Writing from the Heart

My critique partners and writing instructors often comment that my fiction isn’t as emotionally engaging as it could be. That criticism doesn’t surprise me because I know that I have a deep-seated fear of my emotions.

For the past five or six months, I’ve been working with a therapist to address those fears. My therapist recommended Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, which outlines Brown’s theory that people who live a “wholehearted” life are willing to accept being vulnerable and face uncertainty while recognizing that they are enough.

The book has a lot of insights and advice, and I’m still trying to unpack all of the nuggets of wisdom it contains.

At one point in the book, Brown writes, “I want to experience your vulnerability but I don’t want to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me. I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.” (41-42)

That passage smacked me. The books and stories that stick with me as a reader are those where the writer has managed to tap into my deepest fears and allow me to face them safely on the page. Or, perhaps the writer has described the dreams and desires I didn’t realize I had.

The stories that move me do so because the writers who crafted them have come to the page in an authentic, open way. They have drawn on their own emotional reserves and crafted works that allow readers to explore a range of emotions.

That’s difficult for many writers to do, and I suspect that the savaging we frequently see on social media is making it harder. After all, who wants to pour their heart and soul into crafting a story if a group of entitled trolls will savage us from the anonymous safety of their keyboards? Fuck that noise, right?

Interestingly, I think Brown might have an answer for that concern in Daring Greatly. In talking about people who lived wholeheartedly, she writes, “These folks had elevated ‘enough’ to whole new levels. Yes, they practiced mindfulness and leaning, but they also set serious boundaries in their lives.” (142)

I don’t know about you but setting firm boundaries is a skill I lack. I’m a people pleaser, and I often commit to doing more than I can manage because I don’t know how to say no and set healthy boundaries.

As often happens, I had the importance of recognizing and respecting my limitations reinforced this week. In the March/April 2020 issue of Poets & Writers, Jacqueline Woodson interviews Natalie Diaz.

At one point in the interview, Ms. Diaz says, “I have been thinking a lot about why I have always been so sad. It is something I fought because that’s what we’re taught, right? Fight weakness. But lately I’m thinking I need those weaknesses. I need those moments of saying ‘I need to sleep,’ of saying, ‘I don’t feel good,’ of saying, ‘No.’ My friend Roger would tell you that to say you’re exhausted is a type of resistance. And isn’t it crazy to know that we were born already tired, a kind of tired that is older than us.”

Again, this idea of weakness, of being honest and vulnerable, of admitting our limitations isn’t one that comes easily. Setting boundaries about when your boss can call you in the evenings or on the weekends is as extinct as the dodo. Admitting that we don’t actually have unlimited time, money, and energy isn’t popular. But it’s honest.

No matter what field we’re in or what we’re doing, we need to recognize when we are too tapped to push through. We need to admit when we need help. We need to set boundaries and demand that they are respected.

Earlier in the P&W interview, Ms. Diaz said, “To be all the things we are, to choose all—this isn’t a burden but a gift, or I try to see it that way, which makes it harder to compromise for the sake of being legible to institutions, or even to the social machinations of the poetry world, which is, in effect, to maintain the status quo.”

The status quo is broken. It demands that we put our personal needs aside for the sake of productivity, Internet fame, or the almighty dollar. It means spreading ourselves too thin. It’s a fucked-up way of engaging with the world, and it treats too many of us like we’re machines.

Setting boundaries, understanding my emotions, and living more authentically won’t be something that I manage overnight. It’s likely going to be a lifelong endeavor, and I’m sure I’ll stop and stumble on the way. I think it will help if I can remember that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Like becoming a better writer, it’s a constant leveling up of skills, only to face new challenges.

(Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash)

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