When I dare to be powerful,
When I ask my students to write a poem, a hushed and anxious silence comes over the room. I feel their soft tissue contract and hard shells close down. It's all over now. Gone is their creative inspiration. No pearls of poetic wisdom will be given here.
I understand that writing (and sharing) a poem is akin to revealing your most embarrassing moment so I usually try to find a sideways strategy to coax open those locked shells.
Step 1: Acknowledge Our Common Humanity
It helps to know that everyone can be vunerable. To that end, I might tell them about my most embarrassing moment to give them the courage to open up again:
I was a drum major leading the Huron High School marching band during halftime at the homecoming game. For those of you who don't know, this American football game is part of a tradition that welcomes back alumni. In consequence, the stands were packed full of current students, friends, teachers, administrators, as well as former graduates. There was a light rain that evening when we marched briskly across the field. Challenged by my co-leader Mark Gardner, I learned to kick high while twirling the baton. When I finished my high kicking and baton stunt, Mark would throw his high up in the air, spin around, catch it and march along again. He loved to do daring performance throws. Most often, he would catch the baton, but sometimes he would miss. It didn't stop him, and he constantly pushed me to do more. Our performance was going fine that night, but I was a little worried about my kick. I would make it high this time. I'd show Mark that I could lead as well as anyone.
The game was so close! Everyone sat in anticipation. When we finished our musical numbers, it would start again. All eyes were on the field as we turned the corner. I'm the first to face the tightly packed and excited crowd. Throwing my baton and kicking high, I felt the rhythm. I knew I could do more, kick higher, and really show my enthusiasm. Inspired by the driving beat of the drums, I pranced proudly and kicked higher still. So high, in fact, that I landed in great surprise on my backside!
The crowd was suddenly hushed while a slow building roar of uncontrolled mirth rolled over the bleachers and arrived to my burning ears. They're laughing! They're laughing at me! Up, I jumped. I looked back and here comes my ever teasing competitor. When he's within earshot I whisper, "Stop Laughing! How could you!?" My eyes screamed at him but meanwhile, I must gather my injured pride and continue as everyone knows that the show must go on or to borrow another useful cliché, I thought:
You have to get back on the horse when you fall.
I marched up to the front, turned and waited for the band. It's time to conduct the ever popular Washington Post March. I lift my arms, blow the whistle in two-step time and begin. I dare a look over at Mark, and yes, he's still laughing.
Now, I laugh, too, but it took a while to find any humor in that public humiliation.
Oh vanity. You are a tough adversary!
I thank Mark to this day for helping me realize that I needed to be more playful and take risks and their potential failure lightly. Later, I became more able to gracefully accept my flaws and find the freedom in laughing at (and with!) myself.
As a writer, it's important to be emotionally honest. As a writer, the biggest failure is if you are not authentic because readers will let you know - even if it's just by ignoring you. Be brave. Make mistakes. Besides, you can always edit later. Go ahead. Put yourself out there! You have so much to gain by focusing on your vision instead of worrying about your vulnerability.
Washington Post March
After reading that story of my own humiliation, I encourage you to remember and let go of any idea that you have to protect your image. Offering an undefended humanity to others as you write is the most generous and appreciated gift.
Next up, I ask the question: What are the most important aspects of compelling writing?