Interview with Jan Wilberg

Jan office 1

I’m a feminist, newly re-radicalized and seeing things through lenses I’ve been keeping in a drawer for a long time. My blog, Red’s Wrap, is about change – advocating for change, understanding change, and adjusting to change. My family and relationships play a central role in my stories, especially my experience as a mother to four children, including three adopted as special needs children from Nicaragua, a partner in a long and successful marriage, and a grandmother to two gorgeous little girls.  I aim for good writing and ideas that will stick with you.

In other words, my blog isn’t about my day.  It’s about what my day meant.

 1) Why is your blog named Red’s Wrap?

I had two nicknames as a child – Red and Short Pants. I thought Red sounded more professional. J Wrap? I don’t know, the two words just sounded right together.

2) How long have you been blogging?

I’ve had a business blog for about four years at www.jwilberg.com. Topics there have to do with nonprofit organizations, being a consultant, and fairly dry stuff like that. But very often I would veer into personal memoir-ish kinds of things which made me finally decide that I needed to establish a separate blog.

3) How long have you been writing?

I’m a community planning consultant, grantwriter, researcher, and program evaluator so I have always done a lot of writing. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a newspaper columnist. It wasn’t until the past few years that I’ve done any substantial writing that is personal in nature – all of it has been professional.

4) Do you consider yourself to be a blogger who writes, or a writer who blogs?

I opt for the second choice. I try to write personal, short essays, tell stories, and try to have each piece of a beginning, middle and end. I write them as standalone pieces rather than as a chronicle of events. As a result, there is zero continuity in my blog; it’s a smattering of topics. The experts on blogging say that a blog gets more attention the more specialized it is. I don’t argue with the experts and, in fact, started out writing almost exclusively about adoption, but find that there is so much more that I want to write about and reflect on than just one single part of my life.

5) How do you define feminist?

For a long time, I interpreted being a feminist as being a very strong, competent woman with sharp elbows, a person with hyper-vigilant antennae to detect sexism wherever it existed – professional interactions, the classroom, behind the coffee urn. But now, I interpret it more as solidarity. I’m a feminist because I believe in women; women are my sisters; I can rely on women and they can rely on me. In some ways, it’s putting to rest the decades of being competitive with men (and women) and finding a new power and strength in joining hands. My biggest experience this past year was speaking to a student chapter of Planned Parenthood at Central Michigan University about an essay I wrote about my illegal abortion in the sixties. I did it not only to ‘out’ my story but also to create solidarity across generations, to say to those young women – I stand with you now and always.

Giving a speech at at Central Michigan University

Giving a speech at at Central Michigan University

6) Which came first, the writing, or the PHD?

I finished by Ph.D. in 1986. Before and since, I have done a ton of professional writing. The personal writing and the blog is of very recent vintage. I never really saw a vehicle for personal writing. Writing a book, which I certainly thought I had the material to do because of my ‘interesting’ family seemed too daunting a task. I could never get the angle right in my head. The short personal essay was what I was good at but I didn’t have any place to go with it really until I published my first piece in Newsweek and then created Red’s Wrap.

7) What kind of career have you had as a PHD?

I’ve had my own business, Wilberg Community Planning. For 18 years. I do planning, program evaluation, research, and group facilitation for projects concerning low-income people, child welfare, mental health, juvenile justice, drug abuse, and other community issues. Before that, I worked for a Community Action (antipoverty) Agency and Milwaukee County government. All of my work has had to do with organizing complex projects, working with a lot of different kinds of people, and trying to make connections between what people need to make better lives for themselves and the resources necessary to support that change.

8) What kind of careers have you had besides writer and PHD?

Well – nothing very exciting. I worked in my dad’s Ben Franklin Store (does that count)? I know how to cut a window shade and make a car key although my dad wouldn’t let me run the cash register because he thought I’d make too many mistakes making change (the days before registers told you how much change to give).

I was a secretary for a short while. The job where I held out a steaming cup of coffee for my boss as he walked by my desk every morning was the impetus to return to college. When I went to college, my father insisted that I take typing and shorthand (seriously, in a liberal arts college) so, in case the plan for me to find a nice college man to marry fell through, I would be able to make a living. He was right actually. I’ve been making a living doing something involving a keyboard ever since. I keep his old 1930’s Underwood Typewriter on my desk as a little monument to his sexist, but ultimately very helpful, thinking.

9) Did you adopt your children separately or all together at the same time?

The companion question to this is – are they actually related or related by adoption. My kids were adopted from the same Nicaraguan orphanage in 1986, 88, and 94 at ages 21 months, 17 months, and 6 years. They aren’t biologically related. They came into a family with an older sister (12 years older than the oldest adopted child). Two of the adopted kids had heart problems, all had malnutrition and developmental delays, and the one who was adopted at age 6 had a lot of trauma. All are doing ok at the moment – have jobs, relationships, and are living on their own.

10) What do people most often misunderstand about children with special needs?

They misunderstand a lot. First, new adoptive parents, in particular, think they can fix everything. They think if they can get the best services, be the best parents on the planet (better than their own parents and all their friends), and do everything right (like listening to the multiplication tables on tape in the car instead of rock and roll which is what kids should be listening to), then their kids will be fixed and go on to be just as ‘good’ as everyone else’s kids. This is sometimes true but not always.

What people don’t understand, especially adoptive parents, is that there is a fair amount of acceptance that is required in order to give one’s children room to breathe and the ability to maintain their own self-respect. Being the object of someone’s unending repair efforts can be demoralizing. Many parents overdo – I know I did. It has been very hard to accept my children for who they are because of the very ingrained notion that everyone should go to college and be a professional person. I understand now that my kids had to do a lot of accepting of me and my husband as their parents and they probably did it with a lot more grace than we deserved.

In the end, we are a family with occasional Hallmark moments but a lot of history and challenge.

11) What do people most often misunderstand about mental illness?

Well, I am working on a major project right now, helping out with the redesign of Milwaukee County’s mental health system. What I’ve learned from this is that people with mental illness can establish a state of recovery, that with good supports and individualized strategies, they can reach a state of wellness, can be productive and happy. It isn’t a death sentence.

When I was a kid, my mother suffered from depression and it defined and shaped our entire family life. There was so little treatment or support for mental illness then but there was massive stigma. If she lived today, she would have been a much happier person, there is so much that could have helped her including the support of peers with mental illness who are in recovery.  That’s the most powerful of all.

12) I googled you and found so many little things here and there, including an article in Newsweek magazine! How much have you published?

The Power of I am Sorry” appeared in Newsweek in 2008, appearing in the issue that had Sarah Palin on the cover holding a shotgun. This did a lot to boost readership. This was a very gratifying experience because so many people contacted me about estrangement in their own family (topic of the piece), the essay was used in numerous sermons and blogs. It’s a piece I am very glad I wrote and gladder that Newsweek published it.

Fury Cannot Touch Me,” appeared as a Modern Love essay in the New York Times in 2011. This was a piece about my learning to disengage from the conflict in my son’s life to concentrate on being a good grandmother to his daughter. This also generated a lot of response with a lot of people seeing it as an adoption piece when it was really a family/grandparenting/acceptance piece.

“The Wire” or “My Illegal Abortion,” was published by Salon.com after being published on Open Salon. The piece went viral this past fall and had 114,000 views. This generated a lot of response because it was published when the comments about ‘legitimate rape’ were made by Congressman Akin. It resulted in my going back to Central Michigan University (where I was learning to type at the time of my abortion) to speak to woman at a Planned Parenthood gathering. Forty-five years after the fact, I went back to tell my story. It was probably the best thing of 2012 for me. I wrote about it in a blog called “My Day with Bob Evans.”

13) What is the one question that would be a PERFECT interview question for you, but I’d never think of even after reading your blog and googling you? (Oh, and what is the answer?)

Do you have enough time to be a good writer?

When most people see that question, they’ll think that I mean – is there enough time in the day to be a good writer? But what I mean is – do I have enough time on this earth to be a really good writer? Now that it’s become a big priority for me, do I have enough time to read enough, listen enough, write and write more. At 64, time is no longer infinite (I know it’s not infinite for anyone but when I was 34, it sure felt like I had forever to get good at something).

And the answer is – I’m not sure. I don’t think, for example, that it’s a smart use of time to go back to school to get an MFA, which I have considered doing. I also don’t think I want to write a book. I guess I want to write more that is worthy of being published (without me having to pay for it – lol).

14. Do you have any creative works that are hidden in the back of the drawer, never to see the light of day?

Does this include angry emails that were works of art? No, I have no hidden creative works. My problem is my style of writing. I write a piece in one sitting and I don’t do a lot of editing (this is something I’m going to try to change in 2013 – the editing part). I write and send. So nothing has a chance to get in a drawer. I would be a better writer if I cultivated some patience but am also thinking that at age 64, patience may be overrated.

15. What is your favorite electronic or digital writing tool?

My desktop, second is my laptop. I tend to drink while I’m writing so it’s nice to have a desk.

16. What is your favorite non-electronic writing tool?

A pencil – I have dozens of #2 yellow pencils and an electric pencil sharpener.

My story is "Abandon" about a woman with a unique approach to dealing with her personal challenges.

17. Did you write Prepare a Place for Me before or after hearing the call for submissions to Precipice?

I wrote it in response to the call for submissions. I tend to write very short pieces so writing 1,500 words is tough for me. The experience that I wrote about was very vivid to me so it came together quickly. I’m very proud of that piece and it was really wonderful to have it chosen and published.

18. What does being in this anthology mean to you as a writer?

I got the email that it had been accepted while we were sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store in the U.P. on our way to our place on Lake Superior. I just screeched and my husband knew right away what it was. It was such an honor to be picked by the Write on Edge folks – really amazing.

And then, to see it in print and, this was the greatest, downloading it on my Kindle. Of course, it took me months to read all the other essays because I was convinced they would all be better than mine. And they were wonderful.

19. What are your writing goals?

My writing goals are to be a better writer, write longer pieces, and get a major piece published every year. This means that I have to back off the short term satisfaction of putting a piece on my blog and devote more time to the longer pieces.

I’m also continually trying to be braver about my writing and the topics. Obviously, there are many things a writer who does memoir can’t write about. My kids, for example, are pretty much off limits even though their lives and struggles – past and present – are really interesting. Lately, I’ve been writing about my hearing loss which is a tough thing to do for someone who considers herself very vital, dynamic, and not old or retired. It’s what’s on my mind and it’s an important thing to write about – so I’m trying to do my part to enlighten folks. I wrote about this recently in a blog called “Bye Bells.”

20. Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

Ok – this is so sad but I had to Google this. (And I strive to be so hip.) I take no position on this pressing issue. 🙂 Instead, I leave it to those with better eyes and analytic skills.

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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2 Responses to Interview with Jan Wilberg

  1. Jan and Amy, I so enjoyed reading this and if it weren’t so late, I’d be reading everything you’ve linked!

    Jan, I’m in awe of how much you’re juggling and how well you’re doing it! I love your definition of feminism, and I hope women will come to accept it as duty to hold each other up rather than to tear each other down.

    Your piece in Precipice was beautifully written and heart-wrenching, and I can’t wait to read more of your work.

  2. Melissa says:

    I also loved your story in Precipice! Your life sounds like such an adventure. Thanks for sharing part of it with us.

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