In Dr. Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Writing Creative Nonfiction course taught at South Dakota State University, our class read The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction cover-to-cover. From Dinty W. Moore’s introduction, we learned about the genre’s criteria: restricting word count, establishing immediate tension, and making deliberate decisions regarding style and diction. Yet within these specifications, we found that the genre offers surprising fluidity and variety, which seemed fitting given the variety of our own class: a soldier, an architect, a journalist, a teacher, and a historian. The balance of variety and cohesion in both form and style of the book’s models helped us reflect on the moments that have shaped our lives and compose our own captivating narratives.

The Best of Brevity essays provide snapshots into people’s lives, including heavy topics and profound accounts. Granted, some essays do not provide a linear narrative and instead take creative liberties to find meaningful ways to convey their subject matter, such as compiling headlines or writing from the collective “we” point-of-view. And so we learned to read these essays as writers and to experiment with what we found. For example, Morgan Janisch (the soldier) modeled a hermit crab piece, “Army Résumé,” after “Hairy Credentials” by Nicole Cyrus. She labeled sections according to traditional templates including “Education” and “Accomplishments.” By analyzing Cyrus’ sentence structure, such as: “Recovered from chest pains and stomach cramps after she cropped her hair into a pixie, thanks to a mishap with a flatiron,” Janisch wrote: “Drank a pot of coffee and drove six hours in a rough semi (comparable to a vibration weight loss plate because every part of the body jiggles) without even stopping once to use the bathroom.” In doing so, Janisch understood how beginning the sentence with a past-tense verb rather than “I” draws the reader into the scene and how using the résumé format strengthens the writer’s credibility. The satirical voice Cyrus establishes within her first sentence is difficult to duplicate because readers still need to take the subject seriously. By learning from Cyrus, however, Janisch was able to provide a humorous glimpse of army life from a female’s perspective.

At the beginning of the semester, we struggled to express memories in insightful ways within our own flash nonfiction essays. Borrowing ideas from the pieces that particularly resonated with us offered us starting points that helped us write better essays and develop as stronger writers. In one instance, Becca Woytassek (the architect) looked to “Bear Fragments” by Christine Byl not only as a form reference (it splices together seven parts with “bear” being the connection) but also for the way Byl employs reflection. Byl references different perspectives of “bear-ness” to build her overarching meaning. Similarly, Woytassek modeled her piece “Ruby Throated Hummingbirds” after Byl’s, utilizing throat imagery and energy levels as a tie between the hummingbird and her mother’s struggle with hyperthyroidism. Aside from the deliberate choice of images and diction, Byl’s reflection is only achieved with all seven pieces working together, a method Woytassek strived for in her own piece.

When focusing on diction, Danielle Sons (the journalist) found that Vincent Scarpa’s “I go back to Berryman’s” helpful. She found the staccato pacing appealing and attempted to use the strategy in her own piece, “Fed Ex Up.” Through focusing on purposeful, descriptive word choice, Sons tried to start each sentence with a verb to enhance action. She also created a breathless narrative by making the entire piece one sentence, using only commas for separation. In this way, she articulated details quickly without losing emphasis or distracting from the main idea. Another quality Sons emulated was Scarpa’s unflinching honesty. By opening up and being vulnerable regarding all of her experiences and failures, Sons wrote an open and honest account of her short-term career with Fed Ex.

The authors in The Best of Brevity took emotional risks in their work, which resonated with us as readers and inspired us to take such risks in our writing. The authors who wrote about subjects such as dementia, death, sexual assault, and gender identity demonstrated the courage it takes to address experiences that make us vulnerable. Among the essays Alayna Steckelberg (the teacher) admired, she considered Joe Oestreich’s “Sunrise” particularly instructive. As she studied the stylistic moves Oestreich makes to accomplish a concise yet nonetheless emotionally compelling piece, Steckelberg recognized the role that figurative language plays to clarify and connect abstract subject matter. Consequently, Steckelberg modeled her piece, “Erasures,” after Oestreich’s “Sunrise” not only in terms of subject matter—dementia—but also in terms of employing an illustrative metaphor. In “Erasures,” Steckelberg compares memory loss to malfunctioning technology: “My grandma asks, her green eyes scanning my face. A glitch in facial recognition software. Or, maybe in internal storage.” By using Oestreich’s “Sunrise” as a guide, Steckelberg acknowledged the role that consistent figurative language plays in developing a concise and cohesive work.

Ultimately, The Best of Brevity taught us how to reflect on ourselves and connect to others in meaningful ways through our writing. Interacting with the anthology builds a community within the genre, not only between authors who contributed, but also between readers. The genre of brevity is relevant to readers today because it offers a glimpse into the complex lives of others, represents diverse voices, and inspires authors to share their stories.

Professor’s Note: Writing Creative Nonfiction consisted of three graduate students and two undergraduate students, four of whom elected to write this essay collaboratively in lieu of their final course narrative. Primarily a workshop-based course, it focused on student-written texts for discussion but integrated The Best of Brevity as a reference point as well as Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Each essay went through two rounds of workshop: the first for topic and structure, the second for style. Also, Dr. Stewart-Nuñez made a few changes to this student essay for the purposes of concision and clarity.

Morgan Janisch is in the South Dakota Army National Guard and owns a horse massage business; her passions include reading, writing, and rodeo. 

Danielle Sons is a recent graduate of South Dakota State University who is pursuing a career in writing. Sons’ wants a job as a traveling writer to further educate herself about the different cultures and lives of people around the world. She hopes to inspire people with her upfront and honest voice she pours into everything she writes. 

Alayna Steckelberg holds bachelor’s degrees in English and Spanish and is currently working towards a master’s degree in English with emphases in Writing and Rhetoric; she enjoys writing, reading, painting, and running. 

Becca Woytassek is a graduate student at South Dakota State University pursing her Master of Architecture. 

Christine Stewart-Nuñez, author of numerous essays and eight books of poetry, is a professor at South Dakota State University and the current South Dakota Poet Laureate. Find her work at