The V‑Word

By: Agata Antonow in Book Writing
on March 20th, 2018

“Vulnerability” is a word that pops up a lot around Round Table Companies. It’s our North Star, the light we write by. It shows up on t-shirts and company art installations, and there’s even a game called Vulnerability is Sexy™. Turn around and, yep, there’s that word again.

I’ll admit it: my path to understanding vulnerability in writing has been a bit of a winding one, with a few big obstacles. It may be the pragmatist in me, but I like specifics and tangibles. Something I can hold in my hands. Early on, this pragmatism led me to quite a few questions, namely, What the heck is this vulnerability stuff and what does it have to do with writing? Isn’t telling the story and connecting with readers enough?

Vulnerability can feel like a four-letter word. Most of us associate this word with some other unpleasant ideas: exposure, embarrassment. We feel vulnerable when the doctor tells us we need a biopsy “just to be sure” or when our loved one won’t meet our eyes when they tell us, “We need to talk.” Not exactly moments to make a personal highlight reel. So why exactly are we asking this word to the party when we face the blank page?

Well, one reason is because vulnerability is already there and we’re just calling it for what it is. What feels more exposing than sitting down, alone, in front of a blank page and trying to connect with a reader in another place and maybe another time? What is more knee-knocking than trying to create something from nothing? We may not want to evoke the v-word, but there it is all the same. By naming it, we force it to look us in the eyes. Already, that first word and sentence feel a little less daunting.

But, I’ve realized, there’s another reason to give this vulnerability thing a chance, and it has to do with the way we tell truth. Whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, we’re trying to connect with others and share a truth—what it feels like to be in our bodies and in our lives or what we think about building a business. The problem is that without being open to sharing the less desirable parts of our lives—the parts we’re maybe scared to share—we don’t tell the whole truth.

When we talk about starting a business but we leave out the time we ate mac and cheese for a month because there was no food or that time we had to choose between bus fare and a jar of peanut butter, we do a huge disservice. We make it look easy. We choose to put our best selves forward—the Instagram self—instead of the real us. And anyone who has ever felt small or insignificant or alone thinks it’s normal to succeed without struggle. We’re cheating them of the reality that we’re more alike than different.

We need to say it often and we need to say it loud: we’re all deeply flawed and we can do wonderful things and lead good lives despite that. No matter what we have done or have had done to us, we have a chance and we’re not undeserving of love and achievement.

Has there been a day when you felt vulnerable enough to need to hear that message? Is today the day you’re open enough to share that message with others?

Vulnerability is the real, tangible way you can do that.

Vulnerability tends to make us feel alone—up there on a stage in front of everyone—but it is the ultimate way we connect. We’ve all fallen flat on our faces or failed to notice the lettuce stuck in our teeth. When we tell others what has made us feel ashamed or alone or humiliated, we’re sharing what makes us human and we make those other flawed humans in this world feel part of the pack, too.

I’m not a 100-percent reformed vulnerabilist. There are still moments when I think, “Does someone really need to know about the dark, messy corners of my life to connect with me?” But then I remember the times someone else has given that gift to me. The times when someone else has admitted they, too, feel not good enough or when they have told me that time they felt broken but still picked themselves up. It’s a message we all need to hear sometimes.