graphic of Tina VasquezI recently came to the realization that my life is full of extremes, and those extremes facilitate my work as a writer. This revelation struck while I was sitting in bed on a Saturday night, simultaneously editing an e-learning course on fair housing laws and watching the America’s Cutest Cat countdown on Animal Planet. This brief indulgence in the hilarious and heartwarming antics of curious cats provoked a moment of self-reflection. I was compelled to consider the ways my own curiosity drives me, personally and professionally. Writers are known to be troublemakers, after all — though perhaps this is an unfair casting unless viewed in the right sort of light.

As evidence of my unruly ways, I’d spent the previous weekend with a group of friends in San Francisco’s Castro District. I threw back doubles of Crown Royal in wonderfully seedy dives and chatted up the oddest strangers I could find. Essentially, I was looking for trouble. But in a way, I’m always looking for trouble, alcohol notwithstanding or required.

By all accounts, I am a responsible adult. During the day, I work, write, and volunteer for a women’s rehabilitation program. I go grocery shopping and cook for my aging father and great uncle. I walk the dog and feed the cat. When the sun sets, however, I get an all-too-familiar itch to seek out the untamed.

So, what does being a troublemaker mean anyway? For me, it means going places I’ve been told not to go, doing things I’ve been told not to do, talking to people I’ve been told not to talk to, and writing about it all with humility and compassion. This lifestyle is deemed unsuitable for a “good Latina” like me. Sometimes you have to toe the line, but other times you have to be willing to step over it and see where the other side leads.

My connection to outsiders started when I was young. I was always attracted to things that seemed out of place, pushed boundaries, or had clearly gone awry. When driving in downtown Los Angeles with my dad, he would lock the car doors and tell me to avert my eyes from the people who were struggling with homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and disease. But his warnings only widened my field of vision and amplified my interest in the troubled lives that were being vehemently ignored.

As a young adult, I spent hours driving around the same dodgy areas with a friend in the middle of the night. When that wasn’t getting me close enough to the action, I ditched the car to walk around on the streets. (This was about the same time Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote a series about Skid Row that would become one of my favorite pieces of journalism.)

I developed an unquenchable desire to understand how this hell on earth came to be. My questions eventually led to anger that my city had failed so many. My anger led to me discovering that I had a gift for deep inquiry and exploration through writing.

Today, my curiosity fuels what I do for a living. It pushes me to want to know the who, what, where, when, why, and how of everything — the more disputed the topic, the more engaging it is to me. My goal is to write about people’s lives respectfully, never dehumanizing or exploitative. I want to tell their stories as honestly as I can and shed a bit of light into some of society’s darker corners.

In many ways, I have been lucky that my curiosity hasn’t gotten me killed. It has placed me in more than a few unsafe situations. I’ve been in cars I shouldn’t have been in, with people I shouldn’t have been with. I’ve been cornered in dark alleys. I’ve been followed. I’ve had my life threatened. My flirtation with danger wasn’t a healthy courtship, and I am fortunate to have sidestepped a messy ending. Still, I go on to the next story.

Not all of my work is focused on situations of heartbreak and melancholy. In fact, much of what I write to pay the bills takes a lighter tone. Juggling this odd combination has landed me with innumerable moments of absurdity. Accidental offense is an on-the-job hazard.

While writing an article for my local newspaper, I went to an elementary school to observe a class of fourth graders. When fishing in my purse for a business card to give the classroom teacher, I accidentally pulled out one for a self-proclaimed “anal expert” I’d met in a bar a week earlier. The card pictured the man in a latex dog suit. Although I quickly pushed the card back into my bag — hoping the teacher hadn’t seen it — the look on her face indicated otherwise. I smiled self-consciously as I handed her the correct one.

I didn’t go to college to learn how to write. In fact, I didn’t finish college at all. Instead, I built my career on being curious and trusting my instincts. As a writer, the only thing about which you can be certain is that those two traits will guide you to where you need to be. And just like those comical kitties, I always seem to land on my feet.

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