“Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.”

I read this line in Sara Marcus’s excellent feminist music and culture history Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, and it stopped me in my tracks. She was quoting from Riot Grrrl, the zine, in its second issue, which was in itself quoting from the zine Bikini Kill, written by that band’s ringleader, Kathleen Hanna. This was one of several commands to the new girl order to reclaim traditionally feminine traits. Instead of seeing these traits as weak or problematic, my take is that Hanna was urging women to embrace our entire selves, vulnerability and all. (Other commands included “Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships” and “Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival.”)

It would also make a good command for a writer, to be as vulnerable, open, honest and raw as one can. There are times when doing so feels not only like the easiest thing imaginable, but the only thing I can do, the only way to somehow control or explain or even acknowledge my thoughts and emotions, extreme and otherwise. Writing often feels a lot less vulnerable than speaking to people, because there are things you can do from the safety of not only your computer screen, but the safety of language, contorted, controlled, contrived exactly to your specifications. If only our emotions could be so easily mastered.

So I think writers can make good use out of Hanna’s phrase. Yet as a command for life, it’s more challenging, because by its nature, being vulnerable makes you possible prey for those who would indeed see that as a weakness and seek to exploit it, consciously or not.

I looked up the word because I thought it meant something akin to easily embarrassed, but no, it actually does mean, by definition, a form of weakness. According to Merriam-Webster, the first two definitions for “vulnerable” are “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” and “open to attack or damage.”

I find it fascinating that a movement built on the idea of revolution would embrace those qualities, and at first was startled at the connection. My immediate image of “riot grrrl” is the opposite of vulnerable; it’s fierce, in-your-face, proud, rocking out, empowered. Marcus’s book draw the connection, though, by exploring not just the music (including bands like Heavens to Betsy, which did betray vulnerability in their lyrics), but the zine culture riot grrrl spawned, and in those writings, we can see vulnerability unleashed, and also see that it’s not the opposite of empowerment; the two can coexist. We can also acknowledge that even a performer who seems to embody all those non-vulnerable qualities I cited above may very well be quaking on the inside, and the daring it takes to get up on a stage, or put your byline to your words, is still an extremely bold act, whether you swagger or cower your way through it.

On a deeper level, I think recognizing and embracing our vulnerability is being truthful about who we are. It means we might not always know why writing is our first defense and our first offense, we only know that it’s our only option. It feels like our life will stop unless we write this one thing down; not literally, perhaps, but in all the ways that matter. It means, maybe, sometimes writing something and only wondering later whether it should have seen the light of day. It means being okay with the fact that sometimes we have no barriers, no shields to protect our hearts, our egos, and that being “strong” can look like its exact opposite. At 34, I’ve never developed the thicker skin I probably should have tried to grow. Maybe I’m not built that way, or maybe there’s a part of me that needs to be a little undercooked, soft, easily pierced.

In fiction, my most personal and vulnerable pieces have been written in the second person. That distance was something I needed to truly go there, especially when it comes to what I can only describe as breakup erotica. For examples, see “The End” in Best American Erotica 2006 and my recent “Espionage” in Best Women’s Erotica 2011, both fictional stories, the former pretty much true, the latter heavily borrowed from real life. The latter starts:

You tuck your new pink and black coat, the one purchased earlier in the day just for this special evening, around your body, pull it tight like it’s cold out, except you’re indoors and the fire is roaring. You are cold, but it’s the kind of cold that can’t be heated by rubbing two sticks together or turning up the thermostat, the kind of cold that can only be vanquished once your heart catches up. Your heart is cautiously icy, watching and waiting; it isn’t safe to let it melt just yet.

It’s a story that, frankly, makes me cry when I reread it, but I’m still glad I wrote it, glad I took a situation where I felt nothing but vulnerable and could step back and assess it with a smidgen of distance, turning it into something outside of myself, where it wasn’t about me, but this character, this narrator–“You.”

I’m often so wary of being vulnerable, of being any emotion that’s too soft or scary. But I think we all have our moments when something shatters the calm we want to project onto the world, when things seem on the brink of collapse, whether because they truly are, or our minds distort our inner worlds to appear so.

This topic reminds me of Brin Friesen’s post here, “The Facebook Aquarium,” asking whether The Nervous Breakdown and its commenting community are “too nice.” I don’t know if that is a qualification I or anyone else can make, but with the internet deluged by often hateful, stupid or hateful and stupid comments, I don’t think we should discount kindness. Not to the extent that we tiptoe around each other’s emotions, but instead recognizing that any writing, or art, takes guts to share with the world, or a slice of it.

While I do believe the personal is political, unlike Hanna in the context above, I don’t think striving for vulnerability is so much a political act, as a holistic one. It’s something we can embrace and acknowledge without succumbing to it, or playing the victim. I’ve been mulling over this, my first posting here, for several weeks, and have talked myself out of it more times than I can count. Perfectionism and vulnerability go hand in hand, and the former often keeps me from exposing the latter.

Ironically, perhaps, about a month ago, I got a tattoo on my back that says “open” as a way to remind myself to be, well, open, emotionally, to not shy away from either my own fear of rejection or from experiencing new challenges, personal and professional. But old habits die hard. Embracing and consciously engaging in radical vulnerability, which is what I sense Hanna was aiming for, is not easy. I don’t think we can be that vulnerable all the time and still protect ourselves the way we need to to survive, but never being vulnerable means missing out on not just taking our writing to the next level, but our lives. I want to strive to keep peeling back the shell I often hide under, whether via simply not trying, or masking it with something more “fun,” like humor. For me, writing speaks to me loudest, as author or reader, when it goes somewhere that makes me squirm, that makes me think, “How could he or she expose so much?” I’m up for the challenge, though I’m not putting a quota on myself for X days per week of wringing myself dry on the page. How often I “possibly can” remains to be seen, but in this case, I believe the process of trying counts as much as the outcome.

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RACHEL KRAMER BUSSEL (rachelkramerbussel.com) is a New York-based writer, editor, and blogger. She is a columnist for SexIs Magazine. She has edited over 40 anthologies, including Women in Lust, Obsessed, Passion, Orgasmic, Fast Girls, Bottoms Up, The Mile High Club, Do Not Disturb and is Best Sex Writing series editor and has won 6 IPPY (Independent Publisher) Awards. She hosted In The Flesh Reading Series for five years. Her writing has been published in over 100 anthologies, including Susie Bright’s X: The Erotic Treasury and Best American Erotica 2004 and 2006. She has written for The Daily Beast, The Frisky, The Gloss, Lemondrop, Mediabistro, Newsday, Penthouse, The Root, Salon, Time Out New York, The Village Voice, xoJane, Zink and other publications, and teaches erotic writing workshops nationwide. She is a founding editor of the popular blog Cupcakes Take the Cake.

19 responses to ““Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.””

  1. Greg Olear says:

    Welcome to the party, Rachel!

    Vulnerability is, of course, the key to great writing — great art of any kind. You can’t make an omelet without the eggs breaking, and so on.

    And it’s worth noting that the tattoo you got to remind yourself to be open is on your back — not the easiest place to look.

    Anyway, great piece. And great to have you at TNB.

  2. zoe zolbrod says:

    I love that excerpt from “Espionage.” I’ve been cold that way.

    I hope vulnerability and openess aren’t the same thing. For myself, some kinds of openess–most kinds–quickly require a thick skin.

    Thanks for lots to think on.

  3. Lana Fox says:

    This wise and true post moves me on many levels. I find I can’t help but make myself vulnerable when I write – and I know my vulnerable side is both a great strength and a great weakness. When trying to explain how choosing to make ourselves vulnerable can be a strength, I always use the story of the Buddhist monk who was attacked by a warrior with a huge sword, but just stood there calmly facing his potential killer. The warrior says, “Why aren’t you afraid? Don’t you know who I am? I am a man who can look you in the eye while I slice you in two.”

    The monk says, “Don’t you know who I am? I am a man who can look you in the eye while you slice me in two.”

    Who was bravest? 😉

  4. jmblaine says:

    A pretty successful author
    told me just this week
    that I need to be more vulnerable
    the “write like your parents
    are dead” sort of advice
    it seems that it’s a tricky gift
    that sort of tightrope writing.
    Some can discuss the
    warts around their
    naughty bits
    & come off as hilarious
    & brave and charming
    while others its just like
    ick, OK? Shutup.
    How do you know?

    Hey, welcome to TNB.
    also welcome Lana Fox –
    Anyone who quotes
    Monks & Rabbis & Dead Saints
    is a friend of mine

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Kindness and vulnerability.
    We all need more of them both.
    Welcome aboard!

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Welcome, Rachel,

    I don’t think anyone can be a good writer if he isn’t vulnerable.

  7. Jessica Blau says:

    This is great Rachel, I really enjoyed reading it. Oh and love the bit from “Espionage.” I will definitely seek it out and read the whole thing.

    Your thoughts about second person when being vulnerable are interesting. Susan Minot’s story “Lust” is in second person (in case you haven’t read it, but I bet you have, the narrator chronicles all the guys she’s had sex with, even inventorying their penises in one paragraph) and it feels like a very “vulnerable” story.
    I think “be vulnerable” is excellent advice for all writers. All artists, really.

    • Hi Jessica,

      I can’t remember if I’ve read “Lust” (I feel kindof awful admitting that I can’t remember if I’ve read something, but I guess it’s not so bad if it gives me a reason to read it, or reread it, as the case may be) but I will definitely check it out. I looked up second person stories on Wikipedia and found some that sound fascinating. It’s a tough form but a wonderful one. Suzanne Guillette wrote her memoir Much To Your Chagrin all in second person.

      And thanks, I’m glad you liked the post.


  8. rob roberge says:

    Great piece, Rachel. And welcome to TNB. Looking forward to more.

    I think all art (and all life) should be full of vulnerability. It seems to me to be the opposite of cool. To be cool is to reduce yourself to a limited amount of responses to a variety of stimuli. To be vulnerable, it seems to me, is to be open to those stimuli and allow a more complex system of response(s). Which is what good writing needs. And a full, if remaining open to being wounded, life.

    Anyway, cool piece. Welcome.

    • rob roberge says:

      Sorry…this one got away before I wanted it to. Does anyone out there know how to delete posts? (Email me if so, as I don’t want to hi-jack this fine thread with my technical stupidity 🙂

  9. rob roberge says:

    Great piece, Rachel. And welcome to TNB. Looking forward to more.

    I think all art (and all life) should be full of vulnerability. It seems to me to be the opposite of cool. To be cool is to reduce yourself to a limited amount of responses to a variety of stimuli. To be vulnerable, it seems to me, is to be open to those stimuli and allow a more complex system of response(s). Which is what good writing needs. And a full, if remaining open to being wounded, life.

    Anyway, great piece. Welcome.

  10. Rachel! So great to see you here.

    I love that saying about second-person being a first-person who’s ashamed of itself, though it’s so much more complex than that, right? Shame and self-examination and curiosity and vulnerability all mix in the brew no matter what point of view we write in.

    A provocative first post. I look forward to your joining the party here!

    • I like that saying, haven’t heard it before. I feel like if using second person or a pseudonym or whatever “trick” helps people to write, they should do that. Lately I’ve been trying third person, which I’ve rarely done, and I really like it but if I step away from what I’m writing and come back to it, I slip into first person because it’s what I’m used to, so it’s a good challenge.

      Which is a somewhat off-topic response but oh well.

      Thank you, I’m excited to be here.

  11. Brin says:

    I enjoyed your piece, Rachel. I’m not sure about how you sum up my feelings toward kindness or “niceness” though. I like that things are positive, warm, respectful and supportive here. Is there essentially a mandate that this is so? Probably. I’m guilty of perpetuating it myself, since I’d feel annoyed if someone’s feelings were hurt regardless if I agreed with the criticism. I wouldn’t base anything on the merit of the criticism, I’d base it on the resulting impact on the “victim”.

    I think I was touching instead on political correctness and unintended consequences of it. For one thing, criticism in art or literature I think has gone down the drain. Are artists better for it? Are we better for it? Is art better for it? I doubt it. I don’t think art is as delicate an eco-system as many make it out to be. I’ve noticed a lot of the writers who are doing fabulously well are the first to defend themselves with this argument.

    My point about Facebook is that niceness and positive self-promotion had the intent to inflict harm and that many people come away from all that niceness and positive promotion feeling really bad about themselves as a result. Nobody can fault you for saying your life is great since you’re not *directly* shoving it someone’s face that another person’s is less. Indirectly, I think people do this and do it intentionally and enjoy the buffer of not being called on it. There’s a tremendous passive aggressive streak there.

    I just think the same feelings that you note about hostility and anger and bitterness all over the internet still exist in the niceness a lot of the time. Not using bad words doesn’t remove the intent behind using them.

  12. While I don’t necessarily think that vulnerability is essential to the production of great writing…well, I have to admit this piece inspired* me to post a story I’ve been sitting on for a while, in which I am a drunken shambles. I wasn’t afraid of revealing my boozy foolishness, but It’s written in a drunken shambolic style – a bit of an experiment, and I was wary of experimenting in public. But yes, I thought, making myself vulnerable was the way to go – in short, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    Thanks for the nudge.

    *Inspired by – these days, often a euphemism for “ripped off from”, but not in this case.

  13. I’m glad, Steve, and now of course I want to read something written in a “drunken shambolic style” – it actually sounds like a challenge to write in that style, well, much more so than actually getting oneself into a drunken shambles (is “shambles” singular? I truly don’t think I’ve ever used it before).

    • Yes, “shambles” (as a noun) is singular. I expect it’s a Britishism (“Look at the state of that, it’s a right shambles!”)

      It’s not in a real messy “You’re my besh mate, yeah? No, nono. No, shu’up right…” style, I just tried to write in a looser fashion when the action was more boozy. It’s probably like one of those stylistic things you don’t notice in a film until you listen to the director’s commentary.

  14. […] the flesh: RACHEL KRAMER BUSSEL is from New York.  A prolific (and sometime vulnerable) writer, she is an editor of numerous anthologies of erotica and of Penthouse Variations.  She has […]

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