This post originally appeared on StoryStudio’s Cooler by the Lake blog.
Writing creative nonfiction, specifically exceptionally revealing personal nonfiction, is a vulnerable experience that can leave the less resilient author feeling naked and exposed. Oftentimes, those who set out to shed light on the memories that dwell within the darkest crevices of the mind find the end result to be less than satisfying. Either they fail to craft a work with any significant revelations or depth, opting instead to lean into the safety of their denial, or they turn their work into a tell-all confessional, hoping that by exercising their shame in front of the masses they will absolve themselves of some perceived shortcoming.
While mustering the courage to veer toward the topics that are traditionally unspeakable is crucial to writing honest and compelling creative nonfiction, it is vital that authors first equip themselves with the proper tools to dismantle their own fears.
Research professor and author Dr. Brené Brown provides a primer on how to do just this in her riveting book Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. It’s exploration into vulnerability, shame and shame resilience is a must-read for any memoirist or personal essayist. Chapters cover our society’s pervasive “never enough” attitude, myths surrounding vulnerability (and how it’s misconstrued as synonymous with weakness) and the armor we wear to protect ourselves from shame and judgment, armor that only serves to weigh our spirits down.
As Dr. Brown writes, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” As creative nonfiction writers, we have the opportunity to reduce the power of shame over our audience by understanding our own shame, cultivating resilience and then giving a voice to what was once unspeakable to absolve others of their perceived aloneness.
It’s a powerful kind of magic, one that I have been fortunate enough to see time and time again at my own live lit show Guts & Glory, which challenges performers to take a personal risk in their storytelling. And it’s the basis for my upcoming StoryStudio class Writing the Unspeakable, which imparts lessons to creative nonfiction writers on the craft of writing bold and daring personal works.