Conversations on the Couch with Melissa Poulin

Melissa Reeser Poulin is a poet and prose writer with a passion for cultivating creativity in the lives of busy people, especially parents. In her own pursuit of creative fulfillment while raising an active 16-month-old, she has come to embrace shortcuts of all kinds-- including 20 minute workouts and cooking with Trader Joe's. She is an overly ambitious reader with far too many books on her bedside table. 

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If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Right now I’m working on developing my confidence. I have a little girl and I want to model that for her. I see how self-doubt keeps me from trying new things, sharing my gifts with others, speaking my mind, and so I try to remember that when I feel afraid. It’s rocky and scary but it’s also invigorating to see what I can do, even when I’m scared. (For more on this you should read my friend Jill’s essay, which is breathtakingly beautiful.)

I know confidence without heart, humility, and perspective isn’t worth much, though. In practice, I don’t think I’d want to wake up tomorrow with any ability or quality I hadn’t learned over time, because that’s how it gets seasoned with all the minor qualities that keep it in balance.

Sometimes I think I’d like to wake up with more trust in God, but I know this is something the creator does in us through difficult times. This is what makes the beatitudes so powerful for me. I know that some of the most incredible gifts I have received have come in and through times of grief, loss, failure, and loneliness. Getting through those times with faith has developed trust and courage in me, but they have been really difficult.

Which is worse, failing or never trying?

Never trying. Without a doubt.

If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice for their life, what would it be?

I thought about this a lot when my daughter was a newborn. Mostly I wanted to know what she felt. Sometimes she seemed almost otherworldly, like she still had one foot dipped in limitless love.

If I could sew a little bit of knowing into her that she’d never forget, it would be that she is loved and worthy, always, and that she should run from anything that tells her otherwise. I want her to know she came from love and she is love. I want my parenting to help her learn this. I have no idea how to do it. I think part of it is knowing the same thing about myself, and that’s easier said than done.

Is it possible to know the truth without challenging it first?

I love this question. I have no idea. History shows us both. Truth just shows up, visits us in our daily lives—without our having to do a single thing. Not even “know” it. And we also arrive at truth by long, painful struggle.

In my own life, I’ve experienced both. I’ve felt truth, but it’s not something I could describe or justify. I’ve definitely challenged truth— wrestled with it, denied it, walked away from it, returned to it, cried for it, howled for it, painted and written and sung for it.

If the deepest truth is love—the ultimate nature of reality, the first and last word— then I think every human story is a version of walking away from truth and walking toward it, and probably most stories are a constant braid of both. I know I’ve turned my back on truth, choosing to sit in the dark instead. I’ve been mercifully guided back, often against my own will and through detours of struggle.

I think we do this instinctively, in response to the pain of growth, because we want to protect ourselves—and we don’t always know best.

As a new parent, I really wrestle with this. My daughter is a toddler now and she resists my guidance, especially when I prevent her from having exactly what she wants at exactly that minute. It’s hard to stay calm through the storm of her anger or frustration, to try to help her feel and accept her feelings and also firmly model appropriate behavior. It’s hard to admit when I relate to her childish, passionate response: she gets frustrated with her shape sorter and throws it. I get frustrated with the printer and genuinely want to throw it, too. I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it!

So this is how I must seem to my child, sometimes, in my firm, guiding love for her: outrageously unfair, denying immediate satisfaction and therefore denying happiness. I think this is how God seems to us sometimes, too, like God must not be truth, must not be love, because we are unhappy, or struggling, or experiencing pain.

So, to sum up: Yes. No. I have no idea.

At what time in your recent past have you felt most passionate and alive?

Birth! Giving birth to my daughter. Indescribable joy and pain and a rush of the most intense love I’d ever felt. Being more present than I’d ever been.

If you had to teach something, what would you teach?

As a child, I knew I wanted to be a writer, because I simply was a writer, and there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do. My parents were very encouraging of this, and also a little worried for my future finances, so they pushed me gently toward teaching, as well.

It was confusing for a child with the dream of writing to consistently hear from adults: “If you want to write, you will also need to teach.” I grew up feeling guided toward a career I didn’t necessarily feel drawn to, and confusion about the value of writing, its role in culture, and its power to teach.

By the time I graduated with a B.A.in creative writing, I had so internalized this advice that I didn’t think of teaching as a vocation in and of itself, and I didn’t trust my desire to devote myself to writing. I remember asking a mentor—a talented writer and longtime community college instructor—how to get into teaching. His response was, “First you need to ask yourself what you have to teach, and what you have to teach.”

This distinction has been helpful for me. What I have to teach is limited. I have extensive training in crafting poetry and prose. I have some training in English grammar and language acquisition. I know a few things about creative practice and growing food. I can share what I’ve learned and keep learning how to share that knowledge effectively.

But when it comes to what I have to teach, it’s unlimited and constantly changing. It’s everything I can bring to the table from my human experience—including questioning, doubt, and not having answers. It’s everything I want to explore and discover on the page.

Why do we do things we dislike and like the things we never seem to do?

Resistance! I feel it most intensely around two things that matter to me: writing and exercise. Writing is part of my purpose in life, and exercise is how I keep my body healthy so I can fulfill my purpose.

My soul knows it needs to grow, but growth is painful, and my body naturally resists pain or the threat of pain. So for me there is tension between my deeper purpose and my body’s resistance.

I like how I feel after I exercise, and occasionally I even like how I feel as I exercise, but most of the time I equate it with discomfort (or I just don’t wanna.) So, my challenge is to expect resistance, and try to catch myself resisting discomfort so I can work with that feeling in the moment. Whew.

I’m doing this 20-minutes-a-day exercise-from-home challenge right now called Momma Strong. It’s 20 minutes of HIIT exercises in my living room, while the cat curls up on the exercise mat and my toddler pokes at my belly button while I’m in plank pose. It’s basically a comedy show.

But I love what the instructor has to say about resistance: when you hear the voice that says, “Nope, I can’t do this for one more second,” stay with it for five more seconds before you stop. Each time you practice staying with it for five more seconds, you reprogram your body’s instinctive resistance pattern.

I think it’s a pretty ancient human pattern, so I’m not holding out for any sudden improvements. But it does help me have a little perspective and kindness for myself when I resist something that’s good for me.

It’s similar with writing—there’s the same kind of resistance to sitting down at the desk. It’s what Joan Didion called “low dread,” the fear and nausea that just about anyone with a creative practice can relate to. (And I’d argue that everyone has a creative practice, whether they call it that or not, because we are by nature creative beings, made in the image of the creator.)

Yet creative resistance, for me, is a little more delicate than the body’s resistance. In writing, there’s a balance to strike between pushing through and honoring quiet, reflective times, or times when our energy is going in other important directions. I wrote a little about this here, and I’m continuing to explore this in essays forthcoming elsewhere.

I am constantly drawn to writing about this push-pull between life and creative discipline. My friend Holly Ringland puts out a fantastic newsletter and blog on creativity and the adventure of finishing her first novel that you can subscribe to here. Holly recently wrote: “If I’m lead to my desk by... anxiety, fear, pressure, stress, self-doubt, I only get hurt. I don’t get work done. Unsurprisingly, if my mind is bullied to create, it doesn’t yield.” YES.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between pursuing art and parenting. L.L. Barkat writes in her beautiful Rumors of Water: “Writing starts with living. Living starts with somebody caring so much about something that they need to drag you out of your writing chair and take you where you’ll be surprised to find your words.” In this case, it was her two young girls doing the dragging, begging to go to a strawberry farm.

In my life, my little girl and my husband do this, and the wild places that call to us practically from our backyards here in the Pacific Northwest. If I am so stubbornly attached to my discipline that I forget to begin with love, wonder, passion, and FUN, then my writing will soon lose all of its power and juice, as simple as pulling a plug.

Thank you so much Melissa for such a thoughtful and unique Conversation on the Couch - especially for all the links to more amazing writing! To read more from Melissa, you can find her here.
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