Monday, November 1, 2010


In our daily interactions, we often skirt around topics that make each other feel vulnerable. If a friend has just gone through a divorce or a death, for example, we'll probe around first to see if it's okay to talk about it before bringing up the subject directly.

As a reader, though, I love the experience of reading about a topic that makes me feel vulnerable. I love feeling as if the writer knows something deeply personal within me: my fears, my secrets, my weaknesses.

Sometimes stories shy away from this. It will feel like a missed opportunity. I once wrote a story about a relative who lost her mother. While I was writing it, I got scared that I would dredge up too many strong emotions in my relative, so I didn't go as deep as I could. As a result, my reviewers called the story "death-light." The material was there, but the depth and the heat of the emotion was not. For me, the result was something rather forgettable.

This weekend I started a new story that dealt with aging. As I was working on it, I could feel myself shying away from the emotions that might make a reader feel vulnerable. I caught myself in time, however, and decided to dig deeper and dare to face the consequences. As a result, I found that I was making myself feel uneasy. I began to question my own ideas about aging and its consequences. It was both scary and thrilling...and something I plan to do more of.

How do you feel about vulnerability? Do you make yourself vulnerable in your writing? Do you dare to make readers feel vulnerable?


  1. As a reader I have a mixed relationship with vulnerability. I like writing that makes me feel mildly vulnerable. Some books have struck too deep and I wasn't prepared for them. I've blocked out of my mind what it was, but I remember one book I literally dropped as if it were burning hot and never went back to it, because I wasn't ready for someone else to peer that deeply inside me with out being invited.

    As a writer, I usually only think about it once I've written my story and then I get paranoid about it.

  2. Domey, I can't not be vulnerable in my writing- (double negative, I know, apologies...) that's just about my biggest problem with it. I'm INFJ. We simply cannot grow a thicker skin or hide what we feel, it's out there for the world to see.

    Sometimes, it's too much. These days I'm seriously pondering pulling a Dickinson from now on and putting everything I write into a locked trunk until after I'm dead.

    Writing with so much of yourself is nerve wracking, but you do what you can with it...

    Your story sounds heartbreaking and fascinating. I have to tell you that spending time at the clinic every day where I have been getting my infusions has really made me look long and hard at the inevitability that is aging.

    The first day I was there I was so sick I couldn't even get out of the car let alone walk on my own.

    Then after they put me in a chair, the seated me next to a very frail elderly man...who was being treated by a wound care specialist.

    You don't feel quite so bad about losing teeth and the odd bits of internal facial bone structure when you see someone who has lost their toes...

    The frightening part is also seeing how, even those of us who aren't quite old yet no matter how we feel, can just as easily end up needing the same care as the elderly. One instant, one accident, one bad decision by another person could put us in a world we never imagined in our nightmares.

    If that doesn't show we're all more vulnerable than we want to admit nothing can.

    The emotion in your stories is what holds a reader captive. If you ever shied away from that, it would be a great loss for art and artists. Please don't hold back. It sets you apart.


  3. No book has made me feel more vulnerable than THE ROAD. As a father, it smacked me in the face with the deep love I have for my children, and the grim reality that, try as we might, we cannot protect them from everything.

    I hope that one day I will write a story or novel that can have an impact of that level.

    I think I have a tendency to back away from real emotional writing, paying lip-service to the "it's literary, read between the lines" meme, but in reality it's just me wussing out.

  4. Nevets, that's really interesting. I'm very curious to find out what that book was. I have never had quite a strong reaction, but there have been times when I was very grateful that I was reading a book by myself rather than watching a movie with a hundred other people.

    Bru, I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to put up a strong front for myself like I had done for much of my childhood. I had always been known as the "together" one until then, and it was interesting for me to open up. At first most people didn't pay any attention to my emotions. They were so used to me always acting as if I was okay. Then, I think my emotions made them uneasy. I see being emotional now as a sign of courage. I think it takes a lot of confidence to admit when you are sad or scared. I hope by opening myself up that it leads to a stronger connection with other people.

    Rick, that's really interesting too. When I read The Road, I immediately thought of how fathers must feel. I gave the book to my brother, and I think it really moved him. He said he read most of it with his son in the crook of his arm. That's exactly the type of thing I'm talking about. I personally love it when a book makes me feel that way.

  5. I know I've told you this before, but I love repeating myself so here I go. Whenever I'm writing and I start to feel uncomfortable with my subject matter or my approach to it, that's when I know I'm onto something good. I think one of the beautiful things about literature is the way we can explore and experience difficult circumstances in a completely safe environment.

  6. Domey, I'll have to try and figure out which book that was. Often times, if something hits me so bad I have to put it down it's because (a) it's hitting something I'm already grappling with actively and (b) I wasn't expecting it at all.

    I have a huge thing about invitation. It's one thing to hit my vulnerable spot when I've invited you in near it. It's another when you just charge in. I actively resent books that invade my inner self without invitation as much as I do live interaction with people. To me it's no different.

    Lest that sound completely unreasonable, I do think there are ways you can prepare readers for the fact that you're going to be dancing with the deep stuff and build up towards. I don't care for books that skim at the surface and then suddenly skewer my soul.

    It's personal taste, I realize, but it is a strongly held personal taste.

  7. I tend to not shy away from vulnerability in my writing and in my reading because I figure that we all have the human condition in common, so why put on superficial airs?

  8. I've struggled with this very topic in my own writing and I still haven't found a way around it.

    It's hard because from childhood we're taught not to make other people feel bad (it wouldn't be polite, after all) and then as writers we're supposed to do the exact opposite. We're supposed to talk about the tough issues, not avoid them. And we have to create conflict rather than solve it.

    In the end, I guess it's about letting ourselves get vulnerable too, because if we writers don't let our own stories in, how can we expect our readers to do the same?

    Thank you for a great post!

  9. I don't shy away at all. Perhaps its the social worker in me, wanting to dig deeper, allow my readers to experience uncomfortable emotions in the privacy of their reading.

    My women's fiction trilogy deals with some harsh subject matter; domestic violence, substance abuse, molestation. Those that have been brave enough to read it have said it feels very real; as if it was happening to them (the reader).

    Unfortunately, I have run into the difficulty Nevets explains; too real, and it hits the reader hard. brings up a lot of issues - which of course, is exactly what I want in the writing.

    Unless you're writing non-fiction, I don't think there is really a way to warn the reader of how deeply their emotions might be stirred. The book blurb will tell the reader the subject matter dealt with, and perhaps that is why they pick up the novel in the first place.

    As with the novel THE ROAD, you can't know how intimately the material will affect you as a reader until you read it.

    My first novel has been shelved for a long time; partly b/c of the emotional responses I've had so far. Some like the subject matter, but want it lightened up, others want the MC to totally away from the situation. I WON'T let her walk, and am reluctant to ease up on the tourmoil.

    So maybe I am shying away by not querying it out any more. Too much controversy as a work of fiction.

    Great topic for discussion Domey. You stirred a lot of emotional controversy within myself as a writer with this touchy subject. Very thought provoking.


  10. Excellent post, Davin. I did this with CINDERS, I think, because for once in my life I wasn't afraid of writing down exactly what I wanted. I'll admit that once I gave myself permission to make myself more vulnerable new doors opened. I have a long way to go, still, but I feel like I've made the first step. There are still works that I like to keep completely safe. It's like comfort food. :)

  11. Scott, I do remember you saying this before, and I've taken it to heart. It's definitely a good way to judge our writing, I think. More and more, I start to think that these more intuitive criteria are the way to go if you want to produce good writing.

    Une, that's a good way of thinking about it. It takes a lot of courage to consistently hold that philosophy, I think.

    gabi, I agree with you. It takes vulnerability from both the writer and the reader, I think. If either party is closed, then that personal communication won't take place.

    donna, that's very interesting about your own book. I've come to think--mostly based on Michelle's Cinders--that contoversy is a great thing in writing. Making people think is a great thing in writing. I hope you get your book out there if it's something you want to do. Don't be afraid..and I wont' be either. :)

    Michelle, that's a good point too. Stories can serve different purposes, and I do enjoy the occasional light fare. But, I do prefer the powerhouses! Like I've told you many times, I loved the passion with which you approached Cinders. It was very inspirational to me.

  12. I don't think I dig deeply enough into this in my writing. Perhaps I'm still too guarded. Something more for me to work on.

  13. Lois, For me personally, this is an important goal. But, as Michelle pointed out, I think not everyone wants to write or read this type of thing. Maybe you just don't have a preference for it?

  14. I've always kind of felt it was a writer's responsibility to live with the skin turned inside-out.


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