Showing Your Working: On Writing Vulnerable

Showing Your Working: On Writing Vulnerable

Now that I’m a full-time writer (yes, I did it!) I’m thinking even more than I did before about the process of writing. Something that comes up a lot around my own writing – and in my work with clients as a writing mentor – is vulnerability. I shared a post last week that was pretty vulnerable in terms of content, so I thought I’d follow up with one about the process of writing and sharing vulnerable work. I’m guessing that a lot of the stuff that I cover here will also apply to other forms of creativity too. 

Writing is a vulnerable act. This is one of the many things that it has in common with sex (which needs to be the topic of a whole further blog post). When you write, you’re putting yourself out there – exposed. Even people who are doing pretty safe forms of writing – where there’s nothing personal in there and where every statement is backed up with facts and figures or references to other peoples’ work – still feel massively vulnerable. We’re scared of getting it wrong, we can easily imagine every possible critical comment, we fear being ‘found out’ in relation to how little we know and/or how poorly we write, we compare ourselves to other writers who we admire and we can’t possibly measure up because our voice is not their voice.

Writing about vulnerable stuff

How much more vulnerable then when we’re writing about things that we, ourselves, feel vulnerable about. I felt that heavily last year when I was finishing the writing for my new graphic guide on gender. It struck me just how much of what I was writing about was deeply personal and painful: Writing about trans during the trans moral panic; about #MeToo as a survivor; and about intersectional feminism when I’m so aware that I’ll inevitably perpetuate the very systems I’m challenging at times, because of the things that I don’t see in the areas where I’m privileged.

And then there’s writing more directly about our personal lives. This has come up with several clients lately. One worries that describing his daily moments will be read as egocentric – that it’s not doing anything for anybody else – even though it’s the writing he feels so passionately drawn to. Another fears what limits may be put on their activism, or their future career, if they write as openly about their own experience as they’d like to. I’m surprised when another client doesn’t see the link between the memoir-style posts that they write, and the writing that I do. I feel like my own vulnerabilities are starkly apparent in much of what I write, but perhaps the critical self-help style that I generally use obscures them somewhat.

The challenge from that client spurred me on to publish a few of the more vulnerable blog posts that I’ve been holding back on: ones that are more directly related to my own life and my own struggles. I put one out there last week. The feelings on publishing a more personal post always follow a familiar path. First a fizzy nervous feeling: ‘did I really do that?’ Then a fear of negative repercussions. Then a few comments come back: people saying that they connected with what I wrote, that it was just what they’d needed to read on that particular day, that they share that experience and it left them feeling less alone, that it helped them to reflect on their own lives. Those comments help me feel less alone and more connected right back. And I’m reminded that it’s nearly always the more vulnerable things that I write that get that kind of response. 

I’m reminded of something Mollena Williams-Haas said in this talk: How creating from our most vulnerable places often leads to the best work we can do – for ourselves and for each other. It’s often higher quality, connecting creator and audience on a more visceral level, and it’s one of the best ways in which we can be of service to our communities. I love the way that Mollena links submission to vulnerability to activism in this way, it’s something that resonates deeply for me too. In fact that talk is an excellent example of what I’m talking to because she went for the vulnerable, open approach – weaving together the erotic and the creative – and it spoke to me so much that I remember it to this day.

Showing and telling

One of the classic pieces of advice to aspiring fiction writers is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Readers don’t want to be told the main character is a cocky piece of work who hides an inner vulnerability, they want to see that from the way he strides across the bar in the first scene, oh-so-casually glancing around to check that everyone is clocking him.

So is there a value to showing rather than telling in non-fiction too? I guess the writing that I do which I experience as most vulnerable is the stuff where I show my workings, rather than just telling the reader that this is something I struggle with too.

When I first wrote Rewriting the Rules the main place that I did this was the conflict chapter. I illustrated that with a detailed description of the kind of excruciating conflicts that I’ve had in partner relationships. In the second edition I added much more detail about my own relationship patterns in the love chapter, in order to demonstrate how these come from a combination of wider cultural messages, and our own lived experiences growing up with these messages all around us.

Nowadays I do a few kinds of vulnerable writing. I write more memoir-style pieces where I reflect on something I’ve been through, or am personally struggling with, or attempting to put into practice at the moment. I write fiction which is well summed up by this person on twitter.

I also create comics and zines about aspects of my experiences.

Generally I use the personal sharing I do in such writing as an example: this is how you could do this kind of work, this is how you could understand how our experiences shape our habits, here’s a practice you might try. But sometimes I let the showing stand alone. Perhaps there’s not always the need to tell as well as show.

When is vulnerable too vulnerable?

This is complicated territory because writing from the vulnerable place is also risky. You could end up hurting yourself by trying to write about something which is still too raw and painful. The writing could stray into something over-sharing or self-focused in a way that doesn’t really connect with others. This is particularly likely if you’re still very caught up in the details of what happened in that particular situation. It could feel too vulnerable if people respond critically to it once you’ve put it out there.

There’s some kind of balance to be struck between the value of writing about what’s live when it’s live – the authenticity and sense of aliveness that kind of writing can have – and the wisdom of knowing when something needs more time before you approach it creatively – either in order to be safe enough for yourself, or for it to take a form that others can connect with.

On our podcast Justin and I often come up with ideas we’d love to cover but they feel too live for us – or for others in our lives – at the moment. We keep a list on our phones of topics that would be great to cover, but we want to come back to them when it feels like we have a bit more distance from them ourselves.

Another thing I do is to journal about the things that are really live initially in a format which is not for public consumption. I’ve filled hundreds of pages in the last year, going through major transitions in work, home, and relationships. Many of the ideas and practices that have come out of this writing will likely eventually find their way into my non-fiction and fiction writing, but it’s probably best that the writing I do for the initial processing is for my eyes only.

There’s an inner sense of ‘not ready’ and ‘ready’ which I’m beginning to trust in this – and other – aspects of life. For example, there will hopefully eventually be seven comics in this series, but this is the only one that’s felt complete enough to get down so far.

If something starts to take shape as a piece of writing for a reader beyond yourself you can always write it when live and return to it later. It’s a great idea anyway to separate the writing process and the editing process. This means that in the first drafting you can really sink into the flow and write it however it comes, knowing that you’ll be coming back to it before it goes out anywhere, so you can free yourself up to make mistakes and be imperfect. This is what Anne Lammot calls the ‘shitty first draft’ – something we’re allowed to do in writing and in life.

Personally I find it helpful to have a notepad or extra document open alongside my writing, where I write down the worried or critical thoughts I have about while I’m doing it: from information I need to check to issues around diverse representation. Then I know I can go back to those concerns during the editing process, but can park them and keep writing for now.

When I’ve written something and it has that feeling of potentially being too raw, or too vulnerable, to put out there at present, I leave it and return to it later: a month, a year, whatever.

I also have a sense of who my crew are for reading things that I’ve written which I’m not sure about sharing. If you know that the future version of yourself, plus several friends, will be reading the writing and feeding back about it before it sees the light of day, that can also help you to feel more free to write now.

Over time you can get a feel for what is just the right amount of vulnerable and what is over the line. Like if the exposure scale goes from 0-10 perhaps 5-6 is that sweet spot for things that are real and vulnerable in ways that stretch you a useful amount, and will likely connect with other people. But over a 7 is into the too-vulnerable zone and worth leaving till it feels less live. I’ve adapted this from an idea I got from Love Uncommon, that when our feelings are 0-7 the thing to do is to stay with them, but over 7 has tipped us into trauma/overwhelm and the thing to do there is to get back to a sense of being safe-enough before we try to stay with the feelings.

What if…

Here’s a few things people often worry about when writing about vulnerable stuff, plus my thoughts on them:

What if…people hate it?

I figure for everything I write there’s going to be a few folks who’ll really love it – the ones for whom it hits just the right point on the right day. Now that I have quite a lot of people who regularly engage with my stuff, there’ll probably be quite a few others who like it, which is great. Then there will be the vast, vast, vast majority of the world who have no idea who I am, no wish to read my stuff, and would feel pretty meh about it if they ever did. Then there’ll be a few people who – if they did read it – would totally hate it, either because they hate me – or people like me – or because it’s the opposite of what they think, or because they’re just having a bad day – or whatever.

In my case I’m generally writing for the people who find my stuff interesting, useful, or entertaining. Nobody else has to read it. If they do, and they don’t like it then that’s okay, they don’t have to read my stuff again.

What if…people are mean about me?

I think that people imagine that this will happen a lot if they put stuff out there, but it’s actually pretty rare. I write on some fairly controversial topics and I’ve very rarely have someone attack me or criticise my writing. It has happened, but to be honest it’s usually been something out of left field that I could never have predicted. I wouldn’t have avoided the experience by deciding not to write about the vulnerable stuff.

It’s definitely worth having some plans in place – if you write publicly – about what you’ll do if you do find yourself being criticised or attacked in a big way. Is there somebody who can take over your inbox and social media during the time it’s going on? Could you get away and do self-care till it’s died down a bit? Is there a holding message you can prepare in advance to put out while you take your time responding – if a response is required? Can you think advance of some kinds of filters to decide which kinds of critical feedback you’d like to take seriously and which you wouldn’t (around who gives it, in what form, what kind of issue it raises, etc.)?

What if…I change my mind later?

People worry that once you’ve written something it’s somehow set in stone and you could be judged for it FOREVER. I think it would be great if we could make a habit of returning to things we’ve written in the past and say how our views have shifted, or what we know now that we didn’t know then. We’re all in an ongoing process, and it’s not fair to judge a person now by who they were or what they knew 5, 10 or 20 years ago. Also culture is moving on and this makes it more possible to do better on many issues today than we might’ve done in the past.  We could reflect on this process of change in our writing in useful ways – being accountable for the impact of our work – instead of being defensive and insisting that every word we’ve ever written was perfect.

What if…it’s vulnerable for other people I’m writing about?

This is where consent comes in (I said writing was like sex in more ways than one). If you’re writing about other people then it’s not okay to put something out there that could leave them vulnerable without their consent. There are several options here:

  • Only write your story, not those of other people who might struggle to read themselves depicted, or to have themselves read about by others. Having had the experience of being reported about in the press twice without my consent I know very well how utterly traumatic, confusing, and powerless this experience can feel. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
  • Keep things general rather than specific.
  • Anonymise people (like I did when mentioning my clients earlier).
  • Have consent conversations with people you would like to write about. Remember to acknowledge the power you have in the situation and any pressure they might feel under to agree to it: Ideally give them several options rather than just ‘go ahead’ or ‘don’t do it’. Take anything other than a definite ‘yes’ as a ‘no’. Remind them it’s fine to change their mind at any time (ongoing consent).
  • Write collaboratively with the other people concerned so that you all have control over it together – this could be a useful process anyway.
  • Write it as fiction rather than non-fiction, changing all identifying features, combining people together, or completely making up characters but keeping features of the experience true to life. This is what a lot of therapists do when they want to write about client work without breaking confidentiality. It’s what Alex and I do when we want to write a bunch of diverse experiences around an issue in our collaborative books.

There are complexities around all this of course when it comes to memoir writing particularly: what constitutes writing about somebody else versus telling your story? Again it can be useful to give yourself complete freedom to write what comes in the first draft, and then decide which strategies – or combinations of strategies – you’ll use to keep it ethical when you’re editing.

What if…I get something wrong?

You can go gradual. It’s not a binary of keeping something to yourself or putting it out there for all to see. You can have trusted friends read it first to give you a sense if it’s something worth sharing more widely. You can have sensitivity readers who you offer something to in return for reading it with an eye to particular aspects you want to be sure you’ve got right (e.g. axes of oppression you’re not personally familiar with but have written about, or science or history parts). If you have a publisher then you’ll have at least one editor who will read it before it goes out there. If it’s a blog then you can always share it only with a certain group of people, or put it out publicly but only share it with your social media friends or followers initially. And if you do get something wrong you can acknowledge that and change it immediately if it’s online, or in a later edition if it’s in print.

Writing vulnerable

Why would we write vulnerable stuff given all of these fears and potential pitfalls? I think that it does something very important for us personally, and for others reading our work. 

Personally there is what Patrick Califia calls an antidote to shame in writing vulnerable stuff. This is often the stuff that we fear – deep down – might not be okay about us. Writing it and putting it out there is a way of saying ‘this is me, with all my inevitable frailties and failings and flaws, and I’m still okay.’ Under capitalism it could also be seen as a political act to challenge the success/failure and good/bad person binaries by speaking openly about our struggles, our mistakes, and our messes.

Related to this, writing vulnerable goes against the current pressure to curate and present a perfect image on social media and beyond (which brings with it a horror of being revealed as imperfect, which we inevitably are). 

For me it’s always been about resisting the common depiction of the ‘self-help author’ or ‘expert’ who has it all together and doesn’t struggle in the way that ‘regular people’ do. Fuck that noise quite frankly. We hardly need another point of comparison to judge ourselves against and find ourselves wanting in the current climate. If we only put out our successes and triumphs and never our struggles and tragedies we’re feeding that culture of comparison. So we’d better get vulnerable.

Or we can sidestep the whole thing entirely as I do on Instagram and only share images of lovely nature/animals and food I’ve cooked (yes I am quite a good cook, but I’m rubbish at loads of other things I promise).

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. Tathra

    22 August

    Thank you for your wisdom and insight. It really helps me in my journey and deciding what to write, what not to and how to deal with the inner and outer critics.

    • Meg-John Barker

      23 August

      Thankyou. I have so much more coming on the topic of the inner critic 🙂

  2. Carol

    26 August

    Such a good read. Reminded me of all the people who tell me (and myself included) that they are put off writing articles for their professional bodies as they couldn’t bear the negative letters printed the following month! off to try and embrace the vulnerability and do it anyway ……….

    • Meg-John Barker

      26 August

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it Carol. I do also think that such journals often fail in their ethical obligations to writers – both in the review process if there is one, and in the letters they print. There’s legitimate discussion and then there is the kind of letter they sometimes print for ‘debate’ which can be the painful equivalent of internet trolling. I wish editors would insist on compassionate critique only and remember the toll this can take on people – as well as often meaning the only people who write are from more privileged groups who are familiar/robust with that kind of debating style. Such a shame when people get put off writing. I do hope you’re treated kindly.