“Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit… Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed… Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, immoral, amoral, calculating or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.”
–Lit, Mary Karr’s memoir documenting her struggles as a young wife, mother, and poet
A few weeks ago, PHSN had poets Ethan Rivera, Rachel Wiley and Hanif Abdurraqib visit to share their spoken-word poetry and talk about their inspiration and writing process. (I will try to get some of this work on the blog as a video as soon as I can overcome the technical difficulties I am having with my ipad.)
Many of the poems presented were very personal. Abdurraqib discussed watching members of his family suffer with depression, Rivera shared lamenting the loss of a high school sweetheart on her wedding day, and Wiley read works exploring how the designation of “fat” has been a struggle for her throughout her life, including how at one point an audience member went as far as to send her a critical letter shaming her after she read a work about body image. (She later read a poem in response while he was in the audience.)
The honesty and human connection in these moments was hard to deny. As an audience member, it was easy to feel the pang (or cringe) of recognition in the stories and poems shared. This is not uncommon; each of the poets described the “connection” between the reader and audience as a major reason they take the emotional risk of stepping on the stage each time- even when it is one of the most difficult things one can do (especially in the early years of performing).
I can relate to this, and I am sure many students, teachers and writers can as well; creative writing is personal. Poetry exposes feeling. Narrative shares life and perspective.
However, the reward for being consciously vulnerable in order to build a connection with others can’t be underestimated as a tool for growth and development. Writing, and sharing writing, is a way to facilitate this growth.
Brené Brown spent over a decade of her life researching what makes individuals “happy” and mentally “healthy.” Her first TEDTalk was about the ability to be vulnerable and take emotional risks in order to find these things. It got millions of views and can be seen here.
Conversely, she also found that “shame,” or the inability to share meaningfully of ourselves with others, is the root of many people’s unhappiness. She shares these findings in a second TEDTalk focused on what holds people back from finding the things they seek. It can be seen below.
In her second TEDTalk, she begins by talking about the aftermath and “vulnerability hangover” that resulted from her first talk. She also discusses the speaking engagements in which she was asked to participate afterward,
“One of the weird things that’s happened is, after the TED explosion, I got a lot of offers to speak all over the country — everyone from schools and parent meetings to Fortune 500 companies. And so many of the calls went like this, ‘Hey, Dr. Brown. We loved your TEDTalk. We’d like you to come in and speak. We’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention vulnerability or shame.’ What would you like for me to talk about? There’s three big answers. This is mostly, to be honest with you, from the business sector: innovation, creativity and change. So let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.”
These goals of industry: innovation, creativity, change, are also goals of education at this time. It only makes sense that as we prepare students for the future, we would align with the economic climate in which they will be entering, and yet, there is more that education can do. Teaching young people is a human enterprise, and beyond preparing for economic success, showing and sharing vulnerability in the classroom through modeling and promoting healthy risk-taking could help to build more well-rounded human beings. This is not easy; exposing one’s thinking process, trying a new activity, being comfortable not knowing the answer, or modeling writing and process can feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, while creating happier and healthier people might not be the primary job of the educational system, it is surely the primary goal of those who value humanity and its potential.