‘How Do I Dream Bigger for My Writing?’

You feel split because you are.

‘How Do I Dream Bigger for My Writing?’
[Photo by HK Goldstein: The camera lens focuses on a single brown tendril that twists out of the right of the frame. It twists up in a big arc and then tangles into itself at the end. Ice covers the whole of it, drops of rain hardened, still on their way to the ground. Out of focus, behind this scene, are many more branches shooting up and a snowy landscape behind.]

Welcome back to The Reading, an advice column for creative writers.

Hi there,

Happy Year of the Tiger! I’ve had some fabulous students both for my documentary poetry and lyric essay class (that continues next Saturday) since last month. For Dream of the Divided Field, I recorded my audiobook, you can now read two new poems at Granta, and sometime today sinθ magazine will be releasing their latest issue, where you can read an interview I did with them on the book and writing in general. Check back here and social media for upcoming tour dates in NYC, Vermont, and maybe even the West Coast.

Hotpot is back! My Writing Space for Asian diaspora writers returns this month on Sunday 27 February from 14:00–17:00 EST.

The normal Writing Space this month will be on Monday 21 February from 13:00–15:00 EST.

Finally, I’ll be in conversation with queer and trans Vietnamese poet Paul Tran for a virtual debut of their poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, on Thursday 17 February with Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn.

Since Mercury went direct last week, I’ve been feeling like the gravity blanket depression on me start to slip off. I’d been missing, a lot, the ability to easily be with friends and to meet new ones. I’ve been missing the previous happenings and intentions I used to call my life. But last week, I started moving the furniture in my psychic rooms (and in my office, too). I’m writing for secret projects again. It feels good.

Now, on with the work.

Image of book cover. Text: Dream of the Divided Field. On sale March 1, 2022.
Dear Yanyi,

Thank you so much for this newsletter. I’ve learned so much from reading it, including reassurance that I’m not alone in my writing struggles. I’m not sure I’ll be able to articulate my challenge, but here goes.

I have a day job in tech, which I do like. I derive satisfaction from doing my job well, interacting with colleagues, and helping customers. I also have a budding writing career, with some tangible successes, ie: good publications, kind reviews, respect from some writers I admire. Because I’ve made progress in both careers, one could say I’ve done a decent job at balancing. Thus far, I’ve been working hard at both, but of course most of my day is spent not-writing.

My problem is: I don’t know how to dream more, or dream bigger, for my writing career. I feel myself trying to keep my desires and expectations small, in order to shield myself from disappointment. At the same time, even just asking this demonstrates that I _do_ want more from my writing, right? But I have a fear of articulating or hoping for great things. I also feel guilty applying for residencies or fellowships when I make good money from my dayjob—even if, if I had those things, I would have more time to write.

I don’t want to pressure my art to provide for me materially. And I don’t know that my work is commercial enough to ever do that anyway…though I could, in a few years, save enough to take some time off. Sometimes, though, I think: Why not now? What if I might be good enough to live a life that’s mostly words? What if I _could_ write a book that could provide for me that way, or open those doors? What would it be like to not give myself another option? —and then I immediately shut that thinking down, because it’s scary to contemplate.

I find myself envying people who say they’re only good at writing, because then their path seems clearer. I know I’m lucky to have two careers. But the split life IS challenging, and I’m tired of keeping my dreams for my writing small, and of feeling ashamed about asking in the first place.

Sincerely,
Afraid to Dream

California

Dear AOD,

Thank you for reading and for writing this letter. I’ve previously written on my own process of leaving my last tech job, so I’ll leave the practicalities there. Today, instead, I’ll focus on your question of heart: you have a stable day job that’s balanced with a writing career, but you get this inkling that you’re cutting yourself short. In those moments, you give yourself a bit of room to dream about it, but you immediately—yup—cut yourself short because of a “fear of…hoping for great things.”

So, through a tiny example in your own letter, I would say yes, you are in your own way, as you’ve deduced already. But where you’re cutting yourself short is just as important to know as whether you’re doing it at all. Why, AOD, is it so horrible to hope for great things?

I think there’s a clue, again, in your letter. While you’re figuring out the right step to take, your day job arrangement remains the same. Yet, when you consider taking steps to give yourself more in the same circumstances, like going to a residency or getting a fellowship, you tell yourself that you don’t deserve it because of those circumstances—you have money while others don’t, and it would be inappropriate for you take up resources in light of that.

Perhaps residencies and fellowships, in your mind, are for real artists who you see as being rich in time but not in money. Every time you imagine yourself going to a residency, you also imagine these “real” artists who need it more than you do, from whom you are stealing a livelihood. Perhaps you believe your desires take away from someone else.

That’s the tricky thing about desires, right? To make them real, they take up space. They require action and follow-through in the world. You must act on behalf of your desires to reap the reward of making them real, but to make them visible in the world is also to make yourself vulnerable: in the case of a residency, to be shamed for taking a spot from someone who needs it more.

There’s some grief here, too. To acknowledge your dreams would be acknowledge that you are not satisfied, that you have not felt joy, and that perhaps you have cut yourself short so many times that you have lost your sense of how to ever find that person again.

It’s possible someone taught you, long ago, that not only were your desires inconveniences, but your basic needs were too. It’s possible that you were also taught that your desires were not to be trusted—that they made you naïve, and you were better off giving them up for a “greater good.”

Have you ever made a decision based not on what was true for you, but that seemed to be for the greater good? Perhaps you’ve skipped lunch in order to finish that important project for your boss. Perhaps you’ve stayed quiet while roiling with discomfort, physical or psychological. Perhaps, sometimes, you didn’t even get to make decisions: you’ve been trapped, more times than not, in situations you didn’t have the power to leave. And so you had to make it bearable, in whatever way necessary. You’ve survived while suffering, even thrived sometimes while doing it. But there was always something else that had to be done—a greater good, always, than you.

Greater goods come in many flavors. There’s the greater good of continuing the family legacy; the greater good of global citizenship; the greater good of being safe instead of wrong; the greater good of keeping the group’s peaceful dynamic; the greater good for an imaginary exotic or decrepit person, not you, never you, who deserved your care before it could ever get to you.

If there’s a greater good, then there’s a lesser good. Always second choice, always out of the way, always ignored until absolutely necessary. If there’s a greater good, then to pick the lesser good is at least shameful and foolish—at most, it is wicked and dangerous.

If this is familiar to you, if you treat yourself as a lesser good, then yes, you might have trouble dreaming bigger for your writing, because care for your writing is care for you. If you’ve spent your entire life deferring to greater goods, to causes more worthy than your own, then you’re years, maybe even decades, out of practice in answering to your desires, let alone knowing the right time to act on them.

Many of us, in one shape or another, are taught to enact the exact opposite. After a few years of exclamations about our cute imaginations, we’re taught to behave and be realistic; to tamp our dreams down rather than live them out. One might go from imagining fantastical epics with stuffed animals to filling out math drills, sitting still in class, and smiling when told, one docile body after another.

But dreaming carries on, albeit in a strained fashion. A trapped child, without a car or license, can get away in a book, or in a few moments of looking out the window. Dreaming becomes a vehicle of not being in this present, an optimism to palliate an ongoing unbearable. But that dreaming can become a compulsion, morphing from a child’s only escape into an adult’s gilded cage.

Because unlike children, adults can take action to make a difference in our lives. Dreaming may be easier than taking chances in life, but it’s an illusion of movement at best. So it’s not about dreaming bigger—it’s about dreaming and acting for what is right for you; it is about being present with yourself.

On being present, I offer Audre Lorde speaking in “Uses of the Erotic”, where she describes the erotic’s purpose as the “open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.”

You can’t dream bigger by only imagining it. A dream cannot be touched or tasted. But the fuel for dreams, like dreams in sleep, come from the experiences we live. You have to free yourself to receive them.

Perhaps your itch to take off from your day job comes from the trickle you’ve allowed yourself from your modest success up until this point. With just these experiences, you’re teetering on the edge of your life and can feel the change blowing in the wind. What changes would you make if you acted on more? While I don’t know what the right timeline is for you, I do think you’ll know the more you practice living on your own behalf.

That is, you don’t have to start big at all. Don’t think in months or years—just start with today. What is one small thing you want for yourself that isn’t for anyone else? How will you take up space today? How will you try stretching your body into response? One small act can show you the space you could take up—it can show you the as-of-yet discovered reaches of your own heart.

You ask “What if I might be good enough to live a life that’s mostly words?” But you don’t know need to be good enough to be right where you are. You don’t need to be good enough to act for what you want. You’re good enough, AOD. You’re good enough to claim your life as your own. You don’t need anyone else’s permission.


Postscript: Limitations of the phantom “we”


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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, 1 March 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.

To discover more letters and to find out more, check out the index.