Mary Emerick is a columnist for Cheek Teeth. She blogs at Inside the Mountain's Skin.
I’ve never been a flash fiction kind of gal. Just like in life, in my writing I ramble, I throw words out all over the place, I refuse to limit myself. I admire the bare bones of flash, the elegant succinctness of phrase. However, I belabor the point; I take the long way home. Flash? Nope, not by a long stretch.
And then a friend asked me to write her husband’s obituary. What is obituary but a flash of someone’s life? It is the skeleton, not the flesh, only a hint, not the whole story.
I wasn’t sure I could do it.
I called up the newspaper. “How long can it be?”
An obituary has a brutal form to it. Birth, school, a few highlights, survivors. In those few words, you have to somehow tell it all, the entire sixty years of someone’s life, condensed to a few paragraphs. As in flash, each word must count. Also as in flash fiction, an obituary is plot-driven: Someone is born. He marries (or not). He lives. He dies. But unlike flash fiction, where the ending can be a twist that leaves you breathless, the ending is always the same with an obituary.
Previously I thought writing a novel was hard. How to slog through the endless middle of it, the mind-numbing attention to plot and character so it all made sense? But at least I had the luxury of verboseness. I was able to sprawl all over the page, entire sentences devoted to the way the rain fell over the landscape. I could explain things in depth; beat the reader over the head with symbolism, metaphor. By god, they would be able to see, feel, and smell the Alaskan rainforest, I thought, by the time they turned the last page.
I thought memoir was hard too; a dredge of half-buried memory from the past that the writer must turn into something coherent. You must have a narrative arc, something that was learned, and something that changed you forever. Memoir is chaotic, things bubbling to the surface, and you have to decide what to leave in and what to take out. Memoir for me was harder than fiction, because of the taking out.
All of which is to say that each long manuscript I completed, I thought it must be the hardest genre ever. I know now I was wrong.
My friend wanted me to write her husband’s obituary because she likes my writing. It was both an honor and a painful experience. I sat at her kitchen table as she talked about her husband. There are so many things that sum up a person, just like a story. I wanted to put them all in. This would be the last sentence of his story, and I wanted to get it right. The economy of words did not come easily.
Could you describe your entire life in three hundred words? Think about if your life were flash fiction, the highlights only, please. What would be important enough to leave in and what would you take out? Could I erase entire decades, like the one that contained my impulsive and regretted first marriage? More importantly, that unknown someone tasked with my obituary, what would this person think was the most important thing to say?
In the end I struggled to find the exact words I wanted, and I am not sure I succeeded. Looking at the printed word, I felt it did not do my friend justice. I did gain respect for the flash fiction genre, though. As a snobby long-piece writer, I thought it must be easy. How hard could it be to turn out such a short story? But in flash you do not have the crutches I rely on as a novelist. In writing flash, you have only a moment to make an impression. If at first I don’t like a novel, I sometimes keep reading, giving the author a chance to redeem himself. In flash, the writer must grab the reader from the first sentence and never let go.
In writing the obituary, I learned my limitations, both in writing and in life. I’ll never be a flash fiction kind of gal. I’ll never be able to adequately sum up someone’s life in a few paragraphs, either. There are some things that for me are just too hard.