Brian Oliu

Inspired by Dinty W. Moore’s anthology The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction and my own struggle with the flash form, I chose to make my Advanced Creative Nonfiction class this semester all about the flash. Along with the anthology, we are reading T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande, 2012), Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), and Brian Oliu’s So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011).

When I told Brian Oliu we were reading his work and writing imitations, he offered to answer questions the students might have. His responses to a selection of their questions appear below.

Brian Oliu is an instructor at the University of Alabama and the author of So You Know It’s Me, a collection of lyric essays that he posted on the Tuscaloosa Craigslist Missed Connections board over the course of 45 days; in accordance with Craigslist policy, each essay automatically deleted after 45 days. He is also the author of Level End (Origami Zoo Press, 2012), a collection of lyric essays based on videogame boss battles, and the editor of Tuscaloosa Runs This (Broken Futon Press, 2011), an anthology of Tuscaloosa authors.

Q:  In your essay, “State of Flash—Flashes of Truth,” you write that we must wrap our thoughts tightly in order to create something large within a small, short, finite space. Can you explain your process of writing a flash piece? How do you go about writing a tightly packed miniature of uncertainties while also providing vivid and powerful lines with a well-established persona? What writing and editing choices do you make along the way to create a compact essay?

A:  I’ve never been quite good with long-form pieces: I’d say that once I go above 1,600 words, I start to lose myself and the heart of the piece tends to go away. I think that has a lot to do with how I write: the fact that I rarely include character, or dialogue, or anything along those lines. A giant block of lyricism can grow extremely tiring, not only to write, but also for the reader. I’ve always told myself that “I write to devastate”: I work much better with quick jabs and strong moments than narratives that stretch out over a long period.

This is a terribly “writerly” thing to say, but I write until the piece feels done, that it can’t go any further. I feel as if my pieces are getting shorter and shorter, so I’ve started to challenge myself a little bit by giving myself a pre-determined word count. I love pop music and I deejay, so I’ve been writing lyric pieces about pop songs—the word count corresponds to the length of the song (e.g., if a song is three minutes and 54 seconds, the essay is 354 words). Sometimes I’ll say all I want to say, but realize I need to push a little further to reach that goal. It’s been a refreshing change.

It’s really hard for me to get my brain out of “lyric mode”—I do like writing straight-forward essays (I jokingly call them my Esquire essays because one of these days maybe I’ll wind up there)—but I feel that the pull to chop things up, to have these lyric explosions, and put asides in italics is hard to resist. But I find that the longer I hold out, the more complete an essay can be. Plus, I feel like those lyric moments can really jump out in an otherwise straight-forward narrative.

As for editing, I read everything I write out loud. I even read older pieces of the same project out loud before I really dive into a new piece. I recently had a conversation with writer Cheryl Strayed (who is amazing!), and she said she reads poetry before she writes. She is a long-form fiction and nonfiction writer, so it was interesting to learn what she reads to get into a writing mindset. I do the same thing: I read a few things I really enjoy (Beth Ann Fennelly often makes the cut, as does Lyn Hejinian) and that puts me in the mood. After I finish a piece, I read it out loud to myself; if anything gets stuck in my mouth or doesn’t bounce back to me the way I want it to, that’s where I make edits.

Q:  It’s a common criticism that creative nonfiction is, at its base, overly self-centered to the point of being selfish. What would you say to this?

A:  Oh totally. But it’s also, at its core, a way to make people feel something. It is less about me telling my story, and more about me “sharing” my story. It’s throwing yourself out into the world and seeing if it sticks. At the same time, of course, you work out your own issues and happenstances, which is where I think the self-centeredness criticism comes from.

Q: In Pam Houston’s essay “Corn Maze,” she writes: “When I went on tour with my first book, a collection of short stories called Cowboys Are My Weakness, I was asked, more than any other question, how much of this really happened to you? ‘A lot of it,’ was my honest answer, night after night, but the audience grew dissatisfied with that answer and seemed, more than anything, to want something quantifiable, so I began saying, also honestly, about 82 percent.”

In So You Know It’s Me, how much is Brian Oliu and how much is the missed connection persona?

A: It is impossible to tell the complete truth: we remember things differently, we imagine things that weren’t there, we put our specific tint on everything. We could all experience the same event together and we could have wildly different stories. I’d say that 82 percent is about accurate for what’s going on in my work as well. There’s a weird relationship with time, of course: did I go to that place on the day that I wrote the Missed Connection? No. Was I writing specifically to the person I saw (which is the purpose of Craigslist’s Missed Connections)? No, I was often writing to someone else. As I wrote the pieces, I started to see connections, and I started to perceive a narrative: a true narrative, certainly, but also one that was extremely malleable. As for the pieces, they are me, they are always of me, but maximized or minimized, which is one of the benefits of writing nonfiction. The parts where heartbreak comes through, was I heartbroken that day? No, but I was remembering the feeling of being heartbroken. It’s hard to capture one’s true self in writing, of course (no one speaks in poetic forms—at least I hope no one does!), but if someone grilled me on every line of the book, I feel confident I could provide an answer to everything: who it is directed to, what space I was inhabiting, what caused this image, etc.

Q:  Do you consider yourself a meta-writer?

A: I’d say I have my moments! Obviously the Craigslist collection is a nod to that. Furthermore, the awareness that everything is going to delete itself (Craigslist posts delete after 45 days) started affecting the writing: that at some point I admit that everything is going to be deleted and there will be one glorious moment when all of the pieces will be viewable until they start disappearing one by one.

Q: Architecture seems to figure prominently in your work. Is it a subject of interest for you, or do you find that using architecture as metaphor enhances your writing?

A: I love artifice; I love scaffolding a piece to get it standing. I view writing a lot like building, so I feel as if that comes in a great deal. Place is so important in creative nonfiction, so I try to include it as much as possible. If you’ve watched “The Wire,” the main character in the show is the city of Baltimore, rather than the smaller human characters. Since I very rarely have characters in my pieces, I want the buildings and settings to serve that purpose. My dad is a civil engineer, so I spent a lot of my childhood looking at blueprints and hanging out at construction sites, so I feel as if those ideas of design and building have seeped in, too.

Q: What advice do you have for writers who are just beginning to write the flash form?

A: Pick small moments that exist within something much larger. Instead of writing about something gigantic, like death or love or sex or trauma, write about something tiny that happened while in the middle of those things: there’s a reason those weird observations and images stick in your head. Take out your microscope and explore the tiny moments in-depth. You’ll be amazed at what tends to appear in your head and on the page as you really dive into those small but powerful moments.

Jill Talbot is the author of a memoir, Loaded (Seal Press, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas Press, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012). She teaches at St. Lawrence University, in northern New York.