of the last five weeks. Rockstar-handsome with his mane of golden hair, he was flirting with me outrageously. If only the past five weeks had been like that! I’d have had a lot more fun.


At first, he did flirt with me. Or was it flirting? He seemed so sincere that night at the end of the first week, when our team had just come together again at a hotel in Spoleto after being separated to lodge in various Rotarians’ homes in Terni and Todi.

After that night’s banquet concluded, Ron invited me to walk up to the aqueduct we’d toured as a group that morning. The moon was full. After I stumbled on a cobblestone, he held my elbow solicitously.

“I feel like we understand each other—more than the others,” I had said.

“Let me say this—I’m not out here with them. I asked you.”

After he whipped out his cock to pee off the aqueduct, piss arcing and glinting in the moonlight, what moved between us felt like intimacy.


Now, at the Governor’s Cena, it felt like that intimacy was back as he reached out to touch my hand, touch my hair–my husband just a seat away. It felt delicious, after the way he’d ignored me since that night on the bridge.

I’d been sucker-punched by his rejection. It wasn’t even an active verb, that rejection—he just steadfastly directed his attention away from me.

That day at the art museum in Urbino, a week or so after the Spoleto incident, I tested it as we followed a guide through the museum. Every time I moved near Ron, he edged away. I moved closer again. He moved away again.

Annoyed, I gave up thinking about him then. Even so, he managed to sabotage the next weeks—flirting with every translator, abducting her, leaving us with the old Rotarians while he rode in her daddy’s Lamborgini up the coast, or whatever.


Now I turned toward Jim on my left, giving him my attentive smiles, making in-jokes that cut out Ron to my right. Take that, you asshole, I thought. You’re all getting up at 3 a.m. to drive to the airport.

I’m taking my husband in our rented car to the Adriatic coast, where I know the best hotel, the best gelato, the best fish restaurant—all thanks to these Rotarians.

Take that, you damn rockstar asshole hunk.

(c) 2018 Sarah White

p.s. I know you want to see a photo of the rockstar hunk but I’m not including one because  I purposely took none that included him after Urbino, and don’t feel inclined to seek his permission to post his image if I had one. Here’s a link to a photo of the rest of our team.


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The Counterpoint

By Deborah Wilbrink


For everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth;
and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.  Matt: 7:8


The quiet, empty bar featured open doors at one end that revealed a spot-lit lounge. A local jazz band was swinging in full flight. Silently I made the sign of the cross, giving thanks for those who dared to demand and deliver entertainment on a small town’s Sunday.

The matriarch of the local Jazz Society sat doing the books by the lounge door as the electric guitar peaked and subsided, making room for the next soloist. She took my money and issued a nightly membership card. A small, wizened woman, dressed in an embroidered shawl, leather pants and a beret, she shone a wide smile to a chosen few. I was not one of the chosen. I dismissed her coolness as that of urban Yankee origin.

I spotted Precious and moved to join her table.

The music filled me with a longing to do more than listen. A muse began wailing inside my breast in counterpoint.

“Look, Precious, they have vocalists up during the jam. I’d like to try it.” She looked at me speculatively, probably wondering if I sounded more like a cow or a sheep. Did manatees sing?

“What songs do you know?” she asked reasonably. She obviously had not had enough martinis yet.

“Well, what are some jazz standards the band would know? I could learn some of those. I’ve heard them enough on the radio over the years to pick up the tune.” But not their names. I was bad with names.

“Come on, Mrs. Rainey will know.”  She dragged me by the arm over to the matriarch.

“Mrs. Rainey,” said Precious, “this is Deborah. She’s got a question for you.”

“Hello, Mrs. Rainey,” I smiled respectfully.

“Hello, Deborah. It’s nice to meet you,” Mrs. Rainey replied. This was our fortieth introduction over the last eight years. She said the same thing every time.

Angered that I was so unmemorable, I managed to say, “I want to sit in and sing sometimes. What are some of the standards I should learn?”

“Buy a jam book,” she advised.

“Thank you,” I mouth, but she’s not listening. Someone more important, or more talented, was at her other elbow. I knew the expense of a damn jam or “fake book”—it was a luxury buy.

The pianist lingered over the last notes of a lonely sound. The trumpet called the sadness home, and the band took a break.

There’s more than one way to skin a jazz cat. Maybe that red-haired pianist would let me come over and try a few tunes with him at home. Best smile forward, I nodded to Precious and approached the pianist before he could slip away.

“That was wonderful,” I opened. The stout man beamed, then shook his rust-red hair back from his eyes. “Who was that last song by? You know, that’s the only thing about these jams that I don’t like. I don’t know that much about jazz, and no one ever tells the names of the songs. They just play.” I gave what I hoped was an engaging dumb-blonde laugh. I never know if it is for sure, since I’m a brunette.

“That one was Charles Mingus. If you noticed the different keys being played in counterpoint, that’s one of his signatures.”

With honed peripheral vision, I saw the old witch looking. She was smiling in our direction, and then rose. She couldn’t possibly want to speak to me, so I’d better make my next move fast! Musicians, egos. Egos, musicians. Plus, Southern courtesy…

“Thank you, I’ll listen for that next time. And you gave the bass solo such wonderful support! I didn’t hear the band introduced either. I’m Deborah. What’s your name?”

The average fellow lost his average look. He gained three inches and began to resemble an angry bear, growling, “Do you know I’ve met you at least forty times over the past eight years? You never remember my name. Why should I tell you again?”

The lights and smoke and noise and ambition died away. A man, a human being, not someone to be used, came into focus. I was a jerk.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I’m not good with names, but I do remember your playing, and your face,” I stumbled through an apology.

“I’m Rusty, for the forty-first time…Hello, Mrs. Rainey! How are you?”

“Wonderful, Reggie, except for those senior moments. They come even more frequently than when I smoked. But I do remember that this young lady wants to try some vocals.”

I blushed for myself, and for the old woman who could not remember names. But her mistake didn’t seem to matter to Rusty. Mrs. Rainey was just being herself.

“She just has to get her feet wet with some lyrics. You know quite a lot of Billie Holiday. Used to play it with a trio and a vocalist, right? And she’s left town, right?” The old dinosaur actually winked at me!

Lately, I’d been praying for guidance. “Ask, and you shall receive,” and tonight I had. Rusty might not teach me any songs, but he has just taught me a lesson in respect, humility and observation. And, that my ego probably qualifies me for membership in the musician’s club. Just as soon as I learn “God Bless the Child” from that damn jam book.

Still Singing – October 3, 2018 at Betty’s in Nashville.

This is a true report of an event as I remember it. I have changed the names, except for mine.

© 2018 Deborah Wilbrink

Deborah Wilbrink is a ghostwriter and owner of Perfect Memoirs. also a singer songwriter, her music can be found at CDBaby, Amazon or iTunes. She is the author of Time to Tell Your Personal & Family History, which I reviewed on this blog in 2016.

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What meaning does a purse carry?

Writing prompt:

I started a 4-week “Flash Memoir Write-In” workshop in Madison recently. One woman wrote about her dad’s anger when she wouldn’t start carrying a purse. (Every woman knows that’s the cusp of womanhood, like that other thing).

I thought–what a great writing prompt!

On the topic, of purses, blogger Lisa Monica wrote:

A woman’s pocketbook is  synonymous with a child’s security blanket, they see it as a constant, it is a familiar item that has become part of their existence and when they hold onto that strap or feel it over their arm they are complete and can face one more day…

Let’s give it a shot–when did YOU start carrying a purse, why, and how did your self-identity change? Men, you’re welcome to play along–tell us about your sporrans, your man-bags, your fanny-packs! Let’s hear YOUR purse stories!

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Money Matters

By Jane Anderson

August 15, 1945, the day World War II ended, was one of the most exciting days for me. I was nine years old and knew there would be changes in our lives—for the better. We had accepted the shortages during the war as a fact of life—everyone sacrificed; our sacrifices helped to support the troops.

We had ration books, limiting the amount of meat and sugar we could buy, the number of pairs of shoes we could purchase, the amount of gasoline Daddy could put in the car. We collected newspapers for paper drives, took jars of saved, strained cooking grease to the butcher for recycling into bullets. We forgot the taste of chocolate, marshmallows, chewing gum and butter. I’m sure for the adults there were more considerations that affected their lives. Mother was very careful with her hose. Silk ones were not available at any price. Parachutes were made from silk. Nylon hose were scarce “as hen’s teeth”. All the wartime shortages would end soon.

On that wonderful day of August 15, 1945, or V-J Day, I earned my own money at my first job! Stores throughout the city were closed. Very unusually, the drugstore my Daddy managed would be closed. However, Daddy, a pharmacist, had some prescriptions he needed to fill. He asked me to go with him to the drug store and sell the newspapers that would be delivered whether the store was closed or open. I could sell the San Antonio Express outside the store and keep the money. I jumped at the chance.

When we got to the store, Daddy helped me set up a wooden crate near the street corner and close to the bus stop. The crate held the stack of papers. He gave me a cigar box for the money, then retreated to the store to prepare the prescriptions.

The papers weren’t very thick, not like the Sunday editions, but the headlines were huge, across the top half of the front page: WAR’S OVER!

The newspaper edition that day where Jane grew up in San Antonio probably looked a lot like this.

People were eager to get a souvenir of the war’s end and the papers sold. Car passengers leaned out and traded a nickel for one. Bus riders reached through the opened windows for a paper. People waiting for the bus bought one to read during their wait. As the stack of papers declined, the change grew in the cigar box. An hour or so passed and I was kept busy and enthusiastic, calling out, “War’s over; buy a paper here!”

Then Daddy came out, locking the store, and said it was time we went home. I didn’t want to quit my growing business with a number of papers left to sell. Daddy said, “Take the money from the cigar box and leave it on top of the crate. People will put their nickels in the box as they take a paper.”

I was very skeptical about anyone doing that. “We’ll check it later, but most people are about as honest as we expect them to be.” Daddy said assuredly.

That didn’t make sense to me and I counted the number of papers I was leaving and figured how much money should be in the box if all the papers were taken. Reluctantly, I got in the car, trying to pin down Daddy to the exact time we’d be checking on my business endeavor.

Mother didn’t allow us out of the house between noon and four o’clock during the hot, humid summer. I just knew it would be a long, boring afternoon. I couldn’t listen to the radio. It was nap time and I had to be quiet. Finally, I grabbed a Saturday Evening Post magazine. Sometimes it had interesting stories. Eventually the long hours passed, and it was time I set the table for supper. After eating, my parents announced we’d go downtown to join the crowds in celebrating war’s end, stopping first at the drug store.

When we got there, I leaped from the car and raced to the corner. I could see the crate was empty. When I picked up the cigar box, there was a satisfying heft to it. Inside were many coins. Some people had made change and left half dollars, a few quarters rolled about, and there were lots of dimes, nickels and pennies. How surprised I was!

I don’t remember how much money I made that day or what I did with it, but I did learn that, as Daddy had said, “Most people are just about as honest as you expect them to be.”


© 2018 Jane Anderson

Jane Anderson shares memories of her life from a time few have experienced or can even imagine. Through her stories we  glimpse a time when Polio was a constant fear, segregation was the norm, and expectations of an airline flight attendant were cringe worthy.  Writing mostly from her experiences of growing up in San Antonio, Texas, one can hear Southern conversation through her prose, feel a laid-back life style, and drink in the charm and grace of a family dealing with the highs and lows of life.  In this particular story, Jane reflects back on a lesson learned of trusting people at a time when our world was fraught with evil.

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