Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Jennifer Niesslein: Who Are You?

My son got his driver’s license this summer. It’s a milestone that stirred up mixed emotions in me, among them the feeling of weirdness that I—me! who still occasionally freaks that she’s in charge of a machine that could kill someone!—have a child old enough to be a designated driver.

It seems to me that adulthood is seeded with these moments of feeling out new realities. I wrote my first obituary in 2010. I helped with a profile for a friend who hasn’t dated in over twenty years. I’ve watched friends start new careers in mid-life, deal with their parents’ growing dependency, and face unexpected health crises. And I edit Full Grown People, an online magazine dedicated to situations like these.

If I can get meta on you (and I think I can), my work as an editor sometimes feels a little unreal to me, too: that I—me! who never saw a bookstore proper until she was in middle school!—get to edit essays by writers whose work I admire so deeply. I don’t mean this in an Aw, shucks way. I’m quite good at my job and I have fabulous taste. But I have the heart of a reader.

When I read submissions, I do it as a reader first, editor second. I accept and solicit work that I’d want to share with my friends (you HAVE to read this, people). Obviously, great writing is the main quality I look for, but “great writing” is more easily defined by what it’s not—no frog-marching readers through events, for example, or passing off a diary entry for an essay—than what it is. 

I can tell you that I’m most drawn to work that shows who the writer is. By that, I mean voice—that barely describable literary fingerprint that links the writing to its creator—but I also mean something beyond that. I like essays that show how a particular mind works, how the life experiences of the writer affected him in ways subtle and obvious, where the writer has found herself in the context of her culture’s social pecking order, how a writer makes sense of the world.

Essays that have a strong sense of who the writer is invite a sort of collusion with the reader. Take “The Bridge” by Amy E. Robillard. She opens with:

He cuts off my bridge piece by piece and I can feel the spikes in the places where my front teeth used to be and I can’t look him in the eye and we can’t make small talk because I can’t talk but even if I could talk, what could I possibly say? With spikes in the places teeth are supposed to be, a person is not a person anymore. I’m no longer intelligent or self-confident or smart or funny or a professor or a wife or a sister or a friend. I’m someone you couldn’t bear to look at, someone whose eyes you couldn’t bear to meet.

Yep, We’re here with her because we know what she knows: In the U.S., otherwise healthy people with crappy teeth are either poor or addicted or both. Her opening is an invitation and a challenge. You might also consider yourself intelligent and funny and a friend, but you aren’t Amy E. Robillard. Your mom insisted that you brush twice a day and your dad taught you to floss. Or maybe they didn’t; maybe Amy E. Robillard could be you.

I don’t know who all of Full Grown People’s readers are, but I do know that my reading friends—those people who share my taste and enthusiasm—aren’t all like me. Which is to say they aren’t all middle-class, middle-aged, straight, married, able-bodied, white women. In 2015, it shouldn’t be some sort of political statement to publish more than one, say, writer of color, but it is. (The Canon: “I’m sorry. We’ve already appointed your generation’s appointed Woman Essayist of Color. Please be born again later.” Not that the actual appointees pretend to represent anyone other than themselves—and often champion other writers.) I’m interested in a diversity of voices and not tokens of diversity.

And the canon-makers are missing out on some great stuff. Deesha Philyaw in “How Can You Be Mad at Someone Who’s Dying of Cancer?” is uniquely herself by admitting to feelings of anger toward her mom—who has cancer—and by sharing their history, fraught with class and other issues. She’s also hitting on a universal theme of loss. An excerpt:

“The church was selling fish dinners today.”
“You shouldn’t be eating fried foods.” 
“Oh, girl. I pulled the fried part off.” 
But what about fruits and vegetables? Whole grains? But I know the answer to that. Cancer is no match for five decades of emotional and cultural eating. So I shut my mouth because the last time I tried to talk about what was broken in me-her-us, she accused me of always using “big words and psychological terms,” when in fact I had used no words larger than, “I can’t do this with you anymore. I’m calling a cab, and I’m leaving.” My college education and my intellect were apparently weapons I wielded to intimidate her. One day out of the blue when I was in my thirties, she said, “I finally found the word to describe the way you made me feel your whole life: intimidated.”

Okay. Maybe there’s a theme here. Maybe it’s that I have a soft spot for essays that are about negotiating two worlds (or more) because that’s been my own experience. Maybe the takeaway is that every editor is subject to these biases because we’re people with specific tastes and preferences and reasons why we say yes or no. Maybe it’s time we stopped pretending that the canon-makers don’t have their own tastes that are formed by lives that are privileged or not.

Please—oh good god, please—don’t think that I’m the sort of jackass who believes she invented this. I’ve learned from other editors. And none of us are probably fully accredited canon-makers. But there’s no harm in acting like I am one, and I’m glad to promote all the essays on Full Grown People. I’m happy to be able to bring readers to writing like Robillard’s and Philyaw’s—and Jody Mace’s.

Her mind and voice are singular, like all of ours. But, um, maybe even more so. An excerpt of Mace’s “The Population of Me,” an essay about reaching the end of her child-bearing years. (To appreciate this, you also need to know that when a girl is born, her ovaries hold the same number of eggs as the population of San Jose):

I know we can’t always get along. We need to argue about important things like the environment and the economy. We also need to argue about things that don’t matter, like the Oxford Comma and whether leggings are pants, because written into our blueprints are brains that want to make sense of things, that want to nail down the rules. Also written into our blueprints is the desire to have the last word. 
But still, every so often I meet someone and I’m struck by the unlikelihood that I exist and that she exists and that we’re in the same place, having a conversation, and we understand the words that the other says. And I feel a connection to her. When I read about a crime, I sometimes think about both the perpetrator and the victim and feel an almost unbearable sadness that there are perpetrators and victims, after all the work that was done behind the scenes, within the warm, dark factory of the human body, to bring them into the world. I think about my ghost San Jose, and all the other ghost San Joses, and about how we’re the ones who made it into the outside world. We should be a little gentler with each other. We should be gentler with ourselves.

As a writer myself, I know that to write an essay in which you reveal who you are isn’t easy. When I first started writing for publication in the early nineties, I mimicked the voice of MTV News’s Kurt Loder; if I could hear Loder say it, I knew it was okay. It took me years to come close to something like my own voice, and even more years before I could write an essay that I’d find publishable in Full Grown People.

But the great thing that happened when I reached that level? I realized that only I could write me. Only you can write you. Writers aren’t competing with other writers—only our own last drafts.

Jennifer Niesslein is the editor of Full Grown People as well as two anthologies: Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume One (2014) and Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex (2015). You can order them at the FGP site. She’s also the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way (2007). Her personal website is


  1. I'm so happy to read YOUR writing! And I Love, love, love this: "Writers aren't competing with other writers-only our last drafts." Amen.

  2. Such strong examples of different voices. And the thoughts on what an editor might gravitate towards are interesting. Thank you for putting this into an essay.

  3. This was such a terrific way to talk about voice (which I think is nearly impossible to define precisely):

    "I can tell you that I’m most drawn to work that shows who the writer is. By that, I mean voice—that barely describable literary fingerprint that links the writing to its creator—but I also mean something beyond that."

    Enjoyed your thoughts here!

  4. Thank you for your wise words. I love the examples of voice you offer in this article. They are very effective!

  5. I opened this essay up this morning planning on reading it later. I gulped it all down before I knew it, it went down so fast and so easy and so true.

  6. Teaching this in workshop this week. :)