Writers’ Secret Weapon: vulnerability


I once heard Peter Carey, two times winner of the Man Booker, tell Phillip Adams on ABC’s Late Night Live that the week before a new book comes out he can find himself curled on the floor in a foetal position, terrified.

Soon after, I read another astounding comment, this time from Helen Garner in Making Stories by Kate Grenville & Sue Woolfe:

Some days I look at what I’m doing and I think: This is pathetic. How can I have thought this was any good? That’s when the bottom drops out of everything. Some days it’s so awful I have to put my pen down and lie on my bed, or go to the movies. I feel like a phoney; an appalling phoney and someone’s going to find me out. I’m going to be exposed. . . that’s my fear. They’ll say: who wrote this? She calls this a book?

What astounded me about these comments from The Luminaries wasn’t just that THEY felt like this, but that they admitted to feeling like this.

So when I heard Brene Brown address the questions of vulnerability and shame in her Ted Talks it felt as if she were speaking directly to the writer in me.

Brene Brown

Brene Brown

Shame is what Peter Carey and Helen Garner were feeling.

Shame is internal. It’s that feeling we have that we’re not worthy. Is there something about me that if other people see or discover it they’ll know I’m not good enough, or clever enough, or imaginative enough, or creative enough, and all those other things of which we don’t have ‘enough?’

And when we get rejections or bad reviews it just confirms our fear that others think we’re unworthy, too. It doesn’t seem to matter that we know publishing decisions can be made on economic grounds – eg. our story is good enough but it doesn’t fit in their line-up, it’s harder to sell an unknown author, Virginia Woolf sent in a manuscript on a similar subject yesterday, the publisher doesn’t think novels with boats in them sell (true story!), etc.

Brene Brown says shame is the fear that we will be disconnected from others. She says we’re neurologically wired to connect to each other. It’s why we’re here.

When I thought about this I realised how fundamental it is to me that I connect to my readers through my writing. My writing is my way of sharing something that is important to me. Usually it’s about the human condition because people fascinate me. It might be some funny thing I’d noticed, a destructive trait, an inspiring deed, life’s ironies, a deep insight into why we act, believe, think as we do. I’m most proud of my stories which have touched other people. These are the stories, I realise now, which formed a stronger connection between the reader and me.

Sometimes I write purely to connect to myself. It’s how I learn what I want to say or what I think and feel. I have boxes of journals full of my attempts to make sense of me, the world I live in, the things that fascinate me, and the people in my life. Don’t worry, You-Know-Who-You-Are, I’ll burn the journals before I go. My creative writing almost always comes out of the ‘journalling’ process.

And aren’t blogs an attempt to connect with other people all over the world? We make ‘friends’ in online communities. Whenever I can I participate in Friday Fictioneers, a group who writes 100 word stories from a photo prompt. We give each other the encouragement and constructive criticism writing needs. But by putting these stories online we are exposing ourselves and our writing to people we may never have met, or are even likely to. Yet the act of making ourselves vulnerable to them builds a strong sense of ‘belonging’ in these communities.

I’ve noticed that the bloggers who are the most open and honest, who write from the heart, who don’t seem frightened to show their vulnerability, attract the most views and seem more connected to others. Dawn Quyle Landau’s blog Tales of the Motherland is a privilege to read for her heart-warming insights and her refusal to shirk the hard questions. Read the heart-felt post My Funny Valentine and see what I mean.

So am I right in thinking acknowledging our vulnerability in our writing will make our readers feel more connected to us? Brene Brown thinks so.

In her research she found people who are able to cope well with their feelings of shame have a strong sense of love and belonging, and more importantly, believe they are worthy of love and belonging. It’s not that they don’t feel shame, but they don’t feel it as an excruciating vulnerability that can be debilitating. She also found that the thing that keeps us disconnected is our fear we aren’t worthy of connection.

Brown looked at the people who were most successful at connecting to others and discovered they shared these qualities:

– The Courage to tell the story of who they were with their whole heart.

– The Compassion to be kind to themselves, and others.

– To allow others to see their vulnerability.

– The willingness to do something that carries no guarantees. To invest in things that may not work out.

She concluded that while vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and struggle for worthiness, it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, love, and belonging.

How can we apply her findings to our writing?

We can encourage the willingness to invest in writing that has no guarantees. Even on those days when it all seems pointless and the writing is abominable. Because if we don’t keep going, nothing better can come.

We can show more kindness and compassion to the writer within us who can feel so vulnerable at times he wants to curl up in a foetal position, or lie on her bed.

From our own reading we know we relate most to writing that is honest and straight from the heart. It takes courage to write like that, to let our vulnerability be seen. But if the result are authenticity and a deeper connection to our readers, and ultimately to ourselves, then what are we waiting for?

Who knows, we might even get closer to believing we are enough.

Watch Brene Brown’s Ted Talks.

The Power of Vulnerability
Listening to Shame

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31 Responses to Writers’ Secret Weapon: vulnerability

  1. This was an amazing post as I just started my first real blog. Thank you, I have learned so much.

  2. Maree Gallop says:

    Wow Karen that is such a powerful post. I was totally engrossed and could related wholeheartedly to that feeling of being not being worthy. Thank you for enlightening me. I will be digging deeper each time I write now.

  3. Tony Harris says:

    Once agin – you have hit the nail on the head – most accurately
    Investing in something that may never succeed or even be noted; not just our time, but our money, our lives, our commitment to do something that makes us “worthy” somehow of being “acceptable” and “accepted” by our peers, those who know what it is like to do what we do… : is terrifying !
    It’s why we hide our words away and not let them out to the publishers, our family, our friends and our peers.

    But when we do… and we are not scorned or reviled – we feel relief. Not exaltation, or even elation – it’s relief that we are accepted … and belong and should be doing what we are doing…

    I have had to deal with this dreadful feeling of not being worthy, acceptable, “part of the herd” or achieving – so I am overjoyed to hear that I am not alone.

    • Tony, your comment does exactly what Brene Brown encourages us to do. It takes courage to write as truthfully and as openly as you have here. Thank you.

      You’re not alone. Everyone feels shame. I now think some people cope with it better than others, but they still feel it, just like you and me.

      Your comments always add to the conversations here. I’m very grateful you found me.

  4. johnlmalone says:

    an excellent post. Yes. I write to share and yes I show my vulnerability and sometimes a sense of worthlessness when placed up along prominent writers — and yet I find life endlessly fascinating and so must write. I have bookmarked your blog as I find it valuable and thanks for attending to mine

    • I’m look forward to following your blog, John. Thank you for your great comments. A writer I admire once gave me some advice. When I read one of those brilliant writers and feel that sense of worthlessness in comparison, I should be grateful. They have provided me with invaluable writing lessons, and something to inspire me and aspire to. I always try to take that advice and I find it works 95% of the time. The other 5% of the time I just want to enjoy wallowing in self-pity.

  5. subroto says:

    I am not sure at what stage I can call myself a writer – a wannabe hack at the moment – but I admit to those ‘I am not worthy’ emotions each time I put out a blog post. Before I joined a blogging group I would hardly get any feedback/comments, which would make me question the quality of what i wrote. The “am I not pretty enough” feelings.
    “Sometimes I write purely to connect to myself.” now that I can absolutely relate to. And sometimes I feel when you write to please yourself, you do a better job than when writing with an audience in mind.

    • Hi Subroto. Thanks for joining the conversation. I hear you about how you feel putting out the blog posts!
      That’s a really interesting point about whether writing to please yourself comes out better than writing with an audience in mind. For me they’re different stages. I start out writing for myself. Later in the process, if I intend to put that piece into the world, I consider the audience, or in my case one reader. I’m wondering if the change comes about when I’ve finished connecting with myself and then want to share what I know with others.

  6. anne says:

    This is a nice juicy piece to get out teeth into, Karen. I haven’t listened to the talks yet because I want to respond to your piece as it stands. Thanks so much for putting the ideas about vulnerability, fear, shame, connecting … out there.
    For me, vulnerability and connection, with whatever piece of writing we put out there, are both sides of the same coin. I feel that by making yourself vulnerable, and writing from the heart, touches and connects with others because of universality; we’re tapping universal truths.
    The cringing just before publication is possibly our ambitious self making its presence felt.
    While I’m not writing children’s stories anymore, in the days when I did, I remember that final reading before sending it off to School Mag, would leave me cringing and thinking this is so embarrassing I shouldn’t be sending it. Then, on publication it was a case of reading it again and thinking, hey that’s not so bad.
    When we’re writing we’re revealing – the older you get the easier it is. I don’t give a hoot these days because my ambitious self has gone a much-needed holiday and my contented self can laugh at any efforts and it encourages me by saying, ‘go for it girl and enjoy the ride.’
    I hope we can all enjoy the ride!

    • HI Anne. That idea of vulnerability being the core to connection really resonated with me too. Thanks for taking it further by touching on how vulnerability is also a way into connecting with universal truths.
      Ambition. Now that’s an interesting thing to think about. What actually is it? The shorter Oxford says it’s the “eager or inordinate desire of honour or preferment; pride of state; to do or be anything credible.” Mmm. . . sounds very much to me like the desire to be thought worthy. Just a thought from someone who definitely isn’t ‘psychological’ enough.
      Yes, enjoy the ride!

      • anne says:

        Hi Karen, I can see what you are saying. My reference to ‘an ambitious self’ is probably meant in a more casual, perhaps colloquial sense, where the ‘strong desire or yearning/determination’ (Aust Concise Oxford) overrides all else. I find the ambitious self can be too noisy when one is trying to see and listen to the images and emotions that are barely whispering in that quiet non-conscious place.

        Whether that determination to succeed is worthy or not I don’t know. For me, the value or worthiness of the piece would be measured by its authenticity and connection.

        I love the piece that you wrote ‘Writer’s Secret …; and its links. I found the link on shame quite provocative because I’d not see shame as coming from fear, etc. Rather I’d see it the other way around. Someone might fear bringing shame upon themselves by some wrongdoing. I think Garner and Carey might be crippled by their fear of failure, by the fear of writing a bad book. If that happened one can easily imagine their ambitious selves screaming, ‘Shame on you!”

        For me, that’s another layer of vulnerability, a very public one, to the one required in authentic writing, where one is within oneself, opening things up and faithfully following.

        Re the importance of vulnerability: I’m thrilled to see there’s more talk about vulnerability in writing because it’s getting one’s head and heart to focus on what matters most in writing, ie. authenticity with craft more as a servant and not the master.

        Am enjoying all the contributions. Some great links, too.

        Thanks, Karen, for Writers’ Life.

  7. Karen, what a deeply thoughtful, brave and vulnerable post… all the things you address therein. I’m very touched and honored by your comments about me and my writing. Thank you! I try really hard to write without boundaries… to try and write as if no one will read it, though I also write to be read– if that makes sense. The point being, I try not to edit myself and to be as honest as I can, in what I have to say. It’s true that it sometimes leaves me open… vulnerable… but I feel real when I write real. Thanks for this lovely nod. I love your writing, and I’m sincerely honored that you mention my work here.

  8. Yes, yes, and YES! Sharing our innermost selves through words is scary. But as a writer it’s the *only* way, otherwise we are simply a facsimile of someone else.

    I tweeted a link the other day, and I hope you don’t mind me sharing it here (please delete or edit my post if you do!)
    One reason why you need to be ‘you’ >> On Writing And The Fear Of Being True To Yourself ow.ly/xLZkF — @JonathanGunson

    The novels that Ron and I write are in the metaphysical fantasy (sometimes called visionary fiction) genre. The content and subject matter can be open to ridicule or rejection, which can add another layer of anxiety about what we’re “putting out there”.
    But that’s ‘who we are’, so there’s no hiding from it. 😉

    Another fabulous post. When will we cross paths with Fictioneers again?! 😉

    • Adding an http:// to make the short link clickable (I hope).
      Again ,please delete if you feel the link is inappropriate. I won’t be offended!

      • Hi Joanna. I agree absolutely that “sharing our innermost selves” is essential for authenticity. Thank you for that great link. I’ll certainly leave it here for anyone else who might be interested. I enjoyed reading it and I think it ties in well with my post.
        As an avid reader of speculative fiction I know exactly the type of reaction you could get from some people to your metaphysical fantasy. And writing it rather than reading it would add another even more personal layer to the anxiety. Good on you for following your passion regardless! What gives me great hope is that there are some brilliant writers – eg. Neil Gaiman, China Mieville – who are proving these genres can make great literature.
        Hopefully I’ll ‘see’ you next week in FF.

      • Thank you for your lovely reply, Karen 🙂

        We won’t be doing FF next week, sadly. We have a book-related blog post lined up for that. 🙂 Maybe next time lol.

        Have a lovely weekend.

  9. anne says:

    Karen, I shared your piece with my writing group today. They found it fascinating to think that Helen G and Peter C suffered so much before publication.

    One person thought it was probably because they both had a reputation to protect and, being so well-known, they had more to lose, than most of us, if the work didn’t come up to an expected standard.

    Someone else thought it might be because they sometimes wrote about experiences close to their own lives and might worry that some people might recognise themselves and feel they’ve been misrepresented …

    It was agreed that no matter how small the piece, everyone feels worried about its acceptance by the reader.

    It was also agreed that putting your work out there is like giving birth and, possibly, Helen and Peter, experience labour pains, until their ‘baby’ arrives.

    Someone else raised the thought that it would be very annoying if your work was good but the readers didn’t get what you were saying. If you were breaking new ground or changing your direction, which both Peter and Helen have done in the past, they might be worried that there’ll be no audience for it.

    Just thought I’d pass these different thoughts on to Writers’ Life.

    Our next goal is to write 100 word stories, all inspired by Writers’ Life and Friday Fictioneers.


    • What a fascinating response from your group! Thank you so much for writing them here.
      And I’m thrilled to have so many people thinking and talking about the very real feelings of vulnerability that all writers share.
      I love writing 100 word stories. Every word counts, and every image and action needs to do more than one thing. It’s a fun challenge and very rewarding. I’m ecstatic and very honoured that I’ve inspired you all to turn your very capable pens to the task.
      Have fun!

  10. Another great post Karen! Got me to read Dawn’s Valentine post too which was a perfect example of vulnerability. There’s part of me that’s always cautious of what I post online and in my writing… I want to share but never want to share everything. I guess I need to work out how can I connect honestly to my readers without losing my sense of privacy and security… You’ve got me thinking!

    • Yes, it’s a balancing act. There will always be things I won’t share when I’m writing as me online. Yet I greatly admire people like Dawn who can. In fiction I can make my characters as vulnerable as I like without feeling I’m revealing anything very personal. It’s a delusion, of course, because all writing exposes what’s vital to the author, often without the author being conscious of it. I think it’s fascinating that our ideologies, beliefs and values permeate all our writing whether we want it to or not, whether we’re conscious of it happening or not. My belief is that if we want to connect in any worthwhile way with our readers, or with people in our lives for that matter, we do need to give something of ourselves. We all have to work out how far we’re prepared to go, and I think that limit changes with the topic.

      • Tony Harris says:

        If our ideologies, beliefs and values do permeate our writing unconsciously, then doesn’t our “fictional fantasy” reveal what (in hindsight and contemplation) could be our yearnings for fulfilment. For example do Adventure Thriller writers really yearn for the adventurous life, if they are not writing from experience? Do passionate romance novelists have such a wonderful passion-filled ( or in some cases disaster-filled ) experience or are they yearning for something they have not experienced? Nim’s Island portrays the adventure author as a shy retiring person afraid to enter the world and so fulfils her yearning through writing… Romancing the Stone also portrays this reverse-persona in the author Miss Wilder.

        If we reveal ourselves in our “real” writing – don’t we also reveal our hidden side unconsciously? What an even scarier prospect and wide open for the psycho-analysts to play with – but what a buzz if the readers vindicate us?

      • Now that’s an interesting question, Tony. Elizabeth Jolley wrote a short story called ‘The Woman in a Lampshade’ which supports your idea that our yearnings for fulfilment are satisfied through our writing.
        We are all products of our time and culture. Is it possible to get beyond that in our writing? To a certain extent I think it is. My thinking is often challenged when I travel and that’s one of the joys of travelling for me. What I have always thought of as common sense and ‘the way things are’ are turned on their head. And I see my beliefs are just that – a different set of ideologies – often no better or worse.
        Do we unconsciously reveal our hidden selves in our writing? Oh, hell, yeah. Think Patrick White.

  11. Thanks for letting me camp out in your blog for a little while today. I had a great time and tried to leave my campsite as good as when I arrived. I’ll be back!

  12. Winnie R says:

    Hi great reeading your blog

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