At last month's Redwood Writers conference, Ehret led a workshop called Outside the Box: Memoir, the Prose Poem, and Flash Fiction. With twenty female participants, most over the age of 50, Ehret examined the texts and techniques of Cisneros, Charles Simic, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins and Wang Ping to teach us how "to capture the potent memory-frames that make up our lives."
Though Sandra Cisneros's 'memoir' about family, cultural identity and "a deeper story of how she came to be a writer" is categorized as fiction, it is rich with metaphor and lyricism. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad, she writes in "Darius & the Clouds."
"Starting with a small frame--a paragraph or page--allows for a kind of compression," Ehret said. "When you condense your writing to the essentials, to a carefully chosen image, you get a particular potency." While flash fiction has all the basic elements of a story (character, dialogue, setting, voice, point of view, conflict), it is defined by its brevity and density. "The resolution is often left to the reader's imagination," said Ehret. The prose poem, which uses sentences and paragraphs instead of poetic lines and stanzas, often "stays still in time." It uses poetic devices like imagery, rhythmic patterns and repetition.
My mother was a braid of black smoke, Charles Simic begins in The World Doesn't End. His poetry, Ehret said, uses "images emblematic of childhood" to represent the way children view the world, rather than narrate about the past "with an adult psychological frame in mind."
Pulitzer Prize winning Mary Oliver, another favorite of mine, was able to reveal her intimate life in prose poems in ways she couldn't through her more philosophical poetry. In her book White Pine she writes, Couldn't there be pastures beside the lakes of the stars? Isn't everything, in the dark, too wonderful to be exact, and circumscribed? Ehret noted Oliver "takes a moment and expands on it so it has layers and depth."
In "Five Fondly Remembered Passages from my Childhood Reading," Ehret said Billy Collins "explores childhood fears, anxieties and imaginings" using excerpts from fictitious books. These "little self-portraits" offer a window to his world through quoted 'passages' complete with made-up authors and titles such as The Boy With Three Heads and The Trouble With Mother.
Wang Ping, who writes about Chinese and sexual identity, "invites multiple voices: humorous, tragic, informative." These "autobiographical shards are like running your hand over different textures," Ehret said, often sounding quite poetic herself.
How to get started writing memoir outside the box? Read different forms as much as possible. Then, "start writing from the mystery," Ehret advised. "Trusting the process is 99% of the writing."