‘How Do I Rediscover the Joy of Writing?’

It helps to fail on purpose.

‘How Do I Rediscover the Joy of Writing?’

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Dear reader,

It feels good to be writing to you again in 2021 or, if you’ve recently joined, to welcome you to this writing community. The ethos of The Reading is this: in writing, we realize our lives. I write to you because there were (and are still times) when I needed to be reminded that I wasn’t alone in the doubts, the frustrations, and the joys of talking to each other over time and space. I write to you because I know what it’s like to be away from where writing is supposed to be happening and what writing is supposed to look like. I write to you because we are all searching for something. I write to you to share in what we’ve found. Welcome. I hope to hear from you soon.

Now, on with the work.


Photo by Yanyi: The barn at Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York, is hidden partially behind a hill. Two large pine trees stand before it in the middle distance, winter grasses both standing up and hidden under winter snow.
Dear Yanyi,

I really liked the last answer you gave regarding goodness and the idea of being good enough. I have a related question - how do you stop judging your writing with a harshly critical eye and learn to nurture it with gentleness and tenderness? How do you rediscover the joy of writing and escape from the restrictive gaze of (self-inflicted) judgment and criticism?

I think a lot of writers, especially when we were young, wrote because it was fun and pleasurable. At least that was the case for me years ago. Now that I’m older and getting back into it, I notice that while I’m occasionally able to tap into the same feeling of freedom, play, and discovery I felt in my youth, such moments are fleeting and I often feel myself judging every word as soon as it lands on the page and every sentence as soon I close it with a period. Writing under so much self-imposed scrutiny has fostered a lot of insecurity and limited my creativity and output. I’m getting into meditation and mindfulness and all that so I’m definitely aware of when I’m being excessively harsh on myself, yet I’m unable to put a decisive lid on such behavior. I know I can’t expect to free myself from negative thoughts or habits overnight, and that some criticism can be healthy. Still, I’m wondering if you have some techniques or wisdom to share on this topic!

Sincerely,
Not The Best At Mindfulness

Dear NTBAM,

I spent some time getting to your letter because I had a few others that asked, partially, the same question you had about quelling the inner critic. You mention that you’ve been taking on meditation and mindfulness, which is a great first step to understanding that critical voice. I’ve also found therapy to be a helpful space to work out those knots—writing likely just happens to be one net for those negative thoughts to proliferate.

Now, I’m going to respond to your question about joy in writing through the overloaded talisman of the blank page. I’ve read in countless author interviews over the years about the torture of the blank page and the torture of writing. There’s all this talk, too, about how one only needs to show up for the blank page and the words will flow—which is it?

The blank page is not just a blank page. Written on it, in invisible ink, are all the assumptions you have brought to writing as work.

My partner and I are both fantasy lovers, so this spring we watched The Magicians. At one point on the show, the protagonists read a book of fate and notice that there’s a great blank spot. Fate ends there, and I thought to myself—what would I do if my fate ended at a great blank spot too? Then I remembered that with as much saving and planning I could muster, I had left a secure, well-paying full-time job in 2019 to pursue writing. I didn’t have to speculate. I was already sitting in that blank spot.

This week, over the phone, I explained to my editor that although I am the type to instantly respond to emails or get tasks over with as they come in, my work as a writer is not like that. It is more like watching a shaggy mass of dough rise overnight. It is bread, but it is not yet bread. And no staring on my end has anything to do with the shape it will take on the counter, then in the banneton, then in the oven. The bread will become itself. I just need to play my part.

At the time that I left tech, I didn’t believe this. I believed that writing is work and everything I learned about optimizing work, I brought to my writing.

At the beginning of my great blank spot, I started a Kanban board to track all of my writing work (Kanban is a project management methodology I learned on the job as an engineer). Reading a book or finishing a draft would yield a certain number of points. Soon, I was spending more time updating, organizing, and moving my progress cards than doing any sort of real writing. I rushed through books to get more points in. As for writing? Forget it. It was never predictable enough for my project management software, which also measured “volatility” of my points from week-to-week. I simply couldn’t finish writing tasks at a regular pace.

The Kanban board was just a manifestation of that will to optimize. Fundamentally, I wanted every word I wrote to be usable and flawless. I wanted the sentences to come out exactly right, or for the first drafts of poems to be the final drafts.

I didn’t like the feeling of failure, so I avoided it. I believed that self-surveillance was good, because surveillance was how capitalist interests had always coerced me to do my “best” work. Without surveillance, how would I measure success? More importantly, without surveillance, how would I prevent myself from predicting and avoiding failure? Failure I could not optimize. Failure I could not improve.

This is, of course, because I had never dealt with failure. I had never acknowledged my own record of wasting time as a writer. I was talented, so I wrote only when the mood struck, when inspiration hit, and more than likely whatever I wrote would be good, or at least good enough, to never revise again. In my mind, I never failed, nor did I waste time. Failure was wastage. Failure meant I had lost control of my time and therefore my life.

Perhaps intellectually we both know the capitalist notion of success, also known as victory, “winning,” or whatever the militaristic term it is today, is not only corporate slogan but also embedded in our models of normativity. “Success” is to be normal, and if you are not normal, then you better be successful.

Even now, it takes conscious effort for me not to write this letter to you from top to bottom, beginning to end. I am writing it, paragraph by paragraph, even sentence by sentence, out of order, following my thoughts as they appear rather than how I want them to appear.

Personhood, good personhood, lies in “succeeding” at normal life—I cannot simply be a man; I must succeed at being a man in order to be called a man. I cannot be a writer; I must succeed at being a writer. Once I am categorized in gender, race, body, and nationality, I can be measured to succeed at those identities.

Finding blankness in one’s life is not a matter of finding a blank page. Finding blankness—finding silence—is an active task. Real blankness must be created.

Actively doing nothing, resisting the urge to do anything—do you find yourself fidgeting? Thinking of the next problem or task you have to get done? Creating nothing, as you are probably learning in meditation, is the process of letting those urges flow through you without any action.

Because, let’s be frank: you are no longer a child. You have responsibilities. You need to provide for at least yourself in a capitalist society. For however long you’ve been in school, at least how long you’ve been an adult within capitalism, you’ve internalized the relationship between productivity and success, success with social validation and the security of your basic needs.

Like life as you know it, the blank page is not neutral. You’ve been raised in a world where blank space is a thing to be filled up, conquered, and then optimized. Much like the privatized commons, the blood-turned lands of settler-colonial states, and enslaved bodies, blankness has been the justification for extraction until destruction.

What happens to us in the disappearance of space? We no longer look at space as space, but as something wrong: a failure of optimization or even imagination. As astrologers like to say, “as above, so below.” If you remember your childhood, you’ll remember that it was once an open space, but also that it was filled with activity—joy, as you called it.

You can choose, however, to create nothing. Creating nothing is not neutral. Creating nothing requires what we know as failure on purpose. It requires that you make a mess of your mind. It requires that you deconstruct your relationship to creative writing as an occupation. It requires that you deconstruct your relationship to productivity, reconstruct your relationship to nothing.

When my partner and I moved into our new place, we brought the contents of, basically, a one-bedroom apartment to fill up a two-story house. We ordered more furniture because we were convinced that the space would need to be filled. Instead, we arranged the living room before the new furniture even arrived, finding it superfluous when we did, even though it was beautiful. We had not taken stock. As it turns out, what we had was enough.

When you ask children who they want to be when they grow up, they often list occupations they have heard or seen in the world we have presented to them. Your perspective now, NTBAM, is likely much more complex than the one you had when you were a child. There was less in the way of your play. The stakes of your actions have grown higher over the years. You have been watched. You’ve learned of the world more than you maybe ever wanted to. Make space for all that, and make, also, space for a little more.

If you haven’t taken a holiday from writing in a while, I suggest you try doing so. Do nothing during your writing time instead. Take stock of what you have and what you know. Clear a space—a physical space—where you can do anything, be anyone you want. Turn off the cameras and enjoy a place without surveillance. A place of purposeful failure. This is play—it is the anonymity of not mattering as much as you want.


Postscript: Approaching the blank page, a writing practice.


Opportunities

Apply to be a mentee in the Kundiman Mentorship Lab (1/15; NYC-based emerging Asian American writers). Apply to be an assistant editor at Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Apply to be the next fellow at UPitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (1/31; MFA/PhD; knowledge of African American poetics.)

This is an experimental section for various no-fee opportunities I’ve seen around since I’ve left social media. If you’d like to post a no-fee opportunity, you can reply to this newsletter email directly. I’ll do this for a few weeks to see if it sticks, so bear in mind that I might politely refuse as I figure out what I want this to look like. Let me know what you think in the comments below!


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About the author

Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019), winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Poetry, and named one of 2019’s Best Poetry Books by New York Public Library. His work has been featured in NPR’s All Things Considered, Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, and he is the recipient of fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Poets House. Currently, he is poetry editor at Foundry and teaches poetry at large. Find out more at yanyiii.com.

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