16 January 2017

Lessons in Vulnerability

In preparing for a reading I'm giving next weekend, I came across a piece I wrote in 2012 for a creative nonfiction class. It's probably the most honest thing I've ever written, and therefore the most frightening thing I've ever written. I'm choosing to share it here because I think some of you will be able to relate.

Lessons in Vulnerability

I’ve been looking forward to this class for months. Looking forward to the opportunity to be safe, to be vulnerable, to establish a regular writing practice, to have a reason to write. But on the first day I close up, wall myself off. I’m not even aware of it until a classmate tries to start a conversation with me during break. She is only showing interest in me as a person, asking questions about my life and background. But I watch myself as I sit back in my chair with my arms crossed tightly over my chest and give short, unrevealing answers. I watch myself play defensive guardian of my heart and can do nothing to stop it. Don’t know how to stop it.

And it is too late anyway; I already love them all. In the way that bell hooks defines love: as an act, as a commitment to mutual physical, spiritual and emotional well-being. I already love them all. My fear is that they won’t love me back.

We go down the line introducing ourselves, sharing our questions about writing and selections from our freewrites. Inwardly I shake, dreading my turn, torn between being vulnerable and reading something safe. I want so much to choose the former, but I am afraid that I will start crying, as I did in the last class I tried to take. Afraid that I will again not be able to quiet the tears and sobs, will have to excuse myself, will never come back: too ashamed of the depth of my emotions to return. That can’t happen. I need this class.

Someone shares a question about how to write her truth, how to get over her fear of exposure.

Another classmate reads from her freewrite—a description of an exoskeletoned animal curling up on itself, a metaphor for emotional retreat—and I find myself suppressing a sneer, which surprises me. Do I think she is being inauthentic? Perhaps. She has already established herself as confident: being the first to volunteer and reading aloud in a strong, clear voice. The very metaphor she has written is at odds with her personna. Am I jealous? Definitely. What she wrote was what good writing is supposed to be—imagery and metaphor—and is not what comes out of me. My writing is disembodied. I am jealous of her confidence and of the habits of mind that allow her to form metaphors on the fly. I am jealous of her freedom from doubt.

I relate more to Isaiah’s trembling hands. I see his facial muscles flicker when it comes his turn to share. A war beneath the surface. I too know that war, though I am usually adept at hiding it. I admire him for acknowledging his struggle.

One woman’s first writing memory is of giving a boy a Valentine poem she wrote for him, which he laughed at before shredding. A collective reaction at once empties the classroom of air and fills it with sound: some sharply draw in breath while others make the same “Oh!” noise that expresses disappointment when the favored team misses a goal. A sound that expresses empathy and solidarity with our classmate as well as unanimous disapproval of the boy from her memory.

There is a woman in class who wants to write about her relationship with her father, but she is worried about how her mother will feel. She is editing herself before she has even begun writing. There is a limit, it seems, to the truth we can tell.

We can find no end of excuses for not writing, for not telling our truths. Someone might get hurt. I have no time and energy because I give it all to my job. Or to my kids. Many times, before I even begin writing, I talk myself out of it. No one will want to read that, I say. It’s boring. It’s nothing. You might as well not waste time putting it down.

Later, for homework, I will read a short piece by Patricia Hampl that is about nothing in particular. Her first piano lesson: so what? But Hampl’s writing is beautiful. Mine is not. It is straightforward, honest and clear, but it is not beautiful. I have not read anyone who writes like I do. This leads me to believe that my style is not good. In order to be good, it has to have metaphor and symbolism and unique description. Good writing says old things in new ways so that we fall in love with the old thing all over again. See its truth in a new light.

I tell myself that I have nothing to say. Or that what I have to say is not new, or that I have nothing old to say in a new way. And when I believe I do have something new to say, I tell myself that it’s too new: people won’t understand or won’t agree. Besides, good memoir describes a memory or a collage of memories and extrapolates meaning from them, and I am coming at this backwards; I have a thesis that I want to support with memory, not the other way around. And there are holes in my logic. The support for my argument is too weak.

I never have a strong enough argument for anything except why I shouldn’t write.

But the true reason I don’t write is fear. It is the boy who laughed at the Valentine, the teacher who punished a classmate for writing the word “shit,” the reaction to the writing that caused a girl to curl up inside herself. It is a fear of being exposed, of being vulnerable, and of having my truth disavowed or used against me. To be punished for telling my truth.

And I am afraid of what that truth might reveal. I am afraid that I am stupid and unkind. Crazy. A bad person. I am afraid I deserve to feel ashamed.

Sitting at the light to leave campus, large, warm tears trickle down my face.

Why are you crying? Stop crying. People will see you. What are you worried about? What are you afraid of? It’s all in your head. Grow up. Get over it. Act your age. Self-doubt and self-loathing are for the immature and amateur. How are you supposed to be taken seriously when you’re such a fucking wreck? No one’s told you that you can’t be yourself; you just chose to hear it that way. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Quit playing the victim.

I try to wipe away the tears, but they are still coming fast.

Stop crying! People will see. People will see.

Let them see.


  1. Oh. I LOVE this. I too have lived this fear. The book you edited was all about overcoming that fear. The limit to the truth we tell is our minds. I had to silence everything, every fear, every doubt in order to hear myself. In the end I could not stop the fear so I decided to write my truth anyway. To write it afraid. It's working out okay so far. More power to all those who write from the depths of their vulnerable shaky hearts. More power to you :)

    1. And I'm so glad you did, Tab! It's interesting that you talk about having to silence all the other voices in order to hear yourself. A friend who has written a book about the many internal obstacles to creativity calls that Cultivating Quiet.

  2. This is gorgeous. I don't know any writers that don't feel this, yet we convince ourselves that no one else feels it, and we're the absolute worst. You're the best! Thanks for sharing

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    2. Thank you so much, Katie. Knowing I'm not alone in this helps. =*)