Freeze-frame memoir

Guest post by Jane Hertenstein

Much of what I love about flash is about living in the moment. Capturing and seizing a point in time. Freeze framing it—much like a Polaroid snapshot. I like to treat the page like a friend, like a sounding board, or what the poet Frank O’Hara described as unmade phone calls. The Internet actually makes it easy to record one’s life: Instagram! Facebook! Twitter!


Exercise: Wherever you are right now, and whatever form your unmade phone call takes – an email, journal entry, blog post, tweet – send one out. Write it, the flutter in your heart. No more than 500 words.


Frank O’Hara was also famous for his “I do this, I do that” poems. He would use his lunch hour to walk around the city and record his observations. He wrote about meeting up with friends, the billboards he saw, the restaurants he passed, the bars he stopped into. Even the construction workers toiling high above his head. “A Step Away From Them” from Lunch Hour Poems begins, “It’s my lunch hour, so I go/for a walk among the hum-colored/cabs.”

O’Hara thought nothing of interrupting life to jot down a few lines of a poem. He built poems around to-do lists and the headlines blaring out of the newspapers. “Lana Turner has collapsed!” he wrote, thus beginning a poem much anthologized.

The newspapers are full of real stories that at some point might alter or connect with our own story. Think tsunami, school closing, threat of E. coli in lettuce. Maybe not right away, but in a year flotsam will hit our western shores, the price of a BLT will go up, and the nice lady down the street will lose her job at the elementary school. A lot of what occurs in our life might fall under the header of observation, without conclusion or closure.


Exercise: What’s in the news? Using a headline as a prompt, write a flash story. This can be strictly memoir or you can take any headline and write an opinion (op-ed) piece or place yourself there as a reporter. Write about what affects you.


Much of memoir is about ordinary life. A skillful writer will use words like blood, injecting life into a story—and visa versa a story into life.

But are literary journals looking for ordinary? Who wants to read our grocery lists, about picking the kids up from school, that between 2 and 3 in the morning you can’t sleep thinking about all the stuff that can go wrong in life? Despite the fact that nothing important ever happened to you (I’m assuming), if your story nudges the reader to remember, then you will connect. People are interested in ordinary stories if they have the smell and feel of authenticity. An honesty that resonates.

There are a few anthologies that are only looking for short memoir. CoCo Harris is the editor behind a number of anthologies dedicated to personal narratives:  I would also check out and

Even if you think you have lived a boring life, all of us have anecdotal moments, snapshots that if freeze-framed and cropped can offer entertainment/education/refuge for fellow readers.


Jane Hertenstein’s current obsession is flash. Her latest book is Freeze Frame: How to Write a Flash Memoir. She is the author of over 40 published stories, a combination of fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre both micro and macro. In addition she has published a YA novel, Beyond Paradise, and a non-fiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, which garnered national reviews. She is a 2x recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, Frostwriting, and several themed anthologies.
Jane can be found at

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Categories: guest posts, writing tips

One Comment on “Freeze-frame memoir”

  1. Cate Russell-Cole
    October 5, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on Write Your Life Story and commented:
    Try it and please share your answers on our Google Community or Facebook groups. The links are embedded in the sidebar icons. Also, many, many thanks to Chris for her generous promotion of our posts and the writing challenge.

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