Do Writers Have to Be Vulnerable to Succeed?

Career Development

Image Courtesy of Lisa Luck at @daughtersandsuns

It was a photo of a hand holding a jagged chunk of a mirror. Someone had tweeted the image. The mirror was sharp and the hand grasping the edges could bleed any minute. One squeeze and that would be it—a deep cut. Paired with the image was a quote: “Often misconstrued, authenticity is not about being an open book, revealing every detail of yourself without rhyme or reason.”

Okay, I was stumped. I have always believed in my heart that being vulnerable was the true path to authenticity. Sharing everything. Real writers are honest, one hundred percent true, as much as their hearts are able. Revealing what’s true has made me a stronger writer. It has given me sincerity. The writers I know and love have told the entire truth. Trueness is what gave Joan Didion the guts and Virginia Woolf the sadness.

Writing is therapeutic to me. It’s kind of (not entirely, I’m sure!) like sitting through therapy. And therapy can be PAINFUL. The best writing I’ve ever read, I always assume required some emotional fever. Because, like healing, writing is the ugliness within beauty and the beauty within ugliness. 

The best writing I’ve ever read, I always assume required some emotional fever. Because, like healing, writing is the ugliness within beauty and the beauty within ugliness. 

I chat about this topic with a close friend of mine a lot. She is a damn gorgeous writer. Her work (which I’ve seen through the professional writing she’s done or her old college blog) is eloquent and detailed and delectable. However, when she thinks about publishing her writing, she can’t possibly imagine a more gut-wrenching and awful task. She’s plagued by the anxiety of being vulnerable. So she doesn’t share at all. At least, not yet. 

And I get that. That’s why writing is so powerful to me. We’re allowed to be vulnerable. We have to be brave to get our work into the world. But, that’s just the thing. The mirror image. The impending cut. Do we have to reveal ourselves entirely to succeed as a writer? 

Roxanne Gay’s memoir, Hunger, was one of her most difficult to write. In it, she unabashedly shared everything about her life. Her truth was so powerful, it made me feel a side of myself I’d never known, although I had never been through what she’d been through. After the book was released, she was quoted in NPR as saying, “When I was writing it [Hunger] I was worried about exposing myself like this, and being this honest…I just procrastinated and procrastinated because I was just dreading writing this book, while still feeling like this was a necessary book to write.” 

She’s right. Writing is an intimate practice. When I write some things, I feel like I’m squatting naked on top of a mirror. Whenever I share a secret, no matter how deep or dark or pathetic it is, I find myself exquisitely relieved, especially when others come forward wiping sweat off their foreheads. “That happened to me, too,” they say. Having this type of courage, as writers, is helpful. A coveted “thank god I’m not the only one” affirmation.

I don’t have to tiptoe around myself. I don’t need to protect myself from the truth. We relate to each other. We underline a sentence in a book that speaks to both of us, reaching a part of the soul we haven’t watered in a while. All because one of us, or both, came right up with the raunchy truth. And from there, we grew. Vulnerability gives us growth. 

Right? RIGHT?!?

Shit. I don’t know.

“Vulnerability without boundaries, is not vulnerability,” our savior and therapist, Brené Brown wrote in her book, Dare to Lead. She writes about how vulnerability is often misunderstood, like Geminis or Scorpios. (Writer’s Note: she only said the first part. I wholeheartedly believe Geminis and Scorpios are given a bad rap!!)

Anyway, she writes that at a young age we are taught vulnerability is a weakness, so we often bottle up our anxieties about self, and when we’re older, we’re ready and raging to share them without a cost.

Brené Brown, in that case, goes on writing about how vulnerability is a sympathy seeking tool. If we “share just to share” or to get clear on intentions, without recognizing roles or professional boundaries, vulnerability is likely propelled by hidden needs. Vulnerability can be slightly narcissistic in that case, or self-fulfilling to a fault; it can also be a validation sucker—something used by humans to beg others to reciprocate.

Sharing every little detail has the risk of alienating people or turning the truth into a set of discourse. If you’re wondering about an example of this behavior, look up “angry social media political rant from high school prom queen” in the dictionary and you should understand what I’m talking about. No one likes someone that divulges every single truth. When they do that, they’re using vulnerability instead of being vulnerable. There is a stark difference.

Leave it to Brené Brown to make sense of my world. Now, I understand the mirror. I can see the jagged edges of going too far and I can see a form of truth becoming a dark cloud on my head. When a good writer is vulnerable, they aren’t looking for a response. When a writer is looking for an uproar, a response, they are not vulnerable. They are an oversharer. In order to be truly honest, we must have courage. But even more so, we must have good intentions, no expectations, and patience. Vulnerability needs boundaries. 

When a good writer is vulnerable, they aren’t looking for a response. When a writer is looking for an uproar, they are not vulnerable. They are an oversharer. In order to be truly honest, we must have courage. But even more so, we must have good intentions, no expectations, and patience. Vulnerability needs boundaries. 

So…must writers share the complete truth and nothing but the truth in order to find a voice? To find success? No. We all have different comfort levels, especially when it comes to writing. I dive straight in, head first, might belly flop, Leo-rage, let’s do this. My friend, protecting a sense of her heart, and yet still writing with gusto, can go at her own pace. Neither of these approaches to the written word is better than the other. We must set our own boundaries through our intentions. If we’re foaming hot at the bit to share something, and get sad when no one responds to the work, we are probably sashaying down the wrong path of “vulnerability.”

Being vulnerable is still being authentic. Vulnerability is damn beautiful and full of heart and intimacy. It’s taking the softness and pulling it closer to our hearts and out to the people in return. It’s not shattering a mirror and picking it up one by one with our bare hands.

Scott Edmund Miller said it best:

“Vulnerability is simply the act of openly and courageously seeing what needs to be seen, saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done, and becoming that which you are intent on being.”

Now, beautiful humans, go be you. If you want to write about it, do.

BY Brittany Chaffee - July 13, 2019

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  1. Do Writers Have to Be Vulnerable to Succeed? – Wit & Delight – Journal Ville

    July 14th, 2019 at 4:38 am

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  2. Ronique

    July 14th, 2019 at 10:33 am

    Brittany, just as you described your friend’s writing, yours is so gorgeous! I, too, write honest personal stories (it’s the only way I know to write), and I wonder if I’m oversharing. I think I’ve made a proper boundary so far. What matters most to me is the human, “I’m not the only one feeling” I can give to my readers.

  3. Brittany Chaffee

    July 14th, 2019 at 10:38 am


    Thank you so much!! Beautiful writing truly comes from the heart and if our intention is to gift it to others and not expect much in return. I always try to check off those boxes when I sit down with a pen and paper – low expectations and a lot of soul 🙂 Keep writing!! There are definitely people out there that need to read your work!


  4. Molly

    July 18th, 2019 at 9:38 am

    I think there’s vulnerability inherent in writing no much what you’re revealing — or not revealing. You touched on this a little. I’m in your friend’s boat. I’ve been writing professionally for a few years now and as a consequence, haven’t published anything under my *own* name in forever. The prospect of doing so is scary, even if the content itself were to be relatively benign, i.e. not revealing any tender nuggets of personal truth. Putting your words out there, saying “these are my thoughts, feelings, opinions,” and putting them in the hands of other people to react to and comment on… Yikes! My stomach twists just at the thought.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this piece and it’s something I think about a lot — how to tell truthful stories that resonate without making your inner life your professional currency? Or “using” vulnerability, as you so incisively phrased it.

  5. Brittany Chaffee

    July 18th, 2019 at 10:00 am

    Yes! I totally agree. I think different people have different levels of vulnerability and the “share dial” might be turned up for others and others not so much. My intention is to always share what I’m comfortable with and if I’m feeling a little out there – it’s okay so long my intentions and needs coming out of the piece are good 🙂 It’s different for everybody!

    Keep writing and being truthful to any comfort level you desire 🙂 We need your words!


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