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Going first-person: On the road, finding my voice

on the road

Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The first story I ever had published in a newspaper almost got me disowned--or at least temporarily disliked by several relatives. I was maybe 16 years old and it was my first venture into first-person writing. A teacher made my class enter a local column-writing contest, leaving me with no choice: I had to write about me --- what I thought, what I was feeling, how I saw the world.

I hated it.

It remains one of the toughest assignments I’ve ever had and it was probably then that I decided that if I ever became a journalist, I’d write about people and death and weather --- anything but myself.

But that was before May, before my soon-to-be editor called with an assignment I couldn’t refuse. He asked if I’d be willing to spend my summer on the road with an amazing photographer, traveling across the country and writing about the recession. Scratch that. Blogging about the recession.

There’s a distinction. Writing about the recession would mean I could remain a faceless byline, conveying with some distance the stories of the people we met along the road. That part excited me. Blogging about it meant telling not only their stories, but mine as well. It meant not only introducing readers to a dying man whom we picked up along the road, but describing the silence that filled the car afterward. That part terrified me.

The photographer, Michael Williamson, and I would drive more than 20,000 miles and talk to hundreds of people along the way. And if you read the blog, Half a Tank, closely, you can hear the tone change slightly that first week. You can hear me searching for my voice.

From our first day on the road, June 1: Distant memories of tobacco fields behind him and the uncertainty of tomorrow before him, Robert Crawley was panhandling on a Georgetown sidewalk when Michael and I approached him about noon. He had 97 cents in his paper cup and $2 in his pocket.

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Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael and I are barely present in the story.

Then on June 3, the tone begins to shift. We are becoming characters in our own story: We were driving toward the lightning in the distance – “flickering on and off like a street lamp with a loose wire in the wind,” Michael said from the driver’s seat, turning toward me to see if I was as captivated by the flashes as he was. I wasn’t. I was busy looking for ticks in my hair.

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Driver's eye view of a suprisingly truck free Interstate 81. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Finally, on June 8, our first post about what it's really like for us on the road--what we're seeing, and now, in a way that doesn't fit with traditional newspaper journalism, how it hits us:

Michael and I both drink diet Coke, but early on in the trip, he noticed I fill my fountain cup with only a little ice. “That’s the poor person’s method,” he said. Get the most for your money, he meant. It was a statement that revealed as much about him as it did about me.

It took me about a week to find my voice -- to find a way to write about everyone we were meeting without pretending we weren’t part of the conversation. My editor, Marc Fisher, had told me early on that Michael and I were part of this story, that it was our job to take readers on this trip with us. And within days of the assignment, I knew he was right. On our third day, Michael knelt down next to a tent in the woods and his knee landed in feces. I might not have mentioned that detail in a newspaper story, but I felt it was important to do so in the blog. It not only showed just how weak the man in the tent was, but also conveyed our willingness to give readers an unfiltered, raw view of what we were finding. This was a way to let readers know they were going to see the recession’s impact across the country exactly as we were seeing it. Whether Michael and I wanted to be or not, we were part of the story.

We decided early on that we were not going to waste people’s time by telling where we stopped for lunch or how we take our coffee (we hated that about other blogs). But we agreed that if our own experiences added to the context, I was going to mention them. Nothing was off limits.

That's what got me in trouble with that piece I wrote in high school.

It was about an aunt who walked me home from elementary school, stopping along the way to pick pecans from the storm drains. It was about how I loved those walks until one day a boy from school saw us, realized that my aunt was mentally challenged and told everyone in my class that my mother was “retarded.” It was about what I lost the moment I decided to walk a few feet away from her.

For some of my relatives, the piece was too revealing. They were angry that I had made public what was supposed to be private, that I had said too much. It probably wouldn’t have even been an issue if it had remained a class assignment. But I won the contest. The story was published in the local newspaper.

By Theresa Vargas  | December 7, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Hard choices, How I got that story  
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