Bucket List, Guest Blogs and Featured Spotlights, Interviews, This Day In Literature, Writing

The Other Awkward Age: My Interview With Jennifer Niesslein

Would you consider yourself “full grown”? Do I? What does that really even mean?

I am getting much better at the idea of asking for what you want. After all, if you never take a chance, ask for what you want, you have no chance whatsoever of getting it.

I’ve admired her from afar. I’ve followed her and her role of running Full Grown People for two years now, ever since I discovered the website, that is.
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I made her aware of me, first by taking the chance to submit a piece of my writing, a somewhat hurried account of a bad breakup. And she returned my submission with a kindly yet direct email, stating how she felt my essay wasn’t the right length and did not feel fully fleshed out. I took this early rejection and I used it to become stronger, to start to develop my writerly thick skin, the one I would need if I were ever to survive being a writer.

When I found the courage to thank her for that early on rejection, she said this:

“I’m glad the rejection was a positive experience because, honestly, passing on essays is the worst part of my job.”

I’ve never forgotten and in some ways that early lesson as a writer, due to Jennifer’s role as FGP editor, it all stuck with me and I see it as a pivotal moment in my writing journey thus far. I was curious to find out more about some of hers.

I’ve respected Jennifer ever since and I considered it bucket list worthy to get the chance to interview her. I asked and she said yes.

Please introduce yourself a little and feel free to mention anything you think might be applicable here. What was your history before Full Grown People, just to set the stage?

I started out in the mid-nineties at an alternative newsweekly here in Charlottesville, Virginia. The staff was tiny, and so I got to learn every aspect of the business, from reporting and editing to layout to ad-to-edit ratio. I met the woman who’d become my business partner at Brain, Child there, the awesome Stephanie Wilkinson. (She was writing the book column while finishing her Ph.D.) We started Brain, Child, a literary magazine about motherhood, in 2000. (Our first issue came out in 2001.) It was great run. We sold the magazine in 2012, and in 2013, I started Full Grown People!

I stumbled upon that magazine somewhere, a year or so after Jennifer launched it. It has changed my life. There aren’t enough hours in a day to read everything, visit every site and blog of interest, so only a certain handful stick in the end. Twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday (give or take), I visit FGP to learn about the lives of others who have decided to write about becoming fully grown people. As the editor, I wanted to know from Jennifer first and foremost:

What has writing meant to you in your own life?

It’s meant different things over the years, but pretty much consistently in my adult life, it’s helped me figure out tough stuff. That said, I live a pretty charmed life, so I write less than I edit.

I was barely thirty years old when I started reading the essays to be found on Full Grown People. This meant I wasn’t feeling all that full grown at the time. I wasn’t so sure where I fit in actually, no longer being a member of the popular twenty-something age group of bloggers and writers, who were discovering the reach of today’s social media craze. I wasn’t a mother. I was newly single and on my own. I hardly felt like a grown-up with all the usual responsibilities that come with that. I was feeling child-like, but yet with my adult years and middle age looming, seemingly frighteningly close. I started reading Jennifer’s writers and their views on all the things that come with being full grown, so now that I’ve got the chance to ask her:

What does the “full grown” in Full Grown People mean to you?

In the thick of life. There’s a whole category of literature called “coming of age” stories, but I think the truth is, we’re all coming of age throughout our lives, adjusting to new realities. 

This is why it was that I likely gravitated to this publication amongst all the others found online, all the places where essays are found. I didn’t have to be a mother to fit in and to understand where so many of the writers were coming from. I could be who I was, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a writer, and a woman. I did wonder though, what the differences were between running a publication specifically for parents and one in which the whole package of life lived was being covered.

What does it take to run a publication like Brain, Child vs Full Grown People? Are they similar at all and in what ways are they or aren’t they?

Well, my caveat is, I’m describing Brain, Child as it was when Steph and I ran it. (We’re no longer affiliated with it, so I can’t speak to its current incarnation.)
In some ways, BC and FGP are completely different animals. BC was print; FGP is web. So the business models are completely different. And while personal essays were the bulk of what we ran in Brain, Child, we also ran reported pieces, fiction, humor, etc. FGP is strictly essays. I think the common denominator is a respect for the reader’s intelligence and some damn fine writing. 

All caveats aside, I wanted to know, “some damn fine writers” and “respecting the reader’s intelligence”, but what else does Jennifer look for in terms of the kinds of essays she publishes on Full Grown People?

What sorts of things do you look for in a piece you might publish on FGP vs a piece of writing that might just not be right for the site?

Whoo-ee. I never know how to answer this question. This piece that I wrote for Brevity is about as succinct as I can get:

Seven Essays I Meet in My Literary Heaven – BREVITY’S Non Fiction Blog
(Another publication I read and love.)

I can’t imagine what it takes to put something as fabulous as Full Grown People together on an almost weekly rotation. Her control over the entire FGP in its entirety has had me in awe since I learned of what she does with it.

How would you describe the job of editor/editing vs simply writing?

Editing and writing uses two different parts of my brain. (Okay, maybe not literally.) If I’m doing my job right, my editing is invisible to the reader—it’s taking a writer’s work and helping make it as close to the essay’s Platonic ideal as possible. I think of editing as a collaboration. Writing is me doing me. And if I’m doing that right, it’s also a sort of collaboration between me and the reader—that my words will somehow tweak the way the reader thinks about something.

I couldn’t imagine anyone could or would go through year after year of putting out such wide variety of people’s personal essays without discovering things about the universality of life. What has that been for Jennifer?

What have you learned since you started FGP, about the universalities we all experience or about those who’ve wanted to share such things with you and your readers?

I learned this at Brain, Child, too:  you never know what someone is privately going through. 

True. Oh so true Jennifer. I often think that.

Then comes the small visual aspect of every essay Full Grown People publishes, but I have a feeling, though I don’t see each photo, that the part these elected images plays in the accompaniment of every essay isn’t small at all. I couldn’t see the pictures, only reading the essays, but I have noticed, from the start of reading them on a weekly basis, that there is a definite bond of respect between words and visuals, between Jennifer and her main photographer.

You have a photo accompanying every essay you publish. Most of the time one photographer in particular.
http://ginaeasley.com
What do Gina Easley’s photographs, for example, what do you think her art adds to the essays?

I think Gina’s amazing work adds another dimension to the essays, like any time you combine two art forms.  


People are always going to be growing and going through things and thus I believe there will always be a place for someone and somewhere, wanting to share those experiences.

Where do you see Full Grown People heading in the future?

Hopefully, just growing and growing! We have two anthologies already and I hope to publish more.

Jennifer Niesslein has made a huge impression on me as a “fully grown” woman and as a growing writer. From the success and popularity of Full Grown People that I’ve seen over these past two or three years, I know I’m not the only one.

You’ve made quite the impact in the world of literary and personal essays and a name for yourself and the website. What does that mean to you?

That’s kind of you to say, Kerry! It’s very gratifying. I’ve been a reader before I was a writer or an editor, so in a way, it’s an extension of who I’ve always been—the person who’s always saying, “You HAVE to read this!” And I’ve been so lucky to work with the writers and Gina—they set the bar high.

And finally, I wanted to ask Jennifer about the barriers for writers of different minorities, as she has seen a lot over her time in publishing. Things hopefully do evolve over time and I am sure, by now, it’s obvious how highly I respect her opinions on the always changing publishing and writing landscapes.

As a woman in the position you are now in, what might you say to the next generation of women who want to make a mark with their writing or some of the other things you’ve tackled? What sorts of barriers do you see less of over the years and which ones do you still see as potential problem areas for women in the world of writing and publishing?

That’s a good question (and, honestly, the first time I’ve been asked)! I’m a little leery of offering advice because there are such huge variables in women’s experiences and circumstances, and I don’t want to minimize the privileges I’ve had. But I would suggest learning as many writing- and editing-related skill sets as you can; I’ve had to wear many hats, and in the end, it’s given me greater creative control over my work. But the most important thing is having at least one person who will look at your work and tell it to you straight, with kindness. For a long time, my aspirations were a little, um, greater than my ability, and having someone or a group of someones to point out where I was flubbing and when a possible different approach could help was invaluable.
The best thing I’m seeing about barriers is just how many publications there ARE now—which means more opportunities for writers. The worst barriers are the same old things: the bias against women writers, and the even greater bias against disabled writers, writers of color, LGBTQ writers. I’m guardedly hopeful that the publishing climate will get better or get replaced—just because the conversations around equity have been more public than they were when I was a whipper snapper. 

I greatly value these views on equity, the existence of lingering bias, and the need for things like perseverance and determination, all of us just trying to survive in this world of publishing and self expression, as writers and creatives.

I want to thank Jennifer Niesslein for agreeing to do this interview. It has been a huge honour having her here.

Adulthood, all stages included, and we’re all just doing our best, trying to make it through “The Other Awkward Age”.

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4 thoughts on “The Other Awkward Age: My Interview With Jennifer Niesslein

  1. What an awesome interview, Kerry! I love FGP and I love Brain, Child, too. I really like your question about barriers and I like Jennifer’s answer. There are so many more places for writers to be seen than there used to be which is always good. I also like her advice about having to wear many hats: I think that’s true.

    • Thank you, so much Kristi, for reading this interview that was a long time coming and very important to me.
      Yes, mothers know a thing or two about all those hats.
      🙂
      I am on a constant lookout for publication opportunities, still learning so much, so that’s why I highly appreciated Jennifer’s thoughts that she gives generously.

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