My chat with James Wolf
You can hear the clamoring of the barista cleaning his tools. The usual cafe music is playing in the background. After grabbing a cappuccino I sit down and get myself ready to jump into the conversation. I'm doing it right today, I have my field recorder on the table and I'm playing "journalist". This will be my attempt at pulling together a few words so you can get better acquainted with the writer, James Wolf.
Curiosity prompted me to reach out to James. It was a sponsored post I came across as my thumb flipped through my Instagram feed that led to his medium profile. I quickly read through his first short story - "This Vessel is a Rental". It was short, sweet, and had a punch that delved into the existential topics I feel I graze upon almost daily.
I figured James must be some writer in New York (don't ask me why I think writers are from New York) but to my surprise his Instagram geo tags said Seattle. All my usual red flags were completely down, he wasn't trying to sell me anything, he wasn't trying to help me get a million followers, the word entrepreneur wasn't in his bio and I didn't see a bunch of uplifting motivational quotes that one might steal. All I saw is that he said he was a bartender and a writer. Alright I can get into this, my curiosity was piqued. It was easy to reach out, I also consider myself a bartender/photographer/writer/thing-a-ma-jig.
Fast forward to sitting down for coffee. We find it easy to get into the flow of conversation - we both have conversations for a living while handing folks their favorite beer or cocktail. We quickly related to stories about having some in depth conversations with some of our guests. We revel in the idea that we get to be in a very unlikely situation of being that sounding board/therapist (at times) to the trusting stranger with some of their more personal life dealings.
A topic of conversation was this idea of making a living to keep the lights on while also pursuing one's artistic endeavors, in his case writing. The question being - can I eventually bridge the gap of my art and living to be one and the same? Or is the struggle of blending a day job and one's art fulfilling enough to make one happy?
"So much of the art world that we consider to be relevant - the people we look up to, our heroes and idols, they have a thing that helps their livelihood; they're baristas, bartenders, servers, plumbers and mechanics that help serve to facilitate their art. That says something to what art is to people. That people are working a 9-5 in order to make their thing that they interpret as their actual selves."
THE BEGINNING: WHY WRITING?
I found myself digging into him trying to figure out why he gravitated towards writing in the first place. This proved to be elusive, he admitted there was no one moment in his life that he can remember where he made the decision to be a writer.
"Some kids pick up music or sports as an expressive outlet that allots them happiness or some kind of calm from what they've been through."
"It's not about the form, it's not about saying I want to write. It's about this is what I've been through. This is what I feel and this is the medium necessary for me to express that."
"The start of it was definitely, in my high school years, my first job (everything is necessitated by jobs, right?) where I used to write other peoples essays for them. I was always really good at writing. There were a lot of other people that weren't and that wouldn't graduate if they weren't. I was the middle man for a lot of people. I guess I was always a little bit of a pusher. That was my first means of making money. The universe kind of gives you cookies and then you respond. OK, this is what I want to do because this seems to be having some sort of return."
Empathy was a topic that came up in conversation that I found to be particularly interesting when it came to the craft of his fictional writing. I had never really considered the role of a writer being to get out of the way, during character development, and really considering the character's story, their approach on life and ultimately their voice.
"It's tough to authenticate empathy unless you've met someone. It's important for writers to be both an introspective wallflower and a brave socialite. We have to experience things; we have to go to the party, we have to shake hands. We have to live in many capacities. Then, afterward, the discipline required in actually writing kicks in and we go home, sit down, think on it, introspect – we must consider every other person we met at some party and wonder – just like we wonder for ourselves – why they went in the first place." Again bartending came up as another piece in his tool-kit in his study of people.
In his story "Fake Blonde" I connected with Marie and her stance on love as it intermingled with her relationship with her mother all whilst sitting in a pool of tension of a looming train crash. I won't give too much away, but I highly suggest you take the 23 minutes to read it. Not only did James write in a voice outside of himself but also got me as the reader to emotionally connect to a character's viewpoint that was outside of my own.
On the topic of getting out of the way, James posses the lightness of touch to not impose anything on the reader. You're not pushed towards an idea or how to think. Questions are posed, situations are created and it's your job to cipher out how you feel about them. This makes for some stimulating reading.
I think things get blurry for those who make art when they run into this duality that Lewis Hyde separates in his book "The Gift" as the gift economy and the market economy. How do I make art that matters to me and share it with the world thereby reaping fulfillment (gift economy) vs how does my work interact as an entity that adds value to an individual or organization to where they want to pull out their wallet and give me some of their green so I can eat.
James seems to blend the two quite well, writing for hire and bartending while putting his love and energy into his fiction. I appreciated that James put a huge emphasis on the "craft". That he was willing to sacrifice getting your attention (at first) and work as bartender and focus the rest of his free time on his craft in the shadows. "If I want people to pay attention to me in ANY field, I want to be good first!"
So in response to why he put an Instagram ad out on his work he said "I'm starting to come to a place where I'm finding my voice, I'm starting to write things that I am proud of. The stories I'm working on now are the best stories I think I've written".
Well we would have to agree. And we're also glad he put an ad out, otherwise none of us would be having this conversation right now.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
As we headed to the photography end of our meetup, James took me to some of his favorite nature trails through Ravenna Park. We reveled in the fact that Seattle has so many sub-cultures and segregated pockets of people, there's Capitol Hill, Wallingford, and the Amazonian downtown to name a few. While they all intermingle a bit, each neighborhood almost has its own personality of people that inhabit it. That being said I figure you are someone who is probably an artist yourself in some capacity and probably understands the energy it takes to get into the ring so to speak of making and sharing art.
While I might wear a polo shirt, neatly comb my hair to the left or James might wear a full beard and frequent a flannel, I'm looking forward to celebrating where we connect. Seattle has many crevices that hide different walks of life and folks putting in the work and creating something meaningful to them. To take from James' example of empathy, I hope you and I both want to understand why each other sees things the way we do. It is my hope that you'll be inspired to put down any armor and shield you have on and join in on the curiosity.