Expansion Theory: Big Ideas in Flash Packages

March 7, 2023 § 4 Comments

Canine conflict does not a War and Peace make.

By Lise Funderburg

I blame my 138-word essay, “What Bad Owners Say at the Dog Park,” on the photographer James Casebere. He and I were at the same artists’ colony in Italy some years back, and we seemed to have coinciding coffee break schedules, where we would join forces against a perplexing stove in the drafty kitchen of our castle. The extraordinarily detailed and hyper-realistic constructions James is known for involve specialized tools and materials and teams of assistants, none of which or whom he could schlep to Umbria for six weeks. So he put aside his steroidal dioramas and dedicated his residency to making sculptures, small wire croquis that (as far as I could tell) referenced tornadoes.

“I’m expanding my practice,” he explained.

It’s a phrase that has stuck with me since. It’s permission to explore rather than complete or perfect, two compulsions that bedevil most writers I know (and certainly me). Jim’s funnel-cloud armatures were a distinct departure from his usual work, but completely consistent with his inherent urge to reflect, create, and express.

What a freeing thought. I had always intentionally built challenges into my writing projects, but usually while staying within my narrative comfort zone of personal essay and memoir, typically 1500 words or more. In those familiar frames, I would lean into some aspect of the craft that I found challenging, maybe description or character or structure. But now, I wanted to up-end all of that by attempting a flash piece unconstrained by conventional narrative. Figuring out how to deliver a full arc in a fraction of the space presented a delicious, practice-expanding conundrum.

Timing was everything for this flash essay, starting with its inspiration. I was in a holding pattern, waiting to hear back from editors and publishers on a large project, but the dog still needed walking and the urge to write still grabbed at me. Every day, we’d encounter other dogs and their wildly annoying owners and the combination of irritation and amusement I felt at their comments sparked a feeling that I’ve come to know as the beginning of a piece. So part of the origin story is that I was a writer in search of material, and while in that state, I happened to hear some of the same old phrases for the umpteenth time. I am easily amused in general, but it’s when I’m both irked and amused that I have something to put down on paper. Being on edge—having an axe to grind—sharpens my wit.

Flash felt like the right vessel for this topic because it was funny but slim. Canine conflict did not a War and Peace make. I took mental notes of the comments made in various situations, made repeatedly and by different people. These naturally organized themselves into a list.

I love lists. Lists are an efficient way to give a broad sweep of information about a character or place or time, but as I tell my writing students, they have an internal integrity that should be respected and carefully built. I don’t believe in random ordering. I might throw together a list willy-nilly in a first draft, but then I want to go back and see if there’s an ordering that would have greater effect. Joan Didion was a master of listmaking, infusing hers with self-contained rhythm, tension, arc, all the good and delicious stuff. In my case, I played around with order. These archetypal comments had originally been made in no particular sequence, but in constructing my list, I wanted the reader to feel an increasing sense of threat and consequence that could result from the dog owner’s obtuseness.  

As it turns out, expanding your practice can be a lot of fun. I laughed out loud as I relished and reconfigured my chorus of dog-apologists. And because I still had the dog to walk every day, my fact-checking was a breeze. I didn’t know what would happen when I started out or if the piece would come together, but in fact, it eventually did find a home, and that was here at Brevity.


Want to write personal essays and memoir that will engage readers and increase your likelihood of getting published? Join Lise Funderburg for Beyond the ME in Memoir, a CRAFT TALKS webinar. More info/register now.

Lise Funderburg is an award-winning author and journalist. Her books include the best-selling memoir, Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, the acclaimed oral history, Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity, and Apple, Tree: Writers On Their Parents. The recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, she teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Find out more at LiseFunderburg.com.

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