Friday Speak Out!: Hot Flash: Sketches

Friday, June 30, 2017
by Jane Hertenstein

Historically in journalism columns and thought-pieces were the domain of men. Women were sometimes able to back-door their way into the papers. Often they had to use non de plumes or adopt initials to disguise their sex. Later they were given domestic assignments, what might be considered “light” writing.

Sketches were one way women could bring their world into the broader purview. Louisa May Alcott wrote Hospital Sketches (1863) about her experience working as a Union nurse during the Civil War. In 1881 Sarah Orne Jewett published Country Byways, sketches of life in rural Maine.

Just now I am making up a book which is to come out in the fall -- called Country By-Ways. It is mostly sketches of country life -- and of my own country life. So far I have simply tried to write down pictures of what I see -- but by and by I am going to say some things I have thought about those pictures. I don't know whether the pictures or the meditations will seem truest, but I know that I have found out some bits of truth for myself --  Letter from Sarah Orne Jewett to Theophilus Parsons, 12 June 1881

Sketches might be considered an early form of blogging. An observation or impression generally short, perhaps enlivened with dialogue and character, but definitely from a personal point of view. The genre was invented in the 16th century in England, as a result of increasing public interest in realistic depictions of “exotic” locales. A sketch story is a hybrid form, containing little or no plot. Authors such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens padded their income by writing and compiling a number of these for publication.

Word counts vary, but generally flash is thought to be 1,000 words or less. Some journals in their submission guidelines can be very specific. Smokelong for instance asks for flash that can easily be consumed in the amount of time it takes to finish a cigarette. Flash as a form can be applied to almost any genre. There are flash mysteries. Postcard flash might only be about travel—you are limited to the amount of space typically taken up by the back of a postcard. Flash foodies write very small about . . . FOOD.

I write flash memoir.

Using a process I call Write Right Now, I encourage readers to do just this: build a portfolio of small flash memories that will eventually be expanded upon or become the foundation for a scene. Memories are the building blocks to most everything we write.

For some of us sitting down to transcribe or pen a memoir can be an overwhelming task. I recommend approaching it in bite-size pieces or rather applying flash. By freeze framing a moment, a memory, like a camera snapshot, and dwelling there you are creating the foundation for longer memoir, a jumping off place to expand upon later.

Like so many of our memories, there is an undercurrent of lose threads, fuzzy blurred beginnings and endings with little or no significance. They simply are. The nice thing about flash is that it can be unresolved.

So write right now. Why not attempt a sketch, your impressions. Compose an impressionistic scene, a loose rendition of a recent experience or memory. The essence of the ordinary, though humble, reveals an extraordinary life. One built upon sublime moments that may add up to an epic memoir. If only you begin.

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Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 90 published stories, a combination of fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre both micro and macro. Her latest eBook is Flash Memoir: Writing Prompts to get You Flashing (available everywhere). She can be found at where she gets 10,000 hits a month. Twitter: @memoirjane
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Margo Dill said...

While I was reading your introduction about sketches, I actually had the thought: This sounds like blogging. Then there you said--"an early form of blogging."

I like the idea of writing small. It really does help when something seems so overwhelming.

Thanks for your post!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Jane--A writer friend just yesterday shared a memoir piece she wrote, and it was written a la a menu. It was quite inspiring...

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