Checking My Vulnerability

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christiana-peterson-true-confession3By Christiana Peterson | @ChristianaNPete

At my heart, I am a fiction reader and writer. I love to be surrounded by narrative, losing hours to stories of magic, love, and beauty. One of the things I also love about writing fiction is that it gives me some semblance of anonymity when I’m creating characters that might or might not be struggling through the same challenges I’m having. In the end, no one knows for sure how autobiographical my fictional stories are, sometimes not even me.

But when I began writing creative non-fiction more seriously, I was overwhelmed by the advice (pretty much everywhere), that nonfiction writers are supposed to be vulnerable. We are supposed to be authentic, raw, and real.

As I began to write a nonfiction book and tried to sort out how to build my platform, I was nervous. What does it mean to vulnerable? Does vulnerability mean confession? Can I be an artist if I’m not willing to reveal private things? Do I have to be metaphorically and spiritually naked to be a real writer?

I’m a pretty open person on a one-to-one basis, but in public, it feels different. When someone insists that I reveal more of myself than I’m willing, I feel a tightening deep in my chest, one that says, “No, you will not make me.” On the one hand, I think this comes from a desire for healthy boundaries. On the other hand, I want to protect my self-image as the kind, peaceful, nice person that I think people think I am.

We are attracted to writers who are able to be vulnerable. I think we want to read about how others have failed and been ashamed because it makes us feel a little less alone in our own failures. At it’s best, this rawness is a good antidote to the perfect lives we like to present on social media. And it’s understandable, because confession of others can make us feel less alone in our struggles. Our own confessions are signs of healing and maturing. We are all human. We all fail and failure is easier to bear together than alone.

But is that really what being vulnerable means? The word vulnerable literally means “to wound.” To be truly and literally vulnerable means to open ourselves up to the elements, laying our neck bare to the wildness that might devour us, making ourselves helpless and powerless.

It’s true that being this kind of honest on the internet can get you devoured by trolls and haters. But because we cannot reveal everything to everyone, any revelations or confessions we make are usually carefully crafted when we publish them online. Are they still vulnerable if they are edited and re-edited to leave some of the honesty out? Good writers craft. Popular writers, some good and some bad, often craft confessions for maximum effect. Are our vulnerabilities sometimes as crafted as our perfections?

I guess what I’m getting at and what I’m struggling with, in general, is what is the purpose of expressing myself openly? When I post something to my blog, trying to be as honest, what am I really hoping for? More followers? More affirmation? More attention? For belonging? For someone to say “Me too?”

I long for lots of things when I write, but one of them is definitely affirmation. I long for someone to know me, hear me, and like me. Affirmation isn’t bad in itself and seeking belonging is a part of the human need; we were meant to be in community. And for those who have had abusive or traumatic childhoods or experiences, I can only imagine that being open about those experiences is healing. It can offer hope to those who are struggling, who need to hear the voices of others say, “I’ve been through that and I’ve made it. You can too.”

There is a time for this kind of openness, a time when we need to be consoled and affirmed. A time when we need to hear, “Me too.”

I’m beginning to understand that true confession is something else entirely. Confession, at it’s most literal, isn’t about affirmation. True confession is about our repentance and solidarity with human suffering.

In the book, St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, St. Francis moves from a spoiled, rich, and arrogant youth to a man whose heart has been changed by God. It is only when he confesses to God his revulsion of the lepers that walk the roads he travels, that God graces him with the ability to recognize his own spiritual leprosy. That’s when the great saint and mystic we know, is born: from confession, mourning, and transformation.

If I want to be a writer who makes a difference, who is transformed and who wants to help others, my story should certainly begin with confession. But it seems to me, that in order to avoid seeking affirmation, this confession should start—not in public, but in intimate spaces, sometimes with my loved ones, sometimes with my community, sometimes on my knees before no one else but God. For how else can I avoid the dangers of seeking affirmation and who can absolve me, but those I trust and those I’ve hurt?

It’s good for me to remember this when I write. Vulnerability for its own sake can be as fictional as fiction. But honesty in order to build community, authenticity to help others, and confession to give glory and honor beyond myself, can reveal deeper truths than even I could ever hope to craft.

________________

About Christiana:

30.pngChristiana N. Peterson lives with her family and a bunch of Mennonite misfits in intentional community in the rural Midwest. She has published pieces on death, fairytales and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.

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  • Colleen Reid

    Thank you for this Christina. This is something I struggle with every time I sit down to write. Putting the words down aren’t the hard thing. The hard thing is hitting “publish” where all my close friends and family can see inside me. I am pulled to share, to have that “me too” community but, it is deeply terrifying at the same time.

    • Yes! I totally agree. Laying yourself bare is so hard. I think our pull to share is part of what it means to long for community, to be human. Thanks for your comment, Colleen. It’s good to know we’re not alone in feeling this way!

  • Whoever said that writing is about “sitting down and opening a vein” pretty much got it right. Even with the level of trust and unity that pervades this safe space, I recognize that “tightening deep in my chest” sensation.

    As with all things ministry-oriented, it’s so hard to sift motives. Whose glory am I seeking, anyway? Somehow, though, I think that in asking that question we come a little closer to Truth.

    I’m on my second reading of this piece because you’ve just said it all so well.

    • Thanks for your wisdom and encouragement, Michele.

  • Roos Woller

    Thank you for sharing this. There is so much to think on in here and it just reminded me to ask the question in all areas of my life. Why am I doing this, what is my intensions.

    • Thanks for your comment, Roos. I have to be reminded a lot to look at my intentions too. I guess they will never be perfect but as Michele said, perhaps just asking the question is a good start.

  • Great piece. This will have me thinking for awhile.

  • I love that you were thinking about vulnerability in this way and are willing to challenge our motives + intentions. Thank you, Christiana.

    • Thank you, dear Idelette, for giving me the space to work some of this out.

  • What interesting questions, Christiana. I have a lot of the same ones–as someone who is known for ‘honesty’ online, your observations really strike me. My honesty is very curated and limited online, but I think that’s a good thing.
    For me, ultimately, the reason I share vulnerably online (in appropriate ways, with appropriate boundaries) is because of the redemptive possibilities of art-making. Through creativity, we can transform the ugliest parts of our lives into something beautiful. Sometimes, that’s the only justice and healing we’ll get in this lifetime, but it’s a powerful kind of justice.

    • Oh, I love that “the redemptive possibilities of art-making…it’s a powerful kind of justice.” I think a lot of these questions I am directing at myself and my own motivations. I hope my questions don’t lead anyone to forgo that kind of vulnerability, that good redemptive work of justice. Thank you for your wisdom as always, Heather.