Back in the day, I couldn't write for shit. From time to time, when lightening would strike, I picked the right words and put them in the right order. But they weren't my words. Nah, I abused the thesaurus like whoa. And I had only a formulaic, high school English sense of "right." I didn't dare write outside the confines of the box defined by my teachers' constructs.
Lucky for me, my sister wielded a mean red pen. And she edited everything I wrote, which invariably led to this: "Charley, what does 'mollify' mean?" Beats me. Or, "Would you ever talk like this?" Nope. For me, the written word facilitated the pursuit of perfection, which at 15 was all I cared for. I would edit, revise, edit some more, revise, send it to my sister, my sense of self cut down to size by her red lines, edit it a bit more, read it aloud, and submit it. Often, I got the A I wanted or needed.
Writing, you see, is just one manifestation of this tension, this nagging, lifelong struggle to be you or be perfect, to live a messy, real, vulnerable life, or an edited one. In writing, you get to arrange things just so, like a museum curator piecing together the perfect exhibit. You're in control. You can delete anything that makes you feel vulnerable, even if that means deleting pieces of you. Your writing can read like it is wrapped in armor, like it is dressed up, done up, on display. Or it can be stripped down, naked, authentic, you.
Writers who embrace the real and the raw seem superhuman. Their voices cut to the core of something beautiful. This kind of writing isn't for the light at heart. It requires vulnerability, the risk and emotional exposure that come with putting your words into the world without assurance that anyone will care, without promise that anyone will get it, get you.
I try to walk this courageous path but it is riddled with potholes. The funny thing about vulnerability -- and by funny, I mean true -- is that yours is brave and beautiful but mine is an expression of ugly inadequacy. As Brene Brown put it,
We're afraid that our truth isn't enough -- that what we have to offer isn't enough without the bells and whistles, without editing, and impressing ... I want to experience your vulnerability but I don't want to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me. I'm drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.
See, I crave raw truth and openness in others. It is courageous and sexy as hell. And yet, at least back in the day, I tried my damndest to run from it. I chased perfection in writing like I did the girls on the playground. I wrote with someone else's voice and didn't dare open up about, well, anything real. Over the years, though, I've found strength in vulnerability, in being me. I still edit the shit out of what I write, but I do so with an eye to making it true to who I am, not some preconceived notion of perfect.
Writing is like another one of my favorite things, dancing. When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 7, my mom would turn down the lights after dinner and turn up Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll." We'd dance and dance, in pajama pants made for this sort of thing, I would run and slide across our hardwood floor, concerned with little but the beat. This childlike love for dancing didn't last long. Dancing quickly came to represent everything about being vulnerable that I tried to avoid -- standing out of the crowd while being you. For those who know me well, this will smack of preposterousness, but dancing at a school function was like asking me to do naked gymnastics onstage in front of family and friends. Instead, I stood in the corner, head bobbing to the beat, even when my legs yearned to be free.
But these days, I am never more alive than when I'm dancing. I'm convinced that dancing is as human as hunger. Don't tell me you don't like to dance, because I won't believe you. You don't like to be vulnerable, exposed in front of a crowd. I get that. But think about how you feel when you see someone just dance -- uninhibited, goofy, with or without rhythm. You love them for their vulnerabilities, not despite them.
The other day, my sister sent me a video of my nephew Sam bobbing his head to a hip-hop joint. As he tried to bounce to the beat, he hit his head a few times and flailed his arms in ridiculous fashion. If possible, I loved him more for it.
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