Where is the heat in your writing?

16706452451_eddf5b4825_bI picked up the Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction at the AWP conference this past March.  This morning I began reading it as I contemplated this blog and the writing I hope to do.  Bloggers would be well-served to study this “flash” genre of writing, since all of it is pertinent to the short essays we post here on our computer screens.  Dinty W. Moore, the editor of this field guide of flash writing, opens the book with a thoughtful metaphor and some great words of advice.

In his attempt to define the flash nonfiction genre of writing, Moore writes this:

Imagine there is a fire burning deep in the forest.  In an essay of conventional length, the reader begins at the forest’s edge, and is taken on a hike, perhaps a meandering stroll, into those woods, in search of that fire.  The further in the reader goes, with each page that turns, the more the reader begins to sense smoke in the air, or maybe heat, or just an awareness that something ahead is smoldering.

In the very brief essay, however, the reader is not a hiker but a smoke jumper, one of those brave firefighters who jump out of planes and land 30 yards from where the forest fire is burning.  The writer starts the reader right at that spot, at the edge of the fire, or as close as one can get without touching the actual flame.  There is no time to walk in.

The brief essay, in other words, needs to be hot from the first sentence, and the heat must remain the entire time.  My fire metaphor, it is important to note, does not refer to incendiary subject matter.  The heat might come from language, from image, from voice or point-of-view, from revelation or suspense, but there must always be a burning urgency of some sort, translated through each sentence, starting with the first. (pgs. XXII-XXIII)

Moore’s words immediately made me recall what my writing coach, Christine Hemp, is always asking me about my writing.  “Where is the heat, Teri?  Find the heat and write from there.”  Sometimes it takes me quite a while to find it.  I have to write a lot and pay close attention before I can zero in on this place of friction.  I have to ask myself constantly,  Where is my hook?  Where is my writing most urgent and honest?  When do I feel my heart burning and my pulse quickening when I write?  Albeit a difficult and oftentimes trying process, finding this place of heat means that my writing will be its best.

In fact, this tip may be the most important advice for good writing.  In an interview with the Paris Review, Marilynne Robinson was once asked, “What is the most important thing you try to teach your students?” To which, she replied:

I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is.  If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new.  I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies…What [writers] have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page.  When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.

So, fellow writers, bloggers, and preachers: Where is your heat?


[feature image: Soreen D]


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