Shame is among the most difficult feelings a human can experience. Fair warning: this week’s challenge can provoke any writer. But it will be worth the effort to explore our shadow selves — the darkness of the human condition.
Experts explain what makes shame different from guilt is the focus of the emotion outward versus inward. Internalized, shame can isolate people to the point of longing for the death of self. That’s heavy. As writers, we craft with emotion and explore the depths of what we experience, observe, and imagine.
Even though most people experience shame to varying degrees, shame is so painful, it can be difficult to articulate. We’ve all heard the expression, “Shame on you.” Often, the emotion is used to correct behavior in families and social groups. Yet those three words can leave lasting scars. Shame, because it is internalized, can be a dark pool of despair to mirror our worst thoughts and beliefs about who we are.
However, social standards are shifting, and more people are talking about the impact of being shamed for their differences. More than ever, as a worldview, we are more open to understanding shame. If we are to heal the world’s trauma, we must first heal our own. Shame is a guidepost to where the scars hide.
By the way, it takes tremendous courage for those to speak up regarding their shame. Why be so vulnerable? Healing. While Dr. Sean Ginwright’s book, The Four Pivots, is not about shame specifically, he understands that without healing, we will fail to grow into our possibilities. Shame can prevent us from pivoting, which can stifle creativity.
But this current challenge isn’t about healing as writers. It’s about capturing stories of shame. It’s about honing our creative craft through braving dark emotions and experiences. It doesn’t mean all shame stories will be bleak fodder for horror, drama, or tragedy. Shame stories can open up common ground between enemies (consider contemporary stories of developing empathy for villains because of their painful pasts). Such stories can be adventurous, uplifting through overcoming, and even humorous.
The one thing emotional stories seek to achieve is verisimilitude, the creative writing technique for making fiction appear real. Shame must feel real, relevant, and relatable. That’s another reason why this challenge will be challenging. You have to go into the dark to bring back an authentic light.
Why am I all about the shame this week? Well, it was a chance viewing of the 2014 Kennedy Center Honors which included Sting. I was surprised to learn he wrote one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, I Hung My Head. The title alone embodies the feeling of shame. It’s a western-style gun ballad about a youth playing with his brother’s rifle to feel the power of death over life. Talk about a whopper of a shame story. You might argue that the character in the ballad felt guilty for his action, but you can’t deny the overwhelming sense of shame in the repeated lyrics, “I hung my head, I hung my head.”
When I watched the clip, the audience moved me. We get to see Sting’s reaction to Bruce Springsteen’s performance. We see the audience nodding, listening, and reacting to the music. That is verisimilitude in musicality. No such story exists. But it could. And everyone in that audience understands the overwhelming feeling at the heart of the song. The end result is cathartic.
To me, this video clip represents what we aim for when we write. We aren’t telling people how it is; we are slinging stories that remove people from their moment into ones we are sharing through art. If you write because you feel something in your stories, aim for your audience to catch the feeling, too.
August 22, 2022, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story exploring shame as an emotion or theme. Consider how to use shame to drive a cause-and-effect story. How does it impact a character? Is there a change? Go where the prompt leads!
- Submit by August 27, 2022. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. The Collection publishes on the Wednesday following the next Challenge. Rules & Guidelines.
- Carrot Ranch only accepts stories through the form below. Accepted stories will be published in a weekly collection. Writers retain all copyrights.
- Your blog or social media link will be included in your title when the Collection publishes.
- Please include your byline which is the name or persona you attribute to your writing.
- Please include the hashtag #99Word Stories when sharing either the Challenge or Collection posts in social media.
Submissions are now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.