Jenna Wortham is an award-winning journalist for The New York Times Magazine and co-host of one of our favorite podcasts, Still Processing. Often her work doesn’t simply respond to the cultural conversation; it creates it. And lucky for us all, she’s a human of seemingly boundless creativity (recent side projects include but are not limited to: virtual reality films, metalworking and weaving, and shadow puppeteering).
Jenna is also this month’s letter-writer at Ace Hotel New York. As part of the Dear Reader residency curated by Tin House, she spent one night at Ace crafting a letter to an imagined audience. Her letter has been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room—but first we caught up with her to talk dystopia, procrastination, and unearthing the profound.
TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
JENNA WORTHAM: I really want to talk to Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist at the center of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. That book takes place during a dystopian era ravaged by economic disparities, violence and scarcity and is ruled by a fascist politician who wants to “make America great again.” Sound familiar? Lauren’s character envisions a utopian solution to society, and tries to build a community that embodies her values. Octavia Butler died before she could finish the series, and I really need to know how Lauren conceptualized her escape pod, what her plans were for longevity and rebuilding. I need those blueprints. We all need those blueprints.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
For my day job, outlines are key. It’s difficult to structure a magazine feature or a column without breaking things down into sections and charting out how those sections could flow together. For all my other writing, I tend to visualize the work a lot more before I write it down. I’m much more comfortable letting the ideas and pictures formulate in my head before I try to extrude them. I’m also very okay with the knowledge that not everything I write will be good, and I am very okay with the reality that I may have to rewrite the same thing five times before it gets close to what I’m aiming towards.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I’m always amazed that anyone reads anything I ever write. There’s so much to read (and watch, and absorb and generally consume) across virtually every platform, so yes, I am almost always surprised these days, ha. I don’t think about audience—I think about how to communicate my thoughts in the clearest or most interesting way possible, without watering them down or trying to make them “palatable” to the broadest possible audience. I challenge myself to honesty while letting my brain unfurl in the most interesting and unusual ways possible.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
Anything by Renee Gladman. She’s an incredible genius of a human thinker. And so playful. I revisit Calamities anytime I need to think about rituals and prompts and the value of chronicling the daily and mundane to unearth something profound about existence. Her novels are outrageously original. My favorite are the trilogy about the dilapidated city of Ravicka, which are astounding in how they look at language as architecture and culture, containing memory and inherently impossible to understand. For example, one of the most definitive things about the town is that the air is supposed to be yellow, but later on, you actually find out that the word for yellow has been mistranslated, so there’s something inherently fundamental and intrinsic to the city that is impossible for non-native citizens and speakers of the language to understand. That blows my mind. They’re not necessarily “easy” to read but have completely reshaped how I think about the function of fiction, and truly, “social science-fiction,” as she has described them, as a means to engage our consciousness and occupancy and how our environments shape us and each other.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
Not specifically. Sometimes I’ll do the thing where you wake up and write for an hour before anything else, which has worked on occasion. I like to sit in the sun and scrawl things in my head before actually sitting down to try and coax them onto the page. I am an extreme procrastinator, so if I have deadlines coming up, I’ll run errands and clean my apartment before I sit down to work. But I also spend hours working in a semi-circle of tea cups, wine glasses, piles of dirty laundry and candy wrappers as much as I do in a clean house, so it really just depends. The most helpful piece of writing advice I ever received was simply to write when the spirit strikes. If you feel you can write, drop what you’re doing and write. It’s less of a ritual and more of a mandate, but that has always served me well.
Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.