Flash in the Classroom: Contagion in the Flash Lab

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by Yasmina Din Madden

I’ve recently designed and taught several advanced flash fiction and flash nonfiction workshops, and I fear, dear Reader, that I might never be able to teach a workshop on traditional-length stories or long-form narrative nonfiction again! These workshops in flash narrative have generated some of those most innovative, original, and engaging student work I’ve seen in recent years. This isn’t to say that I don’t love reading traditional short stories or long form essays any less, but there is something so satisfying about teaching the flash form because of the energy and risk with which student writers approach this genre. My students’ excitement over the experimental nature of flash is contagious, and I’ve found that teaching these courses has brought a new energy to my own work; this is, at least to me, pretty much the best version of teaching that I can think of: excited, curious students with the added bonus of a renewed sense of creativity in my own work. I’ve recently published a flash story inspired by mythology, a flash essay in list form, and I’m currently working on a flash story that uses the outline form, all prompts or forms that my students work with as well.

I continually tell my flash narrative students that they should think of our workshops as lab, in the same way a biology or chemistry course includes a lab. They are meant to experiment in this lab and are asked to do so in the form of list narratives, photo-inspired narratives, outline narratives, research-based narratives, and triptychs, among other structural/organizational choices. Perhaps the most striking payoff I’ve witnessed is when I taught a Flash Fiction workshop immediately after teaching a Flash Nonfiction workshop. A group of students who had taken the flash nonfiction workshop and then enrolled in the flash fiction workshop approached me to ask if, for their final flash fiction collection, they could work collaboratively on a longer collection of interlinked stories instead of turning in individual collections. While I was excited by their proposal, I warned them that this sort of collaborative writing project would be far more labor-intensive than an individual collection and that I couldn’t compromise on the standard of writing I expected from them as individual writers. I attribute both their eagerness to experiment and their commitment to challenging themselves beyond the requirement of the course, to that initial exposure to the possibilities of experimentation in the flash nonfiction course. In other words, that small scale experimentation they engaged with in the first flash course inspired them to experiment with their writing collaboratively, on a much larger scale. The students put together an innovative collection that included co-written stories, they created histories and settings that showed up in multiple stories, they developed characterization over the course of individually written stories, and they considered the overarching tensions, questions and motifs of the collection collaboratively.

These workshops have also underscored just how important the distinguishing elements of the genre are to students’ development as writers and critical readers in various contexts. The relationship of language to time that students must consider as they work to compress their flash narratives allows for them to think more critically about the way time and language work in other genres. For example, a student might be more attuned to the ways that On the Road’s use of stream-of-consciousness affects the reader’s perception of the flow of time. By the same token, experimenting with form and structure in flash narratives helps to make the conventions of form and structure used in other genres more visible to student readers.

Additionally, precision of language is key to flash narrative, thus, reading and writing flash narratives teaches students to be more careful and reflective users of language. One of my aims in introducing students to this form is for them to develop the ability to use and interpret language precisely, as doing so is foundational to critical literacies of all kinds. In my flash courses, we focus in on the art of compression as flash writers, and I believe doing so informs how students think critically about using language precisely in all realms of their lives, whether inside or outside the classroom.

Perhaps most exciting for students, is that in a flash workshop students have the opportunity to create a cohesive body of work that, while not a full collection, might operate like one. I do refer to the final project as a collection, and students are asked to include at minimum, ten different narratives. Students consider all of the elements of a collection, such as various themes, motifs, tensions and questions that help sustain an overarching narrative, even when writing discrete narratives in what is often seen as a fragmented genre. Looking at flash fiction collections like Sherrie Flick’s Whiskey, Etc. and Michael Czyzniejewski’s I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life, or flash nonfiction works such as Abigial Thomas’s Safekeeping, or Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, offers students a sense of how professional writers develop collections or memoirs in this genre.

As a final note, I’ll share a recent conversation I had with a student who came to office hours with some concerns about the one-sentence flash essay he’s developing. In our conversation, he mentioned how excited he is to experiment with his writing, even though he also finds it intimidating. A huge grin spread across his face before he said, and I quote: “It’s like in every other writing class I’ve taken there are so many rules, but in this class, there are no rules!” While my full answer to this declaration would require another essay entirely, we did spend some time discussing the ways in which experimentation actually requires its own set of constraints and challenges in order to succeed. I share this anecdote to underscore what makes teaching flash narrative so rewarding—this student’s excitement and desire to attempt innovative, risk-taking writing (even if he’s wrong about the ‘rules’ of flash!).

If you are an instructor who uses flash fiction in your creative writing classroom, we’d love to hear about your experience. Submit your essay here. 

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Yasmina Din Madden is a Vietnamese-American writer who lives in Iowa. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The Idaho Review, Necessary Fiction, Carve, PANK, Word Riot, Hobart, and other journals. Her stories have been finalists for The Iowa Review Award in Fiction and The Masters Review Anthology: 10 Best Stories by Emerging Authors. Her flash fiction has been shortlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions and Pulp Lit’s Hummingbird Flash Prize.