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Writing Flash Non-fiction: a Creative Act of Distillation: an Interview with Jack Christian

by Writing Workshops Staff

7 months ago

Writing Flash Non-fiction: a Creative Act of Distillation: an Interview with Jack Christian

by Writing Workshops Staff

7 months ago

Meet Jack Christian, an accomplished poet and nonfiction writer who holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Jack is the author of Family System, winner of the Colorado Poetry Prize, and Domestic Yoga; his work has been published in The New York Times Magazine and Black Warrior Review, among many others.

At, we're excited to present an interview with Jack, offering insights into his upcoming 6-week online workshop on Writing Flash Nonfiction.

In this course, Jack will guide participants in exploring short-form creative nonfiction, often referred to as "Flash." This writing style blends elements of personal essay, storytelling, and poetic language, allowing writers to distill meaningful narratives within a concise 1000-word limit.

By studying the works of renowned authors like Joan Didion and Diane Seuss, students will learn the art of compression, gaining clarity and precision in their storytelling. Through weekly prompts, constructive feedback, and the opportunity to build a portfolio of six flash nonfiction essays, Jack's course provides a valuable platform for writers looking to convey impactful stories in a succinct manner.

WW: How has your background as a poet influenced your approach to teaching flash nonfiction?

JC: More than anything, my background in poetry leads me to pay special attention to language--the necessity of translating lived experiences into excellent sentences. It helps me recognize that, whatever our subject-matter, this act of translation is key. To write about an experience is to change it into words on a page. In turn, through our writing we discover what the “truth” might be.

WW: Flash nonfiction is a unique and intriguing genre. What, in your opinion, draws readers and writers to this form of storytelling, and how does your workshop tap into that allure?

JC: Flash nonfiction promises immediacy and wonder, and it promises to construct these things not from fantasy, but from the real world. Where the real word is messy and uncertain, flash nonfiction attempts to posit something small and solid--I think that’s much of the appeal. A good flash essay is like a gem. I hope my flash nonfiction workshop taps into that allure by bringing together a group of people willing to practice and experiment together, while sharing and encouraging one another. When this kind of group endeavor gets underway, so many things in our everyday lives start to seem ripe for treating in short essays.

WW: In designing this 6-week online workshop, what were the key elements you wanted to include, and how do these elements reflect your personal philosophy or approach to writing?

JC: Most importantly, I want to foreground students’ writing. The course is set up so that students produce one flash essay per week. That strikes me as a winnable challenge--something we can fit into our everyday lives and sustain. It comes from my long time practice of attempting to write 1 poem or 1 essay per week, which is similar to how I attempt to get to the gym at least 3 days every week: a small practice that adds up over time. At the end of 6 weeks, students will have a substantial portfolio and a sustainable writing practice to continue adding to it as they desire.

After that, I want to offer variety. The weekly assignments are set up to alternate between prompting students to write about personal experiences, and to undertake more formal language experiments (such as writing a 1-sentence essay). I find this back-and-forth between prioritizing subject-matter one week and methods of composition the next keeps things interesting and builds in chances for surprise discoveries.

Lastly, I hope to build a community environment in which we inspire and challenge each other. I know some of my best writing has come from situations in which I was eager to read and learn from my peers in a workshop group, where the weekly practice of reading my peers’ writing caused my writing to grow in ways I’d never have imagined.

WW: Community seems to be a significant component of your workshop. How do you envision the role of peer feedback and interaction in the learning process, and what strategies do you use to cultivate a supportive and constructive online community?

JC: I think feedback is most useful when it celebrates what is working in any piece of writing, and when it is geared toward what the writer might write next. This kind of feedback (as opposed to attempting to “fix” a piece of writing) helps writers build momentum and energy, and shared energy is how the community is formed. My strategies to cultivate shared energy are to lead by example in my own feedback and in how I present assignments, and then to allow ongoing discussions to form as we go through the course together, with lots of opportunities for students to ask and answer questions.

WW: Your course description mentions the 'creative act of distillation' as central to flash nonfiction. Could you elaborate on this concept and how you guide your students in mastering the art of distilling their thoughts and experiences into concise yet powerful pieces?

JC: As I mentioned above, to write about anything is to change it. Flash nonfiction adds an element of compression: Not only to change experience into words, but to do so in a small space. I rely most on the suggested readings to guide students in this. Flash essays have a tendency to highlight just how smart and adept we are as readers. We’re amazingly good at figuring things out and constructing the world of an essay in our own heads. Once we recognize this about our reading skills, we can see our own writing as a means of honoring and engaging readers’ brilliance. From there, I encourage writers to be playful, even to the point of being cavalier, about what-all they can leave off the page, which in turn starts to point toward the heart of what a writer has to say. Ultimately, it becomes about embracing mystery and not shying away from it, allowing readers to explore what we’ve made for them.

WW: You've included a diverse array of authors like Joan Didion and Diane Seuss as inspirations for the course. How do these authors inform the content and structure of your workshop, and what do you hope your students will learn from their works?

JC: More than anything, I want students to see how these writers get after it. Didion often aims to completely rearrange our perceptions, in her characteristically cool and provocative manner. Seuss, meanwhile, wants to break our hearts, and to get at the cruelty and difficulty of working class American life. The lesson to learn is one of fearlessness--which is another thing flash essays encourage because there’s no time to gather the wool.

WW: You emphasize detailed, personal feedback in your course description. How do you approach the critique process in a way that is constructive and encouraging, especially considering the diverse skill levels and backgrounds of your students?

JC: For all writers everywhere, the most important thing is to keep writing. Our joy is ultimately in the act of writing. In light of this, feedback should be geared toward keeping on keeping on: the feedback we receive should make us want to write more, not less. This applies equally to writers at any stage of development. I believe this approach to giving feedback values writers’ work, and is what supports us as we return to our work again and again trying to see it with fresh eyes. Receiving feedback is a practice that helps writers gain insight, but insight, and the recognition of new possibilities, must always come from the writer if we are to act meaningfully on it.

No matter a writer’s background I focus on descriptive feedback that affirms the worthiness of our writerly attempts, and that builds a supportive foundation for future writing.

You can learn more about Jack's upcoming Flash Nonfiction 6-Week Online Workshop, and enroll if you're interested. We would be honored to write with you this year! So, what are you waiting for?

Instructor Jack Christian is the author of the poetry collections Family System, winner of the Colorado Poetry Prize, published by Colorado State University's Center for Literary Publishing, and Domestic Yoga, published by Groundhog Poetry Press. His work has appeared in periodicals including Bennington Review, Black Warrior Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, ArtForum, Atticus Review, Cleveland Review of Books, The Diagram, The Journal, and Slate. Jack holds an MFA in poetry from University of Massachusetts Amherst.


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