On Writing and Vulnerability

Guest Post by Shelly Brown

Shelly


In general people don’t like to be vulnerable.

Why? Because by it’s very definition vulnerable means to be ‘susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.’

Who would want that?

We do.

While we fear vulnerability, we also crave it. Vulnerability is responsible for our closest relationships. Vulnerability drives our pursuit of dreams. Vulnerability allows us the freedom to make mistakes, to be flawed, to be perfectly imperfect and be okay with that.

So what does that have to do with writing? Well, a heck of a lot more than I’m going to be able to go over in this post, but here are a few things to mull over in your mind as you look at your craft, your dreams, and yourself.

THE ROUGH BEGINNINGS

Writing leaves us vulnerable. And not everybody understands that. They ask questions like:

“You’re going to publish a book and get rich, right?”

“Are you still writing that same book?”

“Isn’t it impossible to get published?”

“Isn’t it really easy to get published nowadays?”

“Don’t you feel guilty taking all of that time on just a hobby?”

“I mean you’re not really an author or anything.”

Questions like these and many others leave us feeling raw and foolish. We are unguarded. There are many closet writers out there for this reason. They are afraid of the criticism that comes before selling even a single book.

But for those of you who proudly press on I applaud you. It’s not easy to show up to writing group and be the only person still not published. It’s not easy to put up with your brother’s rude mocking of your dream every Thanksgiving. It’s not easy to sit your butt in the chair and put your hands on the keys on days when you feel like a complete failure (and for a lot of writers this happens at some point.) But you push past those uncomfortable, vulnerable feelings and write anyway.

Impressive.

People will still ask odd questions.

When people ask questions like the ones above I usually try to remember that they don’t understand what it really takes to write and publish stories. Most of them aren’t trying to be insulting or dig at your work. And those who are trying to attack you are just sad. It’s a shame that they don’t use that energy to create art of their own.

FEELING DEEPLY AND MINING FOR EMOTION

Vulnerability does many wonderful things to the human heart and shouldn’t be discounted when writing any genre of fiction.

I mention feeling deeply because it is an important part for me in creating authentic emotion in my writing. I write Middle Grade so it to be fair my stories may not seem to delve as deep into emotions as some other genres, but I don’t care if you’re a picture book writer or a copy writer, you’ll need to understand emotion.

Why? Because emotions greatly affect whether readers prefer one book over another. It’s about connection and resonance.

Emotions sell your book (or product, or service, or even a toothbrush.) Psychologists, marketers, and writing teachers agree on this point.

Frank Kafka said, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

An ax to crack through those protective walls we build around our hearts or the ice that our readers have built up. To break in and allow us all to explore in the warm depths that lie beneath the frozen surface. In order for your book to do this we must pour salt water emotions upon the page. We must be already swimming in the sea, digging out fears, loves, weaknesses, nightmares, loss, revelations, and the myriad of other things floating in our vulnerable insides.

We must be willing to then put those feelings to paper. We must take emotional risks. We can’t just put the part of us out there that is good, we must know why our our character errs or our villains think they are heros. It leaves us exposed and for some people it is very uncomfortable.

But Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly said, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

In fact your story will be stronger for it.

VULNERABILITY IN CHARACTERS

Marjorie Pay Hinkley recounts a true story in the book Glimpses into the Life and Heart of Marjorie Pay Hinkley of a woman in her fifties who decided to take up the piano. After a year of practice she was asked to perform for the ladies in her church. She starts out beautifully but falters after three measures and then gets lost. One woman tells her not to be ruffled but to just start over. So she does and Marjorie goes on to say, “We have never loved Merle like we loved her that morning. Perhaps it was because she faltered a little in the beginning and we were all pulling for her, saying to ourselves, ‘Come on, Merle, you can do it.’ If her performance had been flawless from the start, we might all have been defensive and said, ‘Oh well, Merle can learn to play the piano because her husband is the kind who will get his own breakfast while she practices and her children don’t make demands on her’ and so on and so on and so on. As it was, she faltered a little, and we loved her the more.”

Now this story is about a real person not an imaginary character, but it illustrates what I am trying to say so beautifully I couldn’t help but include it. Merle wasn’t loved because of her perfect performance and flawless skills. No, she was loved because she was trying something hard, she got scared, she struggled, and courageously tried again. It was in the struggle, in the failing, that they learned to love her. The same can be said about our characters.

It’s in the flaws. It’s in the vulnerability.

A lot of writing advice tells you to craft a sympathetic character. A character that readers can identify with. The advice usually looks something like this:

• Give them a goal (but don’t make it too easy. They need to fight for it.)

• Give them some kryptonite (This Superman reference means that they can’t be impenetrable. They must have at least one great weakness.)

• Give them a secret (often times this is something that they’re not proud of.)

Our characters must be vulnerable. It is critical to character likability. Even if a character is practically perfect in every way they must have a love interest that they’d do anything for, a fear of snakes, or a nasty drug habit that brings their infallibility down several notches.

The truth is we tire of perfect people and cheer for underdogs. We can’t help ourselves.

AND BEYOND

It would be nice to say that once you’re published then you no longer have to worry about vulnerability with your work but alas this might be where things become the most vulnerable.

Critics, both professional and Goodreads-style have a lot to say about published books. From insulting the writing style to the character’s decisions to the cover art, they voice their concerns publicly and sometimes quite loudly. I’m not suggesting that in our embracing vulnerability we read all of our Goodreads reviews (though if you feel like you learn a lot from them, then go right ahead), but that you don’t let such things force you to build walls around yourself again.

Don’t be surprised:

If your books don’t sell like your publisher anticipated.

If nobody shows up to your book signing.

If your sequel gets lambasted by Kirkus.

If your royalty check comes back smaller than anticipated.

Embrace it! Roll around in the truth that is what being an author is like. There are up days and there are down days but what you can’t do is let the amazing amounts of vulnerability you have put out there dry up. That’s your well that you must draw from. Keep it primed. Stay humble and open.

In order for your art to flourish you need to be able to access your emotions. You must remain vulnerable.

At least those have been my thoughts as of late.

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.

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