By Aimee Seiff Christian
One of the hardest things to teach new writers is revision. After cheerleading emerging writers to just write! and to all hail the shi**y first draft! and you can’t edit a blank page! preparing for the first workshop can be jarring, and coping with the aftermath of it, simply debilitating. In my classes, I’ve begun to scale back on the pile-on of feedback in early workshops because it’s often more overwhelming than helpful for an entire class of equally new writers to give line edits, comments, and editorial letters.
I give my students revision techniques from accomplished authors and craft books. We talk about filtering phrases and bad habits. I give them my own examples: I still do a search and replace for words and phrases like I feel, actually, just. Of course they get lots of feedback from workshop. But none of this teaches what writers must learn over time: to eliminate throat clearing and repetition, because every word matters.
Where do you feel the heat in the piece? I ask in workshop. Begin there. Before that, you’re just getting warmed up. You’re finding your voice. Write it, because you need to, but once you heat up, cut it.
Mostly, I’m met with blank stares. Why write, if only to cut?
When I first started teaching flash essays to my creative nonfiction students, I talked about Dinty W. Moore’s analogy in his Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. He talks about the reader of a conventional essay following the thread of the essay from smoke toward flame into burning fire and the reader of a flash essay being dropped into raging fire from the very first word and that fire burning hot all the way through the essay until the very last word. When I did, I realized I’d found a way to teach not only an exciting type of essay, but a technique for teaching my students to edit. Now it’s worth my time to pause the memoir classroom’s conversation about revision to talk about flash essays. What is flash? I ask. Most of them think it is just a very short essay. I did too, I reassure them. But it’s so much more.
They are confused.
Hang in there with me.
As a brand-new and somewhat defensive writer, I did not want to be told to kill my darlings. I did not want to be told that I digressed, or that I was trying to do too much at once. I just didn’t get the concept of cutting what I put on the page until I understood it in terms of heat. Like many new memoirists, I took it all personally. But once it was reframed as heat, I saw it differently. If the heat is the theme and if I have so-called darlings that don’t follow the heat, no matter how much I love them, they are not part of the piece, and I either need to edit artfully to make them fit the theme or they need to go lest they kill the reader of boredom or die of irrelevance on the page.
It’s not that every word has to be an inferno. Sometimes, that’s too much. In flash, that is what you want. In flash, we can take the heat because the burn isn’t going to last forever. In longer form pieces, we get breaks. We can be led from smoke to flame to fire, and then in and out of the smoke until it is extinguished. If the theme is particularly heavy, we might need levity at times. We might not want the piece to be on fire from beginning to end. But we do want the piece to follow the heat. We want there to be a smoldering thread throughout.
And like flash, regardless of the length of the piece, every word needs to be there on purpose. You need to edit your longform essay or full-length manuscript as precisely and thoughtfully as you do your flash essay. One crucial part of the recipe of a flash essay is the ability to edit away every shred of excess. Take that and apply it to your work. Every work. Every time.
How do you do this? Know thyself. And ask yourself, your classmates, your readers, your teacher: where is your heat? Ask this in workshop, every time you have the chance to ask for feedback. Learn to recognize it so you can edit yourself. Are you, like me, a throat clearer who takes four paragraphs to get started? Let your words flow, and then look over that first page or two to find where your true beginning is, usually right around paragraph five, and cut everything before. Or are you, also like me, someone who fades away like a terrible 80s pop song only to realize the ending was way back there and you just kept on going right past it, winding down until you ran out of steam? My heat is generally in the middle. I know to cut back my beginnings and endings and then neaten up my middles with sharper sentences, fewer filters, and meticulous review.
When you begin to know yourself and your heat, you can edit with confidence. You may need to put that first draft in a drawer. You will of course still need your writing group or your trusted loved one’s eyes on it. But you can edit yourself because you know yourself. And that is a flash of understanding in its own right.
The flash essay craft talk thus serves multiple purposes in my creative writing classroom. Brevity as a critical part of an art form, and brevity to better serve an art form. Learn to lean into your strengths and even when you try something new, you’ll be able to put your best foot forward.
Aimee Seiff Christian’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC Think, Poets & Writers, Atticus Review, Entropy, and elsewhere. She is a writing instructor at GrubStreet, on her own website aimeechristian.net, and on the site she founded for adoptees only called Writing Personhood. She edits professionally and is currently editing her memoir, NOBODY’S DAUGHTER, about adoption and identity.