In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.
—Dr. Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” 2010 TEDxHouston
Last year, my MFA faculty mentor returned my thesis manuscript with Where’s the risk? We need to know the narrator can fail! scribbled over it in messy pencil. The thesis in question was the first third of Finding Petronella, my book-in-progress about the four months I spent walking across Finland in the footsteps of Sylvia Petronella van der Moer, a legendary figure in Lapland’s gold fields, whom I’d met shortly before her death in 2014. The journey had come at a crucial point in my life, and I’d risked everything to take it. Yet on the page, I was playing it safe. Success as a writer demanded I invite in the one thing that frightened me most: vulnerability.
Vulnerability is uncomfortable, and like most people, I’ve been conditioned to fight it, to defend against the possibility of being harmed. And yet, writing demands overcoming this protective impulse. Writers of creative nonfiction understand that vulnerability—defined by social researcher Brené Brown as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”—is vital to creating intimacy with readers. Yet, although much writing on craft extols the need for vulnerability in creative writing, far more difficult to find are resources that describe how, precisely, to render it. How does a writer break down the barriers between herself and her readers?
Last year, I followed this question back to my roots as a musician. I have no problem creating intimacy with a ukulele in my hands. In fact, after I’ve performed certain songs I often notice a curious phenomenon: strangers approach me as if I am an old friend, with a sense of warm recognition and a willingness to share their own deep and personal stories. Similarly, certain pieces of music shake me at my core when I listen, drawing me into their world.
I decided to see if I could quantify the elements that foster intimacy in songs, in the hopes that I would gain insights I could apply to my nonfiction writing. I started with a pool of ninety-five “vulnerable songs,” my dear ones’ responses to the question, “What song pulls at your heart?” The songs spanned a variety of genres, bands, and styles, though because a lot of folk and blues songs are inspired by a story or a feeling, those genres were especially prevalent.
I listened to each song, focusing on storytelling and lyrical expression—metaphor, point of view, phrase placement—as well as instrumentation, dynamics, rhythm, and harmonic accents. Slowly, patterns of vulnerability began to emerge.
Where Vulnerability Resides
Across the board, each of the ninety-five songs filled one or more of six purposes:
1) Offering: expressing feelings, emotions, or gratitude without an expected return. “Take My Love” by The Lone Bellow likens the beloved to “the woods at night on fire,” “burning love, hope, and desire,” “a wild melody”—all powerful metaphors, sung in an upward motion with strong, building harmonies. At the end of each verse, the speaker acknowledges he may not be the one chosen but belts out a repeated offer anyway: “Take my love.”
2) Releasing: describing or embodying the process of letting go. This feeling of release is often invoked by stylistic performance choices, such as the half-shouted repetition of vocals and the wailing guitar in Etta James’s version of “The Sky Is Crying” or the upward harmonic motion of the bridge in the Dixie Chicks’ “Let Him Fly,” a song about releasing a lover. The act of singing harmony is, in itself, vulnerable. In an interview on Weekend Edition Sunday, Kanene Pipkin from The Lone Bellow—a band NPR described as “a trio built on harmony and trust”—spoke about participation in vocal harmonization: “It’s so much about trust and hope, and I think it adds a quality to the music that just can’t be faked, or […] taught with technique.”
3) Asking: stating need. These songs can be prayer-like or written like a letter addressed to an unseen “you.” A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera’s “Say Something” illustrates intense love (“I’ll be the one, if you want me to,” “Anywhere, I would have followed you,”) before letting out a last cry that begs a response before the speaker says goodbye indefinitely. Jane Siberry’s plaintive “Sweet Incarnadine,” about the speaker’s overpowering feelings for a lover and her desire to have those feelings returned, was produced with an echoed cathedral quality that invokes the feeling of prayer.
4) Accepting: describing the state of things, no matter how hard, without offering a solution. Existing simply as an expression of emotion, these songs render loneliness, pain, and longing without trying to fix or change them. Shawn Colvin’s “A Matter of Minutes” discloses the speaker’s inner turmoil before a big decision. Torn between knowing she must leave her lover and trying to combat an old pattern of leaving, the description of the speaker’s thought process invites the listener into the present moment.
5) Relief: nodding to hardship through an offering of peace. Mumford & Sons’ “After the Storm” describes hope after loss, contrasting the speaker in the present moment (“on my knees and out of luck, I look up”) against the refrain, which depicts the quiet moment of grace after the storm. This contrast, along with the melodic shifts between minor and major chords in the refrain, gives the listener the experience of moving from a place of suffering into one of relief.
6) Gratitude: expressing thanks. Rising Appalachia’s “Novels of Acquaintance” acknowledges joy in many forms: newfound love, family roots, natural splendor, hope for the future—yet the song still feels vulnerable. Joy is also a form of vulnerability, Brené Brown reminds us in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. She argues that we fear joy is only a passing state, so we often choose to live disappointed: “It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain,” she writes. According to Brown, gratitude and joy are inextricable: “The shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that songs which called upon two or more of these six categories had the most powerful impact. Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” for example, exhibits offering, accepting, and releasing. The lyrics beg no reciprocity (“I will lay down my heart”) and describe a state of pain without trying to change it (“I can’t make you love me if you don’t”). There’s a sense of surrender, humility, and a willingness to be rejected. “I will give up this fight,” Raitt belts out in the final line of the second verse, a sudden release.
Beneath the Words
The pull music exerts on us is cross-cultural and ancient. We dance before we learn to speak. When I listen to a piece of music, I feel the sound of it in my body before the words can register in my brain. Vulnerability in songwriting rests heavily in the musical undercurrent beneath the lyrics. Here, too, there are lessons for prose writers.
Forward momentum: When writing difficult material, it is important to keep the writing fluid and forward-moving so as not to overwhelm readers. In an interview with Relevant magazine, when asked if he had ever written something he felt was too personal or vulnerable to sing to others, The Lone Bellow’s Zach Williams mentioned “Two Sides of Lonely.” The song, a deeply personal one for Williams, is shot through with imagery: a frozen park in Brooklyn on a dark winter night; wind crashing through the trees; the dead rocking back and forth in their graves, singing forgotten songs. It’s bitter, accusing a partner of letting love die. Yet, in the musical rendering of the song, these heartbreaking lyrics are sung over a series of repeated eighth notes played by the rhythm section. The momentum created by the eighth notes pulls the listener forward, making a painful subject more bearable and creating an effect of beauty rather than abject heartbreak.
Contrast: Sweeten pain with a touch of beauty or humor. Deepen joy with a well-placed note of sadness. Williams founded The Lone Bellow in the aftermath of a horseback riding accident that nearly left his wife paralyzed. When he showed a friend the journaling he had done during this time of grief, his friend saw the potential for song and encouraged Williams to pick up a guitar and turn his writing into music. In an interview with NPR, The Lone Bellow’s guitarist, Brian Elmquist, spoke about contrast as the element underwriting every one of their sad songs: “It’s not, like, just get sad. Let’s celebrate life and what it is, the up and down. It’s all of it. It sucks, and it’s great and beautiful and horrible at the same time.”
Each verse of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” rings with utter devastation yet is followed by “Hallelujah,” which directly translates to “Praise the Lord.” Rising Appalachia’s “Novels of Acquaintance,” about the beginning of a deep and lasting love, juxtaposes sharp, dissonant vocal harmonies against pleasant words and a melodic background. In a 2016 interview with Stereogum, producer Don Was spoke about Bonnie Raitt’s use of contrast during the recording process of “I Can’t Make You Love Me”:
It was so emotional on such a myriad of levels, but it has to do with something that is very hard to describe in the tone of her voice. I mean the song could go to the morose really quickly, right? But there is a strength combined with a vulnerability. There’s still a sweetness in her voice.
Voicing: Shifting between interior and exterior voicing is a powerful tool for creating characters with depth. The use of these two voices shows complexity of personality, need, and emotion, and reveals the tension between what a character says and what he or she is feeling. In his performance of “Cover Me Up,” Jason Isbell uses changes in register and volume to differentiate his strong, directive voice (“Girl, leave your boots by the bed; we ain’t leaving this room”) from his tender, more vulnerable interior voice (“so cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good”).
Similarly, in “Samson,” Regina Spektor illustrates the difference between interior and exterior by alternating between head voice (higher register, softer, breathier) and chest voice (louder, more solid timbre). The chest voice is used for the bulk of the verses, which are rooted in the storytelling of Delilah cutting Samson’s hair to subdue his strength. The true psychic weight of the song is felt during the switch back to direct address at the end of the song: “You are my sweetest downfall. I loved you first.” It is this one well-placed line of interior voice that delivers the emotional punch.
Presence: “The reader is in love with continuity, with extent, with duration, [a]bove all with presence—the feeling that each sentence isn’t merely a static construct but inhabited by the writer,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences about Writing. In music, elements of presence are most frequently found in live performance. Simplicity. Imperfection. Dynamics. The management of silence. When Bonnie Raitt performed “I Can’t Make You Love Me” live in August 2015, only the pianist and the drummer remained onstage, leaving almost no instrumentation in between the singer and her audience. Raitt took off her guitar and sat on a stool. Washed in blue light, she sang with deliberate slowness, taking time to reach each precise pitch. The ritardando and syncopation between stanzas highlighted the silence and space after each phrase, allowing room for the listener to enter the song and draw a parallel to her own experience. In the interview with Stereogum, sound engineer Ed Cherney recounted the recording of the song, which Raitt did in a single take:
I could feel her soul when she sang it. It was just one of those moments where the studio disappears, and the whole world disappears, and all that’s there is the emotion of that thing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what great music and great art is. It just pulls you into the moment, and the feeling and emotion of it. I felt like I could feel her heart.
Brian Elmquist expressed a similar concept in The Lone Bellow’s interview with NPR:
We, in a day, will play to a bunch of people, and songs that you’ve written and you’re a part of are a part of their story. And they’ve almost [taken] the meaning, your meaning, out of it and put theirs in it. That’s what’s so beautiful about singing these songs.
For Upstate New York singer-songwriter Travis Knapp, presence and vulnerability can be cultivated where song meets audience. He explained to me in an interview:
I either tell a story, or get people singing, or both. Or get people dancing! That’s one way that people can become vulnerable. If you’re dancing, suddenly you’re part of the song. Do you ever read something and think, “Whoa, I need to stop doing this right now and go do that thing they wrote about?” That’s what I want it to be like. What inspires people to get up and go take action in their community? What makes them talk to the person in the next room? What makes them want to share it?
Writing Powerful Lyrics
When I listen to song lyrics, I’m looking for language that is specific, unique, and engaging. Songwriting expert Pat Pattison encourages strong imagery in lyrical songwriting. “Your job as a writer isn’t to point to a generic territory where images could be, but instead to go there, get one, and show it to your listeners,” he explains in Writing Better Lyrics: The Essential Guide to Powerful Songwriting. This can be achieved through precise detail and a clear focus on the lyric idea. Pattison suggests wordplay—taking time to craft meaning through specificity, carefully chosen metaphor and simile, and powerful juxtaposition of words. He offers an exercise for choosing a metaphor:
Make a list of five interesting adjectives. Then, for each one, find an interesting noun that creates a fresh, exciting metaphor. Take as long as you need for each adjective—hours, even days. Keep it in your vision. Push it against every noun you see until you create a breathtaking collision.
Pattison describes a song as “a stack of boxes,” with each verse interesting and productive so the refrain lands with more impact every time. Good lyrics hook the listener with a strong opening and then drive toward meaning as each verse builds on the last.
Another important consideration is where material in a story or song is naturally highlighted. “The opening and closing lines of any lyric section are naturally strong,” Pattison writes. “If you want people to notice an important idea, put it in the lights of a power position, and you will communicate the idea more forcefully.”
Every story needs an access point. Experimenting with different points of view can help a writer figure out the most powerful form of address. Pattison suggests writing different versions of the same story on a continuum from most intimate to least intimate address: direct second-person narrative, first-person narrative, third-person narrative. The same idea can be applied to chronology—experimenting with the order of beginning, middle, and end—to find the most salient entrance to the story.
Becoming the Vulnerable Writer
Those who choose to engage with vulnerability invariably claim that the process, though difficult, is worth it. “Vulnerability is still uncomfortable and falling still hurts. It always will,” Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong, her book about gathering oneself up after failure. “But I’m learning that the process of struggling and navigating hurt has as much to offer us as the process of being brave and showing up.” Indeed, when asked by Relevant Magazine about the experience of singing “Two Sides of Lonely,” Zach Williams had a surprising answer:
I cherish the moment in the show when we sing that song, because it ebb[s] and flows from tragedy, hope, betrayal, redemption. I really enjoy singing the song in front of people I don’t know. It’s like one of those disciplines people do to feel alive, like running—to remind yourself that you feel.
The courage of these singers and songwriters has not only granted me more access to vulnerability in my own writing, but has also left me asking questions about the role of the artist in the community. Travis Knapp, who works on an herb farm, likens art to permaculture. “In the permaculture process, the way to make a system more resilient is to be more connected with parts of it,” he said. “The more parts that are connected to each other, the stronger the whole is. What’s the role of art? To connect people to each other, or people to their environment.”
Amanda Johnston, poet and cofounder of Black Poets Speak Out, calls the act of writing “a slow dance between what we dare not say and what demands to be sung.” What if we allowed ourselves to be deeply, vulnerably seen? What if we weren’t afraid to show our failure, to want something badly, to love with everything we’ve got? The potential exists within the grasp of the writer to influence the way we as humans connect to each other, and to ourselves. As artists, it is both our power and responsibility to be agents of social change. We must embrace the discomfort of vulnerability as an invitation. And whatever, for each of us, demands to be sung—we must sing it.