Consider your toddler getting an MRI, or yourself stranded on a roof as Hurricane Katrina swells, or seeing someone jump from the south tower of the World Trade Center. Now imagine capturing such an ineffable event in a brief essay of 500–1,000 words. That’s what happens in The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction published by Rose Metal Press. According to contributor Bret Lott, the genre is like inverted Russian nesting dolls, where “we find nested inside that smallest of selves a larger self…until we come to the whole of humanity.” Ambitious, for sure, but that’s what makes flash nonfiction such a powerful form and The Field Guide more compelling than your average craft book. It’s edited by Dinty Moore, who edits Brevity, an online magazine regarded as the paragon of the form.
The slender but robust collection is well-structured, addressing such topics as word choice, point of view and voice. As is true in the two previous field guides from Rose Metal Press (Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction), each of the 26 entries opens with a craft essay—exploring, for example, the fascinating blend of dictions in American English or finding inspiration in a singular image—followed by a related prompt, such as writing a letter or an apology to get to emotional truths. Then comes a piece of flash nonfiction that epitomizes the craft element. Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” about witnessing “a couple leap from the south tower, hand in hand” is introduced by Jennifer Sinor, who illuminates how Doyle grappled with such a monumental tragedy in 600 words. It’s the kind of insight that both writers and readers crave. The Field Guide satisfies on multiple levels.
Could be a good gift for the budding essayist or student of creative writing.
This article originally appeared in Time Out Chicago Books.