HOTSEAT- Pursuing perfection: Niesslein's year of self-help

Feeling fat? Stupid? Broke? Broken hearted? Whatever ails you, someone's written a self-help book to fix it. In fact, there are so many human repair manuals that mocking them has become a genre of its own: Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley, anyone?

But could mocking self-help mean missing out on life-changing experiences? Jennifer Niesslein wondered– then spent a year following the advice of dozens of experts who promised big results if she'd do as they say. The result: her own book, Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help... and Back.

"I was interested in self-help as a sort of humbling thing– why do I have to assume I know better than everybody else," says Niesslein, pointing out that self-help is a "gazillion dollar industry." As a writer, she says she was interested in tackling an idea that half the population is "really into" and the other half "poopoos without thinking about the ideas in there."

This is Niesslein's first book, but not her first publishing foray. In 200o, she partnered with Lexington-based writer Stephanie Wilkinson to launch a little "newsletter" they called Brain, Child: the Magazine for Thinking Mothers.  Within a year, the two new moms who met working at a Charlottesville weekly in the mid-1990s, saw their newsletter grow into a full-fledged literary magazine with a national audience, and featuring nationally recognized writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Susan Cheever. There were national awards to boot: the Utne Reader named it one of the five best new magazines of 2000 and has since recognized it several more times. 

Niesslein, whose son, Caleb, is now eight, believes her Brain, Child experience– and the literary connections it helped her make– paved the way for her book project. In August 2005 she landed an agent, and within a couple of months a bidding war for her manuscript erupted, resulting in a deal that allowed her to take a year-long sabbatical from Brain, Child to focus on her self-improvement kick.

Practically Perfect is divided into chapters by self-help subject. Niesslein starts with home and organization, and then jumps through marriage, money, motherhood, and spirituality. Interspersed with the advice she's following are her own personal struggles over the course of the year– the death of her beloved dog, a friend's catastrophic accident, her own panic attacks. While some topics are weighty, Niesslein tempers the gravitas with self-deprecation and lays bare her predilections for beer, cigarettes, and rich food, as well as her aversion to exercise and cleaning.

That honesty gives the book wide appeal, says Niesslein's Brain, Child partner Wilkinson, who makes frequent appearances in the book offering Niesslein real-world advice. "I challenge you to find anyone who's never tried any self-help," says Wilkinson. "Nobody's immune to it."

 Practically Perfect hits bookstores May 17. While Publishers Weekly was less than enthusiastic, the Washington Post has placed it on its recommended spring 2007 nonfiction list. Niesslein, who concedes the book "is not for everyone," kicks off a national tour this month, but before hitting the road she'll speak at UVA's Mom Expo May 12 and give a reading at New Dominion Book Shop on May 17. 

Age: 34

Why here? The first time, for college; the second time, because Brandon and I love it

What's worst about living here? On warm evenings when it'd be nice to eat out downtown, there are too many great minds thinking alike.

Favorite hangout? Home with my menfolk

Most overrated virtue? Piety

People would be surprised to know: I'm not half-bad at karaoke, if I can be so immodest.

What would you change about yourself? Please.

Proudest accomplishment? Professionally, a tie between Brain, Child and Practically Perfect

People find most annoying about you: I don't know, and I don't think I want to know.

Whom do you admire? Katherine Boo and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc– their journalism is swoon-worthy.

Favorite book? I don't think I could pick one. Some of my favorite writers are Lorrie Moore, Sarah Vowell, Antonya Nelson, Jane Smiley, Ann Crittenden, Barbara Ehrenreich, Daniel Handler, Mary Roach, and Kristin Ohlson.

Subject that causes you to rant? Welfare reform

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Research over the Internet

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The 24/7-ness of everything

What do you drive? A Volvo station wagon

In your car CD player right now: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse

Next journey? To New York City, for the first two events away from home on the book tour for Practically Perfect

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I got kicked out of Brownies.

Regret: Unnecessary unkindness on my part

Favorite comfort food: Mashed potatoes with cheese

Always in your refrigerator: Beer

Must-see TV: Any of those Bravo reality shows like Top Chef or Project Runway

Favorite cartoon: The Simpsons

Describe a perfect day. A good combo of gratification and pleasure (which is also one formula for the good life). I'd get to sleep in, then spend the morning doing gratifying work and the rest of the day doing pleasurable things. Also, I could stay up late and not have to wake up early the next day.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Doesn't every writer want to be a rock star?

Who'd play you in the movie? Hmm. Let me flatter myself: Parker Posey?

Most embarrassing moment? I think I've done a pretty good job cataloguing them in the book. I once told New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast that I stole her idea, then added that "hers was better," as if there were a contest between Roz Chast and me. Yeesh.

Best advice you ever got? In Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness, he advises to focus on your strengths and use them to compensate for your weaknesses.

Favorite bumper sticker? Generally, I'm not a fan of the bumper sticker, but do you remember when there was that mini-horse place up 29? I get a nostalgic kind of kick out of seeing "Ask Me About My Mini-Horse."