On Writing and Vulnerability

On Writing and Vulnerability

Many years ago I had the privilege of hearing Pulitzer Prize Winning poet Joseph Brodsky read his poems. I was living in Western Massachusetts, and he was reading at Mt Holyoke College in South Hadly, MA. He was about 75 years old. What I remember about that reading was his presence, his humble vulnerability, that nonetheless exuded a deep sense of power.

At one point in the reading he was speaking about the process of writing poems. He said, as I recall it now, “If you’ve been an airline pilot for 25 years, you step into the cockpit with a fair amount of confidence. You know what you’re doing, you’ve flown enough planes that you know what to expect by now. But when you’ve been a poet for 25 years, you sit down at your desk and you really don’t know what will happen this time when you begin to write a poem.”

He went on to speak about this. You need to be in that place of not knowing what will happen, if you’re going to write an honest poem, he said. A good poem requires that vulnerability of you, that honest vulnerability of not knowing what’s going to happen, not knowing if it’s going to work, but entering into the present moment of what is asking to be said. There’s tremendous power in that kind of vulnerability. It’s the place that real authenticity comes from. If you want to write in your own voice, and write something true, that matters to you and to another person who reads it, you need to be willing to start from that kind of honest, can’t-be-faked vulnerability.

This is true not just for poets, but for any writing that comes from your soul.

Which means that in the act of writing, you’re going to need to be very intimate with your own fear.

This is a profound and significant paradox for writers, and one that it’s important to understand, if you want to keep writing and stay sane, sober and consistent.

If you start to know that vulnerability is a threshold you’re going to have to cross as part of the writing process, you don’t have to be so scared of it.

If you know that your vulnerability is actually a necessary part of the writing process, you can find ways to welcome it, take care of it and take care of yourself when you feel vulnerable, so that you can stay connected to the core of what makes your writing authentic, and also stay centered and strong as you keep writing.

This inherent vulnerability is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about self-care as part of the writing process. The more present you are with yourself—which is one of the gifts you receive from engaging in true self-care—the more aware you can be of the subtle emotional shifts that are part of the writing process.

Writing itself will always involve risk, because it’s about the truth, and it’s also about telling the truth that only you can tell. In order to do that, you have to enter into yourself.

Writing also has the potential to involve tremendous healing and personal growth, if you stay present to the possibilities that arise, when you face challenges along the way.

The first step to changing your relationship with the fears and vulnerabilities that are part of the writing process is to be very aware of how they manifest in your own writing life. Does the very idea of sitting down to write scare you so much that you avoid it at all cost? Or do you get to the page, but then mercilessly criticize what you write? Do you compare yourself to other writers and feel yourself less than them?

Or maybe, you sense there’s something you need to write about, but you keep putting off this writing, because you know it will ask you to explore memories and experiences that are charged and loaded for you?

Start to pay attention to your own process. And as you do, remember this: writing is ultimately kind, and on your side. Meaning, writing wants you to write, wants you to write what really matters to you, and rewards you, when you show up to the page, with a sense of wholeness that nothing else will give you.

Why is it then sometimes so hard? And what to about it?

I’ve come to see that the fears, vulnerabilities, and hesitancy that are part of the creative process are akin to crossing a threshold, in a mythical or archetypal journey. To get to the treasure, there’s often a dragon to be tended with. In the case of writing, the dragon is very often your own fear. A part of you is so convinced its job is to protect you, that it will do anything to keep you from writing. The fears and vulnerabilities are the signs that some part of you is gearing up to keep you safe.

When you start to recognize what’s going on, you can breathe. You then call in your own witness consciousness, and make a different choice.

Years ago, my yoga teacher used to say, “Fear is just excitement without the breath.”

Next time you feel scared in any phase of your writing process, come back to your breath. Feel your body breathing, and find a more centered place to anchor your attention. Once you’ve gotten more centered, look again at the fear that’s arising. Look at it with compassion, and ask it to talk to you. Once you develop the habit of shifting your relationship with your fear, you’re more able to navigate it when it shows up. You get to go deeper in your writing, and be more resilient with the places that used to stop you.

Back to Joseph Brodsky: I find it enormously comforting to remember that our most brilliant poets and writers feel the same vulnerabilities that I do. Those feelings are just part of the process.

And, I’d also say that in 25 years of writing poetry, you may not develop the confidence or bravado of an airline pilot about the act of writing itself, but you can nonetheless develop both compassion and skill to navigate the vulnerable thresholds that are part of the writing process.

As you develop more awareness of what the writing process entails, you know how to keep going when things get challenging. You have a different relationship with your writing, and you’re no longer so afraid of the fears that might have stopped you in the past.

If you want to learn more about how you can make your own creative process work for you, I invite you to join me in a free class on Thursday, February 2. You can register here.

Also, consider this course coming up in March: Come Home To Your Body: 21 Days of Writing and Radical Self Care. You’ll learn to create a very safe container for your voice within the temple of your own body. You’ll be amazed how your body can strengthen your writing process, when you invite its wisdom to guide you!