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"The Force and Fluctuation of Thought": An Interview with Jennifer Wortman

Jennifer Wortman's work appears in Glimmer Train, Normal School, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Okey-Panky, New World Writing, JMWW, The Collapsar, crag, Confrontation, PANK, North American Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

 Her essay, "The Orphaned Adult," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Jennifer Wortman talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, teaching writing, and nonfiction with an unreliable narrator.

Your essay, “The Orphaned Adult,” is under 200 words long. Was it a challenge for you to write so concisely? Did it require much revision to reach such brevity? How do you achieve this economy of language?

“The Orphaned Adult” was a gift of insomnia, one of those rare pieces that came to me in a flurry when I picked up my pen at 3 a.m. The size and shape of the essay unfolded naturally, so the concision posed no problem. I did, though, do a fair amount of subsequent tinkering for the sake of precision: determining the right words and the best order of words. In a work so short, language matters all the more, and I felt the pressure of that. Still, “The Orphaned Adult” was way easier to write than much of what I’ve written.

In addition to writing flash prose, I write full-length short fiction, and I generally find length harder to navigate than brevity, in part because I’m a slow writer, but also because longer forms contain more possibilities and, with that, more potential for bad moves, which then have larger ripple effects. I’m not a planner: I generally compose right on the page and find my way through trial and error. With flash, it’s easier for me to see a piece as a whole and understand what it needs.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

I’ve been writing fiction a lot longer than nonfiction, so my nonfiction often has a strong fictional bent, in that I’m hyperaware of the constructed nature of my narrative persona. And while I don’t mess with blatant objective facts in my nonfiction, I find myself exaggerating subjective states for dramatic effect. “The Orphaned Adult” flaunts its narrator’s unreliability; the essay pretty much hinges on it. So the narrator’s insistence that her marriage isn’t over also suggests the possibility that her marriage is, in fact, over. I wrote those final lines to dramatize a grief-crazed inner conflict, while also knowing that my real-world marriage isn’t over. (Or is it? Ha ha.)

My nonfiction writing, in turn, has freed me to explore in my fiction what interests me most: the workings of human consciousness. I’m not great at plot, a deficit that sometimes frustrates me. But through writing nonfiction, I’ve been able to focus on the force and fluctuation of thought, a practice I’ve somewhat been able to transfer to my fiction. My most recent published full-length short story, “Love You. Bye,” which appears in Glimmer Train, is made up of brief, quasi-essay-like sections. While the story follows a loose plot, the narrator’s thinking drives the story in a way I don’t believe I’ve achieved before. “Love You. Bye.” feels truer to my voice and vision than other full-length stories I’ve written, and for that I credit my experience writing nonfiction.

You are also an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a literary arts center. What sorts of students have you worked with? How does teaching enrich, or otherwise affect, your work as a writer?

At Lighthouse, I teach mostly online classes, to students who range from complete beginners to published book authors and may live up the road from me in Colorado or across the country or globe. I love the variety in that. Some of my classes are designed to generate writing; others take a conventional workshop approach. In the generative classes, I focus on inspiration and encouragement. We do a lot of freewriting and try to leave our inner (and outer) critics at the door. In the workshops, we go in-depth with craft. Both kinds of classes benefit my own writing a ton. The generative classes remind me of the value of relaxing into my writing and cultivating a sense of play. The workshops force me to articulate and refine my ideas about technique; I work with some pretty sophisticated writers, which pushes my thinking to new levels. And to critique student writing is also to critique my own: their problems are often my problems, to which I’ve become more attuned. The community and intelligence and talent I see in all my classes endlessly enrich me. I can’t say enough good things about Lighthouse and how it supports me and other writers of all sorts.


What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I have a short story collection making the rounds, and I’m considering giving it a major overhaul to include more of my recent flash prose. If I don’t make the overhaul, then I’ll put together a separate collection of my recent flash prose. I have amorphous plans for a novel-in-flash. I’m also working on individual flash fictions and essays, a little poetry, and some full-length short fiction. At the moment, I’m on the umpteenth draft of a short story I’ve been wrestling with for well over a decade. It’s likely an exercise in futility, but I figure, if nothing else, it primes me for the futilities that come with the writing life. And the other parts of life.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Transit, Rachel Cusk; We the Animals, Justin Torres; Philadelphia Fire, John Edgar Wideman; Something Bright, Then Holes, Maggie Nelson; The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan.

This flash essay, “Blue Laws,” by Mike Nagel:


And this flash fiction, “Little Doves,” by Leesa Cross Smith:


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