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Monday, October 20, 2014

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Carlina Duan: On softening, on vulnerability

By Carlina Duan, Columnist
Published May 21, 2014

I walk down Ann Street each night while the trees arc wild with magnolia. From the porch, a man smokes with tender wrists and somebody else yells for more meat on the grill. As springtime in this city begins to unbuckle all the dirt into loose greens and yellows, I smell barbecue. I lift my hands. I praise the rocks that huddle nakedly by my feet.

It seems dangerously mundane to constantly speak about the weather, but in Ann Arbor, there comes a type of small wonder each time the sun slips over the curbs. It’s awe I can’t erase, and awe that’s an example of the emotional vulnerability I've been criticized for.

Recently, I was told by an acquaintance that I “feel too much.” Gnawing on a stick of gum, he asked, “Isn't it overwhelming? To always be talking about emotion? It’s like, never-ending.” Widening his mouth, he popped a shimmery, white bubble.

As we ebb into classless, internship-filled, work-tight spring, it’s easy to forget that rush of awe at the way we love, the way we learn. As a female writer, it’s especially easy to feel pressure to “unlearn” that sense of emotional intimacy with the world, and to exchange it for a more scientific, calculative lens. So often, we’re told that emotional detail and intimacy are frail, “soft” things. Too much emotion can reduce our work. We become rendered as sentimental mush. As a female writer, I've often doubted the wild sense of vulnerability behind my work. Am I revealing too much? Am I being overemotional?

Yet, despite the risk I think vulnerability strips me into, it’s well worth inhabiting both in literary work and in life. What arises from the willingness to remain vulnerable are the more muscled truths.

As a woman of color in the classroom, the newsroom, the workplace, I have been told that it’s “unprofessional” for me to have such deep emotional investment in my work. I claim: Bullshit. As a poet and journalist, my job requires me to navigate this planet with fear, integrity, joy, question, ache. To dirty my hands with emotion. I am frustrated that I am frequently told to “tone down” my feelings, or am dismissed as too angry, too gleeful. There is no such thing. So much of my work as a writer asks me to be vulnerable, to ask questions, to sift through all these parcels of emotion. Peers or co-workers often advise me to be “less happy,” or to write “less poems about peanut butter and more poems about your mom.” I say: Don’t tell me which feeling is mine or not mine to touch.

Vulnerability, for me, becomes a way to remain honest and bare and giving. There’s a culturally funky idea that to be vulnerable is to “be soft,” or that vulnerability is weak. I disagree. Vulnerability lifts the hard weights. No matter what field we are in, we have to allow ourselves to be skinned. We have to be embarrassed and we have to be brave. Perhaps the instances that I’ve grown the most on this campus have been moments where others have taught me how to be vulnerable by asking difficult questions, sharing their wide-ribbed truths.

I hope my teachers are vulnerable. I hope my doctors are vulnerable. There is no other way to learn or heal. I want my dentists to be unapologetically vulnerable with their mouths. I want the grocer to sell me glazed donuts vulnerably. If we don’t allow ourselves to unravel — to give vulnerably and openly to one another — so much of our navigation with the world would be meaningless.

British essayist Zadie Smith writes, “I want to find an accommodation between telling stories about life and living it well.” I add that in order to claim bright stories and bright life, one must begin to unbutton all the harsh reserve we have about “too much” emotion. One must be vulnerable.

If we want to be intellectually generous with one another — to love, to make time, to trust, to grow — we’ve got to deconstruct the tough masks. We’ve got to give way to vulnerability.

Carlina Duan can be reached at linaduan@umich.edu.


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