TED talks are “ideas worth spreading” in the areas of Technology, Entertainment and Design. In this five-part series, Nicole Bell shares TED talks every writer should watch. Part one featured Elizabeth Gilbert on Your Elusive Genius and part two featured Andrew Stanton’s talk, Clues to a Great Story.
This week’s TED talk, while not explicitly related to writing, discusses one of the most important virtues of being a writer: Vulnerability.
As writers, our job is not to use our writings exclusively as cathartic personal diary entries or profit gain, but to use them instead as a means by which we can connect with other people on the deepest emotional and spiritual levels. In order to do this, we must be open with ourselves and with our readers. Brené Brown discusses her six-year study of vulnerability and it’s importance in our daily lives.
My sophomore year of college I had to put together a rising Junior portfolio for my writing professors to review. After they had read through it, we had a meeting to discuss their thoughts on my writing and to allow them to give me their decision as to whether I should continue as a Creative Writing major (talk about intimidating!). I sat on the old, squishy sofa in the head of my department’s office and nervously tapped my foot as they began their evaluation. Everything was in order and seemed up to par—with one exception. “Miss Nicole,” my fiction professor with the tattoos on his forearms and crazy patterned tie crossed his arms, “it’s all good, but I feel like you’re holding something back.” My other professor nodded in agreement, “Yeah, it all feels a little…reserved.”
My heart sunk. Like Brown says in her Talk, you can receive 37 positives and one “opportunity for growth” only to have it ruin your whole month. I was frustrated first because I hadn’t been perfect, and second because I had no idea how to fix the problem they had found. What did they mean by, “I’m holding something back”? What I didn’t realize then was, in Brown’s terminology, I was feeling shame: “And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”
Fast forward one year to when I sat in a Scriptwriting class: We had a guest speaker for the day who was a local playwright, director, and actor. He sat at the head of the conference table and warned us that he would keep talking if we didn’t interrupt him with questions, but that was fine by me. I was entranced not just because he had the perfect rich and rolling southern Mississippi gent’s accent, but more because of his testimony to the necessity of vulnerability in his writing. He championed the exact same ideas of vulnerability Brown addresses in her Talk. The people who are most vulnerable in their writings have the best connections with their readers, who can then connect further with other readers. These writers, “were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection,” (Brown, on people who are whole-hearted).
My mind was blown. All the critiques from the junior portfolio suddenly started to make sense! I realized that it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s necessary to show this in my writing. It’s okay to reveal my personality, flawed though it may be, in my stories, poetry, and characters. My writing has become so much more genuine and relatable since I’ve watched this TED Talk and since that day in scriptwriting class. Brown says, “You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.” By shutting out my imperfections I had ultimately shut my whole self away from my readers.
Maybe some of you are holding back in your writing; I want to encourage you to take to heart what Brown has to say. Not only will your writing grow, but your personal relationships with others will deepen to new levels where you will reap the greatest relational rewards.