As writers, we are literally open books. Whether we write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, graphic novels, we put our selves on the page. One way or another, to varying degrees, we expose ourselves. And that can be terrifying.
I know this deep in my bones. I come from a family that loved books and encouraged reading. In the kitchen my mother sang Chaucer to the Fats Domino tune "Darktown Strutters' Ball."--"Whan that Aprill with his shouers soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote"--as she had learned it from the creative nuns at her Catholic high school. My father started Junior Great Books at our Catholic grade school and lead a discussion group. Together my parents started a Saturday Night Writing Club for us six kids; we had to show up at the dinner table with something we had written, a poem or a story. The reward? Pizza and Coke, an outrageous treat in our health-conscious, sugar-free home.
Surrounded by writing and books, I loved language, wordplay, stories and poetry. I majored in English in college, but I did not make a full commitment to my writing until I got sick enough, hit bottom, and wanted to get better. A Shiatsu massage therapist had opened up a shop in our small town on the Minnesota prairie. I remember thinking I'll try anything. After our first session, she took a piece of paper and wrote down Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity just as if she was writing a prescription. And she was. She could see that the sickness in my body was a "stuckness" in my creativity. I bought the book immediately and worked through the 12 steps of a recovering artist as if it was my job, as if my life depended upon it. And it did. That lead me to apply to grad school for an MFA in Creative Writing in mid-life. A crazy idea? Maybe, but also life-changing and life-saving.
In one poetry workshop, a fellow grad student commented positively about aspects of my work, then added almost apologetically, "But I feel like your writing is encapsulated."
Busted. Painful, but I still thank that person for her courage and honesty. I pictured myself and my writing in a giant capsule--I was safe, but also in danger of suffocating. So how could I get my writing and my self out of that capsule?
Over the past ten years, Brene Brown has studied vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. The first five years of her decade-long study she focused on shame and empathy. Now she is exploring a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness. Some of the questions she is posing: How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?
Recently, I gave a reading of my poetry and non-fiction at Marshall Festival 2010 at Southwest Minnesota State University. Afterwards, a retired education professor came up to me, complimented me on the craft of my writing, and then said somewhat incredulously, "You made yourself naked up there." He could not have paid me a higher compliment. My writing was no longer in the capsule. It had not been easy, but by recovering the artist and writer within, by cultivating, as Brown says, a deep sense of worthiness, love and belonging, I could now tell the story of who I was with my whole heart. I had the courage to be imperfect. And that has made all the difference in how people connect to my writing and in the joy it gives me as I share it.
And it's win-win: readers and audience members need and are hungry for authenticity in a world where so much is fake and phony. And as a writer I have the need to be seen for who I am--warts, freckles and all--and to know I am enough.