Welcome to Part VI, the final in this blog series based on Brené Brown’s studies of vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. You may also want to listen to an interview Ms. Brown gave with Krista Tippet.
To recap, “vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experience,” Brown tells us. It is not weakness; it is courage well disguised. We fear vulnerability in part because we avoid the potential for being shamed. Shame questions our self-worth. Shame asks us Who do you think you are? and tells us You’re not good enough. And if that isn’t enough fun, Brown says we also base our self-worth on what we produce. We are a nation that values doing over being.
“You’re a talented writer, but no one wants to read a personal-spiritual journey memoir by an unknown person. If you were Paris Hilton, I could sell it.” Thus spake a literary agent after I pitched to her my story about living in a Sufi community in Scotland. A year later, Elizabeth Gilbert published a book called Eat, Pray, Love. You may have heard of it; it’s a personal-spiritual journey memoir written by, at the time, someone largely unknown. On the best-seller list for years, the book made Gilbert millions. Nine years after the agent’s stinging comment to me—and 15 years after the experience itself—I’m still wondering how best to share my memoir with the public.
In Part I of this blog series I mentioned that Brown’s work helped me understand the root of my predicament as a creative writer: I haven’t been vulnerable enough. Novels, short stories, screenplays, and essays all in various stages of incompletion stuff my filing cabinets, unread by anyone but me. Polishing them for publication would require an act of courage—an act of vulnerability. It would also expose me to public criticism, possibly shame. So you think you’re a good writer, huh? says the little voice inside. Wait’ll the public gets a hold of this and tears you apart!
According to Brown, creativity’s shame trigger is comparison—the number one killer of creativity. Add to that our penchant for linking self-worth to productivity, it’s no wonder some artists suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, or simply stop creating their art.
In Part III, I posed Brené Brown’s query about whether our capacity for putting our whole heart into life can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted. That is, do we show up only to the extent we can be certain the outcome won’t harm us, won’t shame us? Her question opened my eyes to my own creative writing. Fear of criticism has prevented me from publishing. Comparing myself with others has stunted my creative chops. Defining success as getting rich from my art has kept me from creating much at all. Yet, I’m a writer in my soul, which is why it’s myself, not others, whom I cannot afford to fail.
For a long time the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love pissed me off, as did the literary agent who praised my writing but had no faith the topic could sell. To be fair, no one could have predicted such a book would sell. Though it helped to have a publisher who believed in her, Gilbert’s success stemmed from her foray into vulnerability, and what a job she did writing about extremely personal things. For some, it was TMI, and she was harshly criticized for writing vapid prose. She probably cried all the way to the bank.
I can blame literary agents or let the success, or failure, of other writers keep me from my own writing, but the real reason I haven’t pursued my creative writing more enthusiastically is fear of putting myself out there. The potential to be publicly criticized brings me to my knees. As far as memoir writing goes, Gilbert had what I lacked: the courage to be vulnerable in the rabbit hole of criticism and shame. That is what is truly enviable, not her millions.
Lessons learned: (1) Write what’s in your heart for your own sake; (2) Don’t let others keep you from creating your art, especially those who have to gamble on your monetary success for their own bread and butter.
What brings you to your knees? Go there, be afraid, lose your way, admit you don’t know the answers. Focus on effort, which you can control, not on outcome, which you can’t control. People will take advantage, hurt us. We’ll be embarrassed, humiliated, and sometimes lose. Our hopes will be dashed. We might feel crushing failure. By letting vulnerability inform our experience, we can begin developing our capacity for broken-heartedness. It will sting but it won’t kill us—and it might even save our lives from disappointment and what-might-have-beens.
Live as if you were truly worthy; love as if a broken heart could save your soul; act as if shame is not an option. By “daring greatly,” we invite possibilities we never knew existed, find passions that bring us to life; discover strengths we thought reserved only for superheroes. What are we waiting for? Let’s get shamelessly vulnerable together and discover what kind of trouble we can make for those who dare ask us who we think we are or tell us we’re not good enough—including our own little voice inside.
Who do we think we are? Creatives, everyone, with gifts to share with the world and for which humanity would be diminished if we didn’t. Are we good enough? We’re here, aren’t we?