Shame, Shame, Shame: On Brené Brown, Diamond Formation, and the Writing Life

October 21, 2019 § 27 Comments


livingstonblueBy Sonja Livingston

I’ve recently fallen into a YouTube rabbit hole.

This is partly because I cancelled Netflix and am hard up for video content, but also because I have a book just out and no one tells you how tender that space is. The last three videos I watched were: Alain de Botton’s “On Love,” Patty Griffin and Robert Plant singing “Ohio,” and an extended clip of bestselling author and inspirational speaker, Brené Brown. I admire Brené Brown and trust her. She has the kind of haircut I’m always after and a Texas accent which she uses to say hot and wise things.

You either walk inside your story and own it, Brené says. Or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.

Brown is famous for her talks on vulnerability and shame.

In fact, she’s a shame researcher, which makes her one of my people. Shame is my first language. I grew up on its fumes. If shame were a small island nation, I’d be given a cardboard crown and made its chronically self-conscious queen. Shame arises in two basic forms, according to Brown: 1.) You’re not good enough, and 2.) Who do you think you are?

Growing up poor and female in America means proficiency in both. But, no matter our gender or social class, most of us suffer some degree of shame. Long before YouTube or Brené Brown, Carl Jung was clear about its toll, calling shame a soul-eating emotion.

Shame distances us from our own skin, and clearly, limits our growth as a culture and as human beings. But while it’s toxic in our actual lives, shame can be a guidepost in our writing lives.

Because I did not begin to write seriously until I was nearly thirty, I had a storehouse of shameful memories to tap into: Our electricity being cut off for nonpayment; the stack of unopened bills on our kitchen table; the sound of a social worker interviewing my mother about the loss of her factory job and our missing fathers while I listened from the bedroom, noticing how young my mother suddenly sounded, how small. I carried all of this with me. The bad clothes, the bill collectors, the food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. When I began to write, it leapt right onto the page.

Whew, I said when I finished my first book, I’m glad I got that out of my system.

Think again, I learned. There’s always more.

Next I wrote about the female body, especially fertility and infertility and what those things can mean. Again, I thought I was finished with shame. I mean, I’d gone and put my ovaries on the page, so certainly I was done. But when it comes to shame and vulnerability, the supply line is unending.

Now it’s religion. Which is the trickiest topic of all, because unlike the scarce resources or lackluster ovaries I was born with, returning to my old Catholic church is something that, as an educated progressive woman, I actually chose. Which is why my Catholic essays caused me more grief than any other subject. Embracing Catholicism, especially in this present cultural moment, makes no obvious sense. My shame flared. What would people think? Why risk misunderstanding? Especially when I wasn’t even sure why I’d gone back to Mass?

It’s as tempting in writing as in life to avoid what makes us feel exposed.

But whatever you believe makes you wrong in the eyes of the world is what makes you right on the page. Shame is an arrow pointing toward the ripest fruit. Fruit. Unlike embarrassment, which may also provide good stories but is situational and fleeting, shame is seeing ourselves as unworthy in some essential way. Its doggedness is precisely what makes it so rich.

This makes me think of how diamonds are made. They begin as bits of carbon-based grit deep within the Earth. Caught there for ages, they stew under a hundred miles of rock and rubble. Eventually, the combination of intense pressure and heat from the Earth’s core spurs crystal formation and turns them ever-so-slowly into gems.

Shame can work similarly for writers. Grit makes its way inside you. Your mother calls you clumsy or your father shushes you in public one too many times. Your pants are too plaid or some kid in kindergarten points out your cowlick, laughing over the way your hair sprays like a geyser from the rear quadrant of your head. You push down those perceived deficiencies and guard them so tenaciously, they harden over the years and become the core of who you are. Until, one day, you suffer some sort of beautiful rupture (such as taking up writing) and it rises to the surface. This is not always comfortable, but, if we allow it into the work, can be a source of unexpected treasure.

Shame derives its power from being unspeakable, Brené Brown says.

Writing derives its power by noticing the unspeakable and going there.

I don’t suggest mining your most troubling secrets or tapping into crippling sources of shame. Instead, notice what you hope no one sees, the little things you hide from even your best friend. Maybe it’s the line of candy corn you did after the faculty meeting, how you haven’t spoken to your mother in a proper decade, or how you still worry about cutlery—which fork and when? Maybe it’s the dimpled skin of your upper arms or the fact that even your midlife crisis is massively uncool—that instead of submitting to a red rose vining along your collarbone or developing a decent yoga habit, you’ve returned to a fading Catholic church. All the stuff you’re convinced makes you goofy and wrong and weird. Write this.
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Sonja Livingston is the author of four books of literary nonfiction, including the most recent, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotionand the award-winning memoir, GhostbreadRecent essays appear in LitHub, Kenyon Review, and Salon. Sonja teaches creative nonfiction writing at Virginia Commonwealth University where she serves as the Faculty Editor for Blackbird.

Find her here on social media: Twitter@sonjalivingston / instagram: sonjalivvy / FB: sonjalivingston

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§ 27 Responses to Shame, Shame, Shame: On Brené Brown, Diamond Formation, and the Writing Life

  • This: “Shame is an arrow pointing toward the ripest fruit.” Talk about bullseye. Thank you for this uplifting and inspirational piece.

  • Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    Brené Brown’s work on shame is powerful indeed. Sonja Livingston talks about how we can use our shame as a jumping-off place for our work as authors.

  • Thank you for your wonderful insight.

  • bullyoga says:

    Well said. Proud of you

  • Carol Wandrey says:

    As always, I love your work. This piece has imbedded jewels (diamonds?) and has led me to a bit of thinking. My childhood was similar (even similar regions) and I was “raised” Catholic. What your piece sparked in me was the question of how much Catholic indoctrination played a part in my ever present shame. Instead of getting angry at the abuse/mistreatment I too turned everything into shame. Often I would blame myself. If I hadn’t been so drunk, I would not have been gang-raped. If I hadn’t been wearing that little mini dress, that man would not have tried to rape me at knife point. If I hadn’t been an unmarried pregnant hippie, the nurses and doctors might not have been so cruel to me as I lay close to death from an car accident. And on and on. After reading your piece, I am struck with the possibility that this is how I was taught to think as a Catholic. Not to get angry. But to blame myself. Just a thought. Thank you for your provocative piece. I owe you for all your teachings. Love, Carol

    • Sonja Livingston says:

      Thank you, Carol. I appreciate your kind words and support. I think you are right on in what suggest–though my version of Catholicism was perhaps a bit gentler than yours. Certainly there were (and are) messages about the female body and the tendency for women to be given (and to take on) so much that is never ours. But maybe ever more than that, the idea of not allowing a focus on yourself or your accomplishments. The “Who do you think you are?” version of shame is definitely a part of my Catholic and family experience. Ugh. Thank goodness for writing and therapy and whiskey (or candy corn). Keep writing, friend!

    • footloose50 says:

      Thank you for this–wise, wise words. I have loved BB since I first caught her first Ted Talk. Finally, someone put words around what I knew to be true. Shame is the basement membrane under everything–fear, anger, etc. If we lock it in the cellar, it festers and we are deprived of the gifts we can forge at its crucible.
      Writers often talk about writing to and from their obsessions. Rolling around in that dirt and in the shadows we find the most common and most essential threads of our humanity.
      Thank you, also, for your candor about your return to Catholicism. While I’m not quite ready to go that far, I, too, am yearning for the community and ritual spaces that religion can offer. I haven’t yet found my space, but your experience resonates and I can’t wait to read more of your writing. Thanks to Brevity for introducing us!

      • Sonja Livingston says:

        Yes, I love that BB has us talking out loud about shame and its grip. Thanks for reading the post and for your thoughtful response. Best of luck!

  • Joy says:

    Yep, as usual, you find words for what I, too, feel. Thank you, Sonja, for going places other people don’t. It enriches us all.

  • bone&silver says:

    A lot to think about here- I find the Catholic religion so challenging, I can’t imagine returning to it as part of a mid life crisis… I just bought a new car instead! 🙂
    Best wishes in slaying the dragons of Shame, especially as a woman, indoctrinated by the patriarchy

  • Love this: “Writing derives its power by noticing the unspeakable and going there.” Actually, I love your whole essay but it wouldn’t do to copy and paste it in my comment 😉

  • Eilene Lyon says:

    Yes, you and Brene are soooo right. I loved her book and TED talk. And I love how you’ve applied it to writing our stories. Thank you.

  • So much to learn from all of you and the meaningful interactions. Just getting started and can do with some advise.

    • Sonja Livingston says:

      So much of starting is just starting. But, you’re right, Brevity’s blog is loaded with great ideas and good writing community and support. Best to you!

  • “Maybe it’s the line of candy corn you did after the faculty meeting” love that! Hilarious! Great read!!

  • Sonja, your post not only reminded me of the critical understanding Brene Brown brings to shame and its effect on our very selves but it introduced me to you and your exquisite writing. I can’t wait to read Ghostbread and the Virgin of Prince Street. Thank you for both gifts!

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