Course Syllabus

Flash Essay

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Distill experiences, big or small, into their purest essence.

Some experiences beg us to write about them, but we often feel overwhelmed when trying to capture the whole story at once. In this class, we’ll explore the art of flash nonfiction and short essays. Life is made up of moments: big showy ones and small quiet ones—many of them infused with deeper meaning. Sometimes we can easily articulate a moment’s meaning, but often we can only make sense of it peripherally. In a flash essay, the moment and the meaning must be distilled to their purest essence. Through a series of writing exercises, students will generate a list of potential essay ideas and identify key details and imagery to help them dig into the heart of those stories. Students will also write several flash pieces of varying lengths.

How it works:

Each week provides:

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

Some weeks also include:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • the opportunity to submit one or more flash essays for instructor and/or peer review
  • an optional video conference that is open to all students (and which will be available afterward as a recording for those who cannot participate)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are expected to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.

Week 1: Inspiration (Find Your Flash)

What is a flash essay? More importantly: What makes a flash essay sizzle and spark? This week, we’ll dive into the fray with a brief history of the genre and an exploration of what makes an essay part of the “flash” genre. We’ll read a selection of flash essays to get a taste of the form—and to explore our own aesthetics related to the genre. We’ll kick off the course with writing exercises designed to give you a list of potential “jumping in” points for the essays you’ll write throughout this course (and beyond).

Week 2: Distillation (Follow It Down)

This week we’ll follow the advice of Annie Dillard: “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art; do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.” We will examine a variety of writing craft techniques that can be used to distill a story into the small and powerful space of flash. We’ll look at framing your subject matter, choosing and shading details, and using imagery to support meaning.

Week 3: Exploration (Come at It Sideways)

Beyond length, there is nothing about the flash essay that mandates its form or contents. This week, we’ll look beyond the narrative- and personal-essay forms to other kinds of short works, including lyric essays, “hermit crab” essays, and micro-essays. This exploration of forms will also broaden the way we think about our own memoir-based subject matter by enabling us to come at our work “sideways.”

Week 4: Realization (Make It Burn)

We will discuss techniques to revise and sharpen a flash essay to make it ready for publication. We’ll build upon the last three weeks and dive deeper into the nitty-gritty of how every single decision (from word choice to punctuation) counts in a flash piece.

Week 5: Distribution (Send It Out)

Once you have a flash essay, what do you do with it? And what happens if you end up with a flash essay that wants to become something else? This week we’ll explore sending our work out into the world for publication, as well as how to expand a flash into a longer piece. We’ll look at some publications that feature flash essays and cover the basics of how to submit your work to literary journals. We’ll also discuss if and when it’s a good idea to transform a flash essay into something else, such as a longer essay or a collection of flash-sized pieces.