Inspired by Jose Antonio Vargas

This is going to sound more self-deprecating than I intend, but lately I’ve been struggling to write anything personal. I start a piece and then I wonder, What’s the point? Who does this help? What good does this do the world?

Objectively, I think “There is none,” “no one,” and “it doesn’t” are all perfectly valid answers to those questions. Writing doesn’t have to “accomplish” anything to be of value. It’s art, a form of expression. Existing is enough.

So what’s my problem? I think mostly it’s a fear of opening up. Of exposing certain parts of myself to be read and judged. And not just myself, but parts of my family or friends that affect me, but that aren’t strictly “mine” to write about.

Objectively, I don’t think that’s fair pressure for any writer to put on him/herself. Just like we should all dance like no one’s watching, sing like no one’s listening, and love like we’ve never been hurt, we should also write like no one’s reading.

But of course, it’s easy to be objective in theory, much more difficult in practice.

So what inspires me, what makes me feel empowered and brave, is reading things like this: “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” In six quick pages, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outs himself (in multiple ways). I was amazed by his life story, his work ethic, and his writing.

‎”Maintaining a deception for so long distorts your sense of self. You start wondering who you’ve become, and why.”

I’m not deceiving anyone, but I am in a sort of mental/emotional hiding. Fiction is my greatest passion, but I would like to write personal essays sometimes too. Now whenever I hesitate, I will try to remind myself of Vargas’s piece, of his courage, of his heart.

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  1. Les

    I’m going to avoid much comment on the article because I’m not very sympathetic to the process, but it was well written and as a child, he had very little choice in the matter at the time.

    Everyone hides, especially on the internet. I would think of writing more as a way to reappear than sink deeper into anonymity.

  2. Completely agree about him being a child and having little choice in the matter at that time. (That said, I respected that he expressly acknowledged responsibility for his actions after he got older.)

    Also completely agree about writing as a way to reappear. But I haven’t been doing that like I wanted. Except sometimes on the blog here… which is something!

  3. Jon

    Great post. You must be the seventh or eighth person I’ve heard recommend that article–OK, now I have to read it!

  4. I read that yesterday and thought about it all day. He’s incredibly brave to share his story. I also hesitate, out of fear that people may not like what I have to say, or think, or believe. I still haven’t figured out how much I want to share with the world. It takes courage to live honestly!

  5. I get stuck in personal and need to move to fiction. So there you go. A friend recently told me to finish the memoir writing and not worry if it ever gets published or makes money. That the process is important to move through it, let it go, and move on to other projects.

    Now I’m off to read your link.

  6. I thought the piece was amazing (thanks for tweeting it!) and I appreciate his struggle and his fear of discovery. At the same time… I can’t think of a safer way to reveal such information (really, almost any non-violent information) than in a New York Times Magazine story after you’ve won a Pulitzer Prize. I think the odds of the government taking any serious action against him are pretty damn slim after that.

    I want to be clear that I’m not discounting his struggle or his fear. I know they are all real, and I don’t envy his feelings right now. But I suspect he’s going to come out of this just fine – because of his clout, and he does have clout – and likely wish he’d done it earlier, anytime post-Pulitzer lol.

    Out of curiosity, what part of writing personal essays stops you? Writing them at all or writing them with the idea that you will share them with the public (here on your blog or elsewhere)?

  7. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about Mr. Vargas’s story. My feelings due to my experiences of course, but I did find his story motivational. We all face obstacles in life. I think it’s not in how deal with them but how obliterate them that helps people to move past those obstacles.

    “we should also write like no one’s reading.”–> Hardest thing for to do. But I’m obliterating that obstacle. :)

  8. I actually feel more comfortable writing personal stuff than I do about actually talking about it sometimes. When it comes to baring my heart, I’m much more likely to do it in a letter than face to face.

    I think writing about yourself and your thoughts is very therapeutic. You can learn so much about your heart when you put it down on paper. Good stuff, Kristan.


  9. Your feelings resonated with me. I have thought of publishing accounts that reveal my feelings and failings, or reflect on a friend or family member, and I ask myself how it will make the world better, trading it against damage and risk. I think that this is real. I have read too many cruel and vicious words that reflect the desire of the writer to be famous or successful and little else. I think of V. S. Naipaul, Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham.

    I agree with Stephanie, however, that just writing it down is very rewarding, and that letters are often a much better way to communicate.

    Great post, Kristan.

  10. I was also struck by the bravery and honesty in Vargas’ essay–I can’t imagine writing something so personal and something that could have such huge consequences, in such a large forum. I do hope that his words will inspire much-needed conversations on the topic, because it’s such a complex issue.

    I write fiction, but I’ve also written personal essays for magazines. None have gone quite so deep that I’d be afraid to share them. Maybe it’s time we all embraced the power of our own stories. Maybe that’s the only way we’ll be able to put actual faces to untold stories that become stereotypes, like Vargas did.

  11. T.S.-
    “It takes courage to live honestly!” – Yes! I love that.

    Lol. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because we’re never happy where we are.

    I had the same thought: How likely is it that the US would deport a guy like him, and after publicity like that? Guess we’ll find out.

    To answer your questions… both parts. Sometimes I think something is too “stupid” or “inconsequential” to write about (but obviously it must matter SOME if I even think of writing about it, no?) and sometimes I just get nervous about the idea of people reading, judging, etc. It just depends. And I know it’s mostly in my head; they are excuses not to work.

    Funny how it affects me so much more for personal nonfic than for my fiction…

    Way to go!

    Oh sure, writing is often “easier” than talking (at least for people like us, haha). But one benefit of talking is that it isn’t around forever afterwards.

    “You can learn so much about your heart when you put it down on paper.” – Love that!

    {nods} I completely agree. When I first started feeling this way (a few weeks ago) I began writing in my diary more (which I rarely did before) to help me sort through things, and to encourage my self-expression without fear. Writing is enough. An appreciative audience is icing on the cake.

    “Maybe it’s time we all embraced the power of our own stories.” – Agreed. :)

  12. I’ve also been hearing a ton about this article but haven’t gotten around to reading it, so thanks for the nudge. My thoughts about your personal writing are twofold: 1) have you tried writing it as fiction, so you can feel free to write anything you want? 2) why not TRY to share one thing and see how it goes? I know it’s scary, but I’ve found that when I have, the positive response is overwhelming. (Then, of course, I wonder if all the people who didn’t respond are thinking of something negative :)

  13. So many good comments on this post. I recently read about an internet “intelligence” agency that gathers all of the things posted/written on the internet for potential employers (or whoever “they” are). That is a scary, scary thing. Also, the YA articles that are being attacked by an entire community of writers (while deserved) scares me. It made me wonder about everything I’ve written and if there’s anything I would be ashamed of. I don’t think so, but definitely some things that will embarass me years down the line (because I have a tendency toward naivete). Writing is permanent so I understand your hesitancy, but also some things NEED to be said. I trust your internal gauge for things, and talking it out is often a better way to find the answers.

  14. Meghan-
    1) Yes. That sort of works, sort of doesn’t. Does b/c then yes, some of the pressure is alleviated. Doesn’t b/c I either know in the back of my mind that it’s nonfic, and that hinders me, or else I want to push it more towards the fiction end of the spectrum, and it loses the tie to reality that I wanted in the first place. So… yeah, sort of a catch-22. But I think it’s a good tactic, I just need to practice.

    2) Hehe, that’s sort of what I’m doing with this post. ;P But you’re right: there’s no better way to overcome a fear than to just do it. To that end, I’ve started a few personal essays that I hope to finish and submit by the end of the year.

    Mm, yeah, privacy is going to evolve a lot in the coming years, I think. Already the younger generations have a different sense of things than we do. I think it will always be important to think about what you say/write before you put it out into the world… and I think that’s a good thing. (You and I are in trouble though, lol, since we like to talk so much!) I’m SURE that you haven’t written anything to be ashamed of. EVERYTHING can be misconstrued (or purposely twisted) but that’s a slightly different issue, and almost certainly unavoidable.

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