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How to Share Your Story: My Interview With Author Natalie Brenner

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I recently wrote a post on this blog about how to find your story.

I also asked one writer, Natalie Brenner, about how she did this with her new book, “This Undeserved Life.”

“This Undeserved Life” is about how Natalie and her husband, Loren, coped with different professional and personal setbacks and losses. Her book is compelling as it combines some of the elements of discovering one’s own story: revealing her heart-breaking and frustrating moments, and sharing the lessons she learned and hopes her readers will learn when dealing with tragedy and loss.

Natalie is also a professional speaker and photographer. She, Loren and their two children now live in Portland, OR. Before moving to Portland, Natalie and Loren helped establish a church (also known as church planting) and started a youth ministry program in Corvallis, OR.

“This Undeserved Life” will be released September 18, 2017. You can preorder her book any time before September 18 or do a regular order on September 18 and afterward, by clicking here.

I asked Natalie about her writing process, doubts and hopes while working on “This Undeserved Life.” You can also read an excerpt from her book featured below the interview section.

Natalie Brenner, author of “This Undeserved Life”

Here are some of the questions I asked Natalie about her new book.

1. Question: Why did you decide to write “This Undeserved Life”?
Answer:
“This Undeserved Life” is the book I needed countless times. Loss after loss, I asked the questions: “Can I be immensely sad—devastated—and still be in line with Jesus? Can I be an absolute train wreck through grief without Jesus being disappointed in me? What happens if my honesty feels ugly? This is the book of how I surrendered my sorrow by grabbing ahold of it, claiming it, and found grace in darkness.”

2. Questions: Who should read This Undeserved Life? Who did you have in mind, while writing it?
Answer: I had in mind the person wading through tragedy, whatever that tragedy is, wondering, “Is it okay to grieve? Can I be honest about how sad I am? Is it disappointing that I’m devastated over this loss? Is there room to be sad and do I have permission to grieve?”

3. Questions: Did you have any doubts or worries while writing? If so, what were those doubts or concerns?
Answer: I had to seek a lot of counsel as I wrestled through what I wanted to share in this book. It’s incredibly vulnerable and transparent. It is immensely honest. It shares stories of not just me, but also people who hurt us deeply. That is terrifying. But I continued to land at: this book isn’t for me. This book is for the broken hearted needing to know there is no shame in grieving. There is no shame in naming abuse. There is no shame in naming trauma.

4. Question: Who were some of your biggest supporters while writing the book?
Answer: My husband—he took care of our two 1-year-olds all day on many Mondays so I could write. Also, I wrote late into the night. I could not have done it without his help.
Also, Lorna Bailey and (writer/blogger) Jeff Goins (who are part of my book team).

5. Question: How long did it take to write the book?
Answer: I began officially writing it December 2016. I submitted my written/edited draft to my formatter July 1, 2016. It will be released September 18.

6. Question: What do you hope your readers will learn or discover by reading your book?
Answer: I have heard so many people say they’ve been set free, for the first time, to be honest about their journey with pain. I love that. I am all about stripping off shame and not telling people how to feel, but instead giving ourselves space to just be.

Here is an excerpt from “This Undeserved Life.”

“He fired me.”

Loren’s words were quiet and desperate. His face was painted with shades of sadness and shock.

I dropped my mascara into the sink, my mouth gaping as I stared at my husband in disbelief. Putting on makeup was now the last thing on my mind. Sadness registered over Loren’s face. “What? Can he even do that? Doesn’t he need to consult the elders?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but I’m fired. He’s sending my termination letter by email. Oh, and we are banned from the church; we have to cancel youth group tonight.” Loren’s words pushed through gritted teeth and furrowed brows.

Youth Group was our favorite part of this church since helping plant it over four years ago. It was our whole heart, filled with teens so brave and tender. We considered it a high honor to speak into their life, to be considered a part of their safe space. We found ourselves left without the chance to say goodbye. We were being ripped away from them without preparing an exit plan. It was sudden and unexpected.

Staring at each other, the air filled with betrayal and hurt. It was only two weeks ago we found out I was pregnant for the second time this year. Our adoption was moving along. We were active with multiple agencies and awaiting our match. The week before this abrupt dismissal, Loren and our boss, Matthew, held a conversation. We were nervous about sharing our hearts with him regarding moving on to another church and youth ministry position. We feared he would take it personally, so for months we prayed and struggled to find the most opportune moment to tell him. Loren felt the conversation went well, providing hope for a smooth transition. Our journey to gracefully transition from our current church to a new one within a year abruptly became painful.

“In Matthew’s words, we are ‘unhealthy, toxic, and detrimental to the health of this church,’” Loren said. “So much for a smooth transition,” he muttered. Rubbing his eyes with one hand, he lowered his chin to his chest and avoided eye contact with me. It was clear this knocked him off his feet. Nausea gripped me and that morning’s oatmeal landed in the toilet.

As we sat on our bed tensely searching the internet for answers, the termination letter came through with flesh-tearing words felt purposefully to rip our hearts. Gentle tears turned into sobs reading the letter. It was filled with lies, stripping us of our dignity, and erasing our integrity as we were planning to shift our growing family to a new church, city, and ministry. Frantically searching for something stable to hold onto, we called Bill who was close to the situation and understood its complexity. He knew how messy the entire staff was, how tired, and off the leadership team was. It had been a long few years and he intimately knew.

Church planting was ridiculously fun the first year, but became increasingly harder and demanded more than all of us in the continuing years. It wore us thin, especially in the most important parts of us. It was justified by helping so many people uncover God for the first time. Releasing my sanity for someone’s salvation? It seemed like an easy decision for a while.

Furious, Bill told us he would try to figure out how to fix some of the broken pieces. The termination letter stated very clearly we could not speak of the avalanche of unhealthy events leading to this moment, at least not with truth because the truth painted a poor picture of those involved. If we painted poor pictures of the church’s leadership—even if that’s what the truth revealed—our two months of severance pay would be withheld. I now knew what a gag order felt like.

The day’s plans were drastically changed since we were no longer preparing for middle school youth group. Unexpectedly released from planning weird games, picking up snacks, and practicing the prayed-through message, our minds filled up with insecurities and lies. Matthew’s words and intense labeling of “unhealthy, toxic, and detrimental” fabricated themselves into the quilt of our identity, leaving us later the taxing work of uprooting it. Battered at soul level, wondering if he was right—if we were the problem—we sought out safe people who could help us process the bomb that just blew up our world.

The shock of such betrayal and damage clung to us like leeches on a mound of raw flesh. Loren and I ping-ponged hurt driven questions as we drove our car to some trusted friends, people who knew us. Questions consumed our minds on our drive over: how could Matthew spew such hateful words; did he mean them and really not care for the lies he was sewing into the quilt of our identity? How could he say we were toxic, unhealthy, detrimental, slanderers? We had given years of ourselves, built our entire marriage and life around this church plant, but suddenly we are so toxic we must be banned?

What was Matthew going to say to people who asked about us? We couldn’t even say goodbye to our youth group? They meant the world to us. They hold chunks of our hearts. It isn’t like us disappearing was going to delete the imprint we left, our legacy, or the love people had for us. Dismissing us immediately wasn’t going to expunge the dysfunction we participated in. How was his story of firing my husband going to unfold for others? Would Loren be depicted as the gracious, teachable leader I knew him to be, or made out to be a horrible, godless person who doesn’t know how to communicate? And what about our adoption? Do we tell the adoption agencies we are currently jobless and unsure of when we’ll be receiving income again? This baby inside of me. Would the stress wear on me and cause another miscarriage?

Do we continue pursuing a position as youth pastors, or make a career change? Do we move across the country to somewhere new, or Idaho where Loren’s family is, or Portland where it is a bit more diverse? How do we confidently move forward when everything feels so tender, broken, and confusing?

Pulling into our friend’s driveway, the car sat idling as we gathered enough pieces of ourselves to walk through Jesse’s door. Enough pieces, that is, only to drop them and fall apart again before Jesse and her husband. This situation felt unfair and I was furious. “I will never be the same again,” I thought as a burning fury formed into a profound amount of pain. I felt it searing, piercing my heart in a way that would change me forever.

Along with her book “This Undeserved Life”, Natalie Brenner has a rapidly growing blog, NatalieBrennerWrites.com, which has been visited by more than 60,000 people. Her work has also been featured on the TODAY show, in Adoption.com, Pregnant Chicken, Adopting.org, Shelley Skuster Writes, Parents, and more. 

 

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Did this post inspire and help you? How did you find your story? Share your advice, writing experiences and questions in the comments section below.

2 Replies

  1. I love what she says about the book not being for her…instead it’s for those needing to know there is no shame in grieving. Important for us all to remember.

    1. Kris: Natalie’s quote about the book being less about her and more about helping people cope with grief is also my favorite quote from the interview.

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