One of my favorite online literary journals is Full Grown People, founded and edited by Jennifer Niesslein. FGP publishes “essays that tackle those moments in life when you wonder, what’s next?” and, if you’re on their email list, like I am, delivers a new essay into in your inbox on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, which I find a lovely way to start my day.
On the first Tuesday in January I was doubly delighted to discover an essay titled “I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall” by Jenny Poore, who lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, where I live.
“I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall” offers so many deeply felt insights into what it means to be female and to have a voice and to hold onto that voice in writing through adolescence that I couldn’t wait to talk to Jenny about this essay.
Jenny is the founder and director of WordWorks! a local non-profit writing lab for kids. She jokes that she “used to be an archaeologist and she used to own a coffee shop and she spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to define herself in ways that don’t hinge on what she ‘used to’ be.”
Jenny is also a big believer in making wherever you happen to be the most interesting place you can possibly make it, which makes me really lucky that she lives here in Lynchburg with her three kids, a husband, a dog, a cat, and three chickens on the street she grew up on.
Jenny has graciously agreed to answer any questions you may have about “I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall,” so feel free to post your comments and questions in the comments section at the end of this interview.
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First, I want to say how much I appreciate this essay, which so eloquently—and with the perfect dose of “edge”—captures what it means to be female and to have (or to lose or to hang on to) a voice in a culture that still does not value girls as much as boys, demonstrated by the preacher’s remark about his new baby girl. Thank you for writing this piece!
That’s so kind of you to say! I’ve been kind of amazed at the response this essay has gotten. People have been so nice about it and have made efforts to reach out and tell me what it’s meant to them and that’s not something I think I’ll ever get used to. So often as a writer you sit hunched over your computer in a perfect vacuum and you don’t even know if what you’re writing will ever get read, much less warmly received. I’m very grateful for it!
Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, and Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls, among others, show a correlation between the development of female bodies at adolescence and the loss of girls’ self-esteem, sense of self, and voice. This correlation comes out loud and clear in the exchange between the girl who is on the threshold of giving up writing and the narrator-teacher. Yet your message is so subtle and gracefully restrained.
What craft decisions did you find yourself making in order to pull off this scene?
I actually didn’t have to think real hard about that part because it was true and it had literally just happened. And it was something that had happened multiple times before so I was prepared when she came in and did her thing and then just checked out. This time though I was ready for her and I pushed her on it, which I think surprised her as much as her response surprised me.
I think as a writer when you try to render something real that has actually happened to you and you have that picture memory just sitting there at the front of your brain, you need to be as clean and as straight with it as you can. Stories that are true will usually tell themselves. As writers we don’t have to junk it up with a lot of exposition and set up. Let the moment just exist in its own space and do the work for you.
That’s a restraint that it’s taken me a lot of years to get pretty okay at.
I love that—“let the moment…do the work for you.” I teach my students and clients to let the details tell the story. The details that you include from the life of the newborn baby (“well, it’s [only] a girl”), the girl in the writing workshop (“I’m not writing”), and the narrator, who’s thinking more about her appearance than about the fact that she’s meeting with a senator, together form a trajectory of female development and conditioning.
Was this deliberate on your part? I would love to hear the thought process that went into putting these pieces together.
Yes! It was deliberate. But I think maybe it was a happy accident that it worked so well. To me these are events and situations that I have always considered different sides of the same coin, if a coin can have three sides.
The self-consciousness of women whenever we act in a professional setting that can manifest in oh-so-much work is something I’m very attuned to because I haven’t worked full-time outside the home in years.
So whenever I have to put on my “business lady” costume for an important meeting I’m very critical of every aspect of myself because it’s not a habit for me. I’m never sure if I’m fully pulling it off. And so I’ve thought a lot about how arbitrary it all is, the rules for women in a professional setting, and what is expected of us and how it’s supposed to feel so natural but for a lot of us it will never feel natural and to admit that can feel like you’re a failure at being a woman. Or at least, what culture says a “woman” should be.
That I was so worried about my face at a time when I was allowed this opportunity to show a senator something really wonderful that I worked hard to create seemed absurd to me at the time. The stupid things we focus on! And I was also conscious that for probably 98% of men the things I was worrying about would never occur to them. Imposter syndrome is hard to shake and I know that its something men deal with too but I feel confident that men don’t sweat whether they’re wearing the right shoes for the occasion quite as much as women do. I feel like we own that one.
So, to get to the root of all that it’s a really natural transition to think back to the girl who just assumed her poem would be overlooked because nobody cared. And where does that come from, that lack of a belief in our own awesomeness? Why do some people have it and others don’t?
I did come from a home where I was regularly told that I’m awesome. I know how lucky I am that’s the case. But still I have doubts. Why is that? And from that it’s not a big leap to think back to the evangelist’s baby and how in her own home she will never know her own awesomeness. That was made clear to strangers on the day she was born.
It might seem like a magic trick to pull those threads together into a braided essay like this one but to me it was all just different parts of the same story.
One of the things that many writers I work with find challenging is what to leave out of an essay or memoir, especially when they are working with a braided narrative structure. Your “braid” is so tightly woven. How do you gauge what stays and what goes when you are crafting a piece of personal narrative, this one in particular?
Ah! Thank you! This is something I’ve finally gotten much better at. When I first started writing I would have an idea for a story and I’d know how to start it and basically how I wanted to end it and in the middle I would just dump everything I could think of onto the page. One of my very first stories was about our pet cat and it is literally 10,000 words. But that is a ridiculous amount of work to ask of a reader.
More recently I’ve realized that I can really get the job done if I assume I have a word count. To me that front-end work is critical to construct a story that works not just for the writer but also for the reader. Because you always have to think of your reader. When I distill down a story I always keep in mind “what will make this move.” You want the narrative to have a force, you want it to drive the reader to read the next sentence and the next sentence and feel completely satisfied when they are done.
When you read good writing you should feel a physical sense of being carried someplace. The tempo and pacing of the story is something I’m really conscious of and when I decide what needs to go and what can stay that’s always at the top of my list of considerations.
I also think constructing a story within a word limit takes practice. I set out to write “I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall” with the idea that I wouldn’t allow myself to go over 1500 words because for pitching to publications that’s pretty much the outer limit. For a long time I struggled with that and it felt impossible to fit a compelling story in under 2000 words.
I’ve found a great way to practice at it though. There’s a wonderful writing showcase called yeah write that I participate in regularly. Every week they post a new prompt. One of the categories is nonfiction with a 500-word limit. In the beginning I thought that was just impossible. But that sort of weekly practice has helped me so much with my discipline as a writer and the comments you can get on your stories not just from the yeah write editors but also from other writers are golden. I can’t recommend that process enough to people who want to really work on the craft of telling a really tight story.
And that’s my super long explanation of how to write succinctly. =)
: ) What went into your decision to juxtapose the adolescent girl’s writing experience—she’s on the brink of giving up—with the evangelist who takes up so much space?
My brain naturally associated those two people and their realities. I wanted to write about her because that moment really struck me and that was a part of my week with the senator. The evangelist is always living somewhere in the back of my brain and it seemed like a fun way to make a really solid contrast within the context of a braided essay while setting me up to bring things back around to a central theme.
I love to write pieces like this where you take things that on the face of it seem disparate but in reality are parts of a larger whole. I think if you can pull it off it’s a really satisfying experience for the reader. That’s the hope anyway.
When I teach memoir writing, I emphasize the importance of a central theme to the cohesion of the entire memoir. When did you realize the deeper thematic context of this essay? Can you give us a glimpse into your “aha” moments and the connections you made during the writing process to ultimately deliver the adolescent girl’s story within the context of the broader culture?
My best friends are all incredibly powerful women who are ultra-educated and exceptional at their work and hilarious and just solid human beings whom we’d all love to be or know or drink beers with. But way too often none of that matters and I’ll realize that these women who are flatly amazing can lose the wind in their sails for something completely dumb.
Whether it’s body image or being talked over in a meeting or just not meeting the impossibly high standards we set for ourselves, incredible women spend too much time not fully appreciating that they are incredible.
And I think by nature or culture or magic there are just so many dudes who don’t have a clue what that feels like. On a regular basis perfectly average men squash exceptional women. And I think it’s important to notice when that happens and as women and mothers try to make us and our girls and our girlfriends bulletproof to that reality.
That idea is really the heart of this essay, what I like to call the “scaffolding,” and the details of the girl and the evangelist and the narrator are all the little details that I hang off of that scaffolding to create the story. If there was any “aha” moment it was realizing that I had in my hands a perfect set of examples of this broader female theme to work with.
How many revisions did this essay go through before it “found” what it wanted to be? Did you begin the initial draft in the same place the final essay begins?
This essay went together pretty cleanly because, like I said, I already had the theme, I just needed the story to hang on it. I knew where I wanted to start and I had an idea where I wanted it to end. I just had to write my way there.
The trickiest part was making sure the language was smooth throughout because things can naturally get jarring when you move around from character to character with zero transitions. So that was the hardest part from a technical aspect. I’ve discovered that some stories just write themselves and those stories tend to be the stories that are true and that you feel the most strongly about.
I spend a lot of time through my non-profit, WordWorks!, helping high school kids put together essays for their college applications and one of the things I always try to drive home to them is that they should tell a story that is true and that they feel strongly about because not only will it show more about who they are as a person, it will also automatically be better written than if they struggle to make something up they think sounds more impressive.
Write your truth and write it in a way that sounds like you, in words that you use. People will respond to that.
Beautiful, Jenny, I want to hang your quote on the wall! : )
That last paragraph. Wow. Talk about a powerful punch. The effect of switching from first person to direct address made me gasp. It is eloquent and deeply felt!
It can be read as a promise to the adolescent girl. But it can also be read as an address to the reader. Tell us about the process and decisions that went into crafting this pitch-perfect ending.
Thanks so much for that! That last paragraph really hit people. I honestly didn’t expect that. Most of the stories I write are quiet stories that peel back the layers of normal daily life to get at the root of our common humanity.
That was my hope with this piece, that it would resonate with anyone who had felt that way at any point in their life or was maybe feeling like that at exactly that moment, and while it is very much a woman story, that feeling is a universal feeling and I don’t think you have to be a woman to take something important away from it.
That last paragraph was a natural extension of why I wrote “I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall” to begin with. If you are reading it and recognizing yourself in it as either the narrator or the little girl then you need to know that you are valued and you are awesome and you are loved and if you journeyed through the nine hundreds words with me to get to that point then I wanted to remind the reader of that. We are all in this together.
When I started writing it I didn’t think to myself “In the final paragraph I will do this….” I got to the final paragraph and that seemed like what needed to happen. The story took me there and it felt true and right and so that’s what I did. Which is maybe why it worked so well. I find things always read better and work better when you don’t force it and you just do what feels most natural. If you’re forcing it it’s probably wrong and you should try something else.
Almost every woman who takes my classes or enrolls in my mentoring program has a “voice” story. What’s your voice story? How did you hold on to your voice and become the writer you are?
I’m not sure if there’s one particular story but I do know that if I excel at anything it is getting my voice down on paper. It’s funny because my friends will sometimes read my stories and just laugh and say, “This sounds like you talking.” Which for a long time bothered me because I thought either I speak really goofy or my writing is too simplistic.
I sometimes think those considerations can be what muddies up a writer’s voice, that they are trying to sound like something they’re not and it makes the words on the paper sound false.
We all have a random aunt or kid we grew up with who will post a status on Facebook with zero artifice and it’s really the best thing we’ll read all day. And they’re not trying to “write a story” they’re just telling a story because they want to share something with you and that lack of artifice, sometimes with all the misspellings and questionable grammar, is what makes it so readable and fantastic.
I think before we can be “writers” we must be “storytellers” and to be storytellers we must be as honest about who we are and our journey and about the words we are writing as we can be. I think if we do that earnestly then it’s really possible to capture our voice on the page and give the reader a satisfying experience.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your writing process and your insights on writing and life with us, Jenny!
Thank you so much for the opportunity. I am beyond grateful for it.
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Jenny has graciously agreed to answer any questions you have about “I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall,” which you can read here. So post your comments and/or questions in the comments section below.