Last time, I talked about the power of lists to get us writing about all kinds of things. Lists trick us into writing.
In her famous TED talk, spoken word poet Sarah Kay invites the audience to make a list. She asks them to think of three things they know to be true. They can be about anything, she says, “technology, entertainment, design, your family, what you had for breakfast. The only rule is don’t think too hard.”1
Try it. Today. Right now. Even if you’ve done this before, think of three things you know to be true, about anything.
Don’t think too hard.
Write Your Truths
(I’ll pause so you can grab a pen and paper to jot down your three things…go ahead, I’ll be here…)
(Here, I pause again as you write out your three things you know to be true…)
Okay, here are three things I know to be true.
- Trader Joe’s Butternut Squash Ravioli is worth the 45-minute roundtrip drive.
- If you buy things used, you won’t feel quite so bad when they break.
- Books make excellent companions.
Each of those could be expanded and developed into a miniature memoir. Because the tiny truths you and I express as proverbial-style statements flow out of life experience.
We could tell each other stories. We could tell about how we concluded the ravioli was worth the drive, how the broken item wasn’t quite such a loss, how the books held us close when we needed companionship.
We form these tiny truths in the unfolding of our daily lives, so we could reconstruct a scene that led to deeper understanding; we could bring to life a vignette that solidifies a belief.
What do you know to be true?
Sarah Kay says she often tricks the teenagers she works with into writing poetry by using lists because “Everyone can write lists.” The first list she always assigns is “10 Things I Know to Be True.”2
Later today—or now, if you have time—expand your list. Add seven more to make ten things you know to be true.
If you find your thoughts flowing, beliefs spilling out, one after another, keep going. Make a longer list. Keep adding to the list more and more things you know to be true, reaching deeper and deeper into your wins and losses, your heartaches and joys, your embarrassment, your pain.
Expand on Your Truth
Pluck a single bullet point—a single truth—from your list of what you know to be true.
Let it be your next writing prompt.
Say more about your truth.
Set a timer for 15 minutes and freewrite about that truth. Remember the events that led to this conclusion. Include the back story. Identify the moment of insight. Reflect on its impact.
Voila. You’ve composed your micro-memoir, your tiny truth fleshed out.
Maybe it’s for you.
Maybe it’s to share.
You can use it to form the themes of your work, whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.
These can be adapted and sort of masked to become a scene in fiction; or, they can be polished and developed into a personal essay.
If one truth alone doesn’t seem to have enough meat to serve up to the world, weave together several to become a longer piece—a collage, a list poem, a winding, free-flowing piece that combines to become a whole.
Sarah Kay’s Spoken-Word Truths
Sarah Kay appeared to develop her list of things she knows to be true (or a list quite like it) into a spoken-word poem called “If I should have a daughter.”3
She moves artfully through one truth after another: truths she would one day pass on to this potential offspring; or, perhaps, truths Sarah may be reminding herself to hold onto in the meantime.
You could assemble yours into a poem, as well, weaving them into lines, into stanzas, into a free-flowing free-verse poem that moves from one truth to another eventually threading together by theme and thesis.
Micro-Memoir or #TinyTruth
Yours may be best presented as a kind of micro-memoir. As you construct the scene or scenes from your life that led to your truth, you may produce prose that could be shared any number of places.
If extremely short—say, 280 characters or less—perhaps you’d publish it on Twitter, tagging it #tinytruth and #cnftweet. Consider these brief scenes that I found on Twitter using those hashtags:
He dug the bracelet out of the dirt, unearthing a beaded treasure tied with a cheap elastic knot. He pulled it until it snapped. His mother stared at the dead beads in the dust. “Boys always break pretty things.” #cnftweet #tinytruth @courtney_santo4
My condolences says the funeral director. My brother-in-law, face ashen, pulls out the contract for his mother’s prepaid funeral. Three hours later, paperwork finished, he hands over his credit card. Pall bearers are extra. The earthly cost of his final goodbye. #cnftweet5
“Cats are tiny miracles.” my son observed after we adopted the kitten he named Bilbo. My son was late to bed, so I didn’t ask why. A few days later, my husband winked at me. “That cat has made you silly again.” That’s it, I thought. That’s the miracle. #cnftweet #cats #motherhood6
One truth that I am completely willing to embrace about myself in my 40s is that I like instant coffee better than the expensive stuff. #tinytruth #cnftweet7
Sometimes it’s the small, specific truths, the tiny truths, that make the biggest impact. In the tiny truth we may comprehend the universal truth.
Defining Short Memoir
Marilyn Bosquin explains the various labels used to describe this kind of project in an article at Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy:
Short-short memoir essays—those under 2,000 words but more commonly in the under 1,000-words range—go by the term “flash memoir,” or “flash creative nonfiction.”
The flash in “flash memoir” refers to its brevity, yes, but it also—and more importantly—refers to its “flash” of insight into human experience.8
Tweets allow for 280 characters or less. Brevity Magazine publishes short essays of 750 words or less.9 The literary magazine Creative Nonfiction also celebrates and accepts short memoir as do many others. These publications understand.
You can find a home for these short expressions of truth by submitting your work to one of these literary magazines that celebrate brief memoir or by simply sharing it on a social media platform.
So what do you know to be true?
When I shared what I know to be true, I left one off. I accidentally wrote out four instead of just three. It’s this:
My clearest thoughts emerge when I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard; writing brings clarity.
Whatever you call these projects—brief memoir, flash nonfiction, a tiny truth—they remind us that our writing doesn’t have to be long to be powerful. Writing brings clarity—at least that’s what I believe to be true.
Compose vignettes and scenes—your own flash nonfiction—on Twitter, on Instagram, and in your journal. In time, you’ll unearth the many things—big and small—you know to be true.
- Ep 175: How to Use Lists to Transform Your Writing (and your life)
- “If I should have a daughter…” (Sarah Key’s 2011 TED talk)
- Flash Memoir: The Benefits of Writing Short Memoir (from Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy)
- Kelso’s tweet about the beads
- Karen Zey’s tweet about paying to be a pall bearer
- Heidi Fettig Parton’s tweet about cats
- Amanda Page’s tweet about instant coffee
- Brevity Magazine
- Creative Nonfiction
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- Kay, Sarah. “”If I Should Have a Daughter …”” TED. TED, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2018.
- Kelso. “He dug the bracelet out of the dirt…” Twitter. Twitter, 21 Sept. 2018. Web. 29 Nov. 2018.
- Zey, Karen. “My condolences says the funeral director…” Twitter. Twitter, 17 Nov. 2018. Web. 29 Nov. 2018.
- Parton, Heidi Fettig. “‘Cats are tiny miracles’…” Twitter. Twitter, 13 Nov. 2018. Web. 29 Nov. 2018.
- Page, Amanda. “One Truth That I Am Completely Willing to Embrace…” #tinytruth #cnftweet.” Twitter. Twitter, 03 June 2018. Web. 29 Nov. 2018.
- Bosquin, Marilyn. “Flash Memoir: The Benefits of Writing Short Memoir.” Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy. Writing Women’s Lives, 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Nov. 2018.
- “Submissions.” Brevity A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2018.