My grandmother was born on an east Texas watermelon farm in 1922. At age 17, after she graduated from Beaumont High School, she left for Hollywood and danced in films alongside Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, hobnobbed with Humphrey Bogart. After she met my grandfather, she left Hollywood and gave birth to four beautiful children, the oldest of whom is my mother. I am the oldest of nine grandchildren. I wish I had inherited her legs.
This past December, she died after a fifteen-year journey with Alzheimer’s, and throughout her decline, she was as light-filled and beautiful as Alzheimer’s is bleak and ugly. I remember, in the earlier stages of the disease, how she would bend down to study a flower with awe and wonder, or stop walking and raise her face to the sky to watch a bird soaring overhead. With childlike wonder, she noticed what we adults consider mundane.
My mother, so involved and committed to my grandmother’s comfort and well-being, intimately cared for my grandmother as the disease rendered her wholly dependent and vulnerable. There was such rawness in my grandmother’s vulnerability; sometimes witnessing the progression of the disease sucked the air from my lungs.
I think about vulnerability quite a lot in both my human life and my writer life. When we bare ourselves, we can feel very chilly. Vulnerability can be painful too: rug burns and splinters may occur with so much bareness. Have you ever poked a snail’s antennae-eyeball and watched it retract? Vulnerability can feel like we are the snails and some human schmo has bent down to intentionally poke our eyeball.
When we are vulnerable, we give someone else a piece of our self, not knowing how it will be received or whether there will be reciprocity. We simply open up our chests to another, hoping that person will appreciate or empathize with our desire to reveal the beauty of a beating heart, praying he will not run screaming.
CAUTION! SOME PEOPLE WILL RUN SCREAMING! That person over there, that sealed-tight, glass-skinned lady with the pretend smile? She likes Valentiney, heart-shaped things, but doesn’t like actual hearts, especially when they aren’t covered up with lots of layers of stuff.
And over there . . . that fellow in the brick box he has built for himself, with just a few gaps for air holes and sunlight, he’s terrified of all organs, especially warm, bare skin, our body’s largest organ of all. He stays in the brick box where it’s safe, where there’s no need to see others’ vulnerability, where there’s no reason to be vulnerable himself.
The decision to live with vulnerability allows others to poke us in sensitive places, but vulnerability can also leave us feeling wholly alive, invigorated and truthful. Vulnerability also connects us more intimately to others. If you’ve tried out vulnerability, you know I’m telling the truth.
Vulnerability: Good for Humans
In his picture-book-for-adults, V is for Vulnerable, Seth Godin, explains, when we are willing to be vulnerable with someone else, we create “imbalance” in the relationship . . . we are admitting that we struggle in some way, knowing full well that the other person might laugh at us, fear us, dislike us. But it’s that imbalance, Godin says, that leads to connection. Yes!
There will be eyeball-pokers, and there will be many kindhearted others, willing to watch and nod as we bare bits of skin and soul. Those people will move closer to us, understanding that they too have hearts that beat, throbbing and pumping life all over the place. They too are comforted by the warm skin of another.
Not sharing ourselves or our stories shrinks the size of our worlds; sharing does the opposite. As our worlds get bigger through the sharing of stories, we become more compassionate humans. Best of all, when we have greater compassion for others, we desire to seek and create a more justice-filled world. At least that’s what my pastor preached two Sundays ago, and she’s a brilliant, light-filled arse-kicker.
Before you say, But I don’t really feel comfortable with vulnerability, let me share some bad news: if you are reading this post, you are alive; if you are alive, you are living; if you are living, you are vulnerable to one million different things. Sorry, alive people! You are already practicing the art of vulnerability. So let’s move along and look at the importance of vulnerability in a writer’s life.
Vulnerability: Good for Writers, Characters and Stories
A feeling of nakedness is an essential part of writing and sharing something never before seen, something that illuminates the beauty and the sorrow of being human.
Story links humans.
Along those lines, if our characters are not vulnerable in some way, there is no story. Without the potential for contact with Kryptonite, without the dilemma of juggling two identities, Superman’s story has neither conflict nor tension. Without the looming possibility of Holden Caulfield’s suicide, we don’t much care about his woe-is-I diary. Without Romeo’s often-blind passion, we won’t worry that we’re about to witness a complete and inevitable romantic train wreck. Our characters must be compelled by a need or desire so great that they are desperate to get what they desire. That desperation, that willingness to risk everything, is vulnerability. And it delights readers. Journeying alongside a vulnerable character allows us to experience uncertainty and risk without having to abide it in real life.
How Do We Create Vulnerable Characters?
Since I’m really good at math, let me share an equation that makes storytelling appear simple: Character’s Burning Desire + Very Big Obstacle + Willingness to Risk It All in Spite of VBO = a Vulnerable Character.
Let’s do some algebra and plunk Romeo into this equation.
Desire: He wants Juliet. He wants her so bad. He really wants her.
VBO: Romeo’s family hates Juliet’s family and vice versa. Neither family will ever approve of this union.
Willingness to Risk It All: Romeo is young, mercurial and passionately in lust with Juliet. He cannot be distracted from his desire.
Add up these three elements, and the reader or audience recognizes and worries about Romeo’s vulnerability. The worry keeps us turning pages or watching scenes.
Consider the protagonist in your work-in-progress. What does she desire or need so badly that she is willing to risk everything to attain it? What traits does she possess that compel her to pursue this desire? What forces and which opposing characters get in her way, increasing the necessity of her vulnerability?
I am only scratching the surface here, so I urge you to read David Corbett’s craft book, The Art of Character, in which he identifies the connection between shame and vulnerability, the sources of vulnerable feelings (internal, external, situational, existential, moral) and the reader’s fondness for vulnerable characters. This book should be a part of your writing resources. And there are hardly any math equations.
Your turn to share with the WU community. What’s your Kryptonite? As a writer, of what are you most afraid? Is this fear also the most powerful fear in your regular life? What unexpected gifts have come out of your vulnerability? How about this scary request: share one vulnerable thing you have done so far in 2016. Thank you for your vulnerable sharing!
In Achilles Heel Solidarity,
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