by Jan Kaneen
When Retreat West first revealed the cover of my memoir-in-flash on Twitter, someone asked what I’d been asked again and again since I finished writing The Naming of Bones. What is memoir-in-flash?
Not wanting to define an emerging form in terms only of what I’d produced, this was my reply, ‘… speaking for myself … my memoir-in-flash is an aspect of my real life written in a series of flash fiction ‘chapters’, that are each standalone … but which, when read in sequence, tell another overarching story.’
The questioner then asked if it was complicated to write. My answer was no, because the truth is, I wrote most of it without knowing what I was writing. Which sounds weird, so let me explain.
I came to creative writing at the age of fifty as a sort of mindfulness therapy, pouring out free-written stories without ever thinking some of them might be linked. I just knew that writing them made me feel better emotionally.
My epiphany came in a workshop run by Michael Loveday at the Flash Fiction Festival. That weekend was stuffed full of flash: reading flash, writing flash, chatting flash. I was very nearly all flashed out when, on Sunday afternoon, Michael presented his workshop about sequencing flash. He had us thinking about how theme and imagery can link flashes, and how sometimes writers can write to themes subconsciously. This struck me as fascinating and on the drive home, I stopped for coffee and bunged some of my flashes into WordCounter – Count Words & Correct Writing searching for the words I’d used most to see if this revealed any hidden themes. (Just follow this link if you fancy doing the same – it’s free, though it’s best if you take out common words such as ‘like’ and ‘because’ first). I won’t give away what my key words were, but it was a revelation.
Over months, I sequenced my, as it turned out, themed and connected flashes, freewriting new ones to fill narrative gaps. This process was very, VERY emotional, and life-changing too, because it allowed me to reconstruct and reclaim my past in a way that was both empowering and healing, which leads me to my final point.
In 2020, I beta-read several novellas-in-flash and was surprised to see that works which draw, sometimes quite heavily on lived experience, are termed novella by their authors. This got me thinking about what differentiates novella-in-flash, i.e. fictional works told ‘in-flash,’ and memoir-in-flash, i.e. works anchored in real events, told ‘in-flash.’
I didn’t really find an answer. Maybe it comes down to individual motivation in the writer. Certainly, for me, it was crucial that The Naming of Bones be defined as memoir, because its self-therapeutic potency lies in the form itself – because that immediately tells the reader these characters really lived in a story that actually happened.
So far as I know, The Naming of Bones is the first memoir-in-flash to be published that describes itself as such (and I did look long and hard when I was final editing, keen to find previous examples that might guide my hand). If it is the first, I hope it’s the first of many, because it’s a form stuffed full of creative non-fiction possibilities and so, so much potential.
Check out The Naming of Bones for yourself: retreatwest.co.uk/the-naming-of-bones/