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June 30, 2011

How Vulnerable is Your Writing?

A few weeks ago, we talked about about branding and blogging and how to create connections with others.  People who feel connected to us are more likely to be willing to give our book a try or to help us promote.  Connected readers might become our front lines in our quest for global bestseller domination.  *ahem*  Or something like that.

One way to create that connection is by being ourselves.  But what does that mean?

I think we have to be honest and vulnerable.  It’s okay that you know about my imperfections.  It’s okay that you know about my insecurities.  It’s okay that you know I’m a bit crazy.

For example, my thought process before my previous post for my blogiversary contest went live was something like:  What if no one wants to win me?  After all, who the heck am I?  I’m just some nobody-two-bit-unpublished-writer among thousands.  If no one enters, will I die of embarrassment?

But I went and put myself out there anyway with the hope that the risk would be worth it.  Now, of course, I’m stunned and humbled by the record number of comments to that post, and I’m like:  Whoa, really?  That many people have entered?  But…  Why? (Yes, writers are neurotic.)

So it makes sense that our blog writing should reflect the real us.  And although we might not point out that huge zit in the middle of our forehead, we shouldn’t pretend we never get pimples.  Fake perfection will turn people away.  But what does that advice mean for our fiction writing?

How honest and vulnerable should our fiction writing be?

Yesterday, one of my Twitter friends, Megan Mulry, posted tweets from Madeline Hunter’s keynote speech at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference.  I apologize for the Megan-said-that-Madeline-said nature of these quotes, but I think the essence about writers is clear (edited for text-speak):

We do expose ourselves. Private pains, sorrows, and joys, because we are drawing from them all the time for our characters. We find our voices when we embrace that exposure.

I love that last line: “We find our voices when we embrace that exposure.”

When we’re worried about what our mother or co-worker is going to think, our voice dies.  When we hold back the emotions because they’re too painful for us to poke at, our writing suffers.

I’ve gradually realized how true that concept is.  My voice is stronger when I’m sleep-deprived because I’m naturally more vulnerable then.  And my unlikable character didn’t really start to shine until I’d exposed her vulnerabilities to readers.

On both the large scale of our voice and the smaller scale of our characters, being honest and vulnerable matters.  Just as much as our blog readers can’t connect to us if we hold them at a distance, the same goes for readers of our fiction writing.

I once heard we should ignore the first reaction our character has when we ask them why they did something.  If our characters are anything like real people, their first reaction will be defensive and dishonest.  Instead, we have to dig deeper to get the truth from them.

One of my main characters is so private I almost have to grill her under the spotlights to get anything out of her.  I’d feel bad for my interrogations, but it’s necessary to expose her to the reader.

Only by making ourselves and our characters honest and vulnerable can readers connect to our words.  Only then will our voices ring true.  Only then will we be successful at eliciting emotions from our readers.  And emotions are what make the reading experience like nothing else.

How vulnerable do you make yourself in your blog?  What about in your fiction writing?  How vulnerable do you make your characters?  Do you have any difficult characters who resist your attempts to expose them?  Have you noticed any change to your voice depending on your honesty or vulnerability?

What do you think?

43 Comments on "How Vulnerable is Your Writing?"

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Susan Sipal

I love this: “And my unlikable character didn’t really start to shine until I’d exposed her vulnerabilities to readers.”

You’ve inspired me to go back and reread my heroine. Once again, I feel as if you’ve spoken directly to me. This is an awesome post!

Susan Sipal

Sorry, have to say more. I think you’ve hit on something that is so oxymoronic (?) in writing. To survive in the business, we have to get tough, really tough, and always put our best face forward. But then when we write, we have to spill our vulnerabilities onto the page. This is not easy.

And you’re right. I see writing as seeking to carve out the truth in our story and characters as deeply as possible. Just easier said than done. 🙂

Charissa Weaks

Ooh. Good topic. I don’t like being vulnerable. I’m bad about keeping walls up. But writing and blogging tend to remove those walls. It’s one of the reasons why I love writing. There is a freedom in it that is almost inexplicable unless you experience it. And yes…the more I rip myself to the core, the deeper the characters get. We writers seem to transfer some of our own issues to our characters 🙂 Which is good.

Catie Rhodes

Susan had a good point: We have to grow alligator skin to make it in this business. However, if we (writers) can’t show that we’re *not* an alligator in our writing–forget it. We’re done before we start.

The struggle for me has been to toe the line between letting people know I’m human and TMI (too much info). I think (hope, really) that a self-effacing comment once in a while and expressing my hopes and fears does it. It’s something I need to make a point to be aware of, though.

Good post. They always are.

Ava Jae

Wow. Great post, Jami.

Being vulnerable in your writing is one of the scariest (and I’d say even more difficult) parts about it. Finding the vulnerability in our characters and exposing it in ourselves is nerve-wracking, but you’re right–it truly deepens the reader’s experience.

Thank you for this. I’m definitely going to keep this in mind as I revise my next WIP.

Nicole Basaraba

When I started thinking about writing more seriously, I noticed that my blog posted changed. Bascially they turned into the most boring things I wrote because I wrote my voice out of them purposfully.

I was trying to be professional. But in the end I think it ended up hurting my blog and my writing more than anything because its the unique voice that keeps readers coming back.

Sarah Pearson

I think the part about our voice dying when we worry what others will think is very true. The only way I can deal with this is to tell myself firmly that nobody I know will ever read what I write, but it’s hard.

Kat

This post really spoke to me today, and touches on my experience with keeping my own vulnerabilities and insecurities far from my readers. In looking back at my writing–from the time when I refused to let me, the writer, into my stories/characters at all–to now, where I’ve learned to open myself up a little, the transformation is quite shocking. My stories and characters are more alive, more tangible to me, and I hope will be others, when I peek over the walls I’ve so skillfully built up over the years. I need to bookmark this, so whenever I forget to open up as a writer or feel my works are stunted and distant, I have a reminder to really crack open my characters, as well as myself.

Stacy

This is a fantastic post! Our best writing does come when we’re at our most vulnerable and willing to share that, but that isn’t an easy process. The fear of rejection, of ridicule, often keeps our voices modulated. When that happens our characters and our work suffers. The best writers have the courage to put themselves out there despite all the risk, and we all need to remember that.

Thank you for sharing!

BROOKLYN Ann

Yes! THIS! I am most excited about my writing when my characters do something unexpected, something I’m nervous to write about but must because it reveals things about them I hadn’t expected.

This works best when I’m sleep deprived as well.

Cherie

Great post, Jami! Sometimes my characters surprise me. I have this secondary mc, and though I thought I knew her well, when she had a confrontation with some petty girls, it came out that she had an eating problem. And I was like, whoa! I didn’t expect that. Funny how that happens. When you are indeed honest and vulnerable, then your writing voice becomes real, authentic.

Suzi McGowen

Oh, this is so good and so timely! I’ve been trying to be more authentic, both in real life and on my blog, but I’ve been afraid of being seen as unprofessional. (As so many others have expressed.)

So, I write less and less. Is it because I’m not being authentic? Or would it be that way anyway? Would blogging the authentic me, warts and all, be seen as asking for support, when I’m not? Can I share my religion? Or dop hints and let people figure it out?

It’s a hard line to walk, but maybe it can fun, too 🙂

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

Good topic, definitely. Bringing aspects of professionalism into who you are can really improve quality of life, so I don’t think one needs to drop a wall between the professional and personal. Things like listening, compromise, diplomacy, and simple friendliness.

I often do upon my past vulnerabilities for my characters. Stuff I’ve mostly dealt with, but the memories are there. Personal vulnerabilities change over time so ya gotta do that. The hard part is getting past the distance I’ve placed between myself and the times when I was a bit more vulnerable.

There are of course things I’ll never talk about publicly. Not in my characters and not on a blog. Things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas.

There are of course a few things about me I never talk about, or only talk about to specific people. But those are only small parts of who I am.

I do draw on some of the vulnerabilities from my past for character development. They’re still there, but they’re no longer such a strong part of me.

Allie
Allie

I am currently only in planning stage, but hope to find that voice when I begin writing my next novel, yes, it is important to find that vulnerable balance between character/writer.

Great post.

Erin Brambilla

Sometimes I find the blog posts I’m most nervous to hit the “publish” button for are the blog posts I get the best response from. I should remember this. The reason I’m nervous is those are usually the posts where I feel I’ve exposed more of my true self than others. Like admitting defeating feelings in motherhood. Or talking about embarrassing high school dating stories. I should try to get that same feeling in my WIP, if my character might be embarrassed/feel vulnerable if someone knew what she was thinking, then I’m probably showing her thoughts correctly.

Lisa Gail Green

Yup, if you’re going to be my character, then you are going to suffer and be completely exposed. Sucks to be them, but it makes for a better story. On the blog? I try to make it fun, not necessarily emotional, though sometimes it gets that way I suppose.

Lynn Kelley

I think that people appreciate candor and honesty and vulnerabilities because we’re all vulnerable, so we feel more of a connection. Same thing with our characters, readers care more when they understand their weaknesses, which make them human. This is a really good post!

Gene Lempp

“Only by making ourselves and our characters honest and vulnerable can readers connect to our words. Only then will our voices ring true. Only then will we be successful at eliciting emotions from our readers. And emotions are what make the reading experience like nothing else.”

Perfectly spoken Jami! I think new writers start out with themselves as the only character they truly know. But we all avoid our deeper emotions, they are powerful and frightening. Part of the writers course, and I think this is the only point where an “artist” needs to suffer is in tapping into those deep emotions, facing them and coming to an understanding and acceptance of them. Once we are able to do that we can truly understand the emotions of others, including our characters and bring them out realistically in ways that our readers will not just read but feel.

Incredible post 🙂

Julie Musil

Jami, this is so true and yet sometimes difficult. I’m extremely honest on my blog, that’s for sure. The good the bad and the ugly. When I’m writing, I notice I sometimes hold back. Or when I’m revising, I’m tempted to cut out something so honest and vulnerable. Not a good thing

Lyn Midnight

I love your style, Jami! And I’ll ask you to borrow this quote “We find our voices when we embrace that exposure.” for an idea I have, and OF COURSE I’ll credit. It’s just that it speaks quite loudly to me too.

It’s actualy quite easy for me to expose my vulnerabilities because I am self-ironic, and self-deprecating, to the point where it’s just annoying, lol. It’s my lifetime defense against bullies. But I’m glad I have it because you’re right. We do find out voices in weakness.

So this explains a lot… how I always make my characters dishonest and defensive and clumsy. Oh my got, the awkwardness of these poor souls! I suppose I just love them all the more when they go through the motions. So thanks, Jami. This really inspired me! It’s what I like to cal the Bloggerfly Effect. 😛

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Nina

It’s definitely easier to write as myself (aka in the blog) than in fiction. Yet, when I get something “right” in a story it’s 1000 times more satisfying than writing a good blog post. I guess because it’s so much harder for me I feel more of a sense of accomplishment. I do wish, however, that the fiction voice came as easily as the non-fiction.

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