A different kind of journalist

By Sanjana Reddy

Journalists are storytellers. And while they need a creative and imaginative mind like many exceptional authors, these writers require something more: an immense respect for their characters. Their characters are not princesses in need of rescue or villains that must be subdued. They are real people. Real people with real stories, real struggles and real emotions. By hardening ourselves to the world, journalists can complete this difficult task. But when you are the character and it’s your own story that needs to be shared, how do the hardened storytellers adapt?   

I listened to several panelists at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speak about their personal narratives and how they found the courage to share some of the most intimate stories with the world.

On July 23 of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference panelists, Jia Tolentino, Michael Graff, and Sarah Hepola answered a question from the audience. They discussed personal essay writing and how they feel about sharing their stories with both public audiences and people close to them.

“The trick is to report my story like any other story,” writer and panelist Michael Graff said.

He, along with New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, sustain a career as experienced personal essay writers. They must learn to be comfortable with receiving both positive and negative responses from readers of their pieces, and about their lives.    

“Other people’s opinions of me are generally not my business,” Tolentino said. “And that can be the freeing thing you need to be able to feel confident.”

Yet, at times, these opinions are needed. Sarah Hepola, the author of “Blackout,” describes her initial fears of being judged about her memoir on struggles with alcoholism. “I don’t want to understate this, I was terrified the whole time,” Hepola said. “And really the scariest thing is when nobody does anything. Nobody cares.”

Although this notion may persuade beginning writers to elaborate upon their original emotional experiences in a book to please audiences, columnist Jeffrey Weiss advises against it.

Jeffrey Weiss, a 62-year-old columnist living with glioblastoma, discusses maintaining his personal voice and giving tips to others while writing about living with glioblastoma.

“I’m not putting on a red nose and squeaking it,” Weiss said on maintaining his personal voice. “I’m trying to be myself.”

Weiss has been living with brain cancer since his diagnosis in December and is expected to live about two more years. In the limited time the 62-year-old has left, he said he is determined to give tips to others with incurable illnesses who need it and write “in a way that has an aroma of flavors that readers can appreciate.”

Every one of these authors and journalists have progressed further into personal revelations through their writing than many have in the past and have had their work received and recognized by a wide audience of readers.  Yet, I still wondered how they found the courage to disclose these untold stories to the people they know and care about. This, in my opinion, seemed like a more frightening prospect than simply facing a crowd of strangers whose judgements can be ignored.

I directed my question to a few panelists at the last session of the conference. From Hepola, I finally received an answer that made the most sense to me. I understood that these people had accepted themselves in the deepest ways possible and thus it allowed them to write their very genuine stories in a fashion that garnered the attention and respect of millions.

“I think it’s a great human experience in being seen fully,” Hepola said. “But if you can’t be seen fully by the people that are closest to you, it may not be time to do that publicly.”

Featured Image: Sarah Hepola, Mike Graff and Jia Tolentino discuss the repercussions of publishing personal narratives. Photo courtesy of Junebug Clark