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Don’t get me wrong—I love writing. But in nearly twenty years of writing and publishing, I’m also well aware of the pitfalls of a writer’s existence, the cumulative effect of which results in discouragement and thoughts of quitting, even for the cheeriest types.
On many fronts, writers are vulnerable. But this isn’t all bad. Yes, Maslow identifies safety and security as primary human needs. But risk is inherent to creativity, and when you put yourself out there, you’re going to feel vulnerable. Vulnerability also has much to do with why we travel, putting ourselves outside our so-called comfort zones. It also has much to do with why we read—on the page, we experience vicarious vulnerability without compromising our safety.
Safety and security benefit with individual, but vulnerability furthers us collectively, as a culture and as a society. It certainly enhances our creative work. “A big part of writing is developing the capacity to expose yourself on the page,” says Steve Almond. Where we feel most ashamed, most vulnerable, we are also most likely to connect with our readers.
In “You and Your Characters,” literary agent Donald Maass urges authors to find the points of connection between themselves and their protagonists—and to delve deep into these parallels by probing shared vulnerabilities. “What fear is closest to your own darkest dread?” he prompts writers to ask. “What decision has an impossible cost, a cost you’ve paid yourself?”
In a talk I gave yesterday at Beach Books, I spoke of how vulnerability works into two titles that, on the surface, appear to be quite different. In the novel Cold Spell, a husband leaves his wife and young daughters. Vulnerable and exposed, the wife becomes obsessed with a glacier and the latent power bound up in ice, while the daughter struggles with the vulnerability and power in her sexual coming of age.
Because I write less from ideas than from voice and character, I wasn’t thinking of any connecting points from this novel to Wealth Woman, the biography of a nineteenth century Native woman, Kate Carmack. In subsistence cultures like Kate’s, hunting and foraging involve more inherent vulnerability than in well-established agrarian or industrial societies.
The stories Kate grew up with were thus more about avoiding risks than taking them. When we live in relative safety, we can afford to be attracted to risk. Yet Kate made herself vulnerable for the sake of her community, and her community in turn became vulnerable as outsiders stampeded in search of wealth—wealth that on the surface would appear to bring safety and security but which in many ways makes us more vulnerable.
In my writing—and I trust in yours—these ideas reveal themselves after the fact, as the characters, real or fictional, spin themselves out on the page. If you want depth in your work, you can’t afford to go easy on your characters. You can’t coddle them.
“I want characters at the end of their ropes,” Almond says. “It’s far too late in the history of our species for sophisticated poses.”