Mon 27 Aug 2012
by Michelle Reale
Jordan Blum , with a fresh MFA in hand has made quite a splash into the flash fiction scene, both as a writer and editor of the Bookends Review, where he reads and selects a lot of flash fiction for publication.
Michelle Reale:Do you write primarily flash fiction?
Jordan Blum:I’d say I write an even amount of flash fiction and poetry. Prior to graduate school, I wrote poetry exclusively. It’s funny—I always wanted to be a fiction writer in college but I never actually wrote any; I just published poetry in the school’s literary magazine (Rider University’s Venture). When I decided to get my MFA, most people assumed that it would be focused in poetry, but I knew it wouldn’t. I saw graduate school as a way to push myself to write fiction.
Michelle:How did you begin writing in the form?
Jordan:I was introduced to it during graduate school at Rosemont College. The head of the MFA program, Randall Brown, taught a class on flash fiction so I took it and saw a lot of potential for myself with it. I often think and feel in brief spurts of sentiment and action, so the form really lends itself to that. Rather than dragging out an incident for pages and embellishing it with details and filler, the form allows the writer to simply say, “Here’s what happened and now it’s done. What do you think?”
Michelle:When and why did you decide to pursue your MFA?
Jordan:Well, I’d been a writer throughout college, although I focused mainly on writing about music. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I became interested in creative writing, and again, then it was only for poetry. During the first semester of my senior year, I spoke to a lot of professors about wanting to improve my writing and get published. I also decided that I wanted to be a creative writing professor because the creative writing workshops were my favorite courses (well, besides the music ones) and the instructors I had for those courses were (and still are, of course) very interesting, honest, and unique. I worked in the English department the entire time I was at Rider (2005 – 2009), so I was able to befriend a lot of the faculty there and receive a lot of guidance. I felt more like an equal to them than a subordinate; we would discuss pop culture and new fiction as if we were friends, and I just realized how much I’d like to be like them someday—writing my own quirky stories and discussing others’ in a college setting.
I also knew that I didn’t want to get a doctorate degree because (and this is just my take) it seems to involve a lot of pretention and scholarship, which never interested me. I had no desire to spend, say, seven years writing a paper on an author or a book and then present it in front of a board of “authorities” who would question me all day. I’m not interested in writing a feminist take on The Great Gatsby or discussing the representation of madness in Heart of Darkness; I want to write stories and discuss them with other writers. When I found out about the MFA, I knew it was what I needed. An MFA is geared more toward writing stories than it is writing about stories, if that makes sense, and at the time (2009), it was a terminal degree. I think there are a few Ph. D programs in creative writing now, but I’m not interested in them. My MFA, combined with whatever work I publish, should take me where I need to go in my career. I’m currently teaching within the English department at Rider University (among other places), so it looks like the degree is already helping me.
Michelle:What has your experience been in the program?
Jordan:In a nutshell, completely positve. Every course I took at Rosemont was intriguing and experimental; the work we read was fresh and controversial, and the work we wrote and critiqued was uninhibited. The instructors I had were very knowledgeable while also being completely approachable and informal. The courses felt less hierarchical and more communal than in college. We were all learning and writing together; there wasn’t an intangible gap between the “expert” teachers and the “novice” students (although the students certainly respected the teachers for their experience). We would discuss some of the teachers’ published work alongside our own, which was very refreshing.
I think that was the main difference I noticed between my undergraduate and graduate career. During college, it seems like you’re sort of taught that the “classics” are the standard and that new fiction/poetry isn’t up to par. You’re also taught to write more formally and traditionally, and your own work is judged based on if it follows set rules. I suppose that makes sense, though, because college is where you learn about creative writing, whereas I think an MFA program is about how to write creatively. I’m not at all criticizing undergraduate careers, as I adored my time at Rider and I’m very proud to be there again, but I think the MFA program is where I was really allowed to develop my writing styles and voices. I was allowed to break forms and represent ideas and actions that may be too odd for conventional readers. Essentially, the reaction to my work during the program wasn’t “you can’t do that because Keats, Wordsworth, Donne, O’Conner, Hemingway, Joyce, and Faulkner wouldn’t do that” as much as it was “well, here’s a fresh take on things. You can do that, but perhaps we can discuss how you can do it better.”
Michelle:What is your writing process?
Jordan:I usually begin a piece in my mind while walking during evening hours, as the sun sets. I put on music and let my mind wonder until I think of phrases I like. When something suddenly hits me, I jot it down in my iPhone and then put it in a file called “Scattered Lines,” which is where I store all my phrases, when I get home. I usually have no idea what the phrase is about or what I can do with it; I just like the way it sounds so I save it. Of course, I also get inspired by more broad ideas and I keep them in mind. For example, I’ve wanted to write a flash piece about a feral child for a long time. I haven’t written a word of it yet and I have no idea what it’ll actually be about, but I know that I have to do it at some point. As for the actual writing, I type out the phrase and then just write around it. I can usually tell if I want the phrase to open or close a stanza (if it’s poetry), so I structure the words around that. If the line is for prose, I just wait until I know where it belongs. It’s very organic; it all just sort of develops naturally.
Also, I like to reference pieces in other pieces, which I think stems from my love of progressive rock music. Some of my favorite artists, like Genesis and Jethro Tull, reprise melodies throughout their albums, so I try to do the same in my writing. For example, I just published a poem called “Skyline Fractured” and I’m working on a long poem now in which one of the lines is “…and I watched skylines fracture as you….” I love doing things like that. I guess I’d call it progressive poetry/prose.
Michelle:How long do you let a piece sit before you send it out into the world?
Jordan:Until it’s finished, which I guess is a cop-out answer ha-ha. Once it’s done, I’m open to sending it out; however, I rarely submit because of laziness, to be honest. I may submit to ten places one day and then not send anything out for weeks. I’m so busy doing other things that I rarely have time to do that, which is a cop-out excuse, too. I think writers are sort of led to believe that a piece can be perfect and that we shouldn’t send it out until then. I totally disagree; if we really tried to make a piece absolutely flawless, we’d never finish it. It’s impossible for something to be perfect because perfection is subjective. I work on something until I think it’s good enough for me. I’m confident that it will get published eventually so I’m content with that. Even the best writers have had a piece rejected 10 times before it’s accepted; there’s no exact science to it and you can’t please everyone. To a certain extent, writer’s can always work to make their pieces better, but they can only go so far. You never want to spend five days trying to decide between synonyms just for the sake of it, and I highly doubt that the color of a character’s shirt will determine if the piece is published or not. I just revise until I like it and then I send it out and hope for the best. One editor may hate “that line about the car ride from his childhood” while another may think “that line about the car ride from his childhood is what makes this piece stand out.” You never know so just trust your instincts.
Michelle:What publication would you most like to be published in that you haven’t yet cracked?
Jordan:Well, to be honest and somewhat tangential, I would love to be published in this English magazine called Classic Rock Presents Prog. I’ve spent a decade covering progressive music and I have connections many of the artists featured in that magazine, so I think it’s only right that I become a contributor eventually, But hey, that’s a whole other story, right? As for literary places, I’m not sure I have any specific places. I’m not involved enough in the literary world to know which places are revered. I suppose any place that a friend of mine is in, and any place that I’ve been rejected from. Of course, places like The New Yorker are more prestigious than most online journals, I’d say, so that would be a new benchmark for me. One of my biggest influences as a teenager was Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), and he published a lot in Playboy, so I’d love to do that, too.
This could just be me, but I sort of see three levels of publication importance: on-site, PDF, and in print. If a piece is published right on the website, that’s level one; if the piece is placed, say, in the “August Issue,” which is a PDF file of a journal with a cover, table of contents, etc, that’s level two; if a piece is actually in print, that’s level three. Again, that’s probably just my view of it, and I do believe that more people will read your work if it’s online than if it’s printed, but then again, it’s more exclusive to be in print because there are concerns regarding the size and cost of the issue. Overall, though, I can’t pinpoint a specific place; at this point, I’m happy to be published anywhere.
Michelle:Do you notice a difference in writers who have MFA’s and who don’t?
Jordan:In terms of writing, not really. I mean, I’m never really sure if the writer I’m reading has an MFA or not. I do see an interesting attitude toward the degree, though. It seems that those who have an MFA think that they couldn’t write well without it, while those without the degree think that they don’t need it to be good. We have a lot of discussions about this over at The Lit Pub. I’m not sure how I view it, personally, besides the fact that the degree has gotten me teaching jobs. I like to think that I have a keener eye for my own work and the work of others. Since creative writing is artistic, there’s no real right way and wrong way to do it, besides avoiding obvious clichés. I’m certainly glad I have the degree, though.
Michelle:Tell me about your literary journal and what kind of an aesthetic you are looking for specifically?
Jordan:Well, I started developing it in June and it went live in July. I’d been planning to start one all year. I’d been submitting work and receiving many rejections and a few acceptances and I thought, “Hey, I can do this, too. Why shouldn’t I have my own journal?” It just seemed like an inevitable thing to do considering that I’m a writer and teacher. Naturally, since they’re also just starting out in the field, I asked my two closest writing friends, Spencer Hayes and Maria Gullo, to start it with me, although I’m technically in charge of it. Anyway, I heard a lot of good things about WordPress so I went with it. I tried my best to make the site look unique and respectable.
As for the aesthetic, I mean, as long as it’s good, we’ll publish it. We don’t look for a specific style or genre. The title of the journal—The Bookends Review—came from our shared love of Simon & Garfunkel. I’ve always thought that Paul Simon is the greatest American songwriter of the last fifty years; he’s often been revered for mixing poetry and music, and since I’m a poet and musician, this synthesis really appeals to me. Specifically, the Bookends album has always affected me deeply, and the way the title song conveys such mature, universal emotions with a simple guitar chord progression and vocal melody is incredible. We even quote the song on the website before stating what we’re about. The combination of brevity and feeling in “Bookends Theme” is utterly brilliant, and I suppose that’s what the journal is about. Give us something short but sweet, something that makes its point immediately and quickly but resonates in our minds all day.
Michelle:What makes a good flash piece?
Jordan:Action, be it emotional, mental, or physical. Something has to happen quickly and it has to mean something. We must be in the mind of the character(s) throughout and feel what he/she/they feel. It should also be unique. I remember a story I read in Randall Brown’s aforementioned class that began with a girl sprouting wings and flying out of her classroom. There was no background information or unnecessary explanation; the moment occurred and then it was gone. It was also symbolic, I believe, so it wasn’t just for the sake of surprise, but I think it perfectly exemplifies what flash is for—the out-of-the-ordinary events. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a realistic story, too, but you don’t want to bloat it too much. For example, if the story involves a granddaughter watching her grandmother die, don’t talk about what the grandmother did when she was twenty. Don’t talk about what doesn’t matter, and if you’re going to reference something in the past, do it as a quick mention within a sentence. Don’t dwell on it too long because then you’re using up words that could go toward progression and importance. Show me what the granddaughter feels in that room on that day.
Michelle:What kinds of mistakes do people make with the form?
Jordan: Mostly, they take too long to get to the point. The start out telling the reader why he or she should care about the characters. As clichéd as it sounds, don’t tell; show! Certain situations have inherent meaning so there’s no need to blatantly state what you want readers to feel. If you’re doing your job correctly, the reader will understand the message automatically. A flash piece isn’t like a novel; you don’t have 20 pages to introduce your major characters and settings. You have maybe 200 words to suck a reader in, so you have to make it both logical and lively. At the same time, you don’t want to rush into madness. You don’t want to start a story with “Billy was a clown who robbed banks and today his dog went with him and then Jacob, another clown, whose sister dated Billy in tenth grade, had chicken pox.” That’s certainly a lot of plot for a couple dozen words or so, but what the hell is going on in it?
It’s not easy to write a flash piece; the balance of simplicity and significance is tricky, and as I’ve said, what one person hates, another person may love. When we look at submissions for the journal, we can usually tell if we’ll take a piece or not just by reading the first paragraph (of course, we read the entire thing anyway because we’d want to the same level of respect for our work, and hey, maybe we’ll change our minds). When we send out reject letters, we’re careful not to imply that the piece itself was bad. It just isn’t for The Bookends Review, but if another place takes it, fantastic. It’s not so much that a writer has made a definitive mistake.
Michelle:Who, in your opinion, is writing great flash these days?
Jordan:To be honest, I don’t read a lot of flash pieces other than those for the journal, so I’m not sure who the heavyweights are in the genre. Of course, I’m friends with a lot of writers through Facebook and they always post links to their work (as do I. It’s all part of the game), but there’s an odd sort of nepotism in discussing them. I really like Alex Pruteanu’s work because it’s bold and unflinching. He likes to challenge his reader’s expectations and beliefs. The same goes for Meg Tuite, although her style is different. And of course, I always liked Randall Brown’s work; after all, he led me to this path. Finally, as biased as it may sound, Spencer Hayes has a very distinct view of the world, and his writing is extremely brave because of it. He’s often asks me if he should tone down elements of his stories and I say, “No, absolutely not. If a hundred people hate this because it goes too far and shocks them, you’re doing something right.” A story should never have excessive violence, sex, swearing, or negativity just to have it, but these writers implement these elements with purpose. It’s like a lot of art—many people may not dig it, but those who do will love it.
I’m also a fan of all the writers we’ve featured on the site, obviously, but I don’t want to mention anyone specifically because then I’d be leaving everyone else out.
Michelle:Take my flash challenge! In 200 words or less, create a flash piece using these words:
candy, lamp, asphalt, brass, sink, arrows, eyeglasses, boxer shorts.
Jordan: Oh, shit…
“Rebecca was texting her fiancée about the mysterious lipstick on his boxer shorts when she crashed against the divider near Exit 23 on I-95. She noticed the arrows indicating that the lane was closing up ahead, but the constant buzzing of the phone and urgency of the argument distracted her. She nearly choked on a piece of candy as her head struck the steering wheel with enough force to shatter her eye glasses (leaving fragments under her eyelids) and force her brass engagement ring to crack and fall to the asphalt, along with the finger it surrounded, which hung out the open window. Smoke escaped from the engine as her essence escaped her body.
Suddenly, she was fully enveloped in a new domestic life with Todd; he read by lamplight while she cleaned up dinner in the sink. Afterward, they cuddled and watched B-grade horror movies. They both heard yelling from outside, as if someone was in need of medical attention. Through the curtains, she saw flashing lights and heard The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” emanate from the radio and fill the space between the sirens. They ignored it and continued enjoying their utopia.”
Michelle: Now, that wasn’t difficult was it??? Thanks, Jordan!
Jordan Blum recently received his MFA in Fiction and he currently teaches at several colleges. Outside of that, he writes about music for Delusions of Adequacy, Examiner, Sea of Tranquility, and Popmatters. He also records his own progressive rock/metal under the pseudonym of Neglected Spoon. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Lit Pub, Bong is Bard, FictionBrigade, Connotation Press, Used Furniture Review, Emerge Literary Journal, and Eunoia Review. During his free time, he likes to yell at strangers about how much Genesis sucked in the 1980s.