When Do You Write? JENNIFER NIESSLEIN


I went through a really bizarre phase in my mid-twenties to early thirties– I was obsessed with self-help books. It was as if I couldn’t ever solve my own problems, or figure out my own life, so I had to read self-help books to do this for me.

This obsession became more dire when I had kids. Instead of reading self-help books about my finances, organization skills, and happiness, I read everything I could about parenting, aka, self-help for the insecure mother.

I have to wonder how my life would have turned out if Jennifer existed in a different time. Because it wasn’t until I read her wonderful anti-self-help book, Practically Perfect in Every Way, that I ditched self-help books for good. And it wasn’t until I subscribed to the award-winning magazine, Brain, Child (which Jennifer edited for many years), that I finally kicked my parenting books to the curb.

Perhaps she doesn’t intend to work on writing projects that send the same message, but they do– When all else fails, create your own mantra. Trust your own gut.

WHEN DOES JENNIFER WRITE?

I should say up front that I’m writing this from a place of entitlement, in a good way. I met my husband in college: he was an engineering major, and I was an English major. Obviously, unless something super-weird happened, he’d always have more earning power than I did. So from the get-go, we uncoupled money from what’s a valuable use of time.

(Personal finances! Such a great lead to a blog post! Sorry.)

I can write every day, if I have to. It’s a good way to establish your voice if you haven’t quite nailed it yet. But I don’t write every day because I think my best work—the kind that has surprises—happens when I have time away from the keyboard.

When I was twenty-three, we moved to a town where we didn’t know anyone, renting a small house out in the country. There wasn’t any journalism work for me there, so I thought I’d write fiction. Every day, I sat at my word processor (computers were for rich folk) and pounded out short story after short story. I developed an intense one-way relationship with the mail lady, almost always disappointed that she didn’t bring any SASEs back to me. It was the most miserable year of my life.

Part of it was that I felt isolated, and another part is that I just wasn’t enough of a prodigy to pull off meaningful work with the relatively meager life experience I had. But I think the largest part was that I wasn’t really engaging in living. I’d confused being a writer with having an Emily Dickinson lifestyle (but with more sex).

I became a better writer in three non-writing ways:

  1. Editing. When I co-edited Brain, Child, I got to work with a huge variety of writers. I learned so much by closely examining every phrase, and even more by figuring out how a writer of a mind-blowing piece actually pulled it off.
  2. Reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but it’s only been since adulthood that I’ve really gotten into non-fiction. Knowing a little bit about a lot of things has really helped my synapses to fire up connections and has made my writing richer and more imaginative.
  3. Living. I’m enough of a homebody that sometimes I have to make myself do things that I initially feel kind eh about. These experiences may not always be what I imagined they would be, but they’re always fodder for writing. (Related: accidentally taking Mom to a marijuana festival.)

So that’s the long answer.

The short answer is: It varies. Sometimes I’ll write every day for a week straight; sometimes weeks will go by without sitting down at the computer. At this point, I just have to take it on faith that I have the mojo and stamina to—eventually—make it happen.

BIO: Jennifer Niesslein is the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help—and Back. With Stephanie Wilkinson, she co-founded and co-edited Brain, Child magazine from March 1999 until May 2012. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, and on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” among other places. She lives with her family in Charlottesville, Virginia. You can keep up with projects by Jennifer and Stephanie on Facebook at The Jen and Steph Show.

4 thoughts on “When Do You Write? JENNIFER NIESSLEIN

  1. Excellent post, Anjali and Jennifer! I thoroughly enjoy reading these; finding out when other writers write, and what they have to work around to get writing time in. Jennifer, you took your mom to a marijuana festival? Hahahaha! I would love to know how that happened! Tee hee. Writing can be a very solitary life, and I agree that it’s important to be active and interested in the world around us – in whatever way is possible for us. I know that I often get some real inspiration from outside my head sources … for me it’s nature. Great to meet you, Jennifer, and thank you so much Anjali for introducing us to such a fascinating writer! :)

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