AWP2019: Crash Course in Flash: Theories on Brevity

Panel Participants: Grant Faulkner, Bryan Fry, Shivani Mehta, H.K. Hummel, Sherrie Flick

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: How do we teach flash? How do we conceptualize the big bang theories that explain the miniature universes of short-form writing? Flash writers and teachers explore the outer limits of compressed forms like flash fiction, flash nonfiction, prose poetry, micro-screenplays, and fragments. Panelists talk about craft strategies for defying the boundaries of word count, how the history of short-form writing shapes contemporary approaches, and what the future might hold.


This panel was so packed that at one point I had someone sitting just in front of my toes, someone at my hip, and someone uncomfortably close to my butt, each person yearning to tell their story the best way they can. For a panel about spareness and compression, that density felt exactly right.

This was a true panel in that the participants answered questions from the moderator, H.K. Hummel, and responded to each other—not a lecture, but a discussion. The panelists discussed their first moment (their “conversion” or “electric” moment) experiencing what flash and brevity can do (many mentioned Hemingway and Raymond Carver), no matter the genre. Then, they moved into a discussion of how to define, describe, and teach the short form. What constitutes “flash”? What doesn’t? How do we teach it? Then, they had a conversation about how they see the field changing, both now and in the future.

I’ll condense their back and forth dialogue into flash recaps of their own, making a collage of their ideas and recommendations:

Reading Recommendations: 

Writers

  • Raymond Carter
  • Stuart Dybek
  • Russell Edson
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Gertrude Stein
  • James Tate

Books

  • Nin Andrews, “The Book of Orgasms”
  • K. Hummel and Stephanie Lenox, “Short-Form Creative Writing: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology”
  • Ilya Kaminsky, “Odessa”
  • Jenny Offill, “Department of Speculation”
  • Christine Schutt, “Florida”
  • Charles Simic, “The World Doesn’t End”
  • Justin Torres, “We the Animals”

Short pieces

  • Ernest Hemingway, “Indian Camp”
  • Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”
  • Brady Udall, “The Wig”

How do you describe the short form?

The short form is “the linguistics of connection.” Each sentence should be its own story. Flash invites creativity. Flash is a “smokelong,” a story the length of time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Flash is a story small enough to fit on the palm of your hand. The short form is a snapshot of life—a “Kodak carousel.” Flash is like fireflies—we’re in the massive dark of a forest, and flash pieces are tiny spheres of light we bring together. Flash is like wet paper towel you’re trying to wring—”you squeeze until there’s no more water, and then you squeeze again.” Writing flash is like a sculptor looking for a sculpture in a piece of clay. Flash is like a bouillon cube—the same “flavor” as the veggies that made it, condensed and sharpened.

How is the form changing?

The American short story is around 15 pages on average. In the past, Gheta mentioned that prose poetry had a bad reputation until Simic published “The World Doesn’t End in 1990, and gave it credibility. Flick mentioned that, in the past, professors refused to read flash in workshop. But she believes that digital changes in publishing led to shorter forms, too. And small presses stepped in, “rode in on their victory horses,” where big publishers are hesitant. But we’re unsure about the future. When a panelist asked the audience if big magazines were publishing flash, we weren’t sure. Hands in the air were tentative. Faulkner wondered if flash is generational—so far, at AWP, all the flash panels have been full. Because our experiences are so different (for a small example, we’re not all sitting around watching the same television every night), we need these new forms.

Short form exercises/writing guidance

  • Start small, then expand
  • Alternatively, start small, then cut—what originally felt impossible is cut down to what’s necessary, which is beautiful in its own way
  • Use exercises as a constraint, then work toward an ending
  • Using a piece of published flash, take out all the verbs, nouns, adjectives, and write them on the board. Usually, even without the connective tissue the same emotions will be present—verbs have power
  • Hopper paintings as prompt
  • Use Chekhov’s “observation without judgment”—eventually, you’ll always fail, but that failure is now part of the story

The panelists (and I) hope that the constraints of genre and category are falling away—does it matter if it’s prose poetry or a lyric essay?—and that in the future, MFA programs and workshops will be more flexible in allowing students to experiment in different short forms. Genre, ultimately, matters less, because the short form is a way of telling a story in the gaps, without words, allowing the reader to find their own electric moments.


Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of a collection of essays called Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017). She received her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California, and is also the managing editor at YesYes Books. Other writing is published in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Profane, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. She’s at work at an essay collection about disaster.


Visit Assay’s Spring 2019 issue for more!

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