Sharpening the Double-Edged Sword of Vulnerability for Writers

Frightening, I know

I was fired from my first job. I was 16 and head cashier at Burger King. A woman came in with a little boy about 3 years old. She asked him if he wanted a hamburger or a cheeseburger. He was so taken with a lighted display, he didn’t answer her. She asked him two more times. When he stayed quiet, she back-handed him across the face, knocking him to the floor.

“Hey!” I yelled. “What do you think you’re doing? He’s just a little kid. He was just looking at the lights!”

She turned her venom on me, but I fought with her. The manager came out of the back room to see what the noise was all about. The woman told him how I had stuck my nose where it didn’t belong, and that I should mind my own blankety-blank business. How dare I question her mothering.

The manager turned to me, and asked, “Is this true?”

“Yes,” I replied, leaning forward.

He pointed at my face, an inch from my nose, and said. “You’re fired!”

My response? “Good.”

Twenty three years later, I sat at my computer, writing a scene about my main character, Carley Connors, standing toe-to-toe with a neighborhood bully to defend the youngest Murphy (foster family) boy. I dropped myself right back into Burger King. I remembered that boy’s face as he looked up at his mother and his face as he looked at me. How I didn’t care about the consequences—I was going to say what I was going to say.

I also remembered the anger and the injustice and the protectiveness for a little boy I didn’t know and how all of those emotions started in my feet and rose up in me like a glass being filled with hot water. I took those feelings and poured them into that scene. A purely fictional scene. With real emotion.

I wrote a post a while back about vulnerability being a double-edged sword. I had said that the very parts of vulnerability that make rejection of your work difficult are the very parts that can take your writing to the next level. Well, what is that, exactly? This facet of vulnerability? I think it’s opening up. Showing the sides of yourself that you’d rather keep hidden. The things about you that you wouldn’t want the people in the PTO to know. The quirks you may find…erm…embarrassing.

I used real emotion from that Burger King event, but it held relatively no pain for me (although I wonder, even now, where that boy is.) It was a triumphant moment when I spun around and walked out. Therefore, the MURPHYS scene was easy to write. Very easy. I didn’t have to crawl into my personal basement to write it. But, what about having to write a scene filled with anguish? Or feelings stemming from betrayal? Or loss? Or embarrassment? Or regret? That. That is a whole ‘nother thing, isn’t it? I know those things, too, as many of you do.

So, I believe that writers’ block often has more to do with not wanting to go to an emotional place rather than a lack of ideas. Is that too simple? Think about it. What if you found a pipe spewing water all over your basement and called the plumber who told you he couldn’t wrap his mind around fittings and pipes on that day? It was just too hard to “go there,” but he’d get back to you? Unheard of, right? Along with waitress’s block or engineer’s block.

Why? Because these people don’t have to open up emotionally to do their job well. They don’t have to pull back the curtain to look at painful things in their lives to draw upon. Sit in it. Let it wash over them. Again. And then…give it to a character that they may love. A character that, no doubt, has the veins of the writer running through them.

As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t write slapstick comedy (although looking back at this post, it may be easier!) I write about really decent kids who find themselves in unthinkable situations and learn to walk themselves out of it. I also try to incorporate humor into my stories, because I think resilient people use humor to deal with pain—it’s the healthiest outlet out there. Also, I promise you, that my book endings are always hopeful; I’m a big believer in hopeful.

I did a school visit recently with a group that was so…perfectly wonderful. A group brimming with energy and enthusiasm. Calling out. Opinionated. I loved it. It wasn’t misbehavior; it was magic. One girl approached me beforehand and said, “I just want you to know that I love to write and you’re going to know who I am before you’re done here.” And, indeed, I did.

I read from ONE FOR THE MURPHYS—the beginning, which I have never read to kids before, because, compared to the rest of the book, it’s kind of heavy. Carley is on her way to foster care; there are lots of unknowns, pain, and questions. She is also a bit of a wise acre with her social worker. I read the first few pages to them and stood in silence, too nervous to look up. The room was still—one of the rare occasions that it was. 😉 The first sign of movement came from a boy–his voice. “Well, don’t you have any more?” Followed by a barrage of similar comments. They peppered me with questions on what would happen in the book, why is Carley in foster care, etc.

Kids came up to me afterwards to tell me about things going on with them. Their own struggles and sadnesses. One girl said, “That is my most favorite book in the world.” My response was, “What was?” I was wondering what other book she was referencing. Seriously, I had no idea. I’m kind of dumb that way. But, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The power of finding yourself in the pages of a book.

So, I’m hoping that this will be my payoff for climbing into my own basement. Yeah, it’s hard to do, but I feel lighter when I’m done. And to think that I could help kids by doing it? There would be no better payoff in the whole world than that.

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32 Comments

Filed under Editing and Revising, rejection and success, Writing, Writing and Life

32 responses to “Sharpening the Double-Edged Sword of Vulnerability for Writers

  1. Galit Breen

    This is such an incredible post. personal, vulnerable- a real reminder why we do what we do. To tell (some of) our stories, and share them with others who may relate.

    This post? Is perfection!

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Thank you so much for coming by and leaving such a nice commnet. I always like to hear from other people in the writing trenches. Good luck to you in your own writing!

      Like

    • I agree with Galit Breen. This is incredible, thank you. Thank you also to your 16 year-old self for speaking up to that mother when she slapped her son. You showed that little boy that being slapped around was not “normal,” not the accepted behavior in other families outside of his own experience. You painted a different reality for him. You gave him hope as well.
      I can’t wait to read One for the Murphys!

      Like

      • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

        Thanks, Licia. I’d like to think I helped him in some small way. I wish I had been older and with more life experinece. I may have been able to help him by saying something to his mother that would have stuck with her. However, that is probably me being idealistic.

        Like

  2. You can’t just say cashier, huh? We all had to know you were head cashier…

    I love that you had it in you to stand up like that–then and now. And I doubly love that you’re starting to be on the receiving end of appreciation for the work you’ve done. Enjoy every minute.

    Like

    • Amazing story, I felt the emotion in that paragraph, just like I was there. Good for you to stand up to the jerk lady. I wasn’t even there and wonder about the boy now too.

      Like

      • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

        Thanks, Deana. Yeah, I think about that boy and his mother. I think about how she said that, because he was her son, she had the right to do anything she wanted–like he was property. When I corrected her on that point, she looked at me like I had a corncob coming out of my nose.

        Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Oh my God, Audrey. You are truly priceless! Thanks for the laugh!

      You must know how gratifying it is to have kids respond to your work. I know of two kids that love, love, love BUFFALO GOES TO KINDERGARTEN (Well, that would be three kids, if you include me.)

      Like

  3. Cynthia Levinson

    Oh, Lynda. Great post. Great novel. Great teacher.

    Your opening “anecdote” reminded me, painfully, of a time I did not stand up to a father who bullied his son in a store. I merely glared at him, eye-to-eye, but I doubt he cared or even knew why. This is one of those regret moments I’m embarrassed about in retrospect.

    Unlike you, I was too intimidated to act. Unlike you, I don’t know how to transfer those emotions from within me into a compelling fictional moment.

    Like

  4. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    We all have regrets of times we should have acted and didn’t. It’s all part of being human. Believe me, I have regrets along this line; maybe that’s why this sticks out in my head. Those Burger King visors must be magical! 😉

    And…erm…excuse me, Cynthia, but you forget dear that I’ve actually heard your story about that dear Birmingham girl preparing for jail. I remember thinking in Portland that it was wonderful non-fiction because it didn’t feel like non-fiction–it had the feeling of rich storytelling with facts woven through like ribbons. It’s beautiful work. Truly. And something I don’t think I could pull off like you do. Just sayin.’

    Kids and teachers are going to eat that up. Trust me.

    Like

  5. blackwatertown

    Lovely post.
    “Head cashier” is fine by me – reminds me of a “master upholsterer” in a short story I read. The double-barrelled title was somehow more convincing.
    Great anecdote – great grounds on which to be fired.
    Take your point though about it being a proud memory into which to delve, rather than a personal humiliation.

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Thanks so much for coming by Emus! Yeah, I suppose if you HAVE to get fired….

      Best of luck to you in your writing,
      Lynda

      Like

  6. Dear Lynda – This post resonated with me in a deep way. When I was writing my debut novel, I remember sitting at my desk and reading a scene I’d just written and wondering if an editor might think it “too much.” My next thought was this: I do not have the power to make an editor or agent like this story. I do not have the power over if or when it will be published. The only thing I have in my power is to tell the truth. The main character in my story experienced terrible loss and grief. I knew about this. In some ways, it was my story too. I also knew that there were children in the world who wondered if there was any place in the world where they truly belonged, wondered if there was even one person in the whole world who really, truly loved them. I wrote this story because I know the answer is Yes! I wanted children to know this too. The book did go on to be published. I have faith that whoever is supposed to read the story, will. Perhaps they will connect with Carolina, the girl in my story and a seed of hope will fall upon their heart.
    I’m glad you posted this. You inspire me to go ahead and blog too and not be afraid to show my heart. Who knows, perhaps my words will inspire another. Thanks again. Marilyn

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Wow, Marilyn. Sounds like we need to talk over cup of coffee or something! We are definitely on the same page! 😉

      Thanks so much for writing. I was moved by your words, and will be looking to get my hands on your book, CAROLINE HARMONY. Hope our paths cross for real someday!

      Like

  7. Mary Pierce

    Once again, Lynda, you blow me away with your post! Outstanding.

    Like

  8. Mike Jung

    LYNDA MULLALY HUNT IS MY HERO. Seriously. A typically wonderful post, Lynda, not just for your fabulous integrity in standing up for what’s right, but for your honesty about how hard and exposing it can be to really pour our own emotional depth onto the page. It can be really hard! But yowza, it has such value for both writers AND readers.

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Hey, Mike! Whoa! “Hero” in all caps? I hardly know what to say about that! Thanks for your enthusiasm–I really appreciate it. Hard to be vulnerable in the novel–and here, as well! A comment like this makes it worth the trip! Thanks, again.

      Lynda

      Like

  9. Michelle Ray

    The funny thing is drawing on the emotions, quirks, and facts of your life and having friends and family spot you or your past in the writing. There are the intentional nods, like when I had a father in something I wrote collect hats like my dad does (he loved that), and the unintentional, like when I wrote a hideous boss and my best friend said, “Oh, she’s that lady who fired you in NYC.” (I was fired for being “unhappy” in a place where I was called stupid, moron and an a*^$&le daily. No kidding.) The toughest to me is drawing on truth to create a fictional character or situation, and being afraid of people seeing themselves in the work when it’s not the intention.

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Wow! Thank God you were “fired’ and on to writing best-selling novels!

      Yeah, I have used some real people as inspiration but, thus far, have used only positive traits. In my YA, I’m using my older brother, Rick, as the inspiration for the police officer; it makes it easier to write, I think, because I had instant affection for the character. Although,, I didn’t set out to do that–just happened.

      I have a t-shirt that a friend gave me that says, “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” (Which I never wear outside the house–don’t want the questions!) However, perhaps, I should start wearing it–you know, warn people. 😉

      I, too, have worried about offending people by accident. Funny, though…I think people would pick up on physical descriptions or hobbies and the like, but would they really see personality traits as being modeled after them? Particularly negative ones?

      Like

  10. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Those students opening up to you after you shared part of your story…what a gift for you and for them, Lynda. And to think that was only a glimpse! Just think of the hearts you’ll open once those kids get to read the whole book!

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Thanks, Natalie. You’re very sweet. Yeah, I was pretty blown away by it–something I never saw coming! Sounds like you had a similar experience with your own class! That would be SO cool! I have to admit to missing teaching lately…

      Like

  11. Bette Anne Rieth

    Great post, Lynda. It is so hard to put our own emotional truth on the page even when we cloak it in a fictional world we create. I think of that boy, too, and the boy he may have had. How does he treat him? What has he taught him? Books can change us, and that is an author’s best reward. It sounds as if you experienced some of that reward at your school visit. Only the beginning, my friend!

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Yeah, I agree, Bette Anne. One of the saddest things about those situations is that kids can carry sadness right into the next generation. However…there are many who don’t do that. Hopefully that boy is in the latter group!

      Thanks for checking in, Bette Anne!

      Like

  12. Thanks for the uplift–I needed it after yesterday’s rejection.

    Like

  13. Wow, wow, WOW! What an incredible post. I never thought about writer’s block being akin to fear of going to those deep dark places inside of us, but I recognized the truth in it as soon as I read it.

    And for the record, good for you for standing up for that boy in Burger King!!

    Like

    • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

      Hey, Julie, Thanks so much for stopping by. It’s amazing the things I’ve learned about myself while blogging here. Having to sit and dissect one’s own thinking process. It’s been eye-opening. I’m so glad that I said something that, as a writer, you could relate to.

      Good luck on your journey!

      Lynda

      Like

  14. Pingback: Write What You Know | EMU's Debuts

  15. Jeanne Zulick

    “So, I believe that writers’ block often has more to do with not wanting to go to an emotional place rather than a lack of ideas. ”

    So true. This is awesome. Your insights help me take my writing to the next level (well, hopefully). Thank you.
    jzf

    Like

  16. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Glad to hear it, Jeanne! Thanks so much for stopping by Emus!

    Like

  17. Pingback: The Double-Edged Sword of Vulnerability (or) What is Writer’s Bloc? « Be Someone's Hero.

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