April | Vulnerability | A Lesson by N'tima Preusser
Can I be honest? Being real, thoroughly seen, or being open-chested and vulnerable is a struggle for me. I like things perfect, consistent, predictable, safe. I like having answers and categories and boxes in which to place things and people. I like ideas that are well-curated. I like lists and check marks. I like appearing as if I have it all together because then I believe I do.
Growing up, in my home, everything was black and white: right and wrong, happy and sad. Showing messy, confusing or exploring contradicting emotions or opinions wasn’t easy for my parents to understand. But what I've found is that when it comes to the human experience, there is a lot of gray, and blue and yellow and red. There is a spectrum of vibrancy and flavor. Concrete is lifeless and boring and unreliable. There is so much life and connection to be found in the in between.
When I gave birth to my second daughter, I was the most vulnerable that I’ve ever been. I groaned, growled, bared my teeth, even, under the intense weight of excruciating pain. I let myself sink into the experience deeply. I demanded to be heard. What would typically have been an uncomfortably embarrassing situation for me felt animalistic and natural. I begged the strangers around me for help. I was desperate. I was profoundly in tune with the work that my body was doing without consent from my fear. I felt my bones prying apart as my baby’s body traveled toward her first breaths, and a catheter was being inserted into my spine. The pain was gone the instant she came earthside, and she was all of a sudden on my chest screaming and pink. In my arms was new life and one of the most beautiful moments I've ever experienced transpired. I had never felt more connected to my body’s strength, to my husband, or to my children than in those first minutes with my newborn daughter. I had never felt more vulnerable. Being vulnerable brought me an understanding that allowing myself to feel radical deepness, discomfort, or pain, even, can yield the richest, most whole moments of our lives.
“Body shame is so powerful and often so deeply rooted in our psyches that it actually affects why and how we feel shame in many of the other categories, including sexuality, motherhood, parenting, health, aging, and a woman’s ability to speak out with confidence.”
- Brene Brown
I hated my body nearly my entire life, so when I wrote a piece in 2012 talking about the love and the acceptance I finally felt for the vessel that I lived in - after my first daughter was born - I was terrified. In writing, I often feel tempted to create things to impress people. To say what I know people want to hear or to relate in some surface level way. My worst pieces always started out this way. But this essay was different. I had to really look at myself to find the words for all that I felt. I was terrified to write that essay, but at the same time, putting the words down on the page was freeing. It was almost as if I didn’t believe what I said was true until I wrote them down. Within a week of publishing this particular essay, 7 million people had read it, and I had hundreds of comments and emails expressing to me how much they needed to read those words. Unintentionally, I had connected to thousands of women across the world - all because I dared to say what was hardest to say out loud. Understanding and truly loving and accepting myself for who I was was the first thing I had to do before I could offer it to others with my craft.
"In general, people are not drawn to perfection in others. People are drawn to shared interests, shared problems, and an individual’s life energy. Humans connect with humans. Hiding one’s humanity and trying to project an image of perfection makes a person vague, slippery, lifeless, and uninteresting."
Write one of the stories that is a “taboo” in your life. This is an intensely personal story you've never told anyone, one you've tried to push from your mind because it's so embarrassing or painful. Give yourself the freedom to write it without worry that anyone else will read it, but spend the time to flesh out the details or nuances. The story can begin however you want, but end the piece with “From all this, I have learned…”
Write one of your birth stories or adoption stories in detail. Reflect on your thoughts, fears, worries, moments of bravery. Share the parts you tend to leave out when you recount the story to friends and relatives. Write into the dark parts, the murky parts, the raw moments.
What keeps you up at night? What are the nagging, gnawing worries on your mind? Write them down - list them out and elaborate on them.
Think of a time when you felt particularly strong. What was happening? What were you doing? Now back up a little bit -- How did you get to this point of strength? What were you feeling in those moments or before this moment? Describe it.
When do you feel most known and most connected to others? Write the story of a time or a moment when you felt this.
Can you think of a time when you intentionally avoided vulnerability either in your art or in a relationship? How were you affected by this? Imagine what could have happened if you had opened yourself up more. Write about it.
Do a word association exercise with “vulnerable.” List out words that come to mind when you think about this word. Once you’ve made your list, then spend some time fleshing out some of the words into phrases. What connections are you drawing here? What feelings come up as a result of what you find?
Before we can be vulnerable with others, we have to learn to be vulnerable with ourselves. This week we want you to practice the art of vulnerability through creating a self-portrait. This could be a photograph, a drawing, a silhouette sketch, a watercolor painting, or something else that represents you. If you're feeling extra vulnerable, we'd love to see your portrait! Share on Instagram with #yocvulnerability.
Artist Interview with ... The Coffee + Crumbs Writers!
This month we're switching things up a bit and answering the question, "What's the most vulnerable essay you've ever written?"
I think certain things that are fairly typical of the shared experience of early childhood, like diaper blowouts and toddler tantrums, are fine to share, but as my kids have gotten older and developed everything from big kid problems to unexpected diagnoses, I’ve had to take a look at the difference between what’s a vulnerable choice for me and what’s opening them up to scrutiny without their consent. I’m a pretty open book, but maybe my kids don’t want to be. When I was working on It’s Not Fair, I realized I needed to say something about what we were going through as a family, but I had to sit with that for a minute and think about where my stories stopped and theirs began.
I was writing about learning to love my life during the hard stuff, and how it’s a daily process, and I had to explain about my daily challenges as a mom, because we have some seriously hard stuff going on around here and I know a bit about some things. But I couldn’t expose them because it’s my job to protect them, and I didn’t want them to resent Mommy’s job, feel like there were naked pictures of them hanging up in bookstores across the country, and need even more therapy. I called my editor and talked through the dilemma with her, reached out to several author friends and got their input, talked it over with a friend who’s the daughter of an author and grew up seeing her name in books, mulled it over with my husband, and prayed. I finally decided to share a bit about some of the things we’ve got going on up in here -- things like autism, ADHD, mental illness, trauma, and reactive attachment disorder, without saying which kid had what or sharing any embarrassing or deeply personal stories. That way everyone has plausible deniability and can tell future boyfriends, girlfriends, and employers whatever they want. I hope someday they’ll own their stories. I hope sharing them will inspire others to hope, but that’ll be their choice.
I have two most vulnerable essays. My first is the piece I wrote and read for DC's Listen To Your Mother show in 2015. I wrote it from a place of total honesty over something I was really struggling with in my life (did my parents actually know my mom was dying and not tell us kids?). I can't say I had a process for my level of vulnerability, other than I wanted to be as honest as possible while honoring the really hard emotions I worked through, while also being respectful of my parents, both my dad (who would hear the piece) and the memory of my late mother. Afterwards, I felt proud, more than anything else. It was highly emotional, yet I felt as though I told my story with dignity and truth. (I did get that vulnerability headache one tends to achieve with things like this.)
The other is my When Marriage is Hard essay for C+C. I sat for weeks, churning over how to say my husband and I love each other fiercely, but our marriage isn't "not easy", it's downright really hard. I started to write after fellow C+C writer, Callie Feyen, admonished me, "just write that shit down." I had a relatively recent and very big fight with Chris in the back of my mind and, like with my LTYM piece, I tried to weave honesty and respect together to tell the most truthful story I could. But unlike my LTYM piece, I didn't feel like this was my unique experience; with this one, I wanted to be authentic and open to connect with other women---I knew I wasn't the only one in this situation. I felt grateful for the opportunity to share my heart, and overwhelmed by the response it received.
For much of 2016 we sat in a really hard season of waiting for my son’s autism diagnosis. When you have a little one who meets all his milestones for over a year and then seemingly just stops meeting them, the process of figuring out ‘what’ is long and hard. But by early fall, we knew. It was clear in many ways and even though acknowledging autism comes with a heavy responsibility and the death of many dreams, my heart needed the answer more than I knew. For us, knowing, accepting, and leaning into the work God has given us to do with our precious boy was immensely easier than not knowing.
But one just doesn’t wake up in a special needs world with joy and energy and enthusiasm, eager to be there and ready for what is ahead. My whole paradigm had to shift, and writing about it is what helped me do that. I wrote Dance Lessons for Coffee + Crumbs last August, and I sobbed through every line. But I knew I had to get those words down, as vulnerable and uncomfortable as they made me. I knew I had to say out loud that I was scared, but I also knew I wanted to honor other mamas years ahead of me on the special needs journey and not enter into this kicking and screaming, but willing to learn something new.
That essay was my heart admitting that I did not know what to do, but I was going to show up. It was, without a doubt, the most honest piece I’ve written for C+C and maybe ever, because so many of my other vulnerable pieces were written from the 20/20 vision of hindsight, stories that I knew the ending to. Not this one, and not any writing about my little guy. But the vulnerability is what I know has connected with other mamas living something similar; and their vulnerability is what has helped me keep writing.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given as a writer is this: write where you are. So that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do. Vulnerability comes naturally when you are not pretending.
Without a close second (yet), the most vulnerable piece of writing I ever released into the public was the first essay I submitted to Coffee + Crumbs: Bad Math. It's the story of my mental aftermath post two miscarriages, and that in itself is a topic both sharp and tender, but the subject matter is actually not the reason it felt like a scary thing to "write out loud" so to speak. Up until submitting to C+C the only writing I'd done was private work on my novel, work only my husband saw and work that few people even knew I was doing. So when Bad Math went live on the site it felt like I was announcing the fact I'd begun to take myself seriously as a writer.
I could no longer take shelter in terms like hobby or playing around or just something I do for fun. I'd written something serious and I'd made the effort to find a home for it. It was terribly uncomfortable for me to respond to the kind texts and emails that followed. But what a relief! I felt like I came out as a writer and as a woman who'd been deeply affected by her miscarriages (both were until then facts I steered conversations away from at dinner parties). I felt like could write anything I wanted after that. (Save for the very sage caution from the ever wise Annie Dillard, “Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let it rip.”). After writing for six years, it was that day in August 2014 that I felt like, okay, I've finally found my courage, let's get started.
The most vulnerable thing I've ever written was the essay Unraveling on Coffee + Crumbs. This was definitely an instance of forcing my own hand to write something I didn't necessarily want to write. I was on the hook to submit a monthly C+C essay, and this one was the story in my heart that wouldn't let any other story have a voice at the time. It was scary to admit that the work of motherhood empties me more than it fills me and that I often feel like a lot of motherhood doesn't come very naturally to me. I was sure readers would judge me as a bad mom. I was worried they'd pity my kids.
I asked my husband to read the essay before it published and he said that if he read that on the internet he would think the author should be immediately admitted to intensive counseling. I knew what I had written was true, though, and I decided to trust that truth. I trusted I wasn't so much of a freak that something could be profoundly true in my own life and totally unrelatable to everyone else. The response I got from that essay made me fall in love with Coffee + Crumbs all over again. It was the moment I understood how powerful the words "me too" are.
I write about food most of the time. In the past, rather than incorporating personal stories into my recipe posts, I've hidden behind discussions of ingredients and flavors to avoid vulnerability. But over the past year, I've been learning to write more deeply and more honestly - and it's been good, cathartic, and hard.
Last summer, I wrote a letter to my mom who passed away a few years ago, answering a prompt in the C+C Known workshop. I didn't want to write it, but I knew I had to. I've spent so much time mourning the loss of my mom, and I didn't want to enter that pain again. I knew this essay would force me to recall difficult details and uncover grief I'd pushed aside. Part of me wanted to remember everything I could about those last months with my mom, but then part of me wanted so deeply to "move on." Yet the more I thought about that essay prompt, the more the words and the memories kept flooding into my heart and mind. I couldn't avoid putting pen to paper any longer.
I cried nearly the entire time I worked on that essay. There was so much I wanted to say to my mom, but I couldn't. Writing helped me process the grief I was (and am) still feeling. It reminded me that I don't need to push those memories aside, and I can't selectively numb my emotions. When I try to run from grief, I inevitably run from joy. Writing kept me from running away and allowed me to remember. And when I remembered loss, I also remembered the beauty and the joy in the midst of it.
In my upcoming April Coffee + Crumbs essay, "Dancing on a Slippery Bridge,” I write about my daughter Hadley's first negative experience with girl friendships, and it physically ached to write it.
During the time I wrote it, I had planned on writing something else, but I was stuck, and I believe that was because this other event needed to be processed. I was afraid to start though, and as is true with almost everything risky that I write, I was afraid I would be so sad (or whatever emotion that I don't want to feel) and I wouldn't be able to NOT be sad. But I started writing and it was effortless. That is, I was in pain writing it, but I'd found a story and I could endure the pain while I followed the story. I guess what I mean here is the story was a balm for my own pain.
With each essay I write, there is always a time when I "can't land it." I think I stole that term from Katie Blackburn. This was the case for this one, and it is a scary, maddening time, especially when I knew there wasn't necessarily a happy ending. This is the hardest part of writing for me because everything negative I think about myself comes front and center. It can be really random stuff, too. Like, I never cook for my kids, or I can't keep a clean house, or I've never been on the PTA, never mind the fact that I really can't write. This all happens and there is usually a lot of crying. But it's happened enough now that I am learning how to cope: I go for runs. I go to a bookstore or walk around Target. I let that essay sit for a while.
I finished the essay and sent it off, and then, on a Sunday evening, Jesse and I sat down with Hadley and asked if she wanted to talk about anything regarding what was going on. It was a good talk, and I realized that the best thing I could've done for Hadley was to write that essay - not for her, but for me. I needed to process this pain and realize that this isn't my pain at all. What I wrote about really, was about me and my childhood. I needed to take care of that so I could take care of Hadley. I learned that writing is essential to my mothering. Actually, it's essential to my being a human being.
Once an essay of mine gets accepted I never worry that I've revealed too much. Do I worry people will like it? All the time. Do I think, "Maybe THIS ONE will go viral?" Absolutely. But I don't worry about what people think about me because it's not my story anymore. I've figured something out. I've made something and I've given it away. It's a gift. I have no control over how people will use it.
My most vulnerable essay is probably my April piece for C+C, “Where Do We Go From Here?”* This particular essay was a result of writer's block -- I literally couldn't write anything else, until I told this story first. To begin, I have to get all my words out, without regard to an audience or structure — just your basic word dump, to get the ball rolling (this was actually fabulous advice from Callie Feyen). Once everything is out, I analyze it. Is there a running theme? Can I turn this into more than a diary entry by building a narrative? What role can scene play? How can I build suspense?
This part of the process is when my very personal truth begins to morph into art. In the case of my April essay, this is also when I let my husband read it, out of respect for his boundaries. The best part though is when it’s done, and I feel like I know myself better. At the risk of veering too far into nerd territory, it’s like peeking in the pensieve from Harry Potter -- I can better see and understand my thoughts and emotions once they’re on paper.
The most vulnerable essay I ever wrote is “The Family Baby,” which can be found in our new book, The Magic of Motherhood. I consider this essay my most vulnerable because I opened up about some issues I faced with my in-laws when I was pregnant with our first baby. I’d wanted to write about the experience for many years because I think a lot of women feel tension when they have their first baby and realize there are family expectations or emotions they would have never anticipated. I knew that many readers would benefit from my story, but I also didn’t want to hurt my mother-in-law’s feelings, especially since I’d never been upfront with her.
What’s funny is that I didn’t intend to write the essay for publication—it just needed to come out—and so I let it come out, no holds barred. Once it was out, I sat on it. Could I publish it? How would it make her feel? What type of conversation would I need to have before publishing? What worked in my favor is that I admitted my own faults in the essay. While she did play a role in the tension that existed, I did too. There are usually two sides to most stories. So, I ended up editing some of the first draft emotion to a level I felt comfortable with, and then sent it to her via email with a long note. I explained that I wanted her blessing to publish the essay, and I apologized for my sensitivity when Anna, my first baby, was born. She responded quickly, with her own apology, and commented that we’ve come such a long way over five years.
Well friends, it's officially book launch month (!!!) and we're feeling all sorts of vulnerable over here! What's the most vulnerable essay you've ever written? What's the most vulnerable thing you've ever done? Let's meet up in the Facebook group and chat about it!