What’s at stake when we write? What are we risking—metaphorically, materially, and emotionally—when we sit down to tell our stories? For me, these are key questions that separate the best writing from the merely mediocre.
Let me clarify. I’m not suggesting that what we risk in the subject matter of our writing—moral and ethical lapses, sexual and social transgressions, unresolved guilt from childhood—will on its own spin coal dust into gold. It’s not enough to simply reveal, or (as the lapsed Catholic in me might attest) to confess our sins through non-fiction. Simply sharing our own stories is not, for me, the greatest or deepest form of risk, although it may be key part of the process.
I’m talking more about digging a little deeper, muddying what we think of as the truth, challenging and unpacking the familiar grooves and patterns in our brains and hearts that have created personal myths, the tales we tell ourselves again and again about ourselves, the world, and our place there.
Truth, as we all know, is a slippery, dastardly slope. Searching for truth is to search for some kind of certainty and ground that simply does not exist. It’s the stories we tell ourselves over and over, the details we choose, the subjects we fixate on—that come to feel like truths, when perhaps what’s most powerful, that glint of light in the giant rock pile, might be lying just underneath.
The risk in writing non-fiction, then—the risk involved in allowing oneself to be vulnerable as a writer—comes in two forms. The first is a sort of philosophical or ethical high-wire act, a solo improv dance party on a filament of electric string stretched high above the Grand Canyon of our own psyches. In this type of risk, the writer grapples with a fundamental question, considering the many sides of the equation. As researchers of the human condition, the question itself then becomes important. How do we frame that question? What are we really trying to tease out? That’s the first step.
The risk—the vulnerable space that gets jimmied open, bit by bit, once we have our question—is in the act of honest probing, of challenging what we hold as truth; the insistence on turning stone after stone over, and then grinding these stones down to a fine powder that returns back into dust. It’s not just in surveying the pile of stones, choosing the prettiest, the ugliest, the most metaphorical, and so on, and holding it up to the light to say this stone is the truth.
Do you dig?
It’s the process of stone-turning. The act of laying one stone upon the other and then re-arranging the pile that generates the kind of mysterious and vibrating energy that can come to feel like truth.
I’m thinking here of the work of some of the non-fiction writers I admire, folks like Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca Solnit, for example, who act not as judges and final arbiters of the world, not as human juries, not as gods or goddesses passing judgment from up high, but as witnesses. They recognize, through writing, that we are each part of a grand, unknowable, ever-evolving project. A mystery. To feel our way toward the truth means pulling our gaze further and wider than might feel comfortable, even as we peer fiercely and deeply into the tiniest bits of the cosmos, the molecules and atoms of feeling and matter and sensation. Vulnerability here means to risk undoing the great claims we’ve made in other parts of our lives, to hold ourselves to account, and to recognize, without expectation or agenda, that knowledge and wisdom are part of that organic, shifting, living process—not a set of moral laws or codes. So to be vulnerable as a writer within your text means to become deeply comfortable with uncertainty, with asking questions that have no simple, pithy, aphoristic answers.
The second way we make ourselves vulnerable when we write is through form. To allow the text to live, to breathe, to occupy its own space and time—this requires a series of decisions, small and large, on the part of the writer. Foucault understood that the creation of knowledge is always a political and ethical act that involves such considerations. Cutting, for Foucault—whether that cut is a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a comma—is a deeply personal choice that reveals intimately how we see the world, how we understand relations of power and accumulation of meaning through the lens of our own consciousness. How text is arranged, what we choose to include or not include, when to cut, especially—these are the workaday issues of the writer. To be confident and bold in vision, yet to remain humble and open within this process—is to create and allow the space, in other words, that makes art art, if only because it replicates the gorgeous, terrifying, contradictory, exhilarating pulse of life. All of this boldness and listening requires another type of vulnerability. If we consider some of the great prose stylists—we might consider again Woolf, or Toni Morrison, or Teju Cole—their vulnerability as writers comes from marrying a sound, solid structure—a world view, if you will—with a tender, ephemeral, pulsing uncertainty. Nothing is locked down. The text tends toward openness, not closure. Put differently, the text involves both a body (the structure) and a soul or spirit (the voice, or style), and the relationship between the two is always symbiotic and changing.
To make this issue of vulnerability concrete, I turn to one of my favourite Canadian non-fiction writers, one of the fiercest truth-seekers I know, Sierra Skye Gemma. In a stunning essay she wrote earlier this year for the Globe and Mail, Sierra considers the issue of sexual education of boys in the age of ubiquitous online pornography. How, she asks, might a liberal, sex-positive mother support a healthy relationship to sexuality in her teenage son? As a parent, how does one balance the desire to nurture an ethical and humane relationship to others with a freedom to explore, choose, learn, and grow? Sierra moves through this piece with a strong, tender, and admirable honesty. Like Solnit and Dillard—or Woolf, decades earlier—she moves effortlessly and organically across the page, complicating her central questions with insightful, incisive arguments and deeply personal revelations. No forced epiphanies and awkward summaries here. No neat morals or clumsy dogma. No axes to grind, either.
As writers, allowing ourselves to deepen our relationship to vulnerability in writing allows us to come closer to touching and experiencing the world in all its difficult, painful, and glorious contradictions. Vulnerability can serve as a vehicle to move beyond and through the personal towards larger, more complicated human truths, and in turn, to feel greater compassion and empathy for others.
Being vulnerable on the page does not mean wearing your heart on your sleeve, necessarily. It does not necessarily mean wearing a sleeve, or anything at all.
It does, however, require a commitment to looking deeply and honestly inside. It requires and demands the fundamental tools of the explorer: curiosity, courage, resilience, the willingness to get lost and then find your way out.
It might also require a heart.
The good news?
The last time I checked, we all—even the jaded cynics and skeptics among us—have hearts.