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The Unapologetic Lightness of Being

I was re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing over the summer — make it an annual or semi-annual habit, fellow writers — when a line struck me. In the second half of the book, after King lays out his abbreviated memoir, in the opening paragraph on his treatise of the writing progress, he says this:

“I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper…” etc. etc.

Ouch. 

I’ve read On Writing, oh I don’t know, about a dozen times since it was published in 2000, but I guess I’ve glazed over this line. No big deal, normally. Except I’ve also been going to therapy for work-related anxiety. For my work as a newspaper writer.

That line was a blow I felt a little too deeply. Imposter syndrome is a bitch, folks.

I hear you get over it, eventually? At least, I feel like I have, in a huge way.

In early November, I had the honor of attending the Poynter Institute’s Power of Diverse Voices workshop, one of 15 other journalists chosen to deep-dive into four days of personal essay and opinion writing.

I went in with my usual bundle of nerves. I’m not good enough to be with these people. My writing is shit. Why am I bothering? What if they don’t like me? 

Well, friends, in reverse order, I think they liked me, and I bothered, and my writing wasn’t nearly as bad I expected it to be.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the Poynter Institute is a respected non-profit journalism think-tank that trains journalists and media professionals. Poynter hosts seminars and workshops all over the country, but the workshop I attended required traveling to the Institute’s home base of St. Petersburg, Florida, for four days of sun and sand. (Ha, just sun, but only barely.)

While the warm Florida sun blazed outside, enticing tiny lizards and birds to flit about on ground and sky, we journalists were inside, huddled in work groups poring over our words. Sessions varied, as did the instructors (audio training with Eric Deggans of NPR, column writing advice with Aisha Sultan of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, storytelling and focus with Tom Huang from Dallas Morning News), plus some serious time plumbing our depths as writers of color.

Poynter Power of Diverse Voices seminar.

My fellow journalists at the Poynter Power of Diverse Voices seminar.

It was this last point that I am trying to hang on to, like bottling lightning. I’ve never felt so charged, so sure of my faculties, as I did talking to my fellow POC writers. There was no explanatory comma, no having to educate, no emotional labor. These were people who understood the struggle of feeling othered in a newsroom. These were people who knew all too well the chest-crushing weight of Impostor Syndrome and it’s close friend, “Twice as Good” (as in, “to get half as far”). There was the work, and nothing else.

It was emotional. It was taxing. It was healing.

If only writing could be like that, all of the time.

On night one, Roy Peter Clark, legendary Poynter dean, instructor, VP and now, senior scholar, serenaded our group with a keyboard rendition of Smoky Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears,” before hammering home the weekend’s theme: Storytelling from the heart, speaking truth to power, the importance of exploring dangerous places in one’s writing.

The resonance this had on my weekend, as we collectively got braver with pen and paper, became clearer as I interacted and became friends with my fellows. While waiting for my connecting flight to Chicago in Baltimore-Washington airport’s cavernous, empty D gate, I wrote on my Instagram:

It’s too soon to assess what this weekend will do for my writing, but I can say my heart is full to bursting. I got on my flight from Chicago in the wee hours of Thursday morning, slightly terrified and intimidated by the 20 other award-winning journalists I’d be meeting over the course of the weekend, but now I’m waiting for my connecting flight, looking forward to the next time I see my new friends. I’ve been writing and working as a journo for about a decade now, and I think I’m pretty good, if I do say so myself, but I didn’t know how much I was missing, spiritually. How much I needed to be in a room with brown people from Champaign Urbana, from Atlanta, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, Albuquerque. From Pakistan, from India, from Taiwan, from Houston, from Delaware. I didn’t know how much I’d held in, held back. I didn’t realize the extent to which my chest felt constricted and heavy, an explosion waiting to happen. I didn’t realize how alone I felt as a brown gay immigrant journalist, how much I codeswitch not just in my everyday life but in my own writing. This weekend? I’ve cleared away so much of that mental and emotional detritus and see in front of me a clear path, more focused than I’ve ever hoped for. This, without exaggeration, was life-changing.

And just weeks prior, I had my first real breakthrough in therapy, specifically my keen search for my authentic self and voice in my writing. Added together, I realized that I’ve held back so much of who I am, in favor of some alternate-universe me that is more palatable to others. And I’m done.

I was done with the half-life of the closet a decade ago. I was done with the myth of the model minority at about the same time. But did my previous writing, personal and professional, reflect that? Was I brave enough to claim a space in a white-male-hetero- dominant world? I don’t think so, but as of this month, I’m done. Done being the timid human. Worse, the timid writer. The one I now believe to be the subject of Stephen King’s scorn.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but being unapologetically present in my writing is my first step. My new North star.

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