2020 in Letters: The Reading in Review
An index of letters and discussions from 2020.
Have a writing-related issue that’s been gnawing at you? The letterbox for The Reading is getting low. I’d love to answer you in 2021!
At the beginning of 2020, The Reading did not exist. I was coming back with a friend from a week at another place, the usual way I like to start a new year. I lived in an apartment I thought I wouldn’t leave for a few years and I was not in love (yet). Early this spring, One World bought my second book, Dream of the Divided Field. I rediscovered my love of New York City, visiting the same museums over and over again. I visited classrooms around New York City to talk about The Year of Blue Water. I spent many days reading at the library, other days in class. I attended 2 out of 6 classes for an introduction to modern dance class. A date to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in March would mark the last time I saw its rose garden or the wisteria arches on the way over to it. Then I moved, suddenly, for what I thought would be a temporary thing. I made some hard choices. My friends got sick, but most got better. I bought a stand mixer and then nurtured a sourdough starter. Too many others got sick and did not get better. I kept going through the motions of productive student and writer. I bought a car that came with a lot of troubles. I didn’t write for months. Then I paused for the summer in the woods, not knowing where my next address would be. The poetry world imploded a little, but also not at all. Revolutions stirred. I decided to start an advice column about writing and it was bigger than I expected. I became a Substack fellow. I wrote a lot about work, money, and work again. I wrote about belonging and choosing better for oneself in almost every one of my letters. I moved from storage unit to storage unit, then finally to a new home with a no-incompatibilities-on-CoStar love. I taught a class of lovely students. I gave a talk on uncertainty, poetry, and fascism. Elections were hard-won. I built my first gingerbread house. I read to my computer, then had to get a new computer. My hair grew long. I panicked, but it was all right. I’m baking the same yule log I made last year. I’m thinking about the future.
It’s been incredible to hear from you both on and off Substack. I’m humbled and so honored to be a part of your life, whether you’re a reader, a letter-writer, or just have stumbled upon this post. Thank you for sharing the letters that reminded you of someone; thank you for paying to support these letters; thank you for being here, still.
What follows below is a compilation of the year behind us but that will always be carried with us. Subscribers will hear from me one more time with a letter of questions for the new year and a sneak peek to what I hope to bring to The Reading in 2021.
Top 3 Recommendations of 2020
Here were the top posts mentioned in this week’s The Writing by your fellow travelers based on most likes:
3. ‘Why Can’t I Do My Edits?’ (tie)
Voted in by Vivian: “You managed to articulate an inner/subconscious conflict that I'd been grappling with for years without realizing.”
In revisions, you have to explain who you are as a writer, what you value, what you’ll stand up for, what you might change: details as minute as punctuation and as large as characters. You not only have to explain, but you must act, you must try out, you must make against the possibility of failure. There is no such thing as escaping uncertainty: there is only the choice to act in spite of it.
3. ‘How Do I Feel Less Lonely?’ (tie)
Voted in and excerpted by Zoe: “I went and scrolled through the archive just now to find the part that stuck with me, because it got at a part of the writing life I had never seen described before:
The loneliness of a writer is that of having chosen something completely for yourself. It is the loneliness of many mornings or nights writing words that you hate or fear. It is the loneliness of not yet being able to love them. It is the loneliness of setting your own pace of how you should write, when you should write, what you should write, and whether you should write. It is the loneliness of entering an empty room in the morning. It is the panic, the terror, of not yet having a start, a place, a role, a preset meaning for what you are doing. It is the loneliness of responsibility, of finally having the time you wanted, of finally being alone, but alone with the doubt, perhaps, that you are not who you wanted to be.”
2. ‘Do I Have to be Out as a Writer?’
Voted in by Ani: “I was like, wow, *you can do that?* Love it when a piece of literature does that to me, and creates a sense of possibility.”
If you close your eyes, you won’t be able to look at any of these reflections. A closet is also a safe and private space. It’s yours. You can choose, once and for all, to throw those mirrors out. If you close your eyes, that’s the beginning of coming out. It’s not an event like crossing a border. It’s not determined by what we see in others’ mirrors, but the portraits we draw from memory; the words we learn to write for ourselves, that show who we are. Those reflections of who we’re supposed to be are what we predict when we’re afraid to make mistakes. There is no failure for a life that has no model. To shape your life after what you want and not someone else’s model of perfection—that’s a lifetime of coming out.
1. ‘How Can I Work, Write, and Be Part of a Family?’
Voted in by Tom: “It's rewired how I think about my own writing and my relationship to my family.”
We all deserve to be accountable to ourselves. In partnerships, this means being honest with yourself as much as each other. It means laying out your dreams, no matter how wild yours seem; it means really listening to, and believing in, the value of theirs. The work is more than closing the office door: it’s the dishes and laundry, the days we lose to grief, the moments in your child’s life when they need to be reminded you are there. All this, too, is the work. All this, too, is your life.
I must mention ‘I Can’t Build a Daily Habit!’ and ‘How Do I Write About My Identity Authentically?’, the very first letters that started this newsletter. These were both instrumental in helping me understand what I was writing and what it could mean for others.
Index (July 2020–December 2020)
- ‘I Can’t Build a Daily Habit!’
- ‘How Do I Write About My Identity Authentically?’
- ‘I Can’t Write Through Chaos!’
- ‘Money Seems More Real Than My Art.’
- ‘I Wrote My First Draft. Where’s the Second?’
- ‘Can My Novel Include a Country’s Stereotype Responsibly?’
- ‘How Do I Get Through My MFA Program?’
- ‘Do I Have to be Out as a Writer?’
- ‘I Can’t Bring Myself to Write Anymore.’
- ‘I Hate Hating When My Friend Gets Ahead of Me!’
- ‘How Do I Feel Less Lonely?’
- ‘When Will I Know That I’m Good Enough?’
- ‘I’m Successful, But I Feel Like a Fraud.’
- ‘Am I Too Old to Emerge?’ (with audio)
- ‘I’m Tired of Working So Hard for So Little.’ (with audio)
- ‘Why Can’t I Do My Edits?’ (with audio)
- ‘How Can I Work, Write, and Be Part of a Family?’ (with audio)
- ‘Am I Allowed Writing Resources If I Don’t Belong?’ (with audio)
- ‘I Think I’m a Writer, But What Kind Am I?’ (with audio)
- ‘Where Do I Find Inspiration?’ (with postscript)
- ‘How Do I Overcome My Inner Critic?’ (with postscript)
- ‘Is My Friend Taking Advantage of My Edits?’ (with postscript)
- ‘Is There a Way to Read With Love?’ (with audio)
- How are you writing (or not) this year? How are you?
- What do you wish you had learned in your first writing class?
- Should I get an MFA if…I want structure around my writing?
- Should I get an MFA if…I live in New York City?
- What’s the best feedback you’ve ever received in a writing workshop? How do you give and receive it?
- How do you negotiate the workshop gaze?
- Should I get an MFA…if I want a writing community?
- What’s the most important thing you took away from doing (or not doing) an MFA?
- What tools or apps have radically changed (or enhanced!) your writing practice?
- How do you write when you have “nothing to say?”
- Do you have a writing playlist? If so, what do you listen to?
- What are your completion rituals?
- What do you do in the face of uncertainty?
- What’s your favorite revision technique?
- What piece are you most proud of? And ask me anything!
- What’s inspiring you lately? (+ help me decide on something new)
- Have you ever switched genres? Do you write in more than one?
- What book do you gift the most? (+ some craft book recommendations)
- What’s your favorite letter from The Reading in 2020?
- Happy Pride(!) in the Time of Coronavirus (the one that started it all!)
- Beginning The Writing (introduction to the Wednesday discussions on community, craft, and industry advice)
- ‘Is the Bird I Am Holding Living or Dead?’ (when I realized I couldn’t do a letter during moving week)
- ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ (going paid announcement)
Until Lunar New Year 2021
- Order a signed copy of The Year of Blue Water or a signed bookplate
- Give someone a gift subscription to The Reading and receive a handwritten note
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