The Vulnerability Quotient
When my daughter was five years old she was diagnosed with selective mutism. I immediately began researching the condition to gather as much information as possible. As an early childhood professional with a background in early intervention, I had read many books and articles on special needs kids but I soon realized that what I craved were first-hand stories by mothers who had been there. Only another mother who had experienced the shock, heartbreak and ultimate acceptance of raising a child with special needs can bring a certain quality to the story that is unmatched by that of the professional. This quality will ultimately bring it home by resonating with an inner truth born of vulnerability.
When writers bring a certain intimate quality to their work, they allow their audience to be privy to an unguarded disclosure of themselves. They embrace a passion and a natural impetus to respond to it. In trusting their responses, they become vulnerable. A well-crafted, finely tuned piece of writing, despite its efficiency and execution, may lack the resonance of one that encompasses this passion and vulnerability.
The memories of a holocaust survivor are undeniably rich in ardor and vulnerability. They resonate with an inner truth. My own grandmother’s family were victims of the holocaust and despite my lack of personal experience, in writing about it I bring a great vulnerability to the page through the stories passed down from my grandmother to my mother, to me, and one day to my own young children. There is something intangible, something almost sacred about a story brought to the page through the emotions, experiences and vulnerability of the writer. The reader is somehow made vulnerable too by opening him or herself up to the pain, joy, and heartache of the person on the other side of the page.
Of course, it is not a mandatory requirement for a talented writer to have an intimate connection to his or her subject matter. A writer with no personal link to the holocaust may, in fact be passionate enough to create a piece that resonates with truth and authenticity. They may create something beautiful and touching but it will differ slightly from the piece written by someone with a personal connection. The difference of course, is a vulnerability that comes from the writer’s willingness to bring a piece of his soul to the page.
In either scenario, the writer must embrace a sensitivity that allows him to remain vulnerable. He must share something of himself – loathing, disgust, heartache, empathy – which renders an element of risk to the finished work.
The writer who brings a part of herself to the page takes a much greater risk than the one who simply brings thoughts, opinions, and knowledge to a piece. The risk of exposure, of laying bare an aspect of her life without censorship brings with it a palpable and immediate quality that cannot be found in other, less immediate types of writing. The key to allowing oneself to be vulnerable on the page, lies in fighting the urge to hold back or shape a piece to fit a predetermined idea of what the finished piece should look like. By letting go of the need to create something pretty and socially acceptable, we give ourselves permission to embrace the raw emotion that makes a piece breathe on the page. In fact, by consciously trying to accomplish this vulnerability rather than remaining open to allowing it to happen naturally, we may cause it to appear forced or contrived.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to complete and genuine vulnerability in art is fear. Putting a piece of ourselves, a very personal and tender piece of ourselves on the page can be intimidating. It can also be exhilarating and liberating when we see our words on the page and know that they have made us who we are, given us strength and character and maybe, if we are truly lucky, moved someone else to do the same.
Deborah Staunton holds a B.S. in early childhood education, a B.A. in theatre arts, and postgraduate credits in creative writing. Her work has appeared in Stage Directions, The Sondheim Review, Writers’ Journal, Amateur Stage, and Sheepshead Review. She has written child development materials for Harcourt Learning Direct and her essay “Promises Kept” won first place for memoir in the Fiction Writer’s Journey annual writing contest.