October 21, 2019 § 27 Comments
By 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.
Sonja Livingston is the author of four books of literary nonfiction, including the most recent, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, and the award-winning memoir, Ghostbread. Recent 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