A letter to my younger self

Today I am tired. I have been exhausted for two days now. I spent this past weekend at the Sankofa Sisterhood First Annual Writing Retreat where I shared and learned and taught and felt everything profoundly. Today, I want to share this:

On the first day, LaShonda Katrice Barnett (a gorgeous, incredibly generous writer who I will remember forever) gave us a fierce workshop on the musts of being a professional writer. She gave us advice on agents and discipline and the community we keep, which can feed us but also deplete us. (Get rid of those depleters!) She then gave us an exercise on voice.

First she had two volunteers read letters from the book “The Letter Q” which features letters from queer writers to their younger selves, giving themselves advice and assuring them that their adult lives were going to be awesome and would redeem all (or at least some of) the suffering they endured in their childhoods.

I read a letter a man wrote to his younger self. I can’t remember the author because I was too overwhelmed by what I read. I saw myself in the words—the overachiever who overachieved hoping that would bring acceptance and love. I choked up several times while reading. Then LaShonda banged us over the head even harder by asking us to write letters to our younger selves.

My mother had texted me that morning. If you know anything about me, you know that I am unmothered. You know that I have been on a journey of healing from that relationship. So you can imagine how shaken I was by her messages. No, they weren’t hateful or malicious. She was leaning in. She said she had a dream about me and my siblings. She asked how I was, where I was. When I told her I was at a writing retreat in the Catskills, she wrote: “Un dia te voy a dar escrito para que escribas la verdad de nuestras vida. La mia. La de Millie. La de ustedes tres. Te juro por la memoria de mi hijo que es la verdad.”

I thought back to when I told my mother I was a writer all those years ago. She dug into the bottom of the bookshelf in her livingroom that she’s had since I was a kid. She pulled out a legal pad, it’s edges curled and dusty. The pages were full of her thick script, her hand so hard I could feel the letters on the back of the pages like braille. My mother had started writing her story.

So when LaShonda gave us that assignment, I went reeling onto the page…and I cried writing it, remembering that girl I was…the one that still lives in me.

Little V,

You are nine. There’s something about this age that calls me to talk to you now. You are, you always have been so big. In years to come, 25 perhaps, mom will say that to a friend: “Vanessa was always big. Even when she was little, she was big.”

She’s never been able to deal with that, with how big you are. No matter what you do, how good your grades or the awards you receive. No matter how you dance across the stage or sing your little heart out in chorus, none of that will make her love you the way you so long for her to.

Graduating from a prestigious boarding school won’t.

The Ivy League degree won’t.

The having a daughter won’t.

Becoming a writer and publishing won’t.

She will only love you as much as she can. I know that doesn’t feel like enough, but, my love, it has to be.

You must learn to love yourself, to mother yourself. That is your journey.

It will be a hard one. You will make so many mistakes. You will attract people into your life—lovers and friends—who mirror your mother: emotionally unavailable and critical of you.

It is the universe reminding you, gifting you in a cloak you cannot understand…until you do. Then you will embark on this journey to loving yourself.

Look in the mirror you gorgeous, awkward girl who is too big for the world right now. Too big for this wounded woman who is your mother to love you. Hug yourself. That is me. I am hugging you. I love you. Let that carry you through.

A little girl will hug you later, in your 30s. She is your daughter. She will write notes in your journal saying things your mother never said: “I’m proud of you, mommy!”

Remember: you taught her that.

With love,


  1. Vanessa…you’re writing style is amazing…it’s beautiful, artistic, but above all, raw. I doubt that I can read several of your posts without looking like a blubbering fool at work…but I’m definitely intrigued by your story. I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, like you I was raised in a different type of neighborhood to say the least. Although my parents were Ecuadorean, growing up in the LES…we were immersed in the Puerto Rican/Dominican culture that was prevalent at the time. I guess I can relate to your motherless upbringing by reflecting on my own childhood without a father, but unlike you I don’t think that I’ve had the courage to really explore how that upbringing has affected who I am today, and I doubt that I will be able to muster up the courage to do so anytime soon…but until then…I’ll revive some of my old memories through your writing. I’m looking forward to your future posts (and catching up on some of the older ones as well)! – Ernie

    • What a lovely message. Thank you for reading my work and taking the time to send these encouraging words.

      Please know that it’s taken me a long time to build up the courage and audacity to write these stories. All this is to say, be soft with yourself. It will take time and some pushing but you too will get there. Mad love, V

  2. Vanessa, thank you. When I read your work you put the words that I long to be able to wrote about growing up in Bushwick and even that complicated experience of being paired in life with a wounded mother. Thank you.

  3. ma’m i thank you for giving me the pleasure of reading such great experience…though m very young right now but would definately want my adulthood i may also be able to write such words!! thank you

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