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  • Writer's pictureJan Carroll

Vulnerability and the Writing Life

Photo by Rachel Kohn

The rule at my community garden is to clean up/remove all plant matter in preparation for overwintering. One Saturday morning, the crew gathers and we do. Rachel, however, decides to leave one sprig of purple forget-me-nots to grow as long as it can, to allow a little beauty to stand defiantly in the elements, a tiny but bright garden of one, to bend the rules a little based on a sudden whim. It makes me happy.

One November a few years ago, I was set to go to the monthly public open mic. I had planned to read one or two seasonal poems, as the weather was changing from autumn into winter and marking that seemed the appropriate thing. That day, however, I was in a mood. Reviewing the perfectly fine seasonal poems, they just weren’t doing it for me, so I started going through my files. I read one poem, about what it felt like to be poor and said, “I like this poem. I stand by it.” At the same time, I thought, “Yeah, but people will think it’s weird. It’s not the usual stuff I read. It could be embarrassing.” I read through more. Another one, somewhat political, also roused me, though I had my doubts about reading it too, my hesitations about how it might be received. Then a third. Eventually I decided to stand behind these poems, to read them, to trust them, no matter the outcome.

When I walked into the room where for this event normally around twenty people gathered, this night the room was packed! And, scanning the crowd, I noticed two or three of the better-known writers in town. I said to myself, “Oh, maybe I’ll just pass tonight.” But then, “No, I owe it to these poems, and to myself, to read them. People will at least listen politely. No better time than now.” So when my turn came, I read them, my hands shaking a little, and the world did NOT end. In fact, it was that night, after the open mic, that one person there told me he really liked the poems I’d read, and he became a huge supporter, advocate, and encourager of my work. What if I’d instead “taken a dive” and not read those poems, going with the safe, perfectly fine but not-my-best-work seasonal poems, again? Brené Brown says, “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.” It’s scary to be vulnerable. It’s risky, and sometimes the results are not what you’d hoped. But sometimes—sometimes—they are more than you could have imagined.

Recently, after the rehearsed poetry-music event a friend and I did concluded, we experimented with a little bit of improv, my first such public attempt. With no preconceived idea of either a musical direction or any lead-in lyrics/words, we simply tried to listen to each other and improvise per that on the spot. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. That old vulnerability showing up again.

I was surprised how the music my friend played offered up visual clues: a marching band, a thunderstorm, someone walking from the back to the front of the house, the old-fashioned lightbulbs lining the front of a vintage stage, a man wearing alligator-skin pants and a tambourine hat, dancing.

I had to tell the censor, the editor in me, to go sit in the corner and hush up. I had to go with what came without judgment and let it carry us forward. Those who stayed to witness our effort seemed appreciative as well as intrigued by the idea of it. I’d describe the experience as a logjam freed or like falling through a trap door in the floor into a weird new world where I’m uncomfortable, yes, but where all my senses are tingling.

There was a time I needed to practice everything I’d say at a reading, even the chit chat I’d say between poems. There is a time and place for practice. It can be foundational, freeing even. It now feels like I grow—as a poet and as a person—from both the planned, practiced program and the unpredictable, sometimes scary, sometimes embarrassing improv. What if my friend and I had chickened out, gone the safe route, decided the more conventional approach was enough? It would have been fine, sure, but what we would have missed! Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

I keep thinking about Rachel’s rebel forget-me-not, braving the weather, making passers-by look then look again, seeing the garden in a fresh way, that fragile, vulnerable flower a kind of improvising. That Aha! moment when that one sprig, stubborn, somehow free, in the face of winter, makes someone suddenly see garden, see community, see community garden differently. All because Rachel improvised by leaving it there, to be, vulnerable as it is. Lee Christopher says, “Vulnerability is the essence of connection and connection is the essence of existence.”

Look for opportunities to be vulnerable today. You can always be safe and comfortable later.

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