Embrace vulnerability to strengthen your writing

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If writers want to make an emotional connection with readers, they need to be willing to tap into their own vulnerability. Some of the strongest, most affecting writing comes from a place of raw honesty. Examining and exposing your feelings takes courage, but I guarantee that if you embrace the challenge and write from the heart, you will elevate the quality and reach of your writing.

Most writers are private people. Many are introverts who find social media confronting and the idea of sharing their innermost thoughts and fears with the world unimaginable. I was once in that camp, and my writing suffered as a result. It was well-written but lacked emotional depth. When I examine that early writing, the pieces I’m most proud of are the ones with an element of emotional truth at their core. Now, as I continue to work on developing my writing skills, I’m actively trying to bring more openness and vulnerability to my work.

I was overwhelmed by the response to my latest piece of creative non-fiction, ‘How to Be a Better Mother’, published in the excellent Island Magazine this month. Readers called it brave, powerful, raw and honest, and many said they could relate to the complex feelings of parental guilt explored in the piece. This work was incredibly difficult to write and nerve racking to share with the world, even with the blessing of my son and encouragement from my supportive writers group, but I’m glad I did share it. Because for me the purpose of writing is connecting with readers, and if one other struggling parent feels seen after reading this piece it will have done its job.

Memoir is not for everyone, though, nor do you need to expose your own life and the lives of loved ones to achieve honesty in your writing. Fiction also benefits from exploring vulnerabilities. Without emotional resonance, writing is empty and characters cardboard cutouts. So how can you write with emotional honesty when your instinct is to protect yourself, to bottle up those feelings and present the world with a flawless facade? Here are a few of my thoughts.

Tips for writing vulnerably:

  • Time and distance are your friend: After a traumatic event, we tend to put up barriers to protect ourselves from further hurt. It can take years to gain enough distance from the pain to understand the emotions buried beneath our defence mechanisms, and longer still to feel safe enough to share them with others. Take as long as you need and don’t retraumatise yourself for the sake of your art if you’re not ready.
  • Write without censoring yourself: Publication is not the only goal. Sometimes the process of writing can be therapeutic in itself. If we only ever write with publication in mind, we risk watering down the messy truth for fear of exposure, or causing offence, or being judged by others. At least in the first instance, don’t censor yourself. Write the mess. You can always edit it out later, but you’re more likely to find the emotional truth that way.
  • Play around with form: My parenting CNF piece emerged almost fully formed when I found the right vehicle for telling this story. In this case, a prompt to write a piece in second person using an instructional style gave me the voice and distance I needed to give shape to the complex thoughts and feelings I wanted to express. If you want to tackle a difficult topic, play around with poetry, write a list, try out an unusual point of view or write the story as one breathless paragraph. Sometimes we need to trick ourselves into exposing our vulnerabilities.
  • Write the story that scares you: We all have memories that lodge in our brains, recurring thoughts, stories we’d love to tell if they weren’t so terrifying, if we only had the tools to tell them. More often than not, the stories we avoid telling are the ones that will resonate with readers. Be brave and write the story that scares you.
  • Don’t be afraid to dig deeper: Does your story make you feel anything when you read it back? If not, you need to stop and think about why the character is thinking/behaving the way they are, how they feel in this moment, and put that emotion on the page.

Never be afraid to dig deeper and mine the well of experience we all have. Give it a go, take risks and poke at the monsters inside you. What could possibly go wrong?!

By Lisa Kenway

Lisa Kenway is an Australian writer and doctor. Her psychological thriller manuscript, 'All You Took from Me', was long-listed for the 2020 Richell Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in Meanjin Quarterly, Meniscus Literary Journal, Brilliant Flash Fiction, X-Ray Literary Magazine, Ellipsis Zine and elsewhere. Find her at www.lisakenway.com or on Twitter @LisaKenway.

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