As a graduate teaching assistant who studies both creative writing and rhetoric & composition, I’m always looking for new ways to link the two disciplines in my pedagogy. One of the more effective methods I’ve found is through assigning flash nonfiction in my composition courses, where flash nonfiction is defined simply as a true life story of 750 words or fewer. From these low-stakes activities and writing exercises, students have the opportunity to craft texts in a more creative, self-expressive mode than standard analytical and argumentative essays allow. As an added bonus, students also tend to enjoy reading and writing their own short-but-true stories modeled after essays popular in online literary magazines like Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Cleaver, Tahoma Literary Review, and many others.
Contemporary composition curricula are designed to ensure that students are well-versed reading and writing within a variety of genres. Assigning flash nonfiction in your introductory courses can be a great way to engage first year writing students, demonstrating important lessons about the relationship between concision and revision in the process. The urgency and immediacy of flash work also lends itself to on-the-spot in-class writing and revision activities. Below are four of my favorite flash nonfiction writing activities that work to satisfy a multitude of first year writing course outcomes such as developing Rhetorical Knowledge; Critical Thinking, Reading, and Composing; Writing Processes, and Knowledge of Conventions.*
*From the 7/18/2019 version of “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition,” which many FYW programs across the country base their curricula on.
- The “Brevity Essay”
Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, first established in 1997, is credited with creating a widely-written form within the flash nonfiction genre. A “Brevity essay” is a piece of nonfiction composed of 750 words or fewer, in line with the Brevity submission guidelines. Students may write from a question or a prompt, but length is this form’s only true constraint.
While 750 words may seem limited, over the years contributors to Brevity have crafted essays in a staggering array of subgenres and styles outside of traditional memoir. Some, such as Torrey Peter’s “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” and Amy Butcher’s “Women These Days” are comprised of researched “found” material, while others, such as Nicole Cyrus’s “Hairy Credentials” and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s “Open Season” work in the hermit crab essay form to shed light on the harmful effects of racism. Using these and other Brevity essays as models, students are afforded opportunities to write their own short prose, sampling the conventions of multiple genres and strengthening their approaches to critical writing at the same time.
In addition to Brevity, there are a multitude of magazines that accept Brevity-length essays, including, DIAGRAM, Passages North, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” section, and many more. Brevity’s blog has a resource page with links to literary magazines that publish flash nonfiction, which can be found here. With more than 800 essays over more than 20 years to choose from readily accessible on the website, the editors at Brevity have also recently compiled a “best of” collection of 84 essays that are ideal for classroom use, available from Rose Metal Press.
2. The Six-Word Memoir
The six word memoir/story has become a phenomenon in recent years. The first (and most well-known) six word story is often credited to Ernest Hemingway, who allegedly wrote the piece in order to satisfy a bet. The story reads, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The idea of writing a story as devastating as Hemingway’s in so few words has sparked many similarly brief memoirs over the years, converting a life story that might have taken up an entire book into one pithy six-word aphorism.
In this spirit, one exercise for first year writing students to practice the revision process is an activity I call “600/60/6.” Essentially, I assign students a 600-word personal narrative detailing their life story from birth until the present day. Students bring their narratives to class, where I pass out highlighters and pens and ask them to revise their narratives down to just 60 words. Students often find this task challenging, but rise to it. Some work to mark off sentences and words on their existing pages while others start fresh on a new sheet of paper, referencing their 600-word memoir. Once students have completed their 60-word draft, I ask them to revise their work again, this time into a single sentence of only six words.
At this stage in the activity, I have often provided examples to students of existing six-word memoirs. There is an eponymous website devoted to the six word memoir for students to browse on their own or to discover in class together. The website also hosts collected memoirs (submitted by readers) in themes such as “pain & hope,” “questions,” and “digital life.” There are contests (comprised of six word prompts) and many opportunities for students to write six word memoirs for potential publication on the website.
3. The Single-Sentence Essay
Though a single sentence doesn’t sound like much, in the time of the coronavirus, especially, it has become a popular form of off-the-cuff flash nonfiction. Single-sentence prose often breaks the rules of grammar and syntax, with plenty of run-ons and wayward punctuation. Writing a true story in a single sentence can be a great exercise for students to experiment with creative writing styles, and there are many prompts this exercise can follow.
One haunting example is Diane Seuss’s breathless “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” in which the author grapples with her grown son’s addiction (from Brevity, issue 50). An activity following this essay might challenge students to write a page-long single-sentence memoir in a similarly breathless style. But single sentences can also be quiet and understated, such as in Josey Foo’s “So Little” (from Brevity issue 46). Here, Foo captures the complex processes of internal thought as she moves within a single room. An activity based on Foo’s essay might ask students to craft a single sentence that captures both the external and internal aspects of a moment in time. Seuss and Foo’s essays are just two examples that work to broaden student ideas about how big a story one sentence can tell.
Though many literary journals accept single-sentence prose, one relatively new resource for such sentences is Complete Sentence, a literary magazine that specializes in the form. If you’d like to encourage public writing in your class, students can craft their sentences with publication in the journal in mind and submit when they are finished. Submissions at Complete Sentence are free of charge, and new sentences are posted every Saturday.
4. Tiny Truth Tweets
For a multimodal challenge, another popular mode of flash nonfiction are Tiny Truth tweets, a form popularized by Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Writers compose a true story on Twitter in 280 characters of fewer with the hashtag #CNFTweet, sometimes in response to a theme posted by the magazine’s Twitter account. The editors’ favorite tweets are retweeted daily, and a few are selected to be printed in the next issue of Creative Nonfiction’s Tiny Truths column.
Far from the straightforward content of most tweets, Tiny Truths zoom in on a personal memory or feeling to gain insight about a more universal theme—whether about parenthood, coming of age, or the inevitable passage of time. Below are a few examples of Tiny Truths that seem to tell a larger, more complex story beyond the moment captured in the tweet:
The form challenges writers to work within a set of natural constraints, and the results are often beautifully poignant. As a teacher, and especially if your course emphasizes multimodal composing, Tiny Truths are a wonderful opportunity both for your students to practice the art of concision on a popular platform and to host a class discussion about public writing and venues of publication.
The above activities are just a few of those I’ve incorporated into my composition classroom over the years. One could also feasibly construct a unit on creative writing in their first year writing courses using these exercises as a basis. Not only are such writing prompts often popular with students, but they also work to satisfy several of the current WPA Outcomes, such as:
- Rhetorical Knowledge, especially “Gain[ing] experience reading and composing in several genres to understand how genre conventions shape and are shaped by readers’ and writers’ practices and purposes,” and “Match[ing] the capacities of different environments (e.g., print and electronic) to varying rhetorical situations.”
- Critical Thinking, Reading, and Composing, specifically “Read[ing] a diverse range of texts, attending especially to relationships between assertion and evidence, to patterns of organization, to the interplay between verbal and nonverbal elements, and to how these features function for different audiences and situations,” and “Us[ing] strategies—such as interpretation, synthesis, response, critique, and design/redesign—to compose texts that integrate the writer’s ideas with those from appropriate sources.”
- Writing Processes, like “Develop[ing] a writing project through multiple drafts,” “Develop[ing] flexible strategies for reading, drafting, reviewing, collaborating, revising, rewriting, rereading, and editing,” “Us[ing] composing processes and tools as a means to discover and reconsider ideas,” “Adapt[ing] composing processes for a variety of technologies and modalities,” and “Reflect[ing] on the development of composing practices and how those practices influence their work.”
- And Knowledge of Conventions, wherein students work to “Develop knowledge of linguistic structures…through practice in composing and revising,” “Understand why genre conventions for structure, paragraphing, tone, and mechanics vary,” “Gain experience negotiating variations in genre conventions,” and “Learn common formats and/or design features for different kinds of texts.”
Whether you’re interested in expanding your students’ knowledge of genre conventions, finding ways to engage students in multimodal composing processes, or simply incorporating more creative writing exercises in your curriculum, these activities are four tried and true options for your first year writing classroom.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies and teaches creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, and the co-editor of its anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). She is also an interview podcast host for the New Books Network.