I love vulnerability. My favorite artists are the most revealing ones, the ones that tell it like it is, the ones that unveil the truth. I want to consume the truth, and that’s likely why I hope to be a vulnerable artist myself.
Last May, one of my close friends sent me the link to Chelsea Hodson’s essay “I Could Live Without Speaking.” An interpretation of French artist Édouard Lévé’s 2005 book Autoportrait, this piece is above all a confession. Apart from feeling as though some sentences were extracted from my brain, it was just brutally honest. Each line is unpredictable, often untethered from the one before it. It’s impossible to leave the page without feeling connected to her because Hodson tells the reader so much about herself. A few weeks ago, I decided to read Lévé’s original memoir for the first time, and I devoured it in one sitting. Autoportrait tells the story of Lévé’s life. It’s blunt, naked, vivid, and random in organization; even the crudest of anecdotes are included. In an attempt to understand Autoportrait and I Could Live Without Speaking, I started considering vulnerability as a basic concept in writing.
Personal writers seem to feel inclined to be vulnerable and deeply honest in their work, to strip themselves down for both themselves and their readers. This is probably because it feels natural to insert ourselves into our writing. We want to feel understood, which isn’t necessarily detrimental to the work itself.
In a workshop I took last semester, I shared an essay about how I’ve come to understand Judaism and the community within it. By the time critique day rolled around, I worried that maybe I’d rendered it not universal but too specific to me, that maybe my ego was at the center of the piece. Once the workshop was over, it dawned on me that this fear of the ego was completely valid—because our egos are always in our work. After all, we’re writing about our own lives.
It’s important to note that there is a massive difference between ego and plain narcissism. All people have egos, but not everyone is vain. Philosopher Julian Baggani notes in an essay for The Guardian that “there is an inherent vanity in writing; believing you have something special to offer the world is built-in to the very act of putting your work out into the world.” Knowing the value of your perspective doesn’t always come from a self-centered place—there is something to be said about believing in your voice.
But there is some truth to Baggani’s claim. I’m reminded of the very first episode of Girls, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) declares to her parents that she believes herself to be the voice of her generation. With powerful personal writing, we might feel this way, as though what we’re saying could change the world—but we’d never admit it. Fear of the ego never dies, and it’s difficult not to feel it ingrained in our minds. We just want to resonate with people and maybe even feel that we have some kind of impact.
Of course, one of the defining elements of sharing in the present day is the internet; anyone can be candid at any given moment online. They can reveal bits of their life whenever they choose, and the whole world may perceive it. There’s no shortage of writing on this phenomenon, but Dani Shapiro’s New Yorker piece about the internet perhaps discusses it best. She brilliantly jokes, “I’m a bit of an accidental memorist.”
Shapiro’s claim isn’t necessarily bad. I, too, am an accidental memoirist, as many of us are; I’m just as guilty of tweeting about random happenings and my art as the next person. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a tiny part of me hoping to be seen and understood on the internet. I don’t post for people, but I always hope my honesty will reach people.
Revealing oneself to the whole world to no avail is absolutely crushing. In an age of likes and reposting, it’s easy to feel that our value is tethered to numbers. One of my close friends and I constantly joke about deleting all traces of our internet presence, so that we won’t have to worry about people being aware of us and our thoughts. Underneath the urge to be vulnerable lies the desire to disappear and remain anonymous, to rid ourselves of our egos.
It’s important to remember that both the internet and the ego don’t make personal writing less interesting or personal. The question isn’t whether or not we should stop being vulnerable altogether, because the internet and the ego don’t eliminate vulnerability or make it less visible. The vulnerability is there regardless of where it lives. Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”; through writing and storytelling we aim to understand all that is happening around us, to make sense of the human experience. In this way, personal writing can extend far beyond ourselves. In trying to make sense of life itself, we can resonate with writers’ feelings and words—a kind of connection that is unspeakably valuable.
By Colette Bernheim
Illustration by Jordan Lee for Vice