I’m a compulsive oversharer.
A conversation with Matt Ortile, global editorial operations at Buzzfeed and writer for Details, Out, and Side B.
What’s your story?
My story is about, thus far, having lived a liminal life. I’ve always been working through change and transitions, boundaries and fences.
You moved from Manila, to Vegas, to New York — what are the best and worst aspects of each? Do you ever feel torn between places?
Regarding Las Vegas — let’s just get it out of the way — I never felt like I truly lived there. I was there for middle school and high school, so my life was much more about interiority, my connection with my mother and my family. It was never about the place.
The best thing about Manila is that it’ll always feel like home. I’d like to say the same of New York — I know I belong here — but I constantly feel as though I have to prove my worth to the city. New York always seems to ask, “What have you done to earn your place?” It’s never that way with Manila and me. But the worst thing about Manila is the terrible traffic and infrastructure, so it’s a fair trade off. I think the idea of being “torn between places” is a given for anyone who grew up an immigrant or transnational or a third-culture kid. I’d say it’s more about how do you occupy one place while retaining aspects of the other? Where and how and why do you feel at home in one place, and another, and another? And truthfully, the answer, for me, is a work-in-progress.
Why did you become a writer?
I initially wanted to become an actor. I studied theater performance in high school. But I was rarely in roles that made use of my cultural background and identity. Except for when I was in Miss Saigon. Acting was so much about waiting for the right role to appear and I don’t like waiting. So I began to write about my life, roles that were already my own.
What’s your process for writing so personally?
Honestly, I just do. I’ve no magic formula to getting past a mental block about writing about my life. The only block that I experience is about how to tell a story clearly and compellingly.
This is key for me because some find personal writing cheap or self-indulgent. Others find it intimidating and challenging. For me, to get over all of that, I approach writing personally as sharing. My writing doesn’t necessarily seek to answer a question, but rather to share an experience in the hopes that the people to whom I’m speaking will find themselves reflected in the work, and find some use out of it. I’m a compulsive oversharer, anyway. So when I overshare, I like to make sure it’s worth it.
What was the most powerful piece of writing you have done?
I still get plenty of emails about my piece on breaking up with my ex-boyfriend and reading Barthes. If you’re a human who’s ever had a run-in with romance, chances are you’re in the process of breaking-up, you’ve been broken up with, or you are terrified you’re going to break up. The essay, I’d like to believe, covers all of that.
And people have written to me they enjoyed it because it was neither maudlin nor saccharine. “Cutting” was a word that was tossed around and I like that. I like the idea of a laceration, as did Barthes. A wound, while depth may vary, gets under your skin. These are ideas I continue to deploy in my writing. Or at least attempt to.
What are the main findings about relationships you have uncovered through your writing?
Allow me a disclaimer: I don’t attempt to speak for relationships universally. I’m a strong proponent on speaking from the “I” because I can say, “This is my personal experience.” If you can relate to my fuck-ups, then all the better.
That said, the men I’ve dated seem to prefer the chase. They presume, I suppose, that a capture precedes an escape. So dating has become a game of “Chiller Than Thou.” More often than not, earnestness or genuine expressions of interest are frowned upon. And I hate it. For fuck’s sake, there was some Banksy-esque mural outside my Brooklyn apartment that said “First rule of dating: don’t let them know you’re interested.” If I like you, I’m gonna tell you.
How is your personal life changing since you started writing about it?
A handful of men I’ve dated have come across my writing. Only one of them is constantly terrified that he’s the next subject. Even though I do write about my relationships, I try to make it clear that the ones I enter are never just about acquiring writing fodder.
What are the challenges of personal writing? And the benefits?
For me, writing is my way of making sense of what’s happened and what’s happening in my life. So sometimes the challenge becomes how to write about something current without giving it a sense of finality in my actual life. By the same token, it’s become method for me to write about something in order to move on from it.
You mention books that have influenced your life, such as A Lover’s Discourse. Which other books have influenced your life dramatically?
The Harry Potter series, naturally, was my gateway drug to literature. Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s I Am Not Myself These Days was what got me to start writing nonfiction. The Devil Wears Prada, the book that inspired the movie, led me to my college of choice. And Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth, to me, is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.
Tell us about the book you’re writing.
It’s a book of essays, most of them about the men I’ve dated. Granted, “dated” is a generous term. I’ve titled the collection Field Notes After Dinner. As someone who’s lived a liminal, transitory life, and occupies minority identities (gay, Filipino, immigrant), I’m writing about how the things and people we love — or try to love, I suppose — anchor us in times of great personal change.
What would you love to write more about?
Just more of the book, really. I need to be more aggressively protective about my writing time.
You tested out an ‘Invisible Boyfriend’ app — what would be your dream app?
An app that shows nearby cafés that have WiFi and empty tables next to electric outlets.
What are your tips for managing your relationships online?
I’m still learning how to do this well. But I think being gracious and honest goes a long way. There are already plenty of people being snide on the internet. Talking to someone nice online is refreshing.
And tips for dating (offline) in New York?
Carry business cards. I always use one as a bookmark. And practice your wink. The rest will follow.
You are writing for Side B magazine about dating as a person of color. What are your areas of focus?
So I’m guest editing an issue called Coloring Desire and the broad goal right now is to collect and edit stories that introduce an element of color — as in being a person of color — to narratives of romance, dating, sex, and everything in between. I’m looking to develop some pieces that explore transnational connections, cultural friction, and challenging ideas of what it means to be desired.
Who are your favourite writers?
Those I mentioned above. Also David Sedaris, Edmund White, Ashley C. Ford, Mia Alvar, Alanna Okun, Saeed Jones, Rachel Syme, Zadie Smith. I have many more, but I will devour anything these brilliant humans write.
Which stories by other writers will always stick out in your mind?
I always return to this piece by Alanna Okun, about knitting and life and death. In 1,700 words, she deploys an iceberg so neat and pristine above the water, and so big below the surface.
Name some figures from the Philippines who inspire you.
Geena Rocero, Mia Fermindoza, and my mother.
What should people know about the Philippines? (If they don’t already)
You probably know someone from there. You just haven’t noticed.
Is there something people may be surprised to know about you?
There are still some things I won’t put on the internet. Only a few things, but things.
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