Flash Prose and the Virtues of Distillation

June 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

apostolBy 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.


In Defense of Themelessness in an Essay Collection

May 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble, in our May 2019 issue, explores the claim that essay collections must always be “themed,” and suggests that maybe the better question to ask is is not, Is the book saleable? but Is it sailable?

Here’s an excerpt:

During our proverbial New York lunch, right before she signed me, my once-upon-a-time agent asked what I wanted from my writing career—fame? fortune? —as well as what I wanted from this book in particular. I remember saying—so unguardedly, “I want to write a good book that people can read.”

In the years that followed—when this agent and I broke up, when my book was rejected by many more agents, and contests, and presses—I returned to this answer again and again. I return to it now when I wonder why The New York Times hasn’t reviewed it, why that literary festival rejected it, why that award didn’t choose it. I wrote a good book, and people can read it. That’s the main thing.

So if you are putting together an essay collection, I ask you to consider what your motive is in writing this particular book. If you already have a theme that drives your writing, that’s wonderful—follow it where it takes you. But if you don’t have a particular theme—and if you don’t really want to have one—take heart. Write the book you want to write, and then think about how it might be described, pitched, published and sold.

Randon Billings Noble’s full essay can be read right here. Do it.

My One, My Only

May 16, 2019 § 2 Comments

thorntonMichaella A. Thornton, in a flash essay from our May 2019 issue, released this week, writes beautifully about her one, her only child, and what the stranger in the grocery store will never understand:

I will not show you photographs of my pin-pricked stomach, a quilt of blue, green, and yellow bruises with Band-Aids of the solar system over fresh injection sites. I will not show you the hardship of lying prostrate on our marriage bed, ass in the air, gritting my teeth as my husband administers the long, nightly needle, progesterone shots to keep me pregnant. He never complains; he never tells anyone else what he is going through either. I will not show you our loneliness together. I will not show you him holding a fresh, perfect baby as the doctors put my organs back into my body, as I throw up into a kidney-shaped pan, crying over and over again to my newborn daughter, “I love you. I love you so much.”

The rest of Thornton’s lovely essay can (and should) be read here.

The Dance Between Fiction and Nonfiction

May 15, 2019 § 3 Comments

castro-photo-1In her insightful craft essay, “Genre as a Vessel for Presence,” in our May 2019 issue of Brevity, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction:

Both fiction and nonfiction can weave history, myth and legend into their narratives; both can investigate the limits of form. Both, at their best, are rooted in risk. My creative nonfiction is highly shaped and always already subjective, necessarily reliant on my faulty memory, idiosyncratic perceptions, evolving interpretations, and changeable feelings. My fiction, on the other hand, includes a great deal of accurate research, statistics, real places, the actual price of half a muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A recently published short story is factually accurate in almost every respect, but its mood is entirely different from the way I felt when it all was happening. During the events, I felt bliss, but the story is sad. In the most intimate and important sense, then, the text falsifies what happened. Yet a neutral observer could testify to its truth.

That’s just a bit of Joy Castro’s wisdom and analysis. Read the full craft essay here.

Genre as a Vessel for Presence

Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling

May 14, 2019 § 1 Comment

Meganmp_davis Pillow Davis bares her teeth in the newest issue of Brevity, out just yesterday:

There are men all around me. There are all men and me. So I stare straight ahead. I drink my coffee. I let him touch me, because it could be worse, it could be worse, it could always be worse and then in the middle of the next sip of scalding coffee that I bring to my lips come the memories, descending on me like a flock of birds: the time when I was ten and a waiter cornered me in the dark restaurant hallway and ran a finger down the side of my breast and said wanna fuck—the time I was twelve and wore my first bikini to a pool party, and my father’s friend walked up and put his hand on my shoulder as he talked to my dad and with the other hand, pulled gently at the string of the bikini top, letting me know he could untie it any time he wanted—the time I was fourteen and in London on the Tube late at night and the drunk man got on and pressed his erection up against me again and again and I did nothing because I was terrified and then he stumbled off at the next stop—the time when I was sixteen, and the boy I thought was a friend grabbed my breast and kissed me with whiskey breath before I was able to push him away—and the time—and the time—the time the time the time the time and then the man turns and looks at me and the memories flutter and wing away.

This is just a bit. Read the entire brilliant essay here.


Brevity’s May 2019 Issue: Startling, Melancholy, Angry and Fun

May 13, 2019 § 2 Comments

3 coverOur 61st Issue has launched, featuring a range of startling, melancholy, angry, and funny flash nonfiction from Patricia Foster, Och Gonzalez, Gordon Grice, David L. Ulin, Sheree Winslow, Jeff Newberry, Liza Porter, Sarah Beth Childers, Megan Pillow Davis, Jenny Apostol, Deborah Thompson, Caroline Crew, Suzanne LaFetra Collier, Jennifer Anderson, and Michaella A. Thornton.

In our Craft Section, Joy Castro explores the slow-dancing, inseparable relationship between fiction and nonfiction, while Randon Billings Noble defends “themelessness” in assembling an essay collection.

With paint can photos by Elizabeth Fackler.

An Indian in Yoga Class

January 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

heir-300x202In Brevity‘s January 2019 issue, Rajpreet Heir takes us along as she visits a yoga class, because, “As an Indian from Indiana who has never been to India, I want to get in touch with my roots, and doing yoga seems like a fun way to do that. ”

Here’s a brief sample:

Kyle opens the door and walks down the center of the room. He announces, “Yoga—it’s a way of life” then throws clouds of turmeric into the air. People around me raise their hands to it in devotion, swaying side to side on their sitz bones, while other yogis start snorting it off the hardwood floor. #bliss

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

“Rameshwaria, move your hands closer to the backs of your heels.” “My name is actually Rajpreet,” I reply. “It’s Rameshwaria since I knew a Rameshwaria once.” “But my name is Rajpreet.” “No.”


Brittany explains this is the hardest pose and it really does feel like it. I don’t feel relaxed, in fact, I feel more stressed than when I arrived. A white woman is teaching me about yoga, an ancient Indian practice, and she thinks she’s an expert on Indian culture too, but I don’t know exactly which ways I can be mad because I don’t know enough about India or yoga myself, partly because I feel a pressure to assimilate. But darn it if Brittany’s playlist isn’t fun.


(The cultural appropriation in me bows to the Indian in you.)

Read the rest of Heir’s wonderful essay here, and enjoy all our newest issue.


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