Today, I want to jump straight into what it means to practice vulnerability as a writer—specifically, within the art of creative nonfiction writing.
Your readers need you to be vulnerable because this is how they will learn to trust you as a narrator. The gift of vulnerability is that it can create a bridge between two people, and if you’re a storyteller, the thing that will make your work compelling (and unlike every other story) is your willingness to go there. To probe yourself and offer what you find. We all have a different vulnerability threshold and that’s okay. But things will never feel as raw to the people reading your work as they will for you, so “going there” is imperative when telling your story. When you carefully curate an image out of self-protection and withhold the raw and tender places inside you, your readers will be able to tell when you’re not being real with them. And so will your friends.
These sorts of topics can feel very abstract, so let me give you something tangible. Something that, as my creative writing professor used to say, “you can pick up and throw across the room.”
Growing up, I did a lot of hiding. I had severe social anxiety as an adolescent, and throughout college, that resulted in chronic blushing. So much so that I developed what they call erythrophobia or “the fear of blushing.” This is because each time I spoke face-to-face with someone (especially in public, like classes or dinner tables), my cheeks would go from a light champagne pink to burning red. My whole body felt like fire, and I could hardly breathe. It may sound silly, but it wasn’t, and there was nobody writing about it. This condition stole my voice for years, along with my ability to connect with others—my deepest wired trait as a human—all because talking made my cheeks turn red. But it all changed the day I chose to start reaching out anyway.
I can still remember it. I asked my college philosophy professor, who accidentally became my pastor, if he could stay after class to talk. I waited in the back of the classroom while running my fingers along the condensation on the window, my chest blotchy from a heart racing a million miles an hour. I told him what that experience was like, told him I desperately wanted to engage in class, and asked him to pray over me. It was one of the most freeing experiences of my life, even as uncomfortable as it felt to expose myself and let the symptoms run their course while doing so.
I’m still recovering from this condition, but ever since trying to stop hiding in my relationships, as well as in my writing, confidence has grown and bridges have been built. It’s been a beautiful, redemptive, and nerve-wracking journey. Eight years later, my philosophy professor turned pastor calls me his adopted daughter. And it feels a lot like the kingdom of God.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of a “vulnerability hangover” (thank you, Brené Brown!). It’s the feeling of being exposed after having put something into the world that’s an extension of our inner life. You might feel this way because you’re not in the practice of sharing in a public way. Or you might feel this way because you crossed whatever your personal line is. The only way to know is to explore, practice, share, use discretion, and give yourself permission to delete every once in a while too. Self-protection is neutral and natural. You can do it to hide, or to nurture wounds that still need healing. There may be things that are too private, too sacred, too fresh, or perhaps not even fully your story to tell, and only you will know what that line is. But there’s probably a lot less of these things than you’d think.
You don’t need to be gratuitous or sensationalist, and your readers don’t need to be violated. But the point is people will need a window in order to look inside you.
Sometimes, in my darker moments, my desire to be seen and to elicit sympathy and affirmation are what prompt me to overshare and disclose things I later regret. I hope I’m not above being willing to confess that. There is grace for this, too. But we must do the hard work of searching our hearts, our motivations, and ask why we’re sharing what we are. If it’s a desire for real connection and to help others feel less alone, well then we’re probably onto something.
So, how do you know if you’re truly being vulnerable? People might tell you that they connected with what you had to say. You might feel a little naked at times. But hopefully filled, as well as poured out. Vulnerability isn’t the same thing as spotlighting yourself. It’s courage. It’s simply showing up—real, raw—and saying, “This is who I am. This is what I’ve seen. This is what it feels like. And this is why it’s worth telling you.”
Bailey Gillespie is a California girl at heart, living in Nashville Tennessee. She’s passionate about the intersection of creative writing, wellness, and spiritual formation and loves throwing dinner parties—complete with a great playlist. Her writing has appeared at She Reads Truth, The Rabbit Room, Worship Leader Magazine, and Voice of Courage. You can find her on Instagram @bailey_bluebird.