the art of vulnerability

I can’t remember where I first encountered the truth I would like to share today. I think it may have been in a fiction workshop class I took in college or in Anne Lamott‘s book, Bird by Bird, but honestly I just don’t know. The idea, however, is rock solid. Here it is:

The best fiction walks the line of nearly embarrassing the author.

Think about books you love and pivotal moments in those books, and then ask yourself a simple question: what does this scene say about the person who wrote it? Most likely, those kinds of climactic, epic, inspiring or devastating scenes give you a glimpse of the author that could well reach all the way to his soul. You probably don’t think that when reading, but when writing, if you’re like me, you’re painfully aware of what your stories say about you.

The temptation is to back off a bit so that you don’t share too much of yourself. Smooth the edges. Reduce the quirkiness of a character or rework that scene so that it’s not so…My God!…and people don’t end up saying about you, “Can you imagine how sick she has to be to have even thought of that?”

But the problem with playing it safe is that you’ll suck the life right out of your stories. Yeah, the quirks and flaws of your characters may say something about you. Then again, they may not. Who knows? You aren’t being as straight-forwardly vulnerable as it feels. And even if someone manages to ferret out the truth about you that your stories suggest, is that too high a price to pay to write something daring and real? Would you rather write mediocre slop just so people think you’re “normal”?

I wouldn’t.

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