Charlottesville is like the Bermuda Triangle for writers: You come here, get sucked in and never leave. You can’t help it, really; the literary community is huge. The arts are vibrant. The opportunities for engagement immense.
But in a town so bookish that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a writer, it’s still a struggle to rise into your greatness, to claim your literary prowess and feel fantastic about it.
“The thing about Charlottesville is no matter what your talent is, someone else here already has a MacArthur Genius Grant for it,” says Jennifer Niesslein, editor of the online literary journal Full Grown People. “We’re going to talk about writing issues and what it’s like being a fish in this kind of pond.”
Niesslein is referring to her role as the host author at the debut of Inside the Writer’s Studio, a literary-inspired series at WriterHouse. Like James Lipton’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” the series aims to bring writers into one room for stimulating conversation with established authors, audience Q&A and, in this case, bagels and bubbly.
Niesslein brings with her Browning Porter, a poet, singer and storyteller, whose work appears in Niesslein’s just-published collection of essays, Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex. Miller Murray Susen, a writer, actor and contributor to Full Grown People, will take on Lipton’s role.
“Because the book is about love, we’re going to talk about the ethics of writing about the people you love,” Niesslein says. “What you portray and what you don’t, how it feels—all stuff writers think about anyway, no matter what genre they’re writing in.”
For Porter, that genre is poetry (though he’s published as a storyteller in Soul Mate 101).
“I loved Shel Silverstein, and I used to write my own poems basically from the time I could write my name,” he says. “I had Where the Sidewalk Ends, books by Roald Dahl where the insects and the giant peach had their own songs, and I loved the joy and the cleverness of the rhymes and the jokes.”
As writers, we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of this magic wherever we can find it. Long before Porter thought to publish an essay, he followed this thread. (See story on page 33.)
“I got into music because I started writing songs for musicians I knew and one thing led to another,” he says. “I think of poetry more as a certain mode of discourse, something that you can do inside of fiction or nonfiction. It’s really connected to the physicality and sensuousness of language.”
Writing true stories, he says, came out of his penchant for performance and storytelling on stage. “I feel like I’m able to use what I’ve learned about poetry and songwriting as kind of scaffolding to write stories.”
His essay, “The Perfect Song,” tells how one song has turned up at various points in his life. Potential profundity abounds.
He wrote the piece intending to read it out loud. “On stage I can tell a story where I have a coughing fit or mimic someone’s voice,” he says.
With some careful translation, the essay now works on paper, so well that Niesslein plucked it, along with 21 others, for inclusion in her newest anthology.
Choosing the right pieces for a book like Soul Mate can be as difficult to balance as rhythm and other language considerations. The editor says she needed to weigh factors such as tone and length, author age and diversity.
“I’m with the same guy I met when I was 19. You don’t want to have just a whole bunch of women like me, long-married, straight, white women, talking about their long hetero marriages,” she says. “I’m not saying all white women are the same, but, you know, you want to mix it up. I think there’s something to be gained from reading about people whose lives are very different from yours.”
What these essays have in common is the baseline of Full Grown People: They’re tales from, as the journal tells it, the other awkward age.
“These aren’t new love stories, not puppy love stories,” Niesslein says. “It’s about the real adult stuff you face that might surprise you when you’re in your 30s or 40s or 50s. You didn’t know that for better or for worse could include some unimaginable shit. And some unimaginably great stuff, too.”
That stuff might include, as in Louise Sloan’s case, breaking up with your girlfriend, getting a snowboarding injury and reaching out to your ex for help. It might be falling in love with “the d” instead of the entire man when you’re a single mother. Or having a lifelong attraction to redheads when you happen to be black, wondering if this is a sort of self-loathing.
“The title [of the anthology] comes from the second essay I ever published on Full Grown People,” Niesslein says. “It’s by Susan Kushner Resnick, and it’s called ‘Soul Mate 101: Don’t Marry Him.’”
It’s a catchy title, she goes on to say, though the concept of soul mates is less compelling. “From my perspective, you want somebody—whoever you call your soul mate—to be someone you feel close with and somebody you can trust. There will always be more than one person who can fill that for you.”
In short, romantic love is kind of like writing: Everyone experiences it differently. It just takes a community to find the place where your particular style lands.