Flash Creative Nonfiction Exercise

  1. Choose an abstraction to write about, something large and intense like grief, or sorrow, or love, or joy.
  2. Daydream a list of particular emotional memories that the abstraction calls up in you. Write a paragraph focusing on one of those memories. Begin with the line, “I remember. . . .”
  3. Now do a bit more daydreaming. When you think of the moment you’ve portrayed in the first paragraph, what other memories come to you? Grab onto one of them and make that the focus of your second paragraph, moving forward or backward in time.
  4. In the third paragraph, concentrate on a particular object that comes from one of your memories. This object will be the title of your 750-or-fewer word essay. Describe the object. Put it into action. Gather the details that will lead to your final paragraph.
  5. In this last paragraph, let the object grow into a metaphor for the intense emotional meaning rising in the essay. Write a simile, such as “That sloth is as slow as grief.” (From Jill Christman’s “The Sloth,” a much better example than my own essay.)
  6. Find a fact with which to open the essay. Add a sentence to the beginning. Find a way to evoke that fact at the end.

Dog Tags

A dog tag is the informal name given to the identification tags worn by military personnel, because of their resemblance to actual dog tags. The tag is primarily used for the identification of dead and wounded. It’s also given to the deceased’s family should death be the fate of the person outlined on the tag.

I remember the silence that filled the car on the drive home, the vacuum that stole my voice and the air from my lungs, and the crushing crushing crushing of…something missing. My dog in the back seat, missing. My dog, left at the vet. My dog, dead. I couldn’t curl myself small enough to bear the weight of what was snaking beneath my skin. The silence was deafening, juxtaposed against the panic that had filled the car, permeating from me on the drive there. Me. Its source, the center of the anxiety and the anguish and the mantra of pleading to anyone who would listen. Urgency, desperation, the sheer need for now, now, now, why why why, and finally, no, no, no. The dreams were worse. She’d be there in my dreams, tail wagging, ears perked. But I knew she was dead. Sometimes, she’d fall through my arms as I moved to hold her. Others, it would be a clone of her that didn’t remember me. They were nightmares, and I’d wake with a start, reach for her soft head that had always been nestled somewhere near my hip and be met with blanket and mattress. That’s right. She was dead, and wasn’t there to comfort me from my nightmares of losing her. Because the nightmare was real.

I was ten when my grandfather died. He’d been gone for maybe a week, maybe a month. I can’t exactly recall, but it couldn’t have been very long. The first night violent grieving gave way to detached silence, I heard it; the cough, the tell-tale sign of a sleepless night with the comfort and distraction of a cigarette. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d heard such sounds, knowing that his years of poor circulation and several knee surgeries often led to unbearable leg cramps. And were I to climb out of bed and join him, it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d done so, so I did again. I smelled no tobacco smoke, but the occasional cough persisted. His favorite recliner squeaked on old hinges as he rocked, a constant motion used to help ease the muscles in his tired legs. I was too big to climb into his lap, despite how badly I’d wanted to. I crossed the path before the recliner and took my usual perch on the end of the couch closest to where he sat. Only an end table stood between us. I sat, quietly, unwilling to speak for fear of not getting a response. Or perhaps for fear of getting a response, I’m honestly not quite sure. What do you say to a dead man?

My dog always wore at least two metal tags on her collar. They would jingle when she walked, when she shook, when she scratched. They told people she was vaccinated, what number to call if she were found wandering the streets. It was a tangible reassurance that, should anything happen, anything at all, she’d eventually come home. My grandfather was a Marine. He was issued two metal tags upon his enlistment and deployment. They would jingle beneath his uniform when he ran, when he repaired, when he showered with his comrades. They told people who he was, that he was vaccinated, who to contact if he were ever found dead in a war zone. It was a tangible reassurance that, should anything happen, anything at all, he’d eventually come home.

Dog tags are harbingers of loss. They are the tangible, audible, resilient quantifier of the existence that is unquantifiable, issued in the anticipation and preparation of grief. I cannot measure how much I love those I’ve lost, and I cannot describe the ache that never leaves, only ebbs, with each passing moment, each passing day, each passing year since they left. But I have jingling tags that sound the same in death as they did in life. They remind me that they lived, more than my feeble memory. They lived.