Dan Sanders on Being Incredible at Something Strange

An interview with Dan Sanders, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Dan Sanders used to live in Philadelphia but now he lives in Oakland. He writes about his awkward interactions with strangers at Public Transportation Horrors. He posts short, short fiction every Sunday at 6 PM at Short Sundaywhen he isn’t distracted by other projects. He can be found on Twitter at @DonSamders.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?

I try to dodge the question as best I’m able. If I’m pressed, I’ll say “I have a generic office job” because that’s how I pay my bills. I don’t want to say “Writer” because the conversation that follows would require too much explaining if they had even the most polite follow up question. It requires too many qualifiers and weird, too-personal background information about why I call myself one thing but do something else all day. For a while I thought about changing my response to “MAILMAN!” because it seemed like the most respectable occupation with the fewest possible follow up questions.

Being able to honestly say that I’m a writer will be my proudest achievement, replacing “Never asking another human being what they do for a living” at the number one spot.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

I don’t have a lot of confidence in anything I do. It makes it difficult to trust what I’m writing and leads to my drinking too much at parties.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Try to understand why people say what they’re saying. Surround yourself with smart people. Tell them why you think people say what they’re saying. Tell everyone else you’re a mailman.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

In terms of writing, no. I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way about writing. But, a few weeks ago, I finally realized that I’d made it to adulthood and that my life is great. Everything turned out just fine. I don’t feel like I made that happen, but however it happened, it’s nice that it did.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

I’ll watch anything where a person is incredible at something you didn’t even know was a thing you could be incredible at. There’s a YouTube clip of a guy flying a kite to music in a gymnasium. It’s an Indoor Kite Flying competition. It’s official. There are judges. He’s amazing at it, I guess. I don’t know enough about Indoor Kite Flying to say one way or the other but he gets it off the floor and I don’t think he ever crashes it. I like anything where someone is obsessive about something strange, it makes me feel like I’m less crazy but still makes me feel like I could be working harder. I love the idea that someone could look at a kite and just have their whole life fall into place, hold a kite at their wife and kids and say, “This is me now!” Just to have the confidence to do that is incredible to me. But it also makes me nervous that someday I’ll stumble across some old thing at a garage sale and ten years later be in a half-mocking documentary about people who dropped everything to play competitive Boggle.

Also, this:

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

Supposedly my great-grandfather pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies but threw his arm out while he was still in the minor leagues. There’s not a lot of evidence to support this story but I love the term “threw his arm out” because it makes me think my great-grandfather was a cartoon.

Also, the first lie I ever told was to another boy in Kindergarten. I just turned to him and, for no reason, told him my dad was Pat Sajack. So in either case, my favorite ancestor — my cartoonish, dangly armed Great-Grandpa or Papa Pat — is mostly fictional.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

I’ll go with ideal. It’s just me and my wife hiking through Lassen National Park. It’s quiet. Clear skies at night. Warm enough to swim during the day.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

I figure a surer path to being able to write all day is to eliminate my need to make money, rather than hope my writing will generate enough money on its own, so I’ve been trying to save as much as I can to quit my job as quickly as possible. That’s why we should all be impressed rather than disturbed by the fact I knew the exact number, to the penny, without having to check.

What’s wrong with society today?

I feel like this is just you trying to get me to say Miley Cyrus to drive up your Google ranking.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

I’m not. When I worked at QVC, the infinitely bubbly host of our QVC show pulled me aside and, using the concerned face she used to sell safety products to old people, suggested that I should be on anti-depressants. It messed me up for a while, because I thought that in order to say that to another person you’d have to really, truly see something wrong. But after a while I realized she was not a doctor at all, but instead was just entirely too accustomed to people trusting her opinions about things she didn’t know anything about. I just don’t talk at work that much. I’m fine, co-workers.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

At least once. Usually when she’s talking to our cats. Also, again when she reads this and makes fun of me for saying that.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

It’s probably best not to think about that word too much, as the whole point of art is to not focus on the specific, necessary function of things.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a mostly fictional story about honesty and cancer. I’m hoping it’s a book but I’m trying not to worry about that too much.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: What kind of writing do you most admire?

I really like to write short pieces that work over one specific thought. A lot of my writing is just a way for me to work through what I think about my life. I wrote about 10 or 12 quick short stories over the last year that are all about escape and isolation. I’m still not sure why they all turned out like that and I’m not sure I’m done with it, but that’s been a theme running through everything lately.

This sounds like a cop out, but I admire almost everything. If you’re like me and assume you’re always doing something wrong, reading is always a learning experience and it leaves a lot of room for admiration. Recently, my friend Ammon Torrence (a very talented Bay Area writer) loaned me a collection of short stories called “The Coast of Chicago” by Stuart Dybek that is just amazing. Every word of it is something I never would have thought of writing. I’m going to read it a few times before giving it back. Everyone should go buy a copy.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Just the rent. The usual complaints about the Bay Area always feel forced. This is an amazing place to live.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Sauteed onions. Breakfast. Pipe tobacco. I don’t want to smoke a pipe, but I love when I happen to be near someone smoking a pipe. I should try to peer-pressure my wife into smoking a pipe.

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