wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

Vulnerability in the digital age

Don Draper, Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men

One of the talks I like to watch again and again on the net is Brené Brown’s lively and moving dissection of vulnerability at the wonderful TED site. She speaks of the importance of embracing vulnerability, how difficult this can be in a world where happiness is often equated with success, and how admitting you’re vulnerable is often a first step to making a real connection with someone.

There are many situations where vulnerability is required, or even demanded: labour pains at birth; attending a funeral; giving a speech in front of strangers; going for a job interview for a position you really want; moving to a new place and trying to make friends (as we will be, soon).

And I think, for writers, it’s a constant theme in our work. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your words (and your persona) are being examined closely: what do they reveal about you as a person, your past relationships, your current state of mind? When new fiction writers face audiences at festivals, or talk to people about their book at parties, they are invariably asked, ‘Is the book autobiographical?’ or ‘Is that character based on you?’

It can be a difficult question to answer. I see it as like making a jug of cordial. You add a bit of the sweet syrupy stuff (the essence, from your life) but then you mix in water and it dilutes, becomes a different substance, more tart, a new texture to swallow.

Nurse Jackie

Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

Vulnerability is on my mind as I was offered a book deal this week, to publish my first novel. My first reaction (obviously) was to sing the most irritating song on earth, ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’, for the entire week and open the bubbles. But then I started to get nervous. Would I feel exposed? What if my grandmother read it? Would readers start to think the central character was based on me? Would my friends and family feel betrayed?

Many of the most exciting narratives of our time are based around the central issue of vulnerability. What would The Sopranos be without Tony Soprano’s regular visit to his therapist and unexpected panic attacks (when he’s cooking sausages) — his central core fear of his weaknesses being revealed. And then there’s Mad Men, where all characters hide various shameful acts (or at least labelled shameful at the time) under a veneer of glamour and rigorous work ethic (helped by generous alcohol consumption during work hours). Don Draper is particularly vulnerable because it is his true identity he tries so desperately to hide, the shame of being a deserter; by creating a new character to hide behind, his links with reality are tenuous, and his decision-making is flawed. In Nurse Jackie, Jackie copes by having a double life: prescription drug addiction and an affair with the man who doles them out. In Breaking Bad, a man is so frightened of revealing his life-threatening cancer to his wife, he starts cooking amphetamines and becomes embroiled in murdering mayhem.

You’d think in today’s age, where revelation is all (Oprah style), that admitting you’re vulnerable may be easier. But I think the technologies that surround us — the way we can now text, FB, msg or email when something is too difficult to say face to face, or even on the phone — means we are protected (wrapped up in our techno-turtle-shells) from disappointing others, from revealing ourselves.

When my grandfather died, I got a text message. In six words a beautiful, humble, loving man was reduced (for me). The person on the other end of the phone was too vulnerable to speak, to tell others, in grief. But those moments can be the most important ones in day to day life, the ones we always remember, for what they reveal (and don’t) about the person on the other end of the line.

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16 thoughts on “Vulnerability in the digital age

  1. I would love to comment but.. 🙂
    An espresso, muffin and a lesson on vulnerability may yet inspire me to blog again. Just to admit how vulnerable I felt before posting, I looked up the usage of indefinite articles: a verses an. An espresso of course sounds right but when you post on a writers blog you must have your indefinites definite. Thank you.

    • You must blog again! Let me know when and I’ll link to it. Grammar, huh. I never learnt grammar at school. So thanks for the lesson on indefinite articles. I think I will always remember that now. I think the beauty of the net is you can play with the rules a bit, anyway.

  2. Jacinta on said:

    Vulnerability – how human.
    Ironic that the technologies, which in a way were meant to enhance communications, instead dilute or misrepresent communications.

    • Yes, I think they do both. I mean, look how wonderful blogging is in helping to reach out to people (often that you haven’t met). But I’ve been to a few dinners recently where guests have sat texting with their phones through the entire meal. Seems to be becoming the norm…

  3. As much as I give away on my blog and in my writing, there is so much that people don’t get to ‘see’. Human responses make me feel most vulnerable, so for example, I hardly ever cry because it makes me feel weak – pathetic, even.

    Now onto more important things – massive congrats on your book deal!!!!! Talk about mass excitement and hysteria!!

    • I think if you’re brought up in an environment where your family is stoic, it can be difficult to cry later in life. I struggle with this too: do I cry in front of my young children? I want them to learn that expressing feelings (all of them) is OK. But I find it hard to do myself. I think that if you don’t cry, or let yourself be vulnerable, it often leads to built-up anger and resentment, which is worse, sometimes, than just dealing with the emotion in the first place. Yes, the book, yee-ha.

  4. Stoic and loving family under trying circumstances in life. I think I’m all cried out from all the funerals I went to as a young kid and the deaths that came with adolescence and adulthood – that’s the way it feels, anyway.

    Yes – hooray for the book! Hugely excited for you 🙂

    • That must have been so hard, to go through all of that when you were so young. I can only imagine.

      • I don’t know if it was hard – it was my reality, so maybe it was ‘challenging’ as opposed to hard. It was definitely unfair for my friends. I count myself as lucky to still be here. Blessed, even 🙂

  5. Was debating this to myself the other day in the shower. Not just blogging but as you say, when you are meeting new people when you move into a new place. Soon as the kid gets my new blog up I’ll be posting about this too.

  6. Very much enjoying your blog Kirsten – seems we laugh at the same things.

  7. Zena Shapter on said:

    Forget vulnerability! I wanna hear all about the book deal!!! Can you tell us who it’s with yet, how it all happened, when will the book be out, etc, etc?

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