Why writers need to walk the pilgrim edge of vulnerability
Vulnerability and courage are intimately linked. Both require and nourish integrity. When we share something of ourselves with the world, our art or a truth, we shift the power away from ourselves. We stand naked, saying, ‘This is what I have, now over to you.’
Art and truth are gifts. They don’t come from grudging excuses or self-defence. There’s no way to protect ourselves once we’ve let go of our poem or novel or article, which is all the more of the nature of a ‘gift’. Once we let go of what we’ve created, we’re exposed.
As writers, we put ourselves in this position because we have something to say. We have a story that is urgent and we want to give it to the world — as a blog, a poem, a novel … We care passionately and we want to help. But our need to give is also balanced against a desire to be needed.
And this puts us into a delicate position. One which David Whyte, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Meaning of Everyday Words, describes as:
the meeting of two immense storm fronts, the squally vulnerable edge between what overwhelms human beings from the inside and what overpowers them from the outside
I have an image of King Lear, naked in the storm, raging and broken and telling the elements to do their worst. He’s given and given and given and it hasn’t been well received. But his giving was, sadly, always doomed. He not only cast his pearls before swine, but fell for flattery and false adulation.
It’s not enough to be vulnerable. It has to be done with humility. This is David Whyte again, talking about the two storm fronts of needing to give and needing to be seen and how we balance them:
Walking the pilgrim edge between the two, holding them together, is the hardest place to stay, to breathe of both and make a world of both and to be active in their exchange: aware of our need to be needed, our wish to be seen, our constant need for help and succor, but inhabiting a world of luminosity and intensity, subject to the wind and the weather, surrounded by the music of existence, able to be found by the living world and with a wild self-forgetful ability to respond to its call when needed; a rehearsal in fact for the act of dying, a place where inside and outside can reverse and flow with no fixed form
The stuff of vulnerability
Vulnerability is not
- parading our lives on Facebook as ‘spectacle’; a ‘selfie’ doesn’t reveal anything about us, except the image we’re trying to create
- drama, or forgetting the boundaries of privacy, or giving, like Lear, for all the wrong reasons
- an openness, a susceptibility that renders us capable of being wounded and just as capable of being wholly in the moment, emotion and depth of all that life can be
- the courage to face both the inner voices of doubt, and the outer random events that come hurtling our way, with grace and equanimity.
In Turn: the journal of an artist, sculptor Anne Truitt writes:
When I entered the gallery in which my sculptures were installed, I fell back — actually stepped back — before the force of my own feelings distilled into forms rendering visible their own beings. Tears rose to my eyes and from that freshest of feeling the unchangeable and unchanging truth: I am always, and always will be, vulnerable to my own work, because by making visible what is most intimate to me I endow it with the objectivity that forces me to see it with utter, distinct clarity. A strange fate. I make a home for myself in my work, yet when I enter that home I know how flimsy a shelter I have wrought for my spirit. My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity.
In V is for Vulnerable, Seth Godin adds:
Vulnerable is the only way we can feel when we truly share the art we’ve made. When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we’ve given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us. And that is part of our gift.
Vulnerability resonates with compassion, humility and courage. It asks of writers that we are willing to:
- be alone with ourselves and our art
- consider the world without illusions and tell what we see
- take risks
- fail — again and again
- give gifts that may not be appreciated or understood
- let go of the shiny social media persona that is posed for adulation and ‘likes’
So why be vulnerable?
- Because it’s impossible to give any art to the world in any other way.
- Because our stories matter and have to be told.
- Because in being this naked and raw we touch something of numinous and power, we connect with life itself.
When we put ourselves out there, on the storm front, not defended by shallow selfie-images of a perfect life, but in our real work, then we may become targets, but we also connect with all that really matters. We become authentic. We become writers of integrity. We might still ache to be loved and lauded, but we are not going to sell our souls for it.
And when this is who we are as writers then our writing, as tentative and uncertain as it might be, pulses with what is deeply spritual, profound, sensual and wild.
Writing about Walt Whitman in Upstream, Mary Oliver describes his poetry as offering:
a way to live … that is intelligent and emotive and rich … — no politics, no liturgy, no down payment. Just attention, sympathy, empathy.
Vulnerability offers us this way to live if we have the courage to offer our gifts.
Call to become your story
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