Nonfiction Explosions: THE BEST OF BREVITY
By Jacqueline Doyle •
Flash fiction has gradually come to be recognized as an important literary form, though there are still writers who dismiss flash as a passing fad, less important than the short story. Often, they are the same writers who dismiss the short story as less important than the novel, unwilling to concede that The Great American Novel is not a universal standard for measuring value in fiction, and that weightier books are not inherently more significant than shorter ones. Joy Castro puts it beautifully in her defense of flash: “Small doesn’t mean insignificant or reductive. Think atoms. DNA. Brief pieces can explode.”
There are commentators who predict that we’ve entered the Age of Flash, some bemoaning our reduced attention spans, others celebrating our literary adaptation to the internet and new technologies. Flash fiction magazines, almost all online, have burgeoned in the past decade. Wigleaf has been posting an influential annual list of the year’s “Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions” since 2008. And two print anthologies of the year’s best have more recently arrived: Best Small Fictions (now in its sixth year) and Best Microfiction (now in its third).
But what about flash nonfiction? When her pioneering anthology In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction was published in 1996, Judith Kitchen limited the “new short form that has no name” to 2000 words and called them “Shorts,” inspiring Dinty W. Moore to found the longest-lasting online journal of nonfiction flash, Brevity. While there are now many magazines that publish flash nonfiction alongside flash fiction, and a handful of creative nonfiction journals that publish flash alongside longer forms, flash fiction magazines far outnumber them, and there have been no annual anthologies akin to Wigleaf’s list and Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction. Brevity, which has been publishing stellar nonfiction under 750 words since 1997, has made a particularly important contribution to the genre with its first ever print anthology of flash nonfiction, chosen from two decades of their online archives: The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction, edited by Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore (Rose Metal Press, 2020).
This is a book that will appeal to flash readers, flash writers, and flash teachers, and many of us who are all three. As a teacher, I immediately leafed through the book and then pored over the table of contents to see whether they’d included the flash from Brevity that I’ve used in my classes. Many of them are there: Lee Martin’s “Talk Big,” Jill Talbot’s “All or Nothing, Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven,” Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s “Open Season,” Randon Billings Noble’s “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost,” Nicole Walker’s “Fish,” Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Cruelty We Delivered,” Christina Tang-Bernas’s “\’in-glish\.” (Some of them are not: Brenda Miller’s “Swerve,” Sonja Livingston’s “A Thousand Mary Doyles,” Ira Sukrungruang’s “Chop Suey,” Alison Townsend’s “Valentine,” Judith Kitchen’s “On the Farm.”) The anthology includes resources at the back for teachers, including a useful list of groupings by themes (such as Race and Ethnicity, Writing About Family) and forms (such as braided essays, hermit crab essays, lyric essays). They include a short list of their many craft essays, including one by Lisa Knopp on “Perhapsing” that I’ve used in my creative nonfiction workshops, as well as my flash workshops, for years.
Of course, anyone can go to the Brevity site and find more, including essays by the writers about the essays included in the anthology (a feature my students greatly enjoy)—some (like Lee Martin’s) with writing prompts, and essays about how to teach these essays (like Heidi Czerwiec’s on Nicole Walker, or Jennie Goode on Judith Kitchen and writing with photographs). They can find further essays on the craft of flash nonfiction in Brevity and on the Brevity blog. Teachers can also supplement the anthology with the excellent Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers, also edited by Moore, which has great prompts and reflections on the genre, but not many sample flash. There are specific suggestions here for pairing anthology selections with the Field Guide. Teachers at all levels and writers studying the craft of flash nonfiction on their own will find The Best of Brevity a rich resource.
This is also a book for readers unfamiliar with flash. It’s fun to read. You can read it in small bits, and adapt to what’s required by each flash without advance preparation. There are plenty of cultural critics who argue that our attention spans aren’t what they used to be, and bemoan the rise of reading flash as symptomatic of our current inability to comprehend longer forms. (You’ll notice no one ever said that about reading poems.) But this is a unique art form, not just a shorter version of the essay or memoir that can be consumed and digested more quickly. Something new and exciting with considerable variety and range, from narrative to expository to lyric to experimental. It requires a different sort of concentration. Often a flash asks to be reread. Often it requires the reader to fill in the gaps. Often it resonates far beyond the closing line.
The Best of Brevity will open your eyes to what’s possible in the genre. As Moore says in his introduction, “[T]he inventive writers who submitted their work challenged my initial assumptions, obliging me to stretch my expectations, and then stretch them again.” He imagined, for example, that a 750-word flash would have to be “scene-based” and that the scenes would be very short, but that often turned out not to be the case. As he points out, Jill Talbot covers a year in under 500 words. You might imagine there would be less formal experimentation in forms this short, but in fact there may be more.
A number of flash utilize lists in striking ways. Dustin Parsons’s “The Domestic Apologies” lists apologies to his dog and fish as well as less material entities; Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost” lists possessions along with “the chance to kiss Leslie Wertmann” and “meet Raymond Carver” and “the thought that officials were somehow more evolved than those who elect them.” Flash writers familiar with Kathy Fish’s “one breathless paragraph” writing prompt will enjoy flash in the form of one breathless sentence, like Vincent Scarpa’s “I Go Back to Berryman’s” and Diane Seuss’s “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” which immediately launches from the title: “crackheads, I exiled them is what I did, from my son’s basement apartment, they’d come to feast off of what was left of him, his entrails I guess, he’d moved into that apartment with such high hopes even though it was on the bottom floor…”
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola coined the term “hermit crab” in Tell It Slant to describe an essay that inhabits another form as the hermit crab appropriates another crustacean’s abandoned shell, and there are good examples here, such as Randon Billings Noble’s “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” (romantic temptation and heartbreak in the form of a WebMD page) and Nicole Cyrus’s “Hairy Credentials” (a resume by a job applicant “who wants to rock her Afro in business settings and still command respect”). Sam Stokley’s “How to Discuss Race as a White Person” is composed of footnotes. Julie Hakim Azzam’s “How to Erase an Arab” incorporates headlines from The New York Times. Powerful flash by Torrey Peters (“Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay”) and Amy Butcher (“Women These Days”) are composed entirely of “found” quotations from reports about transgender and female victims of violence. There are essays that incorporate research, essays that braid together more than one narrative strand, essays in fragments, essays in the form of letters, how-to instructions, apologies, and an example of graphic memoir in miniature, Kristen Radtke’s “Perdition.” There are many essays that focus on a short scene, as Moore anticipated, or on a single moment. There are essays so exquisite they will leave you holding your breath.
What flash teaches writers, according to Steve Edwards, is the importance of looking for moments, finding the large in the small. “In addition to being dazzled by the intensity and immediacy of flash,” he writes:
I have another learning goal in mind for my students. I want to get them in the habit of taking risks, striking out for new territory, failing hard and trying again. The cost-benefit ratio as I imagine it is something like this: If what I’m writing is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if it doesn’t work out? And the same is true for reading … If what I’m reading is only a few pages long, how much do I stand to lose if I don’t like it?
Flash is “risk-taking made manifest,” Edwards says, particularly appropriate for the classroom because “its brevity allows for us to pinpoint the exact moment something explodes off the page.” Add the riskiness always inherent in telling true stories in creative nonfiction and you have The Best of Brevity: eighty-four brief pieces of nonfiction that explode off the page and reverberate long after you’ve finished reading them.
JACQUELINE DOYLE’s flash fiction chapbook, The Missing Girl, is available from Black Lawrence Press. She has published essays in journals such as The Gettysburg Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Fourth Genre, and flash nonfiction in The Collagist, matchbook, The Pinch, F(r)iction, Little Fiction/Big Truths, Sweet, and elsewhere. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s “Sunday Short Reads” and has earned numerous Pushcart nominations as well as six Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. She is a professor emerita at California State University East Bay, and creative nonfiction section editor at CRAFT.