I’ve recently had the privilege of teaching several writing workshops and working with a number of talented writers. Since I have never actually taken a fiction workshop, I’m always putting my workshops together out of issues I’ve faced and cures for writing ailments that have worked for me. The thing about writing, about any art form, is that what we create reflects our individuality—our interests, our passions, hopes and fears. Could anyone but Hemingway have written For Whom the Bell Tolls? Could anyone but Toni Morrison have written Beloved? I always marvel at the many different ways artists can be creative. Even in one workshop there can be quite a range of temperaments and styles.
Vulnerability. Dr. Brenė Brown, a researcher and popular TED-talker who writes about shame and vulnerability, defines the V-word as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” I concur with her definition and also her conclusion that embracing vulnerability is crucial to living a passionate, creative life.
Vulnerability is a word writers toss around a lot, mostly in relation to how exposed they feel to the judgment of others: readers, critics, editors, publishers, agents. The whims of the marketplace, the fancies or fantasies of the book-buying public.
Less often do writers talk, at least publicly, about the vulnerability of putting oneself at risk in front of the blank page (or canvas or stage), where the risk of failure stares back with nothingness on its face, fueling what is sometimes called writer’s block or just plain frigin’ being stuck: the project has fizzled, your muses fled to wherever muses go to loiter and complain.
But I want to talk about another kind of vulnerability necessary to embrace if we want to engage our creative selves. It’s the part of us that gets shut-down early in our lives by parents, teachers, a world that repeatedly encourages us to play it safe.
But within us, I believe, is a self-part that shuns limitations and prescriptions and wishes to cast off the constraints of convention, class, ethnicity, religion or gender. This is the rule-breaker part (even if the rules are ones we set up for ourselves) that seeks to take us to an “edge” inside ourselves, a border that marks an entrance into unknown territory—our very own terra incognita.
Think here of those ancient maps that marked such boundaries, the edges of the known world where serpents and dragons lurked.
And yes, scarily, this is exactly the domain a writer needs to explore, beyond the known, the certain and predictable, though lets face it, predictable is definitely a more comfortable place to hang out. Anne Lamott recommends writers “write toward vulnerability,” a phrase that sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t. We spend weeks on an outline for our next novel. The outline gives us a sense of security and purpose, but on another level it feels confining. Dare we tear it up and proceed without it? Dare we trust instinct over intellect? Dare we trust our own individual, unique way? You bet!
In his essay on America for the New York Times Magazine, the Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard remarks that for a country that prides itself on individualism, we have a strong preference for conformity. (See our chain hotels, our ubiquitous Taco Bells and Arbys, our Gap and Pottery Barn-filled shopping malls.) Unlike so many other places on the globe, we Americans do not tolerate our eccentrics or eccentricity itself very well. Isn’t part of the American expectation that one can go to any country in the world and find a safely familiar Holiday Inn and nearby McDonalds? We are not, I’m afraid, so fond of Difference.
The carry over for a writer in the corporatization of all things American is the pressure to write the next Harry Potter series, the next Fifty Shades of Grey. The next American Sniper. The next novel about a.) Vampires b.) Terrorism c.) Post Traumatic Stress.
Not that there aren’t worthy and necessary stories to be told about these subjects, only that what might be determining their telling is more the lure of the marketplace than anything else. We like new ideas if they fit with our old ideas, and we especially like new ideas that reinforce what we already believe, that is, old ideas dressed up in new clothes.
It takes enormous courage to embrace vulnerability as a strategic and crucial aspect of our creative selves. The poet Rilke asks us to “live the questions.” Carl Jung suggested the project of individuation is to “live ourselves.” All creation begins in chaos, begins in the formless void where all possibilities live. For those of you reading this who are writers or creators of any stripe, the risk is to follow our hunches and explore our instincts without any assurance for success. My friend, the writer Kevin McIlvoy, calls this state ‘blessed insanity,” and how right he is! Isn’t it true that what frightens us most about taking a risk isn’t our failure in the eyes of others, but the fear that we have failed to risk living our desires?