A writer I follow posted something today about vulnerability.
It was a raw, unpolished output of emotion. And it resonated with me. Because it’s a challenge to be a private person in a world of constant virtual society. It’s even harder to write and publish books in that culture, because that job requires an online presence of some kind. Readers want to see your face and know your backstory and consume you as well as your work.
And most of the time this is a beautiful thing. I love connecting with readers I would not normally have the capacity to reach. When one of these readers leaves a positive comment after purchasing my book, it lifts me up and lightens my day.
But then someone leaves a negative comment. And that pulls me down with equal measure.
In the same vein, social media is a difficult beast. It’s hard to navigate for someone who is not always comfortable with putting themselves out there. But it’s a constant companion for someone who sells their art – ultimately a piece of themselves – online.
About a year ago, I wrote an article for a photographer’s website. We’d just finished a photo shoot and the experience was an emotional one for me. The photographer asked me to share that experience with her customers. I’m posting the bulk of that article here. Because it relates to the same concept – not wanting to be seen and yet needing to be seen at the same time.
A necessary beast.
Trust the process
I tried to get out of the photo shoot.
My shoulders tightened each time I thought about it, and nerves swarmed in my stomach.
“Should we be worried about the clouds?” I emailed Lindsey that morning. She relied on natural light, she’d said, and focused more on the mechanics of the photo in the moment, instead of editing on the back end.
It’s a brilliant concept, one that focuses on the art of capturing life itself, rather than using editing software to create something that doesn’t organically exist. And it’s an idea that ties in well with the themes of my first two novels – the acceptance of ourselves, the idea that our flaws make us unique and beautiful, and that our dimensions make us interesting.
But, as strengthening as that is in theory, it’s terrifying in execution. Because the camera, when wielded by the hands of an artist, sees all.
Every flaw is on display, every insecurity highlighted, with nothing else in the photo to distract the eye.
It’s just me.
Raw, unpolished me.
“Perhaps we should reschedule?” I asked in the email, wringing my hands, hoping she’d agree.
“We’ll be fine,” Lindsey said, recognizing my feeble attempt at avoidance.
I found it hard to make “eye contact” with the camera. I was worried about looking the way I felt – nervous and resentful of the obligation.
But it’s a necessary evil in the world today, this idea of going beyond the writing, of presenting yourself as a product. Even Jane Austen has a portrait operating as a 21st-century author branding tool. You can see it on her Facebook page.
Jane Austen wasn’t afraid, I told myself. And she sat there, waiting for her portrait to be painted, for a much longer portion of time than I was enduring. And as I tell my children, the fear of doing something should drive you toward it, not away from it.
So I showed up. And I smiled. And hoped I didn’t look as uncomfortable as I felt.
Lindsey talked about the beauty of vulnerability.
“Just trust it,” she said. “Trust me.”
The vulnerability, I realized, was exactly what I feared most. Lindsey recognized my anxiety and took my mind off the camera by asking about the typewriter and book I’d brought with me.
The typewriter was a relic left over from a childhood of punching the keys, I told her. I have soothing memories of the ribbon spool turning, of the typebars whacking the page, leaving an imprint that couldn’t be easily edited the way a word processing document can today. I always enjoyed the slower, more intentional thought process.
Which, I realized, was similar to Lindsey’s.
As I spoke about my love for my old typewriter, and realized the connection between it and the camera Lindsey held, the nerves started to fade. Recognizing this as an important stride, Lindsey asked about the book.
And as I told the story of the day my grandfather died, the light shattered into a spectrum of memory and the camera I was so afraid of suddenly disappeared.
Dubbed “Cotton” when he was just a child, based on the almost white blondeness of his hair, my grandfather was the greatest storyteller I ever knew. He spun a repertoire of tales over and over, each one with a great punch line at the end. And no matter how many times he repeated these stories, he held his audience – his many grandchildren and old friends who often stopped by for a visit – in rapture.
We always knew what was coming. Because we’d heard the story before. But we wanted to hear it again, like an old familiar song that connects with your soul. And lifts you into happiness.
Grandpa Cotton had a heart attack on Christmas morning and we all dropped what we were doing to meet at the hospital, some in hopes he would wake up and tell his tales again, others just to say goodbye.
“Sorry,” my cousin Jeremy said, timidly handing me a box wrapped in Christmas paper. “I didn’t want to give you your gift … like this.”
We were sitting in his car in the Starbucks parking lot. We’d escaped the ICU waiting room for a moment to refuel. The gift was heavy in my hands. I knew it was a book before I opened it. Jeremy’s wife Lara shares my love of the written word, and we often gift each other reading material to get us through another week.
But I couldn’t have known how special this book would be.
I uncovered a blue hand-stitched hard back with buttery gold lettering across the front.
And my name was on it.
They had commissioned an artist (for the maker of a hand-made book can be called nothing less) to bind an early proof of Wildfire, my first novel.
It was the first copy of the work ever printed in hard back.
I cried as I ran my hands over the cover. I cried for the sheer love and support my cousin had just handed me, wrapped in Christmas paper. And I cried for my grandfather, who would never again tell me a story.
A few hours later, our grandfather died.
His descendants huddled in the small waiting room, mourning the loss of the man with white hair - the family storyteller. And as I held my Christmas gift close to my chest, I vowed to tell my grandfather’s stories again one day. And hoped I could do them justice.
The photo shoot was over before I knew it, and my thoughts turned to relief. Lindsey had transformed a stressful moment into a conversation, one I was not eager to leave. And when she showed me the photos she’d taken, you can clearly see the moment when I relaxed. When I drifted into the story of my grandfather, and settled into a place of comfort. And that photo – taken toward the end of the shoot – is the one I’m using on my website.
Art itself is inescapable. Whether it be a camera capturing your inner-most fears, or a story prickling the corners of your mind, art sees all. It knows your insecurities, it tugs at your memories, it makes you vulnerable in the best way.
Raw, unpolished you.
“All you have to do,” Lindsey said, “is trust it.”