Vulnerability Makes Strong Writing by Shan Jeniah Burton

Vulnerability scares me. More than that – it flat-out terrifies me. It clenches me, makes me cower, eyes huge and darting, looking for the direction and nature of the coming attack.
But I can’t share my deeper self by hiding.
I’ve been vulnerable, split wide open. As a child, I was often the target of frustrations and rages that rolled through our home like wildfires. Years later, I sobbed as I held a dying fiance, and again as my husband sat in a tiny NICU room, holding the body of our twelve-day-old son, unable to let him go.
I’m in no hurry to feel these things again, but I’m realizing, now, that there is strength in these raw and broken times. There’s understanding and growth that can’t come except through such catastrophic shreddings of the fabric of our lives.
I was raised in a home where parents hit and humiliated, in a milder version of what had been done to them. While I was still very young, I started to learn how to read people – body language, tone of voice, actions, the deeper meanings that lie beneath their words, the things they choose to focus on. More than that, I’m highly sensitized to others’ emotional energy. I can feel people from an empathic place deeper than language.
It was a survival skill, a way to know when danger loomed, maybe forestall it, and it’s saved me from many altercations with people who were not in control, or who intended me harm.
It’s made me a better writer, too, because adding these elements and frictions to the interactions between characters breathes deeper life and more complex motivations into the ways they think and treat one another.
I am the mother of a baby who died without ever crying. That’s a hard thing to live with, a forever shadow in my bright and happy life. I am the mother of two thriving children, and a dead one. There’s an unspeakable paradox in that.
It hurts – and hiding only makes the hurt worse, makes it impossible to share that paradox, to claw my way back to the brighter places when the shadows grab me.
Writing about vulnerable topics tends to be roundabout, for me. With Elijah, it began, several years ago, with fantasy fiction. I worked through much of my own heartache when my female protagonist had a child who died shortly after birth. Her life, like mine, was irrevocably altered, on nearly every level.
Within the last year or so, I have begun writing poetry about Elijah, and there is still deeper healing, nearly ten years after his death, in honoring all that happened, and all that it has meant in my life, my marriage, my mothering.
I’ve come to feel and value the healing strength of writing this way, along with the honest life in the writing itself.
And yet, I often fear and resist it. I hesitate, dancing written flamencos around powerfully emotional topics, without delving into them on a personal level.
Here’s an excerpt from the previous draft of this post:
~~ As I read others’ blogs, books, interact with people, and watch TV, I see that I am not alone. Many others, it seems, share my fear and unease with vulnerability. There is an incredible amount of marketing and political maneuvering that plays upon vulnerability. ~~
This passage splashes impotently on the surface of thought, never rippling the pools of my personal vulnerabilities.
That’s right.
In the midst of an essay on openness and vulnerability, I was hiding, protecting my soft underbelly, afraid to expose myself to you, or maybe even to myself.
We’re all vulnerable. We all die – the ultimate vulnerability. We grow older, we lose loved ones, jobs, sometimes homes and even our memories. We are stabbed by thoughtless words, broken apart by tragedies large and small.
Instinct says to shield our vitals, curl into a fetal position, and hide from the pain of our own frailties; gird ourselves in armor, to stay safe.
I’m challenging myself, and you, to go deeper– and, sometimes, to do so with pen and notebook, or keyboard, daring to record what is within us, laying ourselves bare – and giving ourselves the chance to find peace, healing, connection, and strength in the sharing.
I’m looking forward to the opportunity to honor your vulnerability – and your strength in embracing and sharing it.
~*~

10 comments

  1. Your post touched me deeply. We all have some deep vulnerability that we spend time and effort to hide, The writer has to tap into this, or else the people who populate the stories are cardboard. The brave, invincible hero is boring. What does he need an enemy for? If he has no possibility of ever erring he’s not worth knowing.

    Cherish your family. This post must have torn your heart out to write.

    Thanks

  2. tomwisk,

    For a long time, my characters were cardboard. In my own life, I was hiding from the whole truth of my childhood, and, in so doing, there were passionate emotions I couldn’t let my characters feel, either.

    As I realized that I needed to embrace and understand the totality of my experiences and how I felt about them, the floodgates opened for my characters, too. They revealed a whole array of feelings, flaws, and motivations I had never suspected.

    They became real.

    As far as this post, I went through several drafts, and none were right. I finally shared it with my friend Sylvia, who told me, nicely, that I was hiding.

    Once I accepted that, it was uncomfortable, but liberating, to really write it.

    I’m glad it touched you, and that you took a moment to let me know.

  3. Shan, I admire your courage in being so open. I too learned early how to read others around me, a necessary survival skill. Later, in the workplace, from the beginning, I experienced discrimination — and again learned a different set of survival skills. Sometimes now I think that being truly open is something I no longer know how to do. It takes much for me to trust someone. But I do know this: Each day is a precious gift; we are blessed with those we love and who love us. If we are further blessed with the drive to create something, then so we must pursue this art that requires commitment, discipline, craft, and above all, honesty. May you so continue loved and loving. Beth

    1. Beth,

      Beautifully said.

      I find your poetry to be open and daring….maybe that’s a safer space, for you.

      One of the things I’ve learned is to spend this precious life with people with whom I don’t have to armor myself. It lets me be more open, and more fearlessly who I am.

      May you also continue to love and be loved – or, in other words, ‘live long and prosper’.

  4. from a silgthly different base – not tradgy but dyspraxia which left me wide open to other’s misunderstandings I struggled to learn the body language necessary to interact )l – socially inept is a still a problem. While I learnt (for self survival) i had to run through others dismissal, anger, bulllying and social isolation. You are right to think these kind of things must bleed into our writing – but it is difficult and for years i buried the bad and worked on getting life good – only when I was content with myself, understood who I was, and made sense of the world could I say openly – I was different and it didn’t matter.

    Your sorrows are on a different level to my misalignment and the courage you need is huge – you have done well:)

    1. alberta,

      I come with a very keen awareness of body language. I suspect I can only imagine the tip of the iceberg of what it would be to need to translate the things others would assume I could read – so much of in-person interaction is non-verbal.

      When Elijah died, I was working at a small family day care. As I prepared to return to work, my boss (who was a friend, as well), said something valuable and profound.

      “Everyone’s biggest problem is as big as everyone’s biggest problem.”

      How to measure the sudden shock of a healthy baby becoming not in the process of being born to the lifelong struggle to translate a foreign language innately understood by most?

      Can’t be done.

      I’ve suffered the losses, and I live with the grief – and I do it in the midst of a deeper joy and peace than I ever suspected existed. Elijah is not here, but Jeremiah and Annalise are, and, when so many marriages fall apart with the of a child, ours grew wider, deeper, and stronger.

      The shadows make the sweetness brighter.

      I’m glad there is an Internet that levels the playing field, so that you can share without needing to translate! =D

  5. We do need to tap into those raw emotions as we write layered characters and inner conflict. I’m so sorry for your loss, but writing a character who experiences what you have can tap into that experience for a reader as well. I know that reading novels about others’ joys and sorrows have expanded my own view of life.

    I’ll be thinking about how I can be open to these feelings as I write as well.

    1. Julie,

      I tend to prefer emotionally intense books, myself.

      By giving my character a similar experience, she became far more real. She didn’t deal with it the way I did (she didn’t have an older child, and she’s a fantasy character with abilities I don’t have), but she did get to resolve some things I couldn’t, and she gave her feelings free rein…something that, with a toddler, I couldn’t do.

      For us, the loss will always be entangled in Annalise’s living – she would not have been born, had Elijah lived. It boggles my mind to think of not knowing her.

      I’m hoping you do find the ways to tap into your own feelings in your writing. It can be draining, but I’ve found both healing and honest writing in it.

  6. thanx for this. as you already know I’m learning this very lesson the hard way as I try to keep writing while in the midst of serious life upheavals. i’m just now back from an unintended hiatus from row80 and am catching up on the pep talks and found this so what I needed to hear right now.

  7. Joy,

    I’m so sorry I didn’t see this until now.

    At some point, we all will experience things that tear us apart, and make us into something new.

    If we can be open, we grow stronger. I’ve seen that happening in your posts, even if it’s hard to see yourself, while you’re still in the midst of some heartrending shifts.

    I’m glad this post helped. It was healing to write it, as well.

    I hope we’ll see you for Round 4,too.

    Much love.

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