The Secret to Telling Your Story: Embrace Vulnerability
A good story occurs when an author travels in search of truths that otherwise go untold.
Any time you put your pen to paper, any time you put your work forth to an audience, you make yourself vulnerable. It’s a vulnerability that’s akin to performance anxiety, if not outright stage fright. It’s a vulnerability that takes courage to overcome.
I’m certainly afflicted with all of the typical symptoms, especially when it comes to making my work public. I’ll worry about giving a speech or a reading for weeks beforehand. No matter how much I practice, I’m terrified that my mind will go blank on stage. I imagine telling a lighthearted joke that falls with a thud into the room. And I live in horror of looking out into a sea of malevolent glares in the audience.
Since I have to give a fair number of speeches and readings, I decided one way to get over this anxiety was to study it to better understand it. It turns out that I’m in good company. Thomas Jefferson was so afraid of speaking in public that he only gave two speeches as president, both of them at his inaugurations. Gandhi’s vision often fogged over when he spoke in public, and he’d go mute. Jay Z is actually so nervous that he regularly vomits before going on stage.
When we’re afraid of things, we tend to project worst-case scenarios.
At its heart, performance anxiety is about distrust. There’s the distrust of yourself — that you’ll forget what you have to say, or that you’re such a complete dolt you don’t have anything worthwhile to say. And then there’s the distrust — or fear — of others. When we’re afraid of things, we tend to project worst-case scenarios. The crowd becomes a cold and menacing beast in our minds. People don’t want to cheer you on; they want to crucify you.
Performance anxiety applies to writing as well. Some writers fear to take the leap of writing because they think they don’t have anything to say, or they don’t believe they have the highfalutin literary words to tell their story. Or, they fear the world will hate their work. It’s a natural fear. After all, when we tell others we’re writers, people rarely give us a warm hug of approval and praise. They usually ask something like, “What are you going to do for a living?” or “Are you published?” Or, worse, they simply say, “Oh.”
I’ve heard it all. For many years, I didn’t show anyone my stories. I had a master’s degree in creative writing, so I possessed all the hardened calluses that workshopping stories build. Still, I wrote in a solitude protected with ever-thickening barricades. I suppose somewhere within myself I believed my stories weren’t good enough — or feared that others’ reactions would prove they weren’t good enough. Perhaps I worried about being exposed as a creative charlatan, a dilettante, a fool. One definition of shame is that we feel weak and inadequate in a realm where we think we’re supposed to be strong and competent.
A good story occurs when an author travels, or even plummets, into the depths of vulnerability
I sent stories to literary journals because only anonymous editors would read them — and their reactions didn’t matter as much to me. Even when a story of mine was published, I rarely gave it to friends and family, and I declined invitations to read in public. I like to write about the underbelly of life, the sordid moments and unspoken desires that lace through people’s consciousness, and I suppose I feared that people would make judgments of me based on such stories.
It’s a common writer’s fear that one’s life will be confused with the text. Since I grew up in a small town, where lives were constantly under scrutiny, such a fear was embedded within me and had surely become magnified over the years.
But then one day I randomly started sharing pieces with a friend at work. It was an enlivening experience to suddenly have a reader. The simple act of giving a story to another and hearing her reactions made me realize how the closures of solitude had made me into a stingy writer, and how the act of writing changed when I did so with the idea of touching the person who would read it. After all, the urge to be a writer is a generous act at its core: we want to share our story with others, to give them a world that will open doors to insights and flights of the imagination.
The only way to achieve that is through an openness of spirit that can feel dangerous — or even be dangerous. A good story occurs when an author travels, or even plummets, into the depths of vulnerability and genuinely opens his or her soul in search of truths that otherwise go untold.
My favorite stories are the ones where I feel as if I’m in an intimate conversation with the author.
Art is fundamentally an act of exposure.
Telling such a story, however, is among the most challenging things a writer can do. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies shame and vulnerability, said that one-third of the people she interviewed could recall a “creativity scar,” a specific incident when they were told they weren’t talented as artists, musicians, writers, or singers. I think that figure is low. My guess is that everyone has a creativity scar of some sort. And the way that most people heal their scar is to close up. A stoic show of invulnerability can feel stronger than the “weakness” of openness.
To be vulnerable is not weakness, though. Quite the opposite. To tell your story in your way, to confront difficult truths and risk putting your story out there, takes courage. Such courage is challenging, of course. It requires overcoming the fear of shame — the feeling that we’re flawed, unworthy — and shame can be a noisy beast. It screams, “You’re not good enough!” in a myriad of ways to writers. Your story isn’t original. Your characters are cardboard cutouts. Your love scenes are laughable. Your dialogue is overly sentimental.
I suppose such unspoken thoughts were why I didn’t share my stories for so many years. But I had to ask myself, why did I become a writer in the first place? I made a list. And here’s what I discovered was on it: I wanted to put words to the shadowy corners of people’s souls, to understand the desperate lunges people take to give life meaning. I wanted to explore the enigmatic paradoxes of being, how desire can conflict with belief, how yearning can lead to danger. Life is so mysterious, nuanced, ineffable — equally disturbing as it is beautiful — so I decided it was my duty as a writer to be brave enough to risk ridicule in order to bring my truths to light. Why write a sanitized version of life? I decided that what is most important to me must be spoken, no matter if I’m belittled for it, because only in such acts do we connect and understand each other.
Art is fundamentally an act of exposure. An artist opens the closets, dares to go into the dark basements, and rummages through the attics of our souls.
Each sentence, each paragraph, each story holds its own particular demand of bravery. So push the limits of your prose as much as James Joyce, or create fantastical universes that rival Octavia Butler’s. Just as a robber breaks into a bank, it’s your job to pick the locks of the human soul. Use everything, even doubt, to tell your story. By doing so, you won’t find shame — you’ll find enlivening connection. People will appreciate your moxie and your generosity. They’ll applaud you for telling their story, the one they can’t tell themselves.
Try This: Risk Openness
Attune yourself to those moments when you’re hindered. Pause to identify the niggling and naysaying voices within yourself. Ask yourself these questions: Are you evading a truth in your story? Are you shying away from subjects that make you uncomfortable, subjects that might draw attention to yourself and make you feel exposed?
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.