Course Syllabus

Advanced Flash Essay: Freedom in Structure

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Explore a range of short nonfiction forms, styles, and structures.

Sometimes it can be harder to write short than to write long, but the flash essay presents a fun and potentially immensely rewarding challenge. Paradoxically, the word-count limitations may offer writers a certain kind of liberty. As author Julia Cameron has written, “In limits there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”

This class is designed for writers who are familiar with the basics of flash nonfiction and want to go deeper into the form. We’ll explore a range of short nonfiction forms, styles, and structures. We’ll focus on specific elements of the craft of writing and learn ways to use these elements within the confines of up to 1,500 words.

(Creative Nonfiction’s 5-week Flash Essays Class is a recommended, but not mandatory, prerequisite.)

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • written lectures and a selection of readings
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor

Some weeks also include:

  • writing exercises and prompts
  • two opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review 
  • optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day.
To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly in the class to receive instructor feedback on your work.

Week 1: Forms of Flash

“Why are miniature things so compelling?” asks author Lia Purpura. Why do we marvel at teacup pigs, bonsai trees, and the perfect paragraph? How can we squeeze the pulsating, swirling meaning of life into a page or two? This week, we’ll look at a variety of short nonfiction forms. We’ll examine why each is so compelling and how these forms are integral to creative nonfiction’s past, present, and future.

Week 2: Miniaturized Building Blocks

“The world is everywhere whispering essays,” wrote essayist Alexander Smith. If essays are the stuff of life, how do we stuff our lives into a short memoir or personal essay? This week we’ll explore the building blocks of narrative nonfiction and experiment with shrinking those blocks to fit into the tiny spaces of flash. Writing exercises will train our writers’ eyes to see with several dual perspectives: literal and figurative; past and present; big and small.

Week 3: Beginnings, Middles, & Endings

Not all flash nonfiction has a clear narrative arc or plot, but all essays have some kind of beginning, middle, and end. This week we’ll look at techniques to write engaging openings, interesting middles, and powerful endings. Individual craft components will include rendering vivid characters and descriptive settings and identifying indispensable dialogue. We’ll also practice finding the best balance of showing and telling in short essays.

Week 4: Hone Your Work (Revision)

Just as there’s not a single way to write flash nonfiction, there’s not a single way to revise it. This week we’ll explore a variety of methods for revision and editing based on personal preference, creative aesthetic, thought patterns, and work habits. Students will also have the opportunity to create a personal writing manifesto focused on the concepts of vision and revision.

Week 5: Contours of Symbolism

“Tell the truth but tell it slant.” So go the oft-quoted words of wisdom from Emily Dickinson. The second line of that poem is quoted less often: “Success in Circuit lies.” This week, we’ll find ways to tell the truth by going the long way round … or is it the short way through? We’ll dive deep into using details, imagery, and metaphor to create texture and convey meaning.

Week 6: Structural Possibilities

Does form always follow function? Or, is it possible that an essay’s content and structure are one and the same? This week we’ll explore the wide range of structures that are possible in flash nonfiction, including narrative, lyric, chronological, fragmented, micro, and more.

Week 7: Personal-Universal Bridge

Our stories, experiences, observations, and thoughts should transcend the personal. This week we’ll learn about constructing a bridge from the personal to the universal. We’ll look at how elements such as specificity and external research can contribute to deeper, more resonant essays.

Week 8: Poetics of Prose

“When I experience anything,” wrote poet Dylan Thomas, “I experience it as a thing and a word at the same time, both equally amazing.” Why should poets have all the fun? After all, flash nonfiction often occupies the space between prose and poetry. This week we’ll explore how both the mechanics and aesthetics of language can enhance our work.

Week 9: Shape Your Voice

Great singers have stage presence. Great writers have page presence. Voice is always important in creative nonfiction, but it’s exponentially more important (and noticeable) in short forms. In flash, the writer’s voice has the potential to carry an even heavier load than normal; it can compel readers to keep reading—and to share the writer’s vision. We’ll play with our own writing voices (yes, we each have more than one) to discover how voice can create something substantial out of thin air.

Week 10: Home Your Work (Publishing)

This week we’ll discuss finding a “home” for your work out in the world. We’ll cover the ins and outs of submitting to literary magazines and how to decide where to submit. Students will have the opportunity to identify potential outlets for their own work as well as that of their classmates.