Hold it up to the light — the experience, I mean. Turn it around, mentally, and see it from all the angles. Take it in, process it, learn its nuances and curves. Then pour it all onto the blank page.
That’s what creative nonfiction writers do in essays. They examine the experience, give prose to the unspoken and open a door for others to see in or relate. To do this well, one needs to be open, vulnerable, willing to see both the good and the bad.
We are not ostriches sticking our heads in the sand. We do not turn out backs on the hard things.
As a writer, I tackle a lot of hard subjects: trauma, recovery, death, mass shootings. People see the vulnerability in my writing, they feel my emotions as they are translated into words on a page.
But for me, these are elements of my everyday life. The hard subjects are part of the fabric of my human condition. And I explore them in writing because it both gives me peace to work out the challenges on paper and stokes my curiosity. The vulnerability comes naturally — but only with that which I am ready to share.
I am constantly curious if we are normal. Are our experiences shared by others? Can those who’ve survived things, as we have, relate?
But vulnerability isn’t reserved for only the hardest of experiences. It’s essential for good essays on a variety of subjects — love, parenting, relationships, even food.
In fact, in some ways, those subjects are even more challenging. Instead of being pegged to something universally important — tragedies or news, for instance — they are pegged to the everyday human experience. Will others find a connection in the topic? Will they disagree with you or what you did?
When I was writing an essay that recently appeared in AARP’s The Girlfriend, this was the case. The subject is close to my heart. But would others find something valuable in my words?
The essay was about the end of a valued friendship and how I feel responsible for it. Part of me wondered if it was too personal, too specific to me. Part of me wondered if I was even entitled to share the story. But I felt compelled to — it’s a piece I’ve worked on for more than two years, honing, trimming, rewriting.
It was rejected six times. It received one offer from a paying outlet to publishing it without compensation. I declined. But then, I tried once more and an editor loved it. We entered into contract. It was published several months later.
But even the editor’s enthusiastic response didn’t quelch the anxiety of letting this piece of me into the public.
And that’s the rub of this style of writing. For it to be well-done, it needs that vulnerability. But that vulnerability leaves you raw and exposed. If you’re lucky, the reader response calms your nerves. Eventually.
As it turned out, my friendship essay was very well received. I was the appreciative recipient of emails, comments and texts from people who both related to and appreciated the work. They’d been through similar things. Some even shared their stories.
I’d turned the subject around with my words and eviscerated it from all sides. I was vulnerable in my sheer honesty.
How to explore vulnerability in writing
- Just Write — The first draft should be just words flowing from you onto the screen. Remember: a first draft is just that. You have future drafts to hone the message.
- Don’t Censor Yourself — This goes hand-in-hand with the first tip. Push your internal censor to the side and just let everything come out in your draft. You can always cut things later, but this immediate vulnerability is key to giving yourself enough to work with.
- Be Honest with Yourself — As humans, we have a natural tendency to tell ourselves what we want to hear and to hide our truths that we think will make others think less of us. Again, let go of this tendency and just let the words — the truths — flow.
- Step Away — Once you’ve got that first draft down, step away from your writing for a few hours or a few days. Whatever works for you. Return to it with fresh eyes. That will allow you to read it more fully.
- Consider the Reader — Could your words or your openness help someone? What would you have wanted to read when you were in the situation you’re writing about? These are things to consider as you self edit.
- Ask Yourself: Am I Willing to Have This Read? — Forget your fears of nasty comments and unkind emails. Will this writing help someone? Will it open a window into something others might not think about or be aware of? Consider that. At the same time, consider how your loved ones and religious leaders (if you have them) might receive it. This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker — unless it unnecessarily will hurt someone without helping anyone. All the same, these folks might need a heads up.
- Polish It Without Removing the Soul — In other words, think like an editor. Your goal in self-editing isn’t to take out all the parts you are scared to share. Those are probably some of the best and most valuable parts. Instead, your goal is to make the piece flow in a way that will keep readers reading to the end.
Vulnerability, you see, is the secret to good writing. If you are willing to wade through the tremendously difficult parts to expose that which is important, your writing will be all the better for it.