Vulnerable Doesn’t Equal Victim   9 comments

August 5,2019

What is your writing Kryptonite?

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I LOVE this topic because it bumps up against a theme in my work in progress “What If … Wasn’t.” More about that in a few paragraphs.

On the surface, kryptonite is easy. It’s what makes Superman weak. But of course, there’s several different kinds of krytonite. All of them affect him in a negative way, but red kryptonite makes him feel strong as it also overwhelms his morality. Interestingly, green kryptonite is the anecdote – judiciously applied, of course. You don’t want to kill the superhero while attempting to save him.

“It’s your krytonite,” Ben observed.

Peter sipped coffee, frowning.

“Not unless it’s red kryptonite. I feel so strong and capable when I drink. I can fly and take on that dude from the Phantom Zone.”

“Colonel Zod.”

“Yeah. It’s a powerful feeling.” Peter smiled at the memories, and then shivered. “And then the consequences hit.” He looked haunted.

“Are the consequences your green kryptonite?”

“That’s where your metaphor breaks down, Ben. Green kryptonite only affects Superman. It doesn’t kill humans. Mine does.”

Peter’s self-hatred oozed from every word.

“I don’t have a future as a comic book writer, but — Peter, it seems to me you’ve learned to leave the red kryptonite alone. Five years sober! That’s odds defying, from what I’ve read. So why can’t you forgive yourself?”

Peter sighed, looking for answers in the bottom of his coffee mug.

“Maybe that’s my green kryptonite – shame. As long as I take a dose of it everyday, I leave the red alone.”

“Maybe, but I’d recommend you reduce the dose below lethal levels.” Peter rubbed the back of his neck, clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion. “Isn’t there a happy medium between red kryptonite ego-maniac and green kryptonite self-hatred?”

Peter shrugged, then shook his head in self-mockery.

“If it exists, I wouldn’t recognize it if it bit me on the ass.”

The last of Ben’s anger at Peter dissolved like ice in the hot sun, scorched by Peter’s brutal self-assessment.

“Do you trust your friends enough to recognize it for you?”

“Do you trust me enough to be my friend again?”

For the first time, Peter made eye contact with Ben. Telling the truth was hard for him because it made him vulnerable and right this moment, Ben had never seen Peter more vulnerable. Shame wasn’t his only green kryptonite.

From “What If … Wasn’t.”

Krytonites exist all around us and I think we humans have a lot of individual kryptonites — that which makes us weak and those may be far less dangerous than that which makes us feel strong, but will also kill us. I could spend several novels exploring the various kryptonites that affect a whole range of characters.

So the question is, “What is my writing kryptonite?” and clearly I’ve recently given some thought to the kryptonite subject … but not so much as it relates to writing.

When I googled the topic of writer’s kryptonite, the first five articles said “distractions connected to the Internet” (e.i., research that becomes online shopping, social media, etc.) And I admit, I do get distracted that way sometimes. I start to do research and I answer a comment on Facebook and I get back to writing hours or days later and look what time I’ve wasted.

The sixth article mentioned worry about what people will think of your writing or the story you share. Yeah, that’s there too, but I’m a writer who hopes to be a bit subversive, so I recognize the desire to live in the good estimation of others as a green kryptonite and I’ve learned to recognize its effect and either move away from or overcome it in order to be a published author.

Too much creativity has been a kryptonite for me in 2019. Yeah … TOO MUCH creativity. I’ve started about six books, including choosing to develop “What If … Wasn’t” into a series, in the last eight months, interfering with my ability to write my primary project “Gathering In” (Book 5 of Transformation Project. (The manuscript just went to the beta readers yesterday. I’m only a month behind. It’ll be fine.) Creativity surge-tides are definitely a red kryptonite because I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of creative genesis. I’ve just had to force myself to concentrate where my focus needs to be. Book 6 (tentatively “Winter’s Reckoning”) may have a different schedule to accommodate my new projects. Sometimes kryptonite shows us where we need to adjust our course a little.

Transformation Project and “What If … Wasn’t” are teaching me that my true kryptonite is vulnerability. When we bare ourselves in our books, we risk ending up covered in goose flesh and embarrassment, which might be why too many people use fake vulnerability to garner attention as a victim rather than a purveyor of truths that should be revealed. Victimhood acts like fig leaves, leaving our vulnerability inadequately covered by the flimsiness of sympathy. Truth should always provide some nice leather garments to strengthen us in our weakness, so we can move beyond the pain and hopefully bring the reader to the point of empathy, which is so superior to sympathy.

The end of “Gathering In” is all about grieving and the next book will build on that by exploring the pain of post-traumatic stress disorder. “What If … Wasn’t” is all about the consequences of bad decisions. At every creative turn, I am called to be vulnerable through my characters while I don’t naturally want to be vulnerable because I long ago decided that my life is not about being a victim. Yes, I’ve experienced pain. If I’m honest, I’ve experienced a lot of tragedy in my life. No, I am not a victim. I’m a survivor and survivors don’t ask for tea and sympathy. Overcoming tragedy has made us strong and we have developed scar tissue that makes us seem invulnerable. And yet, good novelists expose our vulnerability through our characters. We open up the scar tissue to reveal our innermost frailty and, if we have truly learned the lessons of adversity, we can show where strength comes from.

Whether in writing fiction or interacting with the people around us, when we are vulnerable, we give someone else a piece of our self, not knowing how it will be received or reciprocated. We’re opening a vein to another, hoping for appreciation or empathy in return as we reveal the tragic beauty of a beating heart — hoping our readers won’t run screaming in the other direction.

Some people will run screaming, by the way. The world is filled with shallow people who only want to interact with shallow ideas. How dare I ruin their apocalyptic fiction with feelings. My vulnerability through my characters risks them feeling vulnerable and entertaining thoughts they’d rather not have. But I’m banking that some people will thrill to the vulnerability of an “invulnerable” character like Shane, because it makes him human and if they stick around, they might get to see a phoenix rise —

IF I don’t kill him, because nobody is guaranteed to live through my apocalypse – well, except JT Delaney who has opened every book with thoughts on what went wrong and is clearly writing from the future. Who is this person? It’s a mystery. I’ll give you a free e-copy of “Gathering In” (when it publishes) if you can guess. Email me at lelamarkham@gmail.com if you want in on this guessing game.

And Peter of “What If … Wasn’t” — vulnerability is the only way he can move beyond the consequences of his past to reconnect to other human beings again. He doesn’t have strength to rely on. He’s vulnerable because he’s broken, but what he’s done means he can’t claim to be a victim. He’s not allowed to feel sorry for himself. He has to be a survivor because no one will ever forgive him if he claims to be a victim. Writing him in his vulnerable state is scary painful, but it also makes me feel wholly alive — invigorated by a kind of truthfulness that you just can’t convey without bleeding a little of your soul onto the page.

When we’re vulnerable with others, we create an imbalance in the relationship. We admit we struggle in some way, knowing that truthfulness might engender ridicule, fear or dislike of us or our characters. That imbalance, however, leads to connection and connection – that’s where novelists should live. We become more compassionate human beings when we share stories of pain and struggle. Not all people can be the creator of such stories, but if the writer shares with the reader, the reader reaps the benefits of our honesty.

But I don’t want to be vulnerable. I don’t want to get naked before my audience. I don’t want to shine a bright spotlight on the beauty and sorrow of my humanity. Like everyone else, I prefer to be invulnerable — the superhero of my own life — and many of my characters wish the same. I have to force vulnerability on them for the sake of the story, as other writers have forced it on their protagonists.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Without the potential for contact with kryptonite and the dilemma of juggling two identities, is there any conflict or tension to Superman’s story?
  • Without the looming possibility of Holden Caulfield’s suicide, would we care about his whiny school-trip diary?
  • Without Romeo’s often-blind passion, wouldn’t we just wince at his and Juliet’s inevitable teenage romantic train wreck?

Our characters must be compelled by a need or desire they are desperate to fulfill. That desperation, the willingness to risk everything, is vulnerability. Readers delight in character kryptonite. Journeying alongside a vulnerable character as they find their way toward peace and healing allows us to experience uncertainty and risk without having to abide it in real life. Writers really are doing the human race a solid by giving our readers the opportunity to experience vulnerability without the personal tragedy.

And, yet, being vulnerable is my real-life kryptonite, which means I must willingly expose myself to that which makes me feel weak in order to be a stronger writer.

9 responses to “Vulnerable Doesn’t Equal Victim

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  1. Great Post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh so familiar, loved the post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting take on the subject. Vulnerability can be a blessing and a curse. I can’t believe feeling bulletproof is good for any human.

    Like

    • Exactly. The more I get into the character of Shane, the more I realize he doesn’t want other people to view him as bulletproof, but they need his skills and he doesn’t want to disappoint them — even though what they are demanding of him is killing him.

      Like

  4. I enjoyed how you related this concept specifically to the characters you create in your book. An interesting post.

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    • Thank you. I can’t claim a lot of credit for it. My husband is a recovering alcoholic and he has often referred to Jack Daniels as his red kryptonite – makes you feel powerful and like you can take on General Zod, but at the risk of waking up to discover you’ve destroyed a world.

      Like

  5. I remember back in 2013 when I started writing, I hardly ever bothered with social media and the words came tumbling out. Now I have too many social media accounts and I don’t write half as much as I used to. I’ve shut down Facebook, and am working out the next one to get rid of. It’s all too distracting…

    Like

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