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.

The Imagery of Possibility by Shan Jeniah

How do you see the place where all your ideas dry up, and there seems no hope of more? What imagery might help you to accept that place, learn it, and begin to move through it?
A well waiting to refill? A puzzle with a missing piece? A mind teaser? A koan intended not to be solved, but felt and pondered? The frozen ground of winter necessary to the renaissance of spring? Something completely different?
I was humming along on my current WIP when my momentum lagged… then crashed to a stop. I couldn’t think, feel, or dream how my characters were ever going to get there from here.
I trudged along for a few days, hoping the words and ideas would flow again. That was a bust. My ideas ran dry. I had nothing to write.
I’ve been there before. Writer’s block. The ghost town of creativity….
That was before I knew how hugely the language and imagery I choose affects my approach to challenges. Through them, I claim ideas, consciously or not. And what I claim frames how I view myself, reality, and my writing.
If I claim writer’s block, I am blocked. Thwarted. Sometimes stopped so cold that I can’t move forward. I exhaust all my tricks, all my energy. Battered and bloodied, vanquished by a wall of frustration – an implacable, concrete enemy reinforced with iron beams and barbed razor wire. When I struggle against it, I end up prostrate in its ominous shadow.
Is it any wonder I can’t find the story?
I experience life most intensely through imagery and emotion. They are the soul of my writing, too. I need to feel, not an obstacle, but a challenge I could grow into. I chose to look at that place as an ebb in the flow – a pause, and nothing more.
I stopped trying to write against the tide. I moved on to other things. I read blogposts, answered comments, and chatted on Facebook. I did a lot of gaming. I watched a lot of television. I played with the kids, did things with Jim, and visited with a dear friend I don’t see as often as I would like.
I didn’t work on the story. I let the stray bits of ideas float by without trying to catch them.
During that time, an image of weaving formed in my mind – with a tangled place that halted the process…

A tangle in the weaving. A sign that something has gone amiss, but not an insurmountable wall of impossibility.

Weaving fascinates me. It appears often in my writing. A major supporting character in the Trueborn Weft Series is a healer who weaves to help heal her broken people. The telerotic bond between my protagonist lovers is woven, over decades, in a dance that eventually creates something new, of them both, yet more and other.
Weaving is a happy image, for me, so I relaxed. I trusted that I would eventually move through the ebb, and the texture and pattern of the tangle would become clear. I would be able to see what had happened, where the smooth run of the pattern began to twist.
I left it as it was, letting my mind wander ahead, and around, to the climactic scene I imagined, and to other stories in the series. I let myself consider cutting the threads and creating something else, or tossing the whole thing out into the yard in the hope that the wildlife could make more use of it than I could!
I stepped away from my loom and its tangled weaving. I gave myself time to rest, to play, to talk, to move my body and mind in other directions. I didn’t rush back. I took hot showers, spent lots of time with loved ones, and allowed my imagination to go where it wanted. I simply lived my life.
After a week or two, I had a desire to revisit the story. I played with ideas and lists for the pending series timeline, then wrote few pages of random notes, then bulleted points for two scenes for the companion fan fiction story. I could feel space and possibility opening up around the tangle, and something indefinable was slipping into place. I found myself feeling the story again – without strain or angst.
I am still feeling my way through, unraveling a bit of the knot here, deciding that this bit won’t ruin the pattern but will add texture, finding that, over there, I like the altered weaving better than what I had planned.
I am learning, yet again, to trust my natural inclinations, and to allow the ebb, daunting as it may seem, to be, because the flow is behind it, deep and sustaining. I’m weaving again, with attention and intention – and I am laying the loom aside, sometimes, to instead weave a basket, a memory, or not weave at all for a bit, because rest and dreaming are important, too.
The tangle is unknotting, in some places. In others, the roughly twisted threads shift the pattern into unexpected, deeper, truth.
For me, it matters how I see and name the ebb. If it is an obstacle, I create struggle. When it is a tangle that can be undone, repurposed, or cast off, I have possibilities and options.
If you are stuck, when you feel your story will never escape alive, consider giving yourself time to name that feeling in a way that creates space for you to see all the possibilities the pause can offer.

Relax. Revel. Appreciate. Repeat. By Shan Jeniah

“ Relax. Revel. Appreciate. Repeat.”
 Sandra Dodd, possibly paraphrased
These words, were written to me at a moment when I was stressed and overwhelmed by my inability to keep up with Jeremiah’s rapid growth. They urged me to settle back into just being with him, and to enjoy his unfolding; to let myself be amazed and awestruck by it, and him. 

What, though, does this have to do with writing, or with ROW80?

This is my fourth round of ROW80, and I have noticed something.
Sometimes, the goals and updates people are posting do not seem fun. There is a strong sense of “have to” , of work and drudgery and gritted teeth, about them.
It reminds me of thinking I needed to keep up with Jeremiah’s rapid changes. When goals are like this, for me, there is a clenched feel to the progress I’m making. I experience great tension as I toil to reach those goals.As a parent whose focus is on connection and joyous, natural learning, this feels like adding a huge obstacle to the challenge. It’s hard for me to force myself to do things I feel I must do, without necessarily

wanting to do them, and it’s seldom pleasant.I find it easier to strive toward goals that make my spirit sing, with a merry sense of abandon and possibility… to open myself to play….to free myself up to fail, the way I fail when I am learning any new game or skill. It’s a type of

 small failure that I take for granted, in that context, but which swells to monstrous proportions when I struggle to get the work done.When playing, failure tends to beckon me to stretch toward eventual success, mostly without angst. I take the lumps, because I want the delight of mastering the skill involved.

When working at something I feel I have to get done, failure tends to make me frustrated, discouraged, and like I’ve wasted my time. It’s deflating.

When playing, success feels – well,

AWESOME!!! I revel in it, crow it out, dance in my soul at the exuberance of accomplishing what I set out to do, no matter how long or strenuous the journey was.When working, success feels – well, more like something to tick off the to-do list, take a quick breath, and get back to work. I’m

working, after all, and there are still so many things to get done. There’s no time to bask even a little while in the glow of my accomplishment.

It took me years to realize that this clenched feeling is obvious in my writing. When I am pushing through, focused only on getting things done, there is a tension that keeps me from touching my deeper thoughts and emotions. My writing feels forced and tight and harried.
When I am relaxed, when I come to my writing without stakes other than to write my truth or fantasy of the moment, wonderful things happen. I write out what is within me. If it is an essay, my deepest places may reveal themselves, without my intending to expose them. When I am writing fiction, the scenes begin to spark and sizzle with life, bounding out of places within me that I do not understand and can’t touch intentionally.
How about you? Do you revel in your writing, or is it another chore on your list? If it’s a chore, or you’re just feeling clenched, or you just want a change, here are a few quick ideas that might help shift your energies. All of these have helped to shake me up, from time to time.
  • Have someone write words or phrases on slips of paper and fold them. Put them in a jar, and draw one. Write, seriously, playfully, angrily – whatever. My husband did this for me early in our marriage. His quirky sense of humor led to some wonderful little pieces, and I laughed. A lot.
  • Write when you are very tired, perhaps half-asleep. I don’t know if this will work for everyone. My mind works in imagery, and, when I’m sleepy, dream-images start to infiltrate my thoughts. Also, my internal censor goes silent.
  • Play a game or clean house. I routinely play games with distinct patterns, but which are very unlike my creative process, when I am mulling a piece over . They allow patterns and ideas to emerge while I play. Hometending is repetitive and leaves my mind free to wander.
  • Grab a notebook and pen or your keyboard, set a timer, and just write about anything – or nothing at all -until it goes off. Remember, it doesn’t matter what you write; you’re just trying to relax into your words.
  • Spend some time with children or animals, watching or interacting. My children have a way of revealing angles I might never otherwise have considered, and they notice things I overlook. They are joyfully present in their own lives, and that tends to feed my muse. Animals perceive in very different ways than humans; time with my dog makes me more attentive to subtle shifts in facial expression and body language, and hints at a reality I will never know.
  • Relax. Revel. Appreciate. Repeat. Look at these words, and ask yourself how they might apply t to your writing – and your life.
My son, at 11, seems to be on a breakneck course toward puberty, these days. He’s changing faster than at any time since infancy, and he is filled with big ideas, new understandings, and huge emotions. And I am grateful for those words that help me ride the waves of his growing up, without wiping out – and which have helped me to embrace the joyfulness of my writing life, too…

Relax. Revel. Appreciate. Repeat.
I challenge you all to find a way (or many ways!) to infuse some joy and play into your writing goals this week!


Shan Jeniah