Body Narrative: Vulnerability

vulnerability column image


Have you ever worked on a story that you knew was tied into another story: one you didn’t want to write. One you have never wanted to write.

And then you wrote it.

Ultimately, it was the most vulnerable writing you’ve ever done.

The reward: Intuitive knowledge. Vulnerability. Writing that came from your body. Connecting seemingly disparate events.

Then you gave your story to an editor to line edit, only to have her do developmental editing, pulling your weaved stories apart. You clearly didn’t get what you asked for or thought you were going to get. Then you read comments, “I so love what you’ve done so far…your voice is wonderful. The images are strong; the emotions (realism) are powerful. I recommend starting here and going forward.” Maybe it’s not so strange that this scenario happened to me while writing this column. We’ve all been there.

Think about the last work-shopping group you were in or the last time a friend read your latest chapter or essay. We know we have to connect with ourselves when we write, but then we also have to learn to not take responses to our writing as personal. It’s most important to stay true to self, have your voice appear on every page, and continue to learn the craft and cultivate our writing skills, all while staying connected to our body.

Intellectually I know to feel is to be vulnerable.[i] Being vulnerable is a necessary part of opening to love and passion.[ii] And being vulnerable is, paradoxically, a type of strength. To be a good writer, to write what needed to be written, to tell the story I wanted to tell, I couldn’t escape vulnerability.

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. Brené Brown

Brene Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. To make real connection we have to be willing to open up. We have to allow ourselves to be seen. This is also true in our writing. Our writing can’t escape vulnerability if we commit to it on the page. The more we work on our connection with our bodies, the more vulnerable we can be in our writing. This is true both ways.

Perhaps learning the body, the science of it, the mechanics, is akin to the psychological quest to hold the dark places open, look into them, deprive them of their power. If I understand the ways in which a body can fail, will the dark places lose their fearfulness? Or, if I understand all the ways bodies fail, the myriad of ways in which we are frail and given to mechanical meltdown, facing my own physical breakdown won’t feel so lonely. So terrifyingly alone[iii] (Zwartjes, p. 25).

The thing about vulnerability is that we often aren’t self-aware enough to navigate vulnerability, even if we are self-aware enough to know that we’re vulnerable. We can develop self-awareness by committing to a practice of mindful writing exercises that help us connect with our body and its vulnerabilities.

Exercise 1: Find a quiet place, lie flat or sit cross-legged and close your eyes. Scan your body. Locate points of tension. Consider why they are tight, then describe via writing.

Initially when I was writing my story I was tense, totally guarded. I noticed my shoulders were up by my ears. Turning my head from side to side alleviated the tightness in my neck. I found the courage to open up after setting intention to tell truths, especially the uncomfortable ones. It was a risk. It was awkward. I was scared. Somehow I was able to write through the tension.

Exercise 2: Describe a time when you felt guarded in a social situation. What did your body do? Where was it tense? Describe a time when you were open to a new idea, different perspective. How did your body receive this openness?

Exercise 3: Write about a time you dropped the invisible armor that shielded your heart and let the love of others penetrate you. Describe a time when your body felt fully relaxed. What physical sensations were you aware of? What/who was surrounding you?


There can be no vulnerability without risk;

There can be no community without vulnerability;

There can be no peace, and ultimately

No life, without community. – M. Scott Peck


We can reflect on our experiences and explore more deeply our physical body and vulnerabilities in our writing.


When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable. 

Madeleine L’Engle


How does vulnerability feel? For me, it is uncomfortable and uncertain. Vulnerability was where courage and fear met in my weaved stories.

Only you can write your stories. Be patient and kind with yourself.


The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility -Paulo Coelho


Exercise 4: Write about your softer, more receptive side.

Exercise 5: Describe a time you took an emotional risk or felt emotionally exposed. Write about a time you were willing to place your private and innermost workings in another’s hands. (For example, a time of sexual desire, self-disclosure, standing up for yourself). Write about the vulnerability of your flesh (initiating sex, exercising in public). Write about how you are worthy of connection to your body.

Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. Vulnerability is another way of saying; “I trust you and I feel safe with you.”[iv] Writing with an ongoing connection between our body and ourselves is something that we can nurture and grow. Trusting your body is about trusting yourself. Writers trust their audience. For a reader to place trust in your hands is humbling.


We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.


Exercise 6: What are you most afraid of when you write? Write for ten minutes after reading this quote from Brene Brown: “The one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we’re not worthy of love and belonging.”

Sometimes it’s awkward to write openly about certain issues, but if we do it could ultimately be rewarding. Love, imagination, and creativity are intimately connected.


What makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful. Brené Brown


Find that beauty in you.

Final exercise: What is the one thing you would never write about?

Now write it.

[i] Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York, New York: Penguin Group.

[ii] Groover, R. J. (2011). Powerful and Feminine: How to Increase Your Magnetic Presence & Attract the Attention You Want. Deep Pacific Press. p. 171.

[iii] Zwartjes, A. (2012). Detailing Trauma. A Poetic Anatomy. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

[iv] Groover, R. J. (2011). Powerful and Feminine: How to Increase Your Magnetic Presence & Attract the Attention You Want. Deep Pacific Press. p. 175


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.

Body Narrative: Beauty

beauty column photo


Pretty is something you’re born with.

But beautiful, that’s an equal opportunity adjective.

                                                                    Author unknown


The ancient Greek philosophers spoke at length about beauty. Plato said, “The three wishes of every man are to be healthy, to be rich by honest means, and to be beautiful.” Asked why people desire physical beauty, Aristotle said, “No one that is not blind could ask that question.”[i] Beauty has traditionally been considered an innate human value. Beauty discriminates. Beauty is diverse. Beauty matters. Beauty is the topic of this column.

One beautiful aspect of writing body narrative is visibility on the page and ultimate acceptance of our messy wholeness. Our physical beauty, the body, writing, and acceptance of ourselves are all interconnected.


I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it is not pretty, every day,

and if you can source your own life from its presence.[ii]

                               – Oriah Mountain Dreamer


According to Nancy Etcoff, Harvard Medical School psychologist, practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, “beauty is a universal part of human experience. It evokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions….”[iii] In the book, she discerns similarities in the ways humans across cultures perceive and respond to beauty. According to a Publisher’s Weekly editorial review, the most important message in this book is that we cannot ignore our evolutionary past when attempting to accept the current norms of beauty.

Socially accepted beauty is like socially accepted final drafts. In first drafts, the beauty is there, but we don’t see it until the piece is polished. Similarly, there is an inner beauty to all of us, even if society doesn’t recognize it. Regardless of outer/published beauty, we need to recognize our ‘messy’ beauty and honor it. It is, after all, the core part of our “outer beauty.”

The media frequently presents the “normal” body as free from fat, wrinkles, physical disabilities, and deformities. This narrow representation led to what is considered a marker of normalcy—which consists of unrealistic expectations. This ultimately leads to dissatisfaction with our bodies. The objectification of beauty in the media reveals a possible neglect of women’s internal beauty.[iv] This, too, is true in writing too. We only see polished writing in most publications, which leads us to a similar disconnect, neglect, and devaluing of the messy writing process.

According to Harris Sockel, author of ebook We Will Never Know What’s Inside Our Bodies, “Writers are at their ugliest when they’re doing their best writing” He also says, “You need to start from ugliness to do this well. Something to fight against. Something to try to change…”[v] Is it possible that the hegemony of beauty prevents us from doing our best (and paradoxically ugliest) writing? Maybe it’s that the obsession with beauty prevents us from trying/failing/trying again. Samuel Beckett said, “the goal is to fail better,” something that’s hard to do if we’re constantly obsessing about perfecting our writing and not allowing ourselves to produce the icky in-between drafts, or “shitty first drafts” as Anne Lamott refers to them.

Don’t hesitate to write a messy first draft, even if it feels ugly. You may stir up something in you that is being seen for the first time or is a work-in-progress. Follow your intuition with what is beautiful. We might love a sentence that others hate, but we should continue to believe in that sentence because we know what it can do. Love the parts of your body the media might say are ugly—you know the strength in them that others may not see. Addressing the ugly parts of your body and embracing the ugly parts of writing as well may be challenging but it may also be liberating and help offer hope for healing.


The bottom line is that I like my first drafts to be blind, unconscious, messy efforts; that’s what gets me the best material .

–Jennifer Egan


Certain people can walk into a room and be noticed immediately. They appear to have an air of confidence, a magnetic quality about them. The same can be said for carefully thought-out characters in our writing.

People who live in a sensually alive body and live with a compassionate and loving heart and peaceful mind are seemingly bold and beautiful. Being sensually alive in the body is about being okay with our flaws and imperfections. It’s about finding sexiness in what is unique and even broken. If we are only showing our perfect drafts to others, perhaps we are not actually experiencing the ecstasy that comes when we can accept ourselves just the way we are.


Exuberance is Beauty.

—  William Blake


Describe a time you were comfortable in your own skin, immersed yourself in the world, inspired others with your words, felt beautiful, passed along a magical spark.


No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.

– Eleanor Roosevelt


Henry James met the English novelist George Eliot when she was 49 years old. “She is magnificently ugly,” he wrote to his father. “She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth…Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her…Perhaps we are truly human when we come to believe that beauty is not so much in the eye, as in the heart, of the beholder.”[vi]

Embrace strangeness and unconventional beauty in your writing. Celebrate it. Part of the writing process is learning to trust your imagination, quirkiness, fetishes, and complexities. Writing about your body can help you feel and see in new ways—to discover your writing and, ultimately, yourself. What is your perception of the beauty and strangeness of your writing? Let your writing serve as a touchstone to the embracing and loving the body you live in.

For you who don’t believe you are beautiful, write about the blank and full areas between your body and the world, the barriers you create and perceive.  What are you hiding or disguising? In other words, what do you allow yourself to connect to and what do you block yourself from. What do you hide and what do you share? How authentic are you allowing yourself to be in life and in your writing? Are you really letting yourself touch the world around you, giving to that world and allowing yourself to receive from it at the same time?


There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion.

                                      –Edgar Allen Poe


Write about how you can preserve strangeness and beauty in your writing; yet claim it as yours and own it. Write about the stretch marks or scars that tell the story of who you have been. What do your freckles say about you? What are the parts about you that you know are beautiful?


You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

….Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –…

                         –Mary Oliver


Comparing yourself to someone else, you can lose sight of the beauty that you bring to the world, inside and out. What bodies do you find most beautiful?  Which writers, in your opinion, have the most beautiful writing style?


The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills theme with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross


According to T. C. Boyle, “each one [story] is an exploratory journey in search of a reason and a shape.” The same is true for your writing. What makes your writing unique? Do you have a particular style? Have you modified your writing for the sake of submissions guidelines?

Explore your body as a source of empowerment and individuality. Do you express yourself through body art? Write about your body and the thoughts that shape it, the scent of your own skin, the feel of your curves. What image comes to mind that most closely resembles your style of writing, your unique voice.Are you more experimental? Do you consider your writing persuasive?

According to Sockel, “Writers lie on paper, in beautiful ways, naked and ugly, and want the world to love them for that, too. Writers sit down while the rest of us are running. Writers reign over their little piles of papers, making sandcastles out of air and calling it work.”

Becoming more comfortable with things that are labeled “imperfect” about our physical bodies can help us become comfortable with the “imperfect” aspects of our writing processes. Beauty is not fixed; we move in and out of it physically, as does our writing. How do people “become” beautiful? How do writers develop their writing voice? Writing doesn’t have to be cute or polite. Describe a time you, the author, felt beautiful despite not getting affirmation from your readers?

Writer Jeff Goins says, “When you write from your heart, your pain will become someone else’s healing balm.”[vii] During his career, author Brennan Manning learned that there is a world full of desperate, broken people, longing to hear the honest words of another ragamuffin.

A beggar unashamed of his hunger.

A thief unaware of his poverty.

A friend and addict.

A lover, liar, fighter and healer.

A paradox. Like us all.



[i] [i] Etcoff, N. Survival of the Prettiest. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

[ii] Mountain Dreamer, O. (1999). “The Invitation.” The Invitation, p. 2.

[iii] Etcoff, N. Survival of the Prettiest. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

[iv] Yeh, J. T. & Lin, C. L. (2013). Beauty and healing: Examining Sociocultural expectations of the embodied goddess. Journal of Religious Health. 52(1): 318-334.

[v] Sockel, H. (2013, April 10). Here’s Why Writers Are Ugly. Retrieved February 7, 2014 from

[vi] Newman, C. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

[vii] Goins, J. (n.d). “Why You Should Tell the Ugly Parts of Your Story.” Retrieved February 5, 2014 from


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.


A Damn Fine Female Body Part

See_no_evil_speak_no_evilThe female nether regions divide Americans into two distinct camps. On one side are the people who cannot bring themselves to say, hear, or read the word vagina no matter how legitimate the circumstances that prompt its use. Depending on whether they over-identify with daytime talk show hosts or public leaders, the anti-vagina crowd either reverts to baby talk (e.g., vajayjay) or condemns the dictionary-approved terminology as profanity and debauchery most vile. Sexual repression being the obvious diagnosis, I can do nothing but feel sorry for the stricken and wield the word with purpose and clarity whenever warranted.

What worries me and even pushes me to the point of active dislike is the growing multitude on the opposite end of the spectrum — the ones who are comfortable using the edgier cunt as an everyday, casual obscenity. Cunt as insult has been around a long time and, within the hierarchy of derogatory expletives, is still one of the worst as far as I can tell from my middle-aged perspective. But it’s everywhere:

  • Free Showtime weekend, first episode of the acclaimed TV show “Dexter” that I see: Dexter (the anti-hero serial killer) and some wily enemy with a hold over him are discussing two contract killers who plan to murder the enemy. Dexter wants to know what these killers are like. The enemy, a cosmopolitan sort who gives the impression he would feel comfortable wearing an ascot, trots out the descriptive phrase “a vicious little cunt” as a crucial identifier.
  • The Twitter feed of Kurt Sutter, creator and show runner of the TV show “Sons of Anarchy”: Across the board, males and females bothersome to this man get a “cunt” tag.1
  • A CD review at a literary/culture website uses the term “cuntjuice” to describe a musician’s less appealing work.2
  • More personally, during a phone call with my ex-fiancé to catch up on our families, he says, “My brother is such a cunt sometimes.” Reason 252 that I am content to let go of old wounds and enjoy the balm of gratitude that we aren’t together in our golden years.

These examples feature insults made by men, but women — girls — are prime culprits as well. A simple Internet search for “Miley Cyrus X-rated shirt” brings up the pop singer going fashion forward in a black halter top with “YOU CUNT” printed in red block letters that coordinate nicely with her lipstick. And you have only to go to an unmoderated fan site, Facebook account, YouTube video, or Twitter feed to find angry teen girls slinging out a commonplace “cunt” to anyone they decide to hate. The issue of reblogging vs. reposting on Tumblr also raises enough ire among what appear to be female bloggers to warrant a public service-type announcement that Cindy reposts, giving the content originator no credit, therefore “Cindy is a CUNT. Don’t be like Cindy.”3 Even young women who could be hailed as America’s future leaders are willing to threaten nonconformist females with the physical violence of a “cunt punt.”4

I’m tempted to shake my fist and yell, “Curses, pop culture!” Yet the literary crowd is doing the same thing. I admit, a year or two ago I wrote a short story that included cunt as a curse word (since deleted). When my main character cut off her husband’s thumb with a meat cleaver, “Cunt!” came out of the husband’s mouth almost automatically even though I’d never said or written that particular word before in all my years as a functional human.

In my defense, I wasn’t hip to the modern usage. The word held both significant degradation and shock value to me, qualities fitting of an extreme, involuntary mutilation. But the reality is that the shock value is now minimal. Fiction writers employ cunt as a Monday-through-Friday type of attack. Cunt as insult enjoys such mainstream acceptance that even The Best American Short Stories series isn’t exempt.5

I’m tired of it. Fucking tired of it. I say that to demonstrate that I have no problem with a well-placed, all-inclusive obscenity such as fuck, shit, damn, or asshole. I can even accept the more general gender-based insult of bitch.

However, race-based obscenities should be off the table (and no, using the alternate spelling of nigga doesn’t make that particular word magically okey-dokey). Same goes for belittling someone by describing them as what is, let’s be honest, a damn fine female body part. Demeaning the physical core of femininity is bottom-feeding objectification.

So, cunt as insult is bad and should not be taken silently. That suggests tacit acceptance, which is a problem when the practice is bleeding into so many avenues of communication and is perceived as imbuing artistic endeavors with an aura of gritty coolness. People need to be made aware that the simple fact of living in the 21st century doesn’t give them an inalienable right to say shit they shouldn’t, and that starts with an insult that is detrimental to all women everywhere. Here are some sample conversations offered as inspiration:

Misogynist/weirdo: “You cunt!”

Potential female response: “Not a cunt, but a proud owner, thank you.”

Potential male response: “Basic anatomy says no.”

Potential gender-neutral but more inflammatory response: “Shut up, asshole.”

There’s a good chance the misogynist/weirdo will continue to use cunt as insult. But maybe not. And maybe someone who hears your response will think twice before they use it themselves or allow others to use it without social repercussion.

Wait, what if womenfolk want to take back the power of the word? Achieving true power doesn’t involve equal-opportunity degradation of the female sex. In this regard, I don’t give cunt the same leeway as I do bitch. Bitch as insult is broader, less personal, less defining, and consequently, more malleable in meaning. Cunt as insult is just such an intimate attack that there is no way to spin it into female empowerment. All we’re doing is “mean girling” ourselves over our basic anatomical structure — pretty much the ultimate display of self-loathing. Note: I’m all for male empowerment as well, so even though I find the insult “cock face,” which I recently discovered via Instagram, quite visually evocative, I have no plans to indulge in its use to balance the scales.

Women who want to own the word and men who want to be decent human beings should take cunt out of the realm of insults, reclaim it as a beneficial organ,6 and use it in a complimentary light. In Victorian erotica, writers typically used cunt and its diminutive cunnie (also cunny) in service to happy though sometimes questionable pleasures, not as a rote opportunity to insult women’s sexual organs. These days, poets seem to be on the leading edge of artists willing to reclaim cunt from the realm of negativity.7

I myself am not above objectifying human body parts. To wit: See Norman Reedus aka Daryl Dixon on the television series “The Walking Dead.” As Buzzfeed writer Erin La Rosa said last year, “DEM. ARMS.”8 When one views such proportional elegance, appreciative objectification — linguistic ogling if you will — is a natural response. In fact, the Reedus fandom often labels photographs of the actor based on the different types of “pornography” they offer the viewer, brandishing anatomical hashtags like orgasmic yelps.9 The point: Sexual objectification can be a positive experience when it celebrates rather than denigrates.

My one caveat is that the person to whom this objectification is applied should appreciate the effort and not be made to feel scared or annoyed. Continuing with the Reedus example, if I were ever to meet the man, I would stab my own hand with a ballpoint pen before I let him feel the creepy slime of sexual harassment as a result of my words. Unwelcome objectification of either sex by word or action is always inappropriate. You have to be able to turn off the objectification and deal with people on an individual, human level.10

So, cunt as compliment is good — as long as the recipient is happy. The next time you and I have sex, I’d be pleased to hear “Wow, lovely cunt!” Otherwise, shut up, asshole.



1 Lurk at the Twitter feed of @sutterink for a few weeks at the outside to observe supreme proficiency, if not grace, in using cunt as insult.

2 The review equating bad music to cuntjuice occurred more than a year (or two) ago, so I can’t find the link, but it’s the reason I stopped frequenting the website. Bad karma pending htmlGIANT.

3 See the Feb. 3, 2014, All Monsters Are Human Tumblr blog posting, which features this original or possibly reblogged but likely not reposted PSA. Here, CUNT is written in pink type. Taken together with the red-lettered Cyrus shirt, the post suggests that while women enjoy cunt as insult as much as any man, it’s OK because they make it pretty.

4 In 2013, a sorority executive board member at the University of Maryland (UMD), which Forbes ranks as No. 73 among America’s top colleges, e-mailed her sisters threatening to “cunt punt” anyone who dared to cheer for both teams at Greek Week events, according to Gawker. UMD’s notable women alumni include the journalist Connie Chung and Vashti McKenzie, the first female bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

5 See the lovely but for this one flaw “Alive” by Sharon Solwitz and the intriguing but similarly troubled “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, both in BASS 2012.

6 Need help understanding exactly what a cunt is, and why you should venerate it? See Cunt Coloring Book by Tee Corinne, but the short answer is that even if a cunt isn’t your thing sexually, it still had something to do with how you arrived on this planet and deserves appropriate respect.

7 Natalie Eilbert is one poet who opts to take the negative out of cunts. Your cunt’s a star? Hell yes, Natalie, so’s mine. Karma partially restored htmlGIANT.

8 On March 29, 2013, Erin La Rosa penned the seminal Buzzfeed article “28 Reasons Why Daryl Dixon Is the Hottest Man on ‘Walking Dead.’

Visit the Twitter feed of A Norman Co-Stalker @ennoia3 to learn about the glories of #wispocalypse, #greybeard, #holyshoulders, #goodlordcheckoutthosearms, #handpornerrific, #helpmeispyfangs, #peekabooear, #Reeduspornarama, and more.

10 Take note, co-hosts of “The View,” who in a 2013 interview exhibited no qualms squeezing the Reedus arm muscles even as he physically shied away from the contact.


Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., and works as a freelance writer for trade publications. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Eckleburg AnthologyWord RiotSuperstition ReviewKilling the BuddhaRelief, and other journals. Her “faves” include experimental puppetry and the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She can be found on Twitter: @CaralynDavis.