Teaching Brevity: Reading Short, Writing Short

September 29, 2017 § 12 Comments

kkf.jpgBy Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

I confess that I first turned to flash nonfiction because I needed a way to organize twenty undergraduate students, and I needed it in a week.

Based on the The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction,  and supplemental readings from Brevity, I devised this repeating course schedule: 1) Mondays and Wednesdays would consist of a combination of reading discussion, prompts, and craft lecture, while 2) Fridays would be for small group workshops of four, where I rotated through the groups.

Here was my thinking:

Short reading assignments would mean students actually read. Short essays for workshop eliminated the need for distributing work ahead of time. That everyone was up for workshop every week eliminated the need for a rotating schedule. Grading would be based on participation, which took care of attendance issues. So many logistical problems, solved!

This course structure helped me successfully navigate the usual undergraduate workshop obstacles, such as grandmother genocide, wayward printers, dastardly roommates, and even the dreaded “Thirsty Thursday.”  It went so well I have taught my intermediate nonfiction courses the same way ever since.  And while practical considerations are not to be minimized, given time to reflect, I’ve uncovered legitimate pedagogical benefits:

  1. Students establish the habit of reader and writer.
  2. Rapid turnaround means lower stakes. Students are freer to risk, and I am freer to risk different prompts.
  3. Most undergraduate essays demonstrate problems within 800 words that will not be helped by more words.
  4. Flash forces students to eliminate throat-clearing passages, pushes them to reach the point. (I generally notice a turn about the third or fourth essay in.)
  5. Over the semester, students get to experience a depth and breadth of creative nonfiction.
  6. By the end students have a stack of essays, which feels good.

Because I’m a Libra, I have also considered the negatives of this class structure:

  1. Lack of opportunity to write longer essays that include more preparation and/or in-depth reporting.
  2. A bias towards lyric writing over narrative (maybe).
  3. Inability to formulate workshop comments ahead of time.

To balance these negatives, I use the last two weeks of class for conferencing, geared towards revision strategies for the final portfolio. Students might realize that their flash essay is really a longer essay, or maybe they find a theme—pieces they could string together to create a narrative sequence. Maybe their flash piece needs to be cut even further. Maybe they’ve really written a poem or a short story. This is their chance to look back, reflect, to consider what they’ve created and where they would like to go from here.

A few publishable gems are a great find. A ream of hot mess—also fine. Either way, what I’m really hoping, is that after the course is completed, students have made a regular writing practice part of who they are, and if they are not writing, they have this weird feeling that something is wrong.

‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 46.
Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself (Press 53). Her other work has previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Cincinnati Review, mental_floss magazine, and other publications. After moving from Southern Louisiana to Southern Ohio back to Southern Louisiana on to Southern Utah, she has settled into red rock country, where she teaches creative writing at Southern Utah University.




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