Nelson's research and scholarship interests include the science of story and the practice of innovative pedagogy.
Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir “If Only You People Could Follow Directions” (Counterpoint Press, 2014) and the forthcoming textbook and anthology “Advanced Creative Nonfiction” along with the writer Sean Prentiss (Bloomsbury, 2021). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Columbia Journal, PANK, The Rumpus and elsewhere. In addition to teaching at VCU, she also teaches in the MFA program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Her new book is a collection of essays about women and wonder.
Q&A with Jessica Hendry Nelson
Where did you grow up? Can you tell us a little about your educational journey?
I grew up outside of Philadelphia where I went to a huge and diverse public school. It was easy to get lost in the shuffle and I did, preferring to stay quiet and withdrawn. I went to college at the University of New Hampshire, a decision based solely on its location on the coast and distance from my home. I wanted to get as far away as possible. It was a happy accident, though, because at UNH I fell in love with reading and writing, and found a tribe of good friends who buoyed me. UNH is a big school with a small English department, so I found the best of both worlds.
After college, I bounced around for a couple of years. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but wasn't really sure how one went about such a thing. I taught middle school in Brooklyn through Teach for America for a year, then went to Asheville, NC, for no good reason except the weather and the mountains. Finally, I mustered the courage to apply to MFA programs and wound up attending Sarah Lawrence College. It was another somewhat haphazard decision that ended up being serendipitous. I had a wonderful experience. Much of what I wrote during that time ended up in my first book.
When did you first fall in love with your field of study? What made you decide to work in academia?
I was fortunate, I think, to know early on that I wanted to write, but it wasn't until I got to college that I realized that ‘being a writer’ was a real vocation and something out of which I could build both a career and a life. I was gifted a mentor there who took me to lunch and told me what I needed to hear at that time: I had talent and could make a go of it. His confidence built my confidence and I took myself much more seriously after that. He talked me through the process of applying for an MFA in creative writing, which was where I began teaching undergraduates. I couldn't believe that there was a job that would keep me in school for the rest of my life; that someone might pay me to talk about writing and literature all day. I never looked back.
Can you explain the focus of your research?
My research and scholarship interests include the science of story and the practice of innovative pedagogy. Much of this work went into the writing of a forthcoming textbook, co-authored with Sean Prentiss, “Advanced Creative Nonfiction: a Writer's Guide and Anthology” (Bloomsbury, March 2021).
Creatively, I'm most compelled by creative nonfiction that combines research and personal experience and embraces hybrid forms and experimentation. I'm motivated by finding ever-new ways to tell stories, both structurally and lyrically. I write essays that draw from lived experience in order to ask universal questions about what it means to be alive today.
What attracted you to VCU? What are you most excited about in regards to VCU and Richmond?
I was initially compelled by VCU’s emphasis on scholarship, service, research, language and media, in addition to creative writing, and about the prospect of being a part of a program that takes a multimodal approach to creative writing. I had also long-admired many of the faculty in the English department, and through the interview process became more excited about the prospect of working with the students and faculty here. Everyone I met was warm and inviting, and the city seems to have a haunting, creative energy. I was also excited to have the opportunity to contribute to the literary journal, Blackbird, and work with students who are interested in editing.
Can you talk a little about your teaching philosophy? What do you most like about teaching?
I have loved teaching since my first class, at age 22, when my students were mostly older and wiser than me. Teaching is a collaborative project. We work together in order to cultivate a learning experience, which means I have to be clear, but also flexible. It is relational, intimate, rigorous, creative and dynamic. Teaching requires chutzpah and tenderness in equal measure. It is both performative and deeply humbling. I could go on and on about my love and approach to teaching, but I suffice to say that is rooted in the following basic tenets.
- My teaching is student-centered; leave the ego at home. To that end, I learn what my students want from the class and how they feel I can best assist them in reaching their goals.
- Respect the knowledge, curiosity and creativity that students already have. My students come to my classes with diverse backgrounds, interests and talents. I see my primary duty, therefore, as dually focused on instruction and discovery. I hope to encourage the academic and creative passions my students already have as well as introduce new ones.
- The best art is not created in a vacuum, but as part of a call and response with the world. We learn to write well by reading. If I am not able to excite students to read, then I have failed at the most basic tenet of my job.
Can you tell us either a quirky fact about yourself or some of your hobbies?
Well, I was on “Wheel of Fortune” once. Ask me how I did!