Kelly Sundberg’s Eight Flash Nonfiction Writers

When I took over as the managing editor of Brevity, I steeled myself to wade through piles of imprecise and over-wrought malaise. Instead, I discovered a queue full of work consistently well-written, compressed and lovely. Perhaps the nature of flash nonfiction results in these many excellent submissions. The best flash nonfiction is just that—a “flash.” It erupts, leaves the reader a little breathless, and captures an image or idea in a blink.

For this column, I initially wanted to highlight only writers without books. I was committed to the term “emerging.” Still, I didn’t want to overlook two of my favorite writers of flash nonfiction (who also have books). In the end, I decided to choose those writers whose voices represent what I think flash nonfiction should be: ambitious, powerful, unafraid and lyrical.

1. Melissa Ferrone

Ferrone’s flash nonfiction about gender violence is haunting. Bone shaking. Assuming a distanced voice, her nonfiction narrator interrogates what it means to survive and move on from a violent rape. And though her subject is so large, she uses compressed images as focus. A bitter melon in “An Unusual Thing.” Recipes in “Recipes.” A campfire in “Blue Ridge Talk.” In this last piece, she writes, “The campfire is darkening and our mouths have not opened to taste each other’s sound,” as a way of describing the changing landscape of her relationship with her mother after a violent rape.

2. Jill Talbot

It’s a stretch to call Talbot an “emerging” writer of nonfiction. She is already the author of two memoirs, Loaded, and, The Way We Weren’t (forthcoming from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press). However, Talbot is a constantly evolving writer, so, in her case, I decided to apply the term “emerging” rather loosely. Talbot’s writing is serious in content, yet often playful in structure. She’s not afraid to create an essay out of a syllabus, as in “The Professor of Longing,” or to use baseball as a filter to explore relationships, as in “Seams.” Her experiments consistently work in surprising and emotionally effective ways.

3. Randon Billings Noble

Billings Noble writes in delightful pairs. Ambivalence/Romance. Enthusiasm/Despair. Humor/Sadness. Another writer who uses structure to maximal effect, her complicated structures do not overshadow her content—take, for example, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle.” She is the only writer here, I’m sure, who has written a book review that also works as a startling piece of flash nonfiction (including drawings), in “Accidental Notes on The Syllabus.” And “War Weary From a Dangerous Liaison” is striking in its empathy.

4. Rebecca Schwab

Schwab’s flash nonfiction isn’t afraid to examine the embarrassing, shameful, humorous and, ultimately, sad details that define her nonfiction narrator. This is a narrator who, in “Things My Students Don’t Know,” discloses to her students that she wonders if her fly is unzipped, then, in the next moment, worries that one of them will be raped that weekend. She subverts her own humor and reveals seriousness at its core. In “Calcification,” she writes, “Half-orphans are half-feral,” while comparing the death of her mother to the death of her childhood friend’s hamster. This oddly devastating comparison results in a flash essay of stunning pathos.

5. Diane Seuss

Seuss is an accomplished poet with her third book of poetry coming out from Graywolf Press, but I’ve only recently discovered her flash nonfiction, which is almost magical in its use of compression, cadence and artistry. Her flash essay, “You Like It Don’t You, You Like It Hard and Cold,” uses no punctuation or capitalization (save for the period at the end). The result is a melodic, disorienting and delicious piece. In “Gyre,” she describes spinning while using her language to create the impression of spinning. It is brilliant and memorable.

6. Kelly Morse

Like Seuss, Morse is primarily a poet, with a poet’s facility with structure and lyricism. Morse writes, in “The Saigon Kiss,” about her experience as a foreigner in Vietnam, where she interrogates identity and language while refusing to shy away from her own privilege. “Ritual” is a stunning piece about maternity. In “Open the Door and Here,” a flash essay forthcoming from Quarter After Eight (an essay I was a reader for), she again portrays the complicated nature of whiteness and privilege in neocolonial Southeastern Asia.

7. Chelsea Biondollilo

Biondollilo combines an interest in the natural world with language that is taut with irony, critique and self-awareness. Her degree in environmental studies, no doubt, informs her writing, which feels both knowledgeable and intimate. In the strikingly short piece, “Raccoon, Pronghorn, Mule Deer, Ring-necked Pheasant, Fox,” she interrogates her own need to stare at road kill. In another series of short pieces, “Necrologies: Mothers & Fathers,” she examines necrologies in all their forms, including the end of her parents’ relationship. Biondollilo’s writing neither reveres nor disdains death; death simply exists.

8. Lisa Nikolidakis

Nikolidakis is a memoirist who also writes flash nonfiction and fiction. When I first read “Landlines,” I sat stunned for a moment. Even after reading it repeatedly, I remain impressed by her use of innocent details to offset brutality. Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish vie for attention with sexual predators. And her title–titles have to work twice as hard in flash, and this one does. After reading this brief essay, something in the style seemed familiar, so I Googled her and re-discovered “How to Date a Stalker: Declarative Verb Edition,” which had affected me similarly. Her writing is consistently shocking in the best possible way.


1 Comment

  • Rae says:

    I read as many of these stories as I could and I’ve been reading as many of the stories in Talbot’s Professor of Longing. Thanks for this post. It’s been a very inspiring weekend! I liked Talbot’s pieces, but Morse’s resonated with me most as an American English teacher living in Taiwan.

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