Writer in Residence

Vulnerability is a Writing Tool

By Peter Counter

My most reflexive apology is, “I went to theatre school.” Usually delivered with a shrug or a knowing smirk as if to say I can’t help it, it gets a laugh from the creative set about 82 percent of the time. The past few weeks, I’ve been using it a lot. After all, apology is the natural reaction to surprise intimacy between acquaintances, and folks have been reading my new memoir about living with PTSD.

“Wow,” said a friend in a cafe. “I really know everything about you now, eh?”

“What can I say?” I put up my hands as if being placed under arrest. “I went to theater school.”

“This must feel uncomfortable,” said another at a bar. “Sharing so much of your life to the world.”

“Theatre kids,” I said. “Always oversharing, am I right?”

Three theatre performers shown in silhouette infront of a red curtain.

(photo by Kyle Head, via Unsplash)

It’s a modest deflection, but there’s truth to it. Performance demands a state of presence, in which an actor sheds all affectation in search of genuine human reaction—vulnerability as a matter of craft. And when it works, it’s electric. Performances that charge the air, characters who seem like they’ve lived entire lives, a scene that makes your own world evapourate, drawing you fully into the moment on stage.

I seek to replicate that effect in my personal writing, so I treat the act of composition as an asynchronous performance. The page as stage. As such, a sense of presence is demanded, and to do that I use vulnerability as a writing tool.

Channeling emotional states is a bit ephemeral compared to the more rhetorical devices we use to tune noise into signal while writing. Generally, I am guided to vulnerability by a sense of embarrassment. If I feel a bit of antsy stage fright while editing a draft, I know I’m accessing something raw and personal. But the effects are tangible. A vulnerable state of being helps focus my intention, and sharpens my tactics.

Tactics, in the discussion of performance, are subtextual intentions behind words. They are the verbs that animate an actor’s lines. When an actor says, “I love you,” they are trying to do something to their scene partner. Comfort, embrace, sting, cut, mock—these are all viable tactics to imbue that line, and regardless of which the actor chooses, the important thing is they have one. Don’t just say it. Communication is more than sharing language data, it’s about affecting each other. This being the case, tactics are useful in writing for enriching voice and guiding word choice, but the writer has a problem: who is their scene partner?

You can’t be emotionally or creatively vulnerable in isolation. That sense of embarrassment that guides me to vulnerable writing emerges from the assumption that I am typing for an audience. I am participating in a conversation, and that interaction makes my writing more active.

Of course, vulnerability is not the only state through which this level of focused communication can be accessed. It’s probably not even the most popular one. States of being can shift based on genre—self-help and business books generally come from a state of authority and use tactics of persuasion, horror writing comes from a sense of transgression and uses visceral tactics, fantasy comes from curiosity and wonder. They can even shift from sentence to sentence. Right now I am not being vulnerable. I am trying to write a craft essay. But I can access that state of vulnerability by confessing to you that I am afraid to give writing advice in this forum. Probably because I don’t want more accomplished writers to judge me, or tell me I’m wrong, or mock me as a philistine. Or what if by explaining this trick I lose my ability to use it? 

There it is. I feel nauseous. Unprotected. And yet I’m doing this to myself even though I can activate writing from more comfortable emotional foundations. I choose the one made out of nerve endings, for two seemingly paradoxical reasons.

Vulnerable writing defies conformity, giving it a high chance of being novel. To use vulnerable tactics like “confess” or “expose” is to show your audience honest humanity underneath affectation. Vulnerability is not cool, and does not fit in, and that’s why the art that comes from our tender places can be so illuminating. Normally we hide our personal discomfort under stigma, trends, fashion, and monoculture. But the vulnerable writer isn’t concealing anything, so what they have to say has a higher chance of standing out from the status quo. Theatre kids, am I right?

And here is the paradox: as unique as it can be, vulnerable writing also brings us closer together by revealing new nooks and crannies in our shared experience.

Tokyo Metro riders behind the closed door of a passenger train car.

(photo by Jay Lo, via Unsplash)

Haruki Murakami’s Underground is a menagerie of vulnerability, and a great example of its dual narrative nature. A meticulous chronicle of the 1995 sarin gas attacks perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult on the Tokyo subway system, the book resists the traditional pull to refine a chaotic and violent morning commute into a single ordered narrative. Instead, Murakami commits to a kaleidoscope of human vulnerability and showcases the messiness and contradiction. Every chapter focuses on a new survivor of the attack, beginning with a short profile written by the author, then proceeding with the subject’s first-person account of their experience of being gassed. Eventually, he even includes cult members. It is repetitive, it is horrific, it is claustrophobic and personal and multifarious.

Underground also showcases the utility of vulnerability, because while it is incredibly sensitive, and soft non-fiction, the author denies himself that state of raw emotion. He collects the stories of others, and lets their relationship to reality, memory and himself show us that each human being is a light, with the ability to make our shared universe a bit brighter as long as we are willing to take a risk and share how we really feel.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Peter Counter is a culture critic writing about television, video games, film, music, mental illness, horror, and technology. He is the author of Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays and his non-fiction has appeared in the WalrusAll Lit UpMotherboardArt of the TitleElectric Literature, and the anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Find more of his writing at peterbcounter.com and everythingisscary.com.