Vulnerability and Writing the Dead

In his wonderful book “Nothing to Be Frightened Of”, Julian Barnes says that we must write as if everyone we know, everyone we love and who loves us, is dead.  What he means, of course, is that writers can’t get hung up on what people might think of us according to what we write.  We can’t worry about hurting people, or saying things that people will disagree with.

But this is hard.

Of course I care what people think.  Of course I don’t want to hurt anyone (and know that I have).  I think about these things a lot.

Writers are just as vulnerable as the people they write about.  This is true in fiction, too, because where do we get our inspiration if not from life itself?

The world does not like to be vulnerable, but it is equally true that the world doesn’t like to witness other people’s vulnerability.  It makes us squirm in discomfort.  Perhaps other people’s vulnerability is a window into our own selves, a window we would rather not look through.  Sometimes, and this is the worst of it, it makes people vicious – using someone’s vulnerability to hurt someone even more than they are already hurting.

A friend pointed out to me that when a woman writes about being vulnerable, she ends up regretting it because the world makes her feel overexposed.  When a woman is vulnerable, she is at best confessional and at worst hysterical.

I want to be clear about something in this blog.  When I’ve written about myself, it’s been for a larger purpose.  I want people to know that they are not alone – not because they suffer in the exact same way that I have suffered, but because they have suffered period.  I want people to live carefully.  Our words and actions matter – always.  I use examples from my own life because they illustrate a broader point – not because I’m interested in pity.  Ultimately, this blog is not about me.  It’s about everyone, everywhere.

Originally, I wanted this blog post to be about racism.  That’s what I was going to write about.  I wanted to say even when we think we’re not being racist, we’re being racist.  I had examples – examples that would hurt people.  Examples that would hurt me.  As the song from the musical Avenue Q says, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”  But that feeling of vulnerability stopped me.  Writing the dead stopped me.

Maybe that’s too bad.  Maybe strength is the ability to be vulnerable.  Sometimes.

I’m writing fiction now.  I feel like I can tackle societal shit in a form that distances me and people I know from it.  I can safely say that my characters are NEVER myself, NEVER an exact replica of anyone I know.  It’s fiction.

Writing is risky.  I hope you believe it’s worth the risk.  I do.


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