What makes a winner: a conversation with Jen Dominguez

A few weeks back we were thrilled to name Jen Wallwork Dominguez's essay, "Growing Home," the winner of our Nashville Reads contest in the adult category. (And Jen, also thrilled, claimed that she'd never won anything before, "not even a cake walk." Here's a bit of that piece to whet your appetite:

I spent my young years tearing out pages of the JCPenney catalog, creating collages of happy families: a baby from children’s wear pasted into the arms of a woman who, prior to my scissors, had been modeling cookware; a couple from sporting goods glued into a dining room, their tennis rackets poised recklessly close to the china cabinet. I owned every board game that could be played by two players and irritated my mother by begging her join me. One Christmas she bought me Clue, a three-player game, and it taunted me mercilessly.

I am an only child. I’ve come to learn, through idle conversation on playgrounds and articles in magazines, that this label predisposes me to be self-centered, self-confident, and accustomed to getting my own way. Evidently “only child” is synonymous with “center of attention.” I’ve decided I need to hyphenate. In the same way that “in-law” conjures images of a completely different relationship than simply “mother,” I’ve been searching for a single word that more accurately describes my place in my family. I’ve yet to find it. In the meantime, accident-that-happened-one-time-only-child will have to do.

(You can read the rest of Jen's essay at Chapter 16.)

Jen was kind enough to answer a few questions for us, in which she sheds light on her drafting process, her thoughts on blogging versus essay writing (she blogs weekly at Life in the Circus), and more. Have a look.  

The Porch: Tell us a bit about the process of writing this particular essay.

Dominguez: "Growing Home" was actually the second essay that I wrote for this contest. The first was a family history of alcoholism, but I decided that I couldn’t do it justice in 750 words. I took the prompt very literally and thought about what the most important/most defining circumstance of my life was, and I came up with, obviously, the fact that I have five children. As my therapist is always reminding me, this is A LOT of children. The final version of the essay is significantly different that the first. Originally, I began with the statement that I am an only child. However, after thinking about the revision and submission class I took at The Porch, I realized that the most effective stories were those that began with an image, so I decided to begin with what was originally the middle of the essay: the image of me tearing apart catalogues. 

The Porch: How is essay writing different from blogging for you?

Dominguez: Essay writing is blogging on Valium. I write a lot on my blog, and as a result I don’t have the time (or usually the space) to spend days reworking a piece. With an essay, everything slows down. There is time to carefully consider word choice and ask myself if I’m telling the truth in not only the most entertaining way (very important for a blog post) but also the most honest way. The audience for an essay is also different than that of a blog. In a blog, I think it’s important to make everything very relatable and potentially useful. In an essay, since you aren’t begging someone to stop by from Pinterest, there is more of an opportunity to focus on the heart of a story, the deeply personal aspect. Of course, I hope it will be relatable to readers, but I’m freed from trying to make it universal. 

The Porch: What did you learn or discover in writing "Growing Home"?

Dominguez: Before writing this essay, I’d never really considered the origin of my snarkiness. I knew that I was an expert in complaining about motherhood, but I’d never stopped to consider WHY. As I wrote, I had to ask myself whether the things that I bitch about (the sleeplessness, the laundry, the arguing, the toting back and forth, etc.) were things that really bothered me or things that I just THOUGHT should bother me. It turns out that it is more the latter than the former. I couldn’t have told you that at the beginning. That’s how writing works for me… I often don’t know where I’m going until I get there. 

The Porch: What motivates you to write? Do you rely on routine or ritual? 

Dominguez: I write only because it’s easier and less painful than procrastinating about writing. I have spent years trying not to write, because writing is scary and hard and (for me, at least) plagued by self-doubt. But the truth is, when I’m writing, even if I’m writing garbage, I’m happier. when I’m not writing, I’m kind of an antsy bitch. I do have five small children, and so finding time to write is a challenge, but I just take it as I can… I write early in the morning, or during nap time, or late at night - usually all three. Obviously, my house is a disaster. 

The Porch: You blog at Life in the Circus. Are there other blogs you look to for inspiration? 

Dominguez: I didn’t actually discover the world of blogs until a few years ago. My first introduction was Rants From Mommyland. I loved the way the two writers made me feel normal - evidently their cars smelled like a rotting juice box too! I’m always on the hunt for new blogs, but I’m very, very picky. I want touching, and funny, and well written. Something that makes it ok to spend 10 precious minutes reading. It’s a tricky combo, but right now, my favorite blogs are Momastery and Five Kids is a Lot of Kids

The Porch: What's your bedside reading right now? 

Dominguez: I’m a polyamorous reader. I’ve always got several books going at once. Right now, I’m reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, and Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, which I’m previewing for my oldest daughter. I just finished The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, which I loved, even though it is over 150 years old.