Spelunking by Marilea Rabasa

This essay was first posted in The Memoir Network July, 2017

I enjoy many forms of physical exercise, from climbing mountains, to backpacking along trails, to bicycling, and even swimming. But mostly nowadays I just go hiking, sometimes with my grandchildren and partner, but often alone. Working the muscles of my body is good for me and helps keep my joints working. I feel better after a long walk.

So, too, my mental muscles feel better after a good writing workout. I’ve been writing diaries ever since I was very young, and I keep boxes of them wherever I’m living at the moment. I draw on them a great deal in my memoir writing. They offer a panoramic view of my life.

I’ve been scribbling “Morning Pages” ever since Julia Cameron’s Sound of Paper came out. Every day along with my morning writing I include entries in my gratitude journal as well as ideas for my recovery blog.

But memory can be selective; and memoir is a tricky animal to tame. Mining our depths, it’s like spelunking in a cave. But how much do we see on those walls of rock? How bright is the lantern we’re holding? We’re swinging from a rope, trying to hold ourselves erect, trying to see what’s there.

And who are we doing the seeing? Not the same person we were last year, or when we were five. What’s etched into those rocks that might read very differently to us now?

Darkness often comes to light when I read pages I wrote when I was ten years old. I may not be that hurting ten-year-old anymore, but I can remember that ten-year-old hurting. The essence of memoir is the change that has occurred in the years in between.

Stringing thoughts together and writing them down keeps my mind agile and open to understanding myself better. At times, I feel confused or I want answers, and when I write about it, the mud often sinks to the bottom and I can see things more clearly.

It’s a clarification process.

Sometimes I start a piece, and by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve answered some questions. It’s sort of like, as Lillian Hellman once described the term “pentimento:” my “old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

“Pentimento”—a term in art where sometimes, the artist changing his mind, paints over what he had previously put on the canvas. Thus, he repented. 

Many times, I’ve written stories that ended up nowhere I had intended. I thought I wanted to write about one thing, but ended up writing about something else. My first memoir started out as an angry rant about losing my daughter to a horrific illness. But in the two years it took me to write it, it evolved into a memoir of recovery. I was changing and transforming myself even as I was writing it—a very organic process.

So, writing for me is self-discovery. It’s a real excavation process, as we mine our depths often coming out so much richer in self-knowledge than we were in the beginning.

I grew up in Massachusetts. For seventeen years I was an ESL teacher in Virginia. Before that, I lived overseas in the Foreign Service.  Just as I provided “springboards” for my students in writing class, my travels provide the back drop for my two memoirs: my award-winning debut memoir, A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; and its sequel,  Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation, winner of the 2020 USA Best Book Award.

Interview with Dinty W. Moore On Flash Nonfiction

Several years ago I had the honor to interview Dinty W. Moore, professor, writer and editor, on the subject of Flash NonFiction. Dinty is the editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash NonFiction. Visit rosemetalpress.com as well as dintywmoore.com for more information.

1. How did you come about deciding to edit The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction? What motivated you to take on this project?

I approached Rose Metal Press myself to propose the idea for a Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, because I was a fan of, and had heard so many positive remarks about, the previous Field Guides to Flash Fiction and Prose Poetry. I thought this third volume was overdue.

2. How did you decide which contributors to include? Which topics?

It was hard to narrow it down, of course, because so many great folks have been publishing nonfiction short shorts, in Brevity, the magazine I publish, and elsewhere. So I went with those folks I knew had written or spoken about the flash form from a craft perspective. I tried to have a mix of styles, and add in people who tend more toward the experimental. It was really a gut call in the end, but most good anthologies work that way, I think.

3. What elements/approaches do you consider the most important in terms of writing flash nonfiction? What is your own writing process?

To me, the most important element is concision: absolute attention to each word, each phrase, each detail, to make sure it builds the mosaic not just in one way, but in multiple ways. A good short short is like a gourmet sauce; it has all of the flavor, all of the spice, all of the aroma of a larger stew, but it has been simmered down to an essence. It is a mistake, I think, to just try to shorten a longer piece, or to take an excerpt. A good flash piece intends to be quick and sharp from the outset.

4. How would you assess the current Flash markets in terms of publishing? What is your advice to flash writers in terms of submissions? Do you recommend any particular publications for submissions?

There are many excellent magazines that feature flash, and many that will publish flash alongside conventional length prose and poetry. Of those that feature flash, a few of my favorites are Sweet, Blip, Alimentum, Fringe Magazine, Defunct, South Loop Review, Flashquake, Diagram, and The Sun’s “Readers Write” section.

5. Who are some of your favorite flash nonfiction writers? Do you have a favorite flash nonfiction piece? Where might we find it so we can read it?

Brenda Miller is wonderful. Also Debra Marquart. (Google these women for their links.) But if I were to list everyone who has done wonderful work, I would need 100 spaces.

6. What is your best advice to writers in general?

Revise, revise, revise. It takes me six or seven drafts to even know what questions I am asking in a piece of writing, and another seven or fourteen drafts to find myself anywhere near a satisfying answer. Writing is not explaining what you already know – it is using language to explore and discover.

7. Do you have favorite websites related to Flash?

Sure. www.brevitymag.com.

8. What other projects are you involved in that you’d like us to know about?

I just completed a book on mindfulness and writing, titled the Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. I’m rather proud of it.

Thank you, Dinty, for taking the time to chat with our readers. We appreciate your insights and look forward to reading the Field Guide for Flash Nonfiction!

Dinty W. Moore is the author of the memoir Between Panic & Desire (University of Nebraska). His other books include The Accidental BuddhistToothpick Men, The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes, and the writing guides, The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life and Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. Moore has published essays and stories in The Southern ReviewThe Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg ReviewUtne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues. A professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University, Moore has won many awards for his writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He edits Brevity, an online journal of flash nonfiction and lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.


Helen (Len) Leatherwood has been teaching writing privately to students in Beverly Hills for the past twenty years. She has received 3 national teacher awards from the Scholastic Artists and Writers Awards, the oldest and most prestigious writing contest for youth in the U.S, as well as a California teaching award for the past eleven years. She is a published writer with numerous pieces in literary journals. She is a Pushcart nominee in fiction. Her work also appears in A Cup of Comfort Cookbook, currently available on Amazon. Her blog, 20 Minutes a Day, can be found at lenleatherwood.wordpress.com.