The Balm of the Small Essay: A Guest Post by Eva Saulitis

A new release by Eva Saulitis; her workshop Prose/Poem is March 23

In my blog post last month, I talked about the transition from writing essays to writing a book
length memoir, moving from short to long form. 
Today, I’m going to go backwards. 
I’m going to talk about the beauty of the small.
I was skeptical
of the idea of flash-anything when I first heard the term bandied about by my
friend and colleague the fiction writer Rich Chiappone.  It seemed like a product of the times, the
era of the flash-in-your-face Facebook post, the text, the lol and btw and luv
and yo of writing.  And yet, I am a poet
as well as an essayist.  And the magic of
poetry lies in its compression.  William
Carlos Williams famously called a poem “a small (or large) machine made out of
words.”  You could use that one short
sentence as a case in point.  Each
syllable matters.  The parentheses
matter.  The word “machine” expands in
the brain like a giant thought-bubble. 
What kind of machine? A trash compactor? 
A canner?  A Rolex?  A sewing machine?  A riveter? 
I think the exact definition could be applied to an essay, short or
long.  Flash non-fiction is a small
machine made out of sentences (which are made out of words).  Because it is so small that you need special
tools and a magnifying glass to take it apart and understand how it works,
shows you just how intricate a machine it is. 
This is not to
say any short block of prose (or anything calling itself a poem) runs
deep.  Long or short, any piece of
writing can be cliché, predictable, shallow, trivial, throw-away.  But that’s not flash; that’s glitter.  That’s senza
, the title of a poem by Adam Zagajewski.  Here are a few of lines:
something unforseen may happen then:
hidden in smooth cotton, the heart stirs,
silence falls, a sudden flash.
“Senza flash!” is what a docent cries out in a museum in
Italian when someone holds up a camera to a Caravaggio.  The poem turns it around, asking what a life
without flash or risk might mean.  I’ve
come to recognize that the power of flash non-fiction is in that word “flash.”  It is that turn, that surprise, that yes,
that “whoa,” that top of the head-removing sensation you get when you read a
poem and it matters deep, but you can’t explain exactly why or explicate.  It’s what I described in my last post as the
sensation you get when you know you’ve found the ending of an essay. The
strands you’ve been weaving messily as you’ve composed suddenly tighten and
twang.  The poem or essay is saying
something you didn’t intend, telling/showing you didn’t know.
Here’s how poet Lia Purpura sees the power of the small, in
her short essay “On Miniatures,” in The
Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Non-Fiction
miniature is mysterious . . .
are ambitious . . .
are intimate . . .
in miniature form, like gas compressed, gets hotter . . .
Essayist Judith Kitchen compares it to a snowball:  “You’ve got all this stuff out there called
snow but when you gather it all up and really pack it together . . . the effect
is a little sting.”  We all know that
exquisite sting.  It’s why we read and
write.  It’s what we live for, as
I first learned
about the non-fiction short from my mentor, poet and memoirist Peggy
Shumaker.  She’d just written a book
about a terrible accident resulting in a head injury.  I’ll never forget first hearing her speak of
it.  She described how memory came back
to her in pieces during her recovery. 
She was afraid.  Would she ever
retrieve everything?  Instead of
fretting, she began to write.  She wrote
the way a real writer writes, with a piece of coal or nub of pencil, on a rock
or a prison wall, seizing whatever was at hand, even a knife to draw blood for
ink.  She decided to write the memory
fragments down as they came to her.  And
hopefully you all know what emerged from that process, an incredible memoir
called Just Breathe Normally, which
is composed of miniatures.
Soon after its
publication, Peggy asked me to teach a workshop with her on short forms of
non-fiction.  “Sure,” I said, but I
didn’t know what the hell a short form was.  
I didn’t learn about them in grad school.  In academia, they hadn’t been invented
yet.  “Read this,” Peggy said, handing me
an anthology edited by Judith Kitchen called Short Takes.  And there it
was, in one short essay after another, compression, metaphor, poetic devices or
the plainest speech, but in each case, the flash that comes from compressing
something to its ignition point, its breaking point  — yes, it’s flash point.
How to achieve
that is, like anything else, a matter of practice and reading.  My own practice came by surprise.  While undergoing breast cancer treatment
outside Boston, I was lucky enough to find a
therapist-writer to guide me through the psychological terrain of
Cancerland.  (It helped that her name was
Wilderness).  She didn’t just encourage
me to write my way through treatment. 
She MADE me.   She held me
accountable each week for poems.  When I
left Cape Cod, she suggested I start a blog about my
recovery process.  I resisted, but she’d
been right about so many things, that I gave in quickly.  What the hell, I thought.  I don’t have to tell anyone.  So I set up a blog and wrote the first post,
and kept going.  For months I didn’t miss
a day.  I realized early on in the
process that writing a blog post, which for me was exactly like a miniature
essay, involved all of the same elements of craft.  It involved the same level of trust that
writing a poem or essay requires.  It
required the balance of control and lack of control.  It required the same shaping, the same
attention to each word, to rhythm and pacing. 
The same attention out in the world. 
But it forced compression on my essayist’s verbose tendencies. 
That’s how I
went from flash non-fiction skeptic to believer.  I guess in my case you could even say it
proves there are no atheists in the trenches. 
The short form didn’t save my life – that’s pushing it too far – but it
gave me a way to reconstruct my life after cancer and make sense of it, piece
by piece.  It allowed me to enact the
words of one of my favorite Elizabeth Bradfield poems (from her book Interpretive Work):  to  “find the balm of the small things all
around you.”  And within you. 
now like any recent convert, I’m eager to knock on people’s doors with my copy
of Short Takes in hand and spread the
news.   I hope you’ll join me for my 49
Writers/AQR sponsored reading/craft talk/workshop on March 22 and 23 to try your hand at building some small, flashy machines made out
of words.

1 thought on “The Balm of the Small Essay: A Guest Post by Eva Saulitis”

  1. Great Analysis for Eva Saulittis. All are tackled and information are all in place you're a good essay writers my friend your knowledge is great and your understanding is highly deep! Great work! Two Thumbs up for you!

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