Joe Wadlington on Not Having to Justify Your Value

An interview with Joe Wadlington, from The Write Stuff series:

Joe Wadlington is a San Francisco writer who grew up in Tennessee. He’s been published in The New Yorker and The Rumpus. He also sends, Drafts, a writing prompt/mini essay that’ll class up your inbox every Sunday morning if you subscribe here.

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

“I’m a writer.” But it took me years to say that! I swear — there are teens who call themselves “DJs” because they downloaded Garage Band that afternoon. Yet, it took me years to call myself a writer in polite company, even though I’ve been telling stories all my life, and have a degree, and all these feelings and everything. When people ask my writing friends what they do and they stare at the floor, I kind of hit ‘em. You have to say the word so it loses power. We’ve all read Harry Potter.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

I can have trouble reigning in my enthusiasm. I have more fun starting a new project than I ever will ending one. The half-done projects pile up.

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

Find community. I have a writing group, Finishing School, that is incredible. We’ve been meeting every two weeks for three years now. I can’t emphasize enough how much having that little family of creative people with similar goals has helped me. It’s added years to my life.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I do. And I’m realizing it’s because I’m happy right now. If I weren’t happy I’d feel unsuccessful no matter where I was publishing. When I’m happy, I can write one sentence on a napkin and be sure the Paris Review would want it. I’m wrong, of course, but I’ll feel good about it.

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

If I want to feel better:

If I want to feel worse:

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

I am named after a mutt my dad describes as “the best dog to ever chase an 18-wheeler”. Unfortunately, Joe senior’s ambition, um, caught up to him. I hope I’m not fated the same.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

I had this teacher, Ms. Hodson, who had a really creative teaching style and was very patient with my enthusiasm. So I followed her around like a bustle. I wanted to be a writer or an architect.

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

I was a rural kid, boy scout, camp counselor, etc. So I’d do well for myself in the wilderness — probably make enough natural fiber baskets to start an Etsy shop. Probably think of a lot of good Tweets.

What’s wrong with society today?

There’s an empathy gap. We don’t care about problems until they affect someone we know or the problems can be demonstrated for us. We don’t protect people simply because they are humans in need. Victims have to justify their value, prove they deserve help.

What is your fondest memory?

I have writing on the brain at the moment, so I’m gonna say, when I told my writing group that I was getting published by The New Yorker. They helped me so much on that piece and it was my first publication. I was more excited to tell them the news, than I was about the initial news. I just cried and cried. It was a group win, and such a surprise. We were elated.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Depends how many times I ride Bart. I have a very vulnerable heart on public transit.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Equality among all the sexes. Every other issue I care about intersects with Feminism and will be supported by Feminism. I want it so badly. It keeps me up.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is flourish. Art is luxury — anything that isn’t Science and utilitarian. Art is certainly necessary for me. I need to be understood and to understand. Art is the voice I use to explain myself and also what I listen to best. I navigate an Arty world more easily.

What are you working on right now?

A novel! It’s a Sex and the City type format but 2016, gay, San Francisco, with more phones and brewery tours. I’m thinking through how dating apps, social media, and texting have encouraged us to split into several versions of ourselves that we put on and take off, and how that messes with our ability to build wholly authentic relationships. About ¼ of the book is text messages.

I also send a 5-minute writing prompt/mini essay every Sunday morning via email. The service is called Drafts and the goal is to make it as easy to begin writing as possible. Sign up!

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

Everything! Books, essays, scripts, games, comic books, everything. This goes back to my “reigning it in” problem. But I’m mystified by writers like Margaret Atwood, John Green, Neil Gaiman, etc. who get to have their hand in so many diverse projects.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

I’m good at ordering a pizza to the house I’m going to so that we arrive at about the same time. So I’d do that, drinks, then hopefully people would want to go dancing or do karaoke. Or maybe we’d eat pizza out in one of the restaurants with votive candles.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

When I was 8, I saw a wild turkey chase a Canada goose for an entire cow pasture. Turkeys are territorial, ya see, and geese can’t take off from a run. They have to stand still or sit in the water. So the thing was falling all over itself, flapping, trying to get away. And the sounds! Have you ever heard a territorial gobble? My mom pulled the car over so we could watch. I’ll never forget it.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

With 50 words I can make you laugh. With 50 dollars I can get us fried chicken from Krispy Krunchy on Van Ness, three rounds at Pilsner Inn, and a Mexican chocolate muffin from Arizmendi. It’s taken me four years to figure all that out.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Honeysuckle is Tennessee in the summer to me. San Francisco has taught me about jasmine. New books. Campfire. Fried chicken. I have a cologne I love: Santalum Slivers.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I can posture like a rugged adventurer — I own a hat and everything. But if someone else is fitting the bill, I’m doing an audaciously fancy writing retreat in France: Rivieras, and parchment paper, and such.

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