We’ve all believed it before — the common misconception that vulnerability is weakness. Although it’s certainly received more positive buzz in recent years (thanks, Brené Brown!), society has fed us this impression for far too long. Vulnerability is not weakness. It is strength. And although it can feel like both a blessing and a curse, as a writer, vulnerability is my secret weapon.
I don’t write what’s easy. I never have. I’m an intense person. I live on the edges, on my nerve endings, and it can be exhausting. But mostly, it’s exhilarating — and I think many creatives can attest to the same.
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, they say you should write what you know. I’d like to take it a step further, and write what I’m terrified of. Write what I know and remember, what hurt me, what made me feel dizzy with fear and then forced me to grow. Because so often what we’re scared of, what we’re paralyzed to undertake, to feel, and to create, is exactly that — what makes us grow.
We tend to avoid vulnerability because being that open can cause shame. It causes us to run away from negative emotions, to close ourselves off from them. And it makes sense, because there is so much that can reach down into you and lay you open and scoop you bare if you’re honest about it.
Last year I published my first book of poetry with Thought Catalog. And I was utterly petrified to do it. The night before I sent in my last round of edits, I thought, Who am I to think this matters?
Well, who was I to think it doesn’t?
I was first introduced to the work of Audre Lorde in a Feminist Theory class in college. She quickly became one of my favorite writers. I remember the moment I read the words the late poetess used to describe herself, “black lesbian feminist mother warrior poet.” Warrior poet. Warrior poet.
Those last words stuck with me, and they never left my psyche from that moment on. They carried me through self-doubt and toxic relationships and broken friendships and paralyzing anxiety. They were what made me eventually lay myself bare in my own poetry.
In middle and high school, I had an eating disorder. There, I said it. And it used to be that I couldn’t even think it, much less talk about it. When friends and loved ones brought up their own struggles with food, eating, and body dysmorphia, I’d clam up and smother myself in silence. The concept of “diet culture” did — and still does — anger me beyond belief. That as a millennial growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, it became so normalized to “diet,” to count calories, to dwindle yourself down into the smallest you could possibly be.
Once it no longer threatened to swallow my life whole, it became something I wanted to put behind me. I never wanted to glance back at that younger version of me, the one that was fourteen and all protruding bones, the one that diligently checked the scale every morning, the one who scrupulously counted each calorie all throughout her early teens.
I was afraid to talk about it — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t write about it. In fact, I later saw that I could use my poetry as a smokescreen. I could take an unflinching look at the things that hurt me, the ways in which I had hurt myself, and the ways in which I could grow from that hard and dark and hungry place. I could use it to heal me, and perhaps to inspire and heal others, too. If writing my truth and honoring it in that way served to change a single person’s perspective, that could help cauterize my own wounds.
Like I wrote in the poem Wishing Well Heart:
“A secret kept for years.
An unlocked door, left swinging on its hinges.
Finally, you are allowed an entrance;
finally, you are deemed worthy.
The importance of being vulnerable:
A lesson I want to teach the world, and a lesson you taught me.”
Not putting myself out there because of my own fear and anxiety not only wouldn’t allow me to grow as a writer, but it was actually holding me back in all endeavors. Being scared to share my voice was a crutch. But that’s the power of accepting your own vulnerability. Putting all your pain into your art and giving it room to breathe. That’s called healing.
And it’s how I learned I had to stay true to my vision, to speak my truth, even when it hurt. Writing my book was a healing process — and one in which I learned to love myself more fully than I ever had in the past.
This is not to say that I don’t still have my bad days. That there aren’t moments when I come across old photos and miss the way my hip bones used to rise or when my collarbones looked more like bird bones. It took me years to allow myself to eat more than a single slice of pizza in one sitting, or not berate myself over the size of the gap between my thighs. Or to tell myself, Your body is not a graveyard. You are more than just skin and bones.
But when we sit with what scares us, we can learn from it. We can let those paralyzing emotions and fears of not being good enough — or being “too much” — open us up instead of close us off. We can relate to others. We can understand that even when we feel alone, our stories are what connect us. They can make us more compassionate and stronger human beings, ultimately more fully realized and self-actualized versions of ourselves. The people we are meant to be.