Writing Memoir: Starting Small

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Lots of people start writing memoir as a book length project, but there are benefits to starting small with personal essays and “flash” memoir.

Essays are usually 2,000–8,000 words, while flash or micro-essays are under 2,000 words. The excellent online magazine Brevity, looks for flash nonfiction pieces (or “micro essays”) under 750 words.

One benefit to starting small is getting our work published quickly, whether on Medium or elsewhere. A book-length manuscript can take over a year, or more, to wend its way through a publisher’s many departments.

Having short pieces published can create an audience for our work, and it can help us become “known.” Book publishers and agents are often leery of “unknown” authors, and even when a writer appears to have sprung from nowhere on to a bestsellers list, that writer usually has a history of publishing short work.

In terms of craft, starting small can also be of benefit. It allows, or even forces us to focus on precise details and images. For folks who are unfamiliar with short nonfiction and micr-memoir, the aforementioned Brevity is a good place to get acquainted. Local libraries have anthologies of short creative nonfiction like In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. These books will often provide observations about the genre and the craft, like this excerpt from In Short.

Zeroing in on a small moment is manageable in a way that a book length manuscript is not. But it also provides excellent practice for writing longer works, which also require attention to physical and emotional details.

In short (hahahaha), the small details can, or perhaps must, be interesting. That doesn’t necessarily mean pretty, although it certainly can. As an Asian history major in college, I came across this curse from Imperial China: May you live in interesting times. As in times of famine, flood, political upheaval, drought, and all the plagues suffered by the people of that vast country.

If you’ve read any of my personal essays, you know I and my family have had interesting lives, which has been both a blessing and a curse. Last year, I had a micro-memoir published (originally in Grist and then on Medium’s HumanParts) about a selfie posted by one of my beloved nieces.

As mentioned in another post, we like to get to know characters in fiction or memoir in the same way we get to know people in real life: by an accumulation of details.

My niece’s selfie included details that made me fear she was using drugs. Those details sent me back to her childhood when she had a scab below one eye that she picked at nervously. The scab looked like one of those teardrop tattoos you see on guys who’ve spent time in prison.

A scab is not a pretty detail, but in this situation it was interesting, and it revealed something about my niece’s character. The micro-memoir about the selfie and the scab doesn’t end happily. But a year after it was published, my niece read it aloud to her cohort as she graduated from a drug treatment program.

And that’s another benefit of starting small — kids these days! And adults. We’re all influenced by online interactions to read short works.

Write on. And read on, too.

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