Stick the Knife In: Then Twist (a new essay about writing)
I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately. It’s no mystery why my thoughts keep going there – I’ve been writing a memoir about being a sister for the past two years. Naturally I would feel vulnerable writing about family, right? After all, the funny/but not funny joke in nonfiction and memoir writing classes is: “I want to write about my family, but I have to wait for them all to die first.”
That’s a bit extreme. But it does show the depth of vulnerability many writers experience when even considering writing about personal topics. And family is often one of the most personal. Of course there are many other subjects that are also personal, and require a writer to be vulnerable. Illness, physical or mental trauma, experiencing some event (either painful or joyful) out of the ordinary – all of these have their place on the vulnerability spectrum. Writing about any of them requires the writer to go inward, excavate, examine, and then turn that into engaging prose.
So much easier not to even go there. So much easier not to probe.
But I would argue that all writing requires us to be vulnerable. Fiction and poetry as well as memoir and other nonfiction, such as the personal essay. Any time we put words on a page and “put it out there” we are exposing ourselves. I don’t know about most of you, but when I even think about writing as exposing myself, I get a little bit skittish. I feel a little bit faint. That’s probably why a lot of my students over the years don’t make that final leap into publication. It’s safer not too.
Or is it? It’s always the writer’s choice whether he or she seeks publication. I speak from experience that it is a very vulnerable position to be in, especially now, when any reader can read and comment on your work, whether it’s to praise it or spew vitriol. In the old days of newspaper writing, when a reader had something to say about one of my columns, he or she had to type an actual letter to the editor and mail it. I’m sure that kept a lot of the crazies at bay.
It makes me wonder why anyone would voluntarily go to this vulnerability place. This place that the dictionary defines as, variously, “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm,” or “helpless, defenseless, powerless, impotent, weak.”
I don’t want any of those definitions to describe my writing or my life, and I doubt you do either.
Maybe as writers we need to grab vulnerability by the throat, tackle it to the ground, and expose its power. A power that can mend as well as hurt, can impart strength by exposing weakness and then stomping on it.
Yes, this requires you to be brave. Yes, this requires you to not wait until every member of your family and circle of friends has passed on. If you are a writer, though, you also know in your heart of hearts that vulnerability is essential. Vulnerability hurts, but it also heals.
If you are nervous and feeling vulnerable about whether your prose exposes a “you” that you don’t necessarily want to expose, that’s natural. But that vulnerability is also likely what drove you to write that same prose. Where your strongest writing might be. I suggest just going for it. Write the piece for yourself, to start. You can always decide later what form it will ultimately take, or whether you want to go for publication. You may find that by being vulnerable on the page, your writing itself will grow stronger.