Flash Prose and the Virtues of Distillation
June 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Jenny Apostol
An editor friend and I were recently chatting about a short essay I’d sent her for feedback. She thought it wasn’t finished yet, pointed out places the story could go further. “It’s meant to be flash,” I replied, explaining that I’d submitted it to a couple of journals that publish short-form nonfiction up to 1,000 words in length. Yes, of course she understood, but wondered if readers really understand what is meant by the term “flash” in prose writing.
Perhaps not; but readers may come to a shorter piece of writing for all sorts or reasons, not least of which we peruse so much on our phones. The essay in question may need to expand beyond its current 923 word-count, but the conversation helped me to realize, this writer/editor aside, that most of my friends have very little idea of what the term creative nonfiction means, and the flash form, even less so. I am two years into a three-year low-residency MFA program; creative nonfiction is the genre I work in, but I don’t share or talk about my writing very often.
For many in my community, an essay recently published in Brevity was their first taste of anything personal I’ve written. Feedback poured in. “Muscular” “spare” “succinct” “poignant” “elegant” “beautiful” “authentic” “spacious” and “poetic” were the words my friends and family used to describe their reactions to the essay. One friend from college texted “that took me to some unexpected places, and yet captures how thoughts connect and jump around.” A filmmaker I’ve known for thirty years emailed: “Writers have to write whole novels to achieve what you achieved in a page.” Never underestimate the positive context that publication brings! But if I were to Venn diagram these responses, all of the accolades would flow from the word “spare.”
My readers were responding to the containment of narrative that feels complete in under 750 words. They focused on language that is “muscular” and “poetic” because each word reflects the weight of every other and can leap a great distance in emotion and time. They were honing in not just on the story and its characters, what and who the essay is about, but on how it is written; they had found the form. In some ways, this was the most gratifying feedback of all.
A few British friends referred to my “article,” which I associate with journalism that explores a specific subject. My essay is memoir, a series of moments and events experienced by members of my family, some of which I had only heard about. When these three episodes came together into three paragraphs, they created an alternative narrative that touches on aging and memory and the ways we experience grief. A kind of reportage, in fact. I knew the theme of suicide to be inherently shocking. But it wasn’t shock I was after; it is to feel our proximity to one another as living and dying beings who breath the same air, whether we’re related to one another or not.
Peggy Shumaker says “the elasticity and the complexity of the brief form intrigue me,” where “history, research, metaphor, immersion, imagination, sensuality, spontaneity, reflection, voice, expansion and compression of time all play a role.” This paradox intrigues me, too. Writing is an intuitive process, and for me works best when technique bubbles up with deliberation, yet from somewhere unconscious.
The comments were encouraging, precisely because they reinforce the virtues of distillation, its essential clarity, as well as its spaciousness, and the generative, even collaborative power of “concise literary nonfiction.” My friends finally understand what I’ve been up to, what I strive to create in my writing every day. Best of all, the brevity of my essay has left them hungry to read more. Now I just have to apply all those qualities to the other hundred plus pages of prose that make up the draft of my thesis. And all those articles I need to write.
Jenny Apostol is a writer, translator, and Emmy award-winning nonfiction television producer. Her work has appeared in Brevity, and in River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things.” Jenny is pursuing an MFA at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.