The cost of show and tell blogging

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

I’ve written before about my experience of blogging and my crazed, ill thought through, entry into a particular avenue of the internet. I started out writing about relationships because I had something to say in reaction to something someone else had written and wanted a platform to air my disagreement. Before I knew it I had written four posts in four days on relationships in the Christian world, and all from a guy’s perspective. In the UK at least no one else was doing this. I had found my niche.

Soon enough my abstract pontificating was too shallow. I was writing words about other people’s experience channelled through my eyes, my opinions, my inexperience. I felt I needed to peel back my own covers. What I didn’t consider, and what has taken me some time to come to grips with, was the cost it had on me. As I wrote over a year ago, I bled onto the screen so people could see it was the real me. I didn’t think it was doing any harm, I thought it was the necessary fuel to give power to my words. And it gave power, it garnered readers, but it hurt me.

Hannah Mudge wrote last week of the boom of first person writing on the internet, the growing trend of people sharing more and more shocking essays of their own experiences, with some websites building platforms upon the tear stained stories that shock the reader.

Vulnerability becomes a drug. I loved the effect of hitting publish and watching the stats soar. I remember one night while away at a conference when I put the finishing touches to my greatest self-expose yet. Writers don’t often talk about stats, it seems to be the taboo of internet writing. But here’s a range of mine: I’ve written posts which have only ever had twenty views, and I’ve written others with thousands. A reasonably successful post will get 2-300 hits. That particular night in a room on the outskirts of Birmingham I watched as hundreds read my confession in the first hours. I woke up the next morning with a vulnerability hang over.

But the problem with drugs is that even when you know the negative effects, you still want more. You come back for the hit. With writing popularity is addictive, it becomes your validation. As a writer I wanted people to read the words I put on the screen, and I had learnt a way of ensuring they gave me attention. Like all drugs public vulnerability comes with diminishing returns. Each subsequent post demands more exposure and results in less shock and as a result less readers. The things I had to say as a single Christian guy lacked the punch they held on their first outing. I needed something more.

The diminishing returns are only part of the story. The impact of etching my life on the internet stretched beyond the boundaries of my digital life. It affected the real me. Vulnerability is an incredibly powerful thing. When I open up to a friend and say that my life’s not all sorted, I give them permission to speak into my life. Even if I speak to a crowd and say that I sometimes feel like a fraud when everyone thinks my life is sorted, I give them permission to know that they are not alone. But when I put words into the ether without a relationship with those who are hearing, without the chance to look into their eyes after I have spoken, my vulnerability is a tear in my skin that pulls open even wider. Vulnerability can help us heal, but exposure can kill.

I felt my life was atrophying. I had a story which many people read and knew about. It’s still there, I can’t change that. The impact on my day to day life was that I spoke less about my vulnerability to those who I had a relationship with, and it became harder to admit that the challenges I had so nakedly shared were not the only things that were going on in my life. 

The other unexpected consequence was that most possibilities for plausible future romantic relationships were asymmetrical. People could know what was going on in my life long before I got to know them. I told myself that it was helping to lay the groundwork for future developments but in truth it was stunting my growth.

In the last two years I’ve come close to stopping blogging, and never really by design. I always thought I’d find my game again, that I was going through a rough patch, that the words which were failing to flow would soon begin to ease onto the screen once again. I thought it was the quality of my writing that meant posts were getting ignored. I’d write the occasional witty piece about the dysfunctions of the Christian world which would meet with moderate acclaim, but anytime I tried to write something more serious my viewing stats would have a clear, but negative, correlation to the amount of time spent on the post. A few thousand words on Charleston and Confederate flags? Well all I can say is thank you to the 63 of you who may have taken the time to read it. On growing up following the fall of the Berlin Wall? Even fewer clicked that link. The anomaly to my declining readers illustrated this correlation all too clearly, I hammered out an angry post in dizzy minutes earlier in the year about things our Prime Minister said about Easter and it broke all previous records.

In the last month I posted twice, on learning to stop hurrying and attempting to define leadership. Neither of those posts got as many views in the past month as a several year old piece about why guys don’t ask girls out.

What I haven’t been able to bring myself to do was write the vulnerable-emotional-tear-forming-story type post which had served my early days so well. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop, I simply didn’t have the energy, or the words to describe the depth I felt I needed to delve to elicit the response which would make it seemingly worth the effort.

And yet, a tap on the shoulder at a Christian event made a lot of this anguish more palatable. I had written with the aim of helping other people navigate their own challenges with relationships in church, and apparently I had helped this person. That’s the kind of validation which means numbers don’t matter so much.

This isn’t a resignation from the world of first person story blogging, but it’s a caveat, don’t expect it too much. And it is a warning to myself to think long and hard what I say online. Even these words above have taken a few days to chew over and decide to commit.

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The art of faux vulnerability

I learnt a while ago that a certain sort of post works well, it gets attention, it is shared, liked, commented on. And I feel that I’ve done a good job.

It’s the posts where I’m vulnerable and honest. It became my thing.

I learnt how to bleed onto the screen, find the valve of my emotions, my thoughts, my fears; and spill into words the pain and anxiety I held captive. I hit publish and shared with the world.

I wrote naked and people stopped and stared.

Brené Brown shot to fame with a TEDx talk a few years ago. Four years on with over 15million views her talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched videos on the site. I recently read her book, Daring Greatly. And it is possibly changing my life. In her talk she says, and you can watch the section here:

‘So I found a therapist. My first meeting with her, I brought in my list of how the whole hearted live and I sat down. And she said, “How are you?” And I said, “I’m great. I’m okay.” She said, “What’s going on?” And this is a therapist who sees therapists, because we have to go to those because their BS meters are good. And so I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m struggling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing: no family stuff, no childhood S#*!. I just need some strategies.” So she goes like this. [you have to watch it to really get this!] And I said, “It’s bad, right? And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad. It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

‘And it did, and it didn’t. And it took about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realize vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. For me it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.’

And I thought that vulnerability was my thing. I thought I had a unique selling point beyond being a guy writing about relationships.

I wrote posts where I winced as they went live, those I agonised over for hours and those I wrote in breathless minutes. I wrote pieces which part of me wanted ignored and a lot more of me loved being noticed.

I tore open my heart and threw it onto the screen to get noticed.

I wrote posts I regret. Not because they were wrong, or offensive, or unhelpful. At least not unhelpful for others. That was my rationale, the one I gave myself. I told myself I was helping people address issues no one else was, I was saying out loud what others were thinking. I was facilitating conversation, helping others open up. I convinced myself I was helping, I think in a way I was.

But I wasn’t helping myself. I was using vulnerability.

Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviours that are so common place in today’s culture.”

I had learnt the art of faux vulnerability and it was costing me dearly.

It was when someone I only know moderately well, but hold in great respect delicately expressed some concern about what I was sharing online that I paused to think. Initially I was defensive. It’s okay, I know what I’m doing, I regulate. I don’t overshare.

And I don’t. I know exactly how much to say online to have the affect I want it to have. I know the necessary emotions. The right amount of contrition, of personal reflection, the appropriate deflection and shift to abstraction from making something too much about me.

I was using vulnerability like a currency to get what I wanted. And like the Wizard of Oz, what stood beyond the curtain of my exposed vulnerability was where the wounds really lay.

I was using vulnerability as a strategy to avoid being vulnerable. I had corrupted the good and turned it inside out and put it to dubious use.

And yet. And yet, the answer is not to be less vulnerable. But to be truly vulnerable. In letting it all hang out, or being seen to do that while actually remaining resolutely in control I was numbing my emotions. I was manipulating them and putting them to use but I was not accepting and listening to them. I was pretending to be something other than that which I was.

In Brené Brown’s TEDx talk she talks about numbness. You can’t decide to just feel the happy thoughts and not the said. Numbness affects them all. It stops us experiencing joy, and kindness, and sorrow and grief.

Nor is the answer to never write publically about relationships, about emotions, about struggles with shame – yes shame, that great predator lying in wait to snatch vulnerability away – about what I don’t understand and what I do not know. But there are boundaries and boundaries are healthy.

In manufacturing vulnerability I made it harder to be vulnerable.

In Daring Greatly Brown talks about floodlight oversharing, and perhaps that’s partly what I’ve engaged in. It makes it hard for people to respond to, there is too much, too quickly, and without the foundation of relationship to digest it. When I share with a friend over dinner in a pub, or as we walk we take time to hear what each other is saying and doing. When we broadcast our vulnerabilities we are not looking for assistance or acceptance but affirmation.

Vulnerability is not one of those things where you can fake it until you make.

The sermon from about a month ago that got me thinking about this.

Wearing two coats: writing, vulnerability and preparing for Cambodia

Antique Compass and Map

I’m going to Cambodia next week. On Monday I’ll board a plane and head east, far beyond anywhere east I have been before. I have been south, to Africa a couple of times, and West to the US and Canada on one trip. That may make me well travelled, especially when I add in the multiplicity of European destinations I’ve clocked up, but I feel like a novice.

I’m heading to a new part of the world, a place I am unfamiliar with, a place new sights and sounds. But also a place that is not as far away as I might imagine. It took me 12 hours to drive to the Highlands of Scotland, in less time I’ll have flown from Heathrow to Bangkok. I’m not planning on working while I’m away, but I could. It’s a cliché to say that the internet has made the world smaller, it has in that I can travel far away and maintain contact, but the world is as large as ever when I think about the differences I am sure I will encounter.

The thing that has made the world smaller is why I’m going to Cambodia. And the fact that the other side of the world is still far away from the life I inhabit, the places I walk, the people I meet, the work I do, that’s why I’m going there to write about what I see.

And I am more uncertain about writing than I’ve ever been before. I’ve written vulnerable posts I’ve had to wince as hitting post, I’ve written complicated pieces where I have struggled to articulate clearly the points I want to make. But recently I’ve struggled to write at all. Yesterday I reminded myself I can write to demand when a piece needs conjuring up at minimal notice.

But this morning, as so many recently, the words won’t flow.

I’m travelling across the world to write, to tell of what I see, to be a story teller, and I switch between three different devices as though that will make the writing any easier. The irony of a wealth of technology to communicate the effects of poverty and the need for assistance does not escape me. But it is also a distraction. I could probably write eloquently about the digital divide, I could postulate about the rise of technology in a country still haunted by poverty. And maybe I will.

But that would be to avoid admitting that I am afraid of not having the words.

Vulnerability come in layers, there are the ones we are willing for the world to see, and those we wear and disclose in order to avoid having to expose the vulnerabilities that are closer to our skin.

It struck me recently as the clouds rent and the rain poured, I went into my bag and pulled out the waterproof I stash there semi permanently, at least these past few months I have. I was only going to get some lunch but the coat I already had on wasn’t made for this job. It stops the wind and keeps me warm, and it can cope with a little rain. But this wasn’t a little rain. It was a torrential downpour, and anyway, my regular coat doesn’t have a hood.

I didn’t go to the trouble of taking off my coat and replacing it with the waterproof, also, I would have had to cram the bulk into my bag. So I pulled one coat on top of the other. And yet I realised this was a silly thing to do, so as I approached the office on my return I took the waterproof off once again as the wind howled and the rain fell so fast it hit me twice – on the way down and as it bounced off the pavement. I returned it to the pouch in the bottom of my bag so I only had one coat to take off, the normal thing to do, the usual shield of protection we are happy for the world to see.

There’s respectable Christian Sin. The sort of things you’re happy to confess at small group, where you’re willing to accept you don’t always live up to the standards, you, or God, would have you live by. You don’t read your Bible often enough (disguising the fact you don’t read it at all). I don’t have a regular prayer slot in my day (disguising that the last time I prayed with any passion was when one of my family was ill). You struggle with greed, I suffer with control freak tendencies. I work too hard, you’re too busy with church activities.

These sorts of things, the sort of confessions and vulnerabilities it is useful to have up your sleeve and combined with sufficient empathy to engender openness from others following demonstration of your own.

It’s when vulnerability is a fraud, when it is a device. Even writing this, about my fears of going to Cambodia as a writer, could be seen as an exercise in expectation management. Like when Leo McGarry is worried he’ll crash and burn in the Vice Presidential debate in the final season of the West Wing, he lets it be known how bad the prep is going, and that takes the pressure of him, and when he does well he wins all the plaudits.

And yet. And yet taking off that next skin is not easy. I almost wrote final skin, but I could not be arrogant enough to think there are no more layers I still shield behind. This is a skin that I wear because it protects me. I am precious about my writing and when it provides affirmation it reinforces its importance. When it seems hard that affirmation seems missing.

When writing is a side-line, a hobby, an extra, it is dispensable, if I struggle I leave it to one side for a couple of months. But with this trip, this bloggers trip, writing is integral, and the expectation mounts.

While I’m out there, I’ll be posting here and in various other places, but you can follow my and my fellow travellers’ writings all at www.tearfund.org/bloggers

Vulnerability hangover

You lay it all on the line, you write until you bleed. You throw every ounce of the aches of your heart onto the page.

Long words do not impress. Vain self image does not fool anyone. Writing that seeks only to serve your self is a window to your soul. But how often am I tricked into thinking that if only I can find the right formula of words everything will be okay? How often do I want to set everything straight with carefully measured lines, and compassion bleeding onto the page?

Words can make a difference. Words, arranged in a form to provoke emotion; words, designed to force the hairs on your arms stand on end; words, that convey far more than their simple meaning. Words, that drag the beating, screaming, reluctant, truth out of the dark and into the light.

When I write I want to write with integrity and I do not want to hold back. I’ve written about this before elsewhere – it’s the process of stripping away the layers that shield us from the affrays that bombard, but also hide our identity behind their strong defence. We get so good at protecting ourselves, I get so good at protecting myself I forget what it is I am trying to shield from the storm.

I lift my eyes and wonder what I have been fighting all along. I wonder what I have been fighting for. I wonder, what is left of the heart that cries.

Last week I first heard the term ‘vulnerability hangover’ – I can’t remember from whom, and then I encountered exactly what it meant. I posted some raw thoughts, after waiting most of the day agonising over whether to hit publish. But the next day it hit home. I had written that I didn’t feel like going to church, and yet I was due to walk through the doors in a few hours time. I had already decided that I would feel the eyes piercing into my soul as I sat or stood, as I lingered and listened, as I paid attention, or paid lip service to the norms.

The vulnerability that had fuelled my words would not leave me alone. I spent most of the day before heading to church in a daze, I wrestled with why I was going – was it simply to keep up appearances? The kind words of many, both in public and private, convinced me that I was right to say what I had said, but that did not make walking through the doors any easier. In the same way I want the words I write to accurately convey what I am feeling and doing, I likewise want my actions to match the words I write. I do not want to simply promote a facade of vulnerability that only adds another layer to my distorted self-image.

I had a vulnerability hangover. It took away any words I might have to share, I tried to talk to a few people but I was spent. I had no appetite to write any posts this week.

Jesus safe tender extremeFor most of this week I have had a simple refrain from an old hymn in my head. It provided tonic for my soul. I first encountered the words in the final lines of a book by Adrian Plass, ‘Jesus – Safe, tender, Extreme’, I didn’t remember the context until I pulled it off the shelf to check I’d not distorted the lines in my mind. He closes his book talking about a friend who has recently died:

Do I have a 100 percent belief in her resurrection and eternal life? I have a 100 percent desire to have that much belief. I have a hope that burns inside me, It sometimes flickers. I have been promised that one day I shall go home to the Father’s house. I guard that promise, but occasionally I forget where I have put it. I have a love for Jesus that has survived all the obstacles and pitfalls that have threatened to distract me from him since I was sixteen years old. I have in my heart the words of a song that continues to comfort me today as it comforted me then:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in his wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of his glory and grace.

I think it’s going to be all right.”

I have nothing more to add. Except to say, the refrain isn’t all there is to this beautiful hymn.