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When We’re Vulnerable: Atlas or Achilles?

Vulnerable [1]I have this friend named Clara. Clara is an unpublished writer, and she and her loyal, dedicated agent have been pitching her debut since June 2012. Since then, nearly forty editors have written kind and thoughtful rejections, most of them including Goldilocks-esque details in their notes. Here are some snippets (and amalgams of snippets):

I loved this narrator and cried in the [X] scene, but I’m afraid the teenage voice would be too hard to sell to an adult audience.

This novel reminds me of John Green/Madeleine L’Engle/E.L. Konigsburg, but the topics feel a little too mature for Middle Grade readers.

[The narrator’s voice] is fantastic, fresh, hilarious and unique, but I worry she’s just a little too innocent for Young Adult readers.

Too soft, too hard. Too hot, too cold. The manuscript has even made it to an editorial meeting or two. But so far? Nothing that’s Just Right.

Each time Clara’s agent has to forward another rejection, Clara feels like she is standing naked and thirty pounds overweight in front of a million people, all of whom are hucking rotten tomatoes and water balloons and Slim-Fast shakes at her and her not-quite-right manuscript.

The weird thing? Clara’s 2012-13 Rejection Tour has only made her want to be honest about her rejection. Not so she can be a whiner or a compliments-fisher, but because she knows, from experience, that when she is vulnerable, when she shares the truth of her rejection, her failure, her shortcomings, most other folks offer empathy instead of disdain, compassion rather than contempt. 

In other areas of her life, Clara feels fine about going public with her shortcomings. Her mental health struggles. Her chin whisker(s). Her old lady bunion feet. Because she’s so up front with her personal issues, it feels a bit disingenuous not to share the details of her writer life.

Of course, vulnerability can backfire. Sometimes, in sharing personal and humbling details of her various foibles du jour, Clara makes others uncomfortable. Other times, people’s thoughtless or awkward responses to her vulnerability make her feel even worse about her shortcomings.

Plus, her author-friends (all of whom have had both smashing success and some pretty humbling bumps in their writer life) have modeled a certain public behavior. With her, they share details of the low moments, the rejection, the book sales that haven’t been so hot. But publicly, it’s good to keep the bumps hush-hush.

Clara gets that. Making one’s failure too well-known might suggest an author is, in fact, an imposter. Or that she is somewhat less perfect than her author photo suggests. Or that a book must seriously stink if it has been so thoughtfully rejected by forty editors.

Plus, we writers are professionals. We don’t hear Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or Barack Obama publicly sharing the areas in which he feels most vulnerable. And we don’t want to hear that vulnerability. We Americans love the rags-to-riches stories, the “Writing Harry Potter while on social security then being rejected by twelve* publishers” journeys, but we do not like hearing about bumps and failure while they are happening. Failure is scary. Even the failure of others can feel terrifying and suffocating.

Still, Clara wonders. If she were able to share the details of Rejectapalooza, many people, certainly most at WU, might feel camaraderie and comfort. Seasoned writers might offer their empathy. Maybe her vulnerability would lead to intimacy and connection rather than public humiliation and sneers. And isn’t that one of the reasons we’re here? To forge connections that make us feel less oddballish and alone?

Plus, Clara knows that being a writer requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Think about it. We put ourselves out there, sometimes only to be rejected over and over. We spend hours and hours doing something that may never be enjoyed by anyone else. We are criticized and critiqued by unhelpful critiquers. We are misunderstood by readers. In fact, most of what we do as writers requires  a willingness to be vulnerable.

Have you seen this TED talk by Brene Brown [2]? One of Brown’s main points illustrates why it’s good and healthy for writers (and all humans) to be vulnerable. Brown explains,

Vulnerability is . . . the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that [vulnerability is] also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity? Wow.

Brown unpacks this idea: People who refuse to be vulnerable are forced to find ways to numb themselves to discomfort. But we cannot selectively numb ourselves. When we numb ourselves to pain, we also numb ourselves to everything good: joy, creativity, belonging and love.

If we writers work so hard to be invulnerable, if we numb ourselves to “bad” feelings, we run the risk of numbing our ability to be creative. We put up barriers to emotion that most certainly will result in tentative stories and flat characters. Isn’t that, my friends, a billion times scarier than being vulnerable?

Ack! You see why Clara is conflicted?

Please, dear WU reader, chime in with your thoughts: If we need to be vulnerable in order to tap into our creativity, where do we draw the line so we are not too vulnerable? What is too vulnerable? In situations when you have let your guard down, how have you been helped or hurt by someone’s response? Please share!

*Clara no longer thinks Rowling’s measly twelve rejections is impressive. “Twelve rejections?”  says Clara. “Pish posh. Forty rejections? Now that’s impressive.”


Photo compliments of Flickr’s Richy Schley. [3]

About Sarah Callender [4]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.