Using Flash to Teach Reading Like a Writer
On Top Chef, Wolfgang Puck had the contestants cook an omelet. A plain one, just egg and butter and cream. Salt and pepper. There isn’t much to hide behind in making a plain omelet—no fancy sauce or rich filling to make up for overly-dry eggs. I think flash fiction or creative nonfiction functions like an omelet. There is nothing to hide behind and the author’s technique is laid bare to the reader. That’s what makes flash so useful in the creative writing classroom.
One of the greatest challenges in helping new writers become better writers is helping them learn to read like writers. And let’s be honest, reading like a writer is a lot less fun than reading like a reader, at least until you get the hang of it. When we read as readers, we can let the narrative sweep us along and enjoy the beauty of the language without paying much attention to why the prose is so beautiful. To read like writers, we must start paying attention to why the narrative compels us and to how the author has chosen her words and constructed her sentences in order to craft the beautiful prose.
Flash pieces give us the chance to model reading-like-a-writer in class with our students. Because the pieces are so brief, they can be read multiple times in their entirety, even in a fifty-minute undergraduate workshop. There is time for reading first as a reader, for pleasure, and then for reading as a writer, with an eye toward craft and technique. It’s possible to break down the whole work, looking at each of the elements and the ways in which those elements fit together.
One of my favorite flash essays to teach for this purpose is Sherman Alexie’s “Somebody Else’s Genocide.” It’s the perfect example of a piece that must be read the first time straight through. The narrative is just that compelling.
Because it places you in such an uncomfortable position from the outset, the essay encourages you to rush to the end; there is no stopping to look at craft.
I assign the piece early in the semester and ask students to read it only once, then to jot down their thoughts in their writer’s notebooks. At the beginning of the next class, we always have a brief but productive conversation about the content of the essay. The students will talk about the emotional impact of the piece. Some will tell family stories from World War II or extend the political conversation inherent in the essay. They’ll say whether or not they liked it, because it’s early in the semester and we’re not ready yet to move beyond personal reaction to aesthetic critique. In this part of the discussion, we are reading like readers. I try to give everyone who wants to speak a chance, but I move this part of the discussion along quickly so that we can get to the work of reading like writers.
I ask everyone to read through the essay a second time, marking on the page all the craft elements they can find: flashback, dialogue, inner monologue, etc. We talk about balance, voice, tone, and flow. We try rewriting the dialogue as exposition, just to see how flat it becomes. We expand the section on Dachau to include more historical information (many—too many—students don’t recognize the name and originally suggest this would be useful), only to discover how badly it slows the piece down. We explore that MFA dictate to never wrap things up for the reader, and so we take out the last line, only to see the whole piece unravel.
We can only do these experiments because we are working with flash, where the impact of every change on the whole of the text is immediately obvious.
Once we have seen how to break the essay, we look at the work for elements to admire and, because we are writers, to borrow for our own work. We discuss recreating dialogue from memory and how close one must come. (What if the German woman didn’t say “blip?” What if Alexie only remembers that she said something dismissive? Can he write “blip,” or must he say “’Oh, that,’ she said and then muttered something about how the Holocaust was just an anomaly.”) We talk about how the sentence “The Train to Dachau should never arrive exactly on time” serves as a synecdoche for the horrors of Shoah, and about the artfulness of that move. We talk about the importance of the very last sentence, how “It can happen anywhere again” saves the piece from being an indictment of the German people. And then, because we are working with flash, we move on the next piece, Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology.” We discuss collage, second person address, authority, and confession. We break the essay by trying to write it as a continuous narrative; we note how Sukrungruang uses detail to ground the narrative so we can borrow the technique. And, in this way, together we learn to read like writers.