Have you been searching for an answer about a writing quandary but haven’t been able to find one? Write to me.
After the publication of my first book—a chapbook, well received and successful by my modest standards—I spent the next six years writing, revising, and submitting two books that I now believe will not be published. These were tumultuous years for me, personally, politically, and artistically. My children were very young, my partner was, at times, very ill, and an election unsettled me deeply and called me to new kinds of labor and activism. I poured my emotional energy into writing in ways that were new to me. I wrote in new genres and new registers and often felt like I was really finding my way in the dark. I was able to reduce my paid work so that I could focus on writing. Though both books were close to publication through various channels, it never happened. After extended periods of complimentary rejection and finalist status, I just want to work on and believe in something new. But it’s hard to re-enter that state of belief that this thing I’m working on will someday be read. I have now, recently, been wrong about that twice. I feel haunted by the experience of having written and abandoned these books when I wrote them so earnestly and so hard. I believe I’m a better writer than I’ve ever been, but I don’t know how to move on again without some hope that this new project might connect.
Starting Over & Over & Over
Your question comes to me while we are at opposite ends of the writing process. I think I am close to finishing a book. You are starting a new one. But soon I will be where you are, asking my life again what it asks of me.
Your situation, of course, is different from mine. You’ve written not one, but two books, and as much as you’ve rallied and held out hope for their acceptance, perhaps listening to all those who explain that publication is a “numbers game,” your intuition tells you that it’s time to give up. The problem, it sounds, is that you’re not quite ready to do that.
You’ve written to me at an impasse of hope. When your life bequeaths such an impasse to you, it behooves you to listen. You may not get another chance for a while.
I am being fully woo-woo about this and you may even be annoyed with this response. I assure you, when this happens to me, I do not feel grateful for the universe’s message. I get frustrated; I go kicking and screaming. In fact, I was doing just that for most of the past two months. It is only on the other side now that I can say this to you with such calm.
SOOO, I can tell that you’re ambitious. You tell me that these past six years have been tumultuous for you—attending to the needs of your children, caring for your sick partner, and caring for the world at large. Your ambition and optimism show in how you wrote two books anyway—books that, according to you, pushed you further out from your usual registers and genres. Books, as you said, that were all about “[finding] your way through the dark.”
You worked hard. You’ve done what I often tell others to do in these letters, making space in your work life for these dreams to happen. You were earnest, perhaps, because you felt that the work you were doing was new and exciting to you, even you at your most genuine. You believed the work was inspiring because it inspired you. Perhaps the modest success of your chapbook—however you are measuring it—set the tone for what felt possible. It makes your close misses, which are usually hopeful, difficult rejections to swallow.
I hear, loud and clear, how you can’t do it again. Something’s holding you back from getting on with it: you feel guilty for abandoning these other two books. Perhaps you are also exhausted this time—psychically and physically. You can’t muster the strength to hold your breath, pull it all together again, and start a new practice; a new book; a new hope. To plumb even further into yourself and your work. How much longer, you may be wondering, do you have to find your footing in the dark? At a certain point, it doesn’t seem fair. At a certain point, the hope’s not there.
At the beginning of one’s writing life, hope comes from what is not yet done. Empty space, as I wrote to NTBAM last week, is vast and unarticulated. It swims with possibility. There is no limit to what can happen. So you imagine your life without limitations. And how motivating is that?
Before I published my first collection, I often heard that I would likely write more, but that I only get one first book. One chance to make the splash that would draw attention to your work for the rest of your career. One chance to set the tone of your reputation—your style, your voice, your concerns. At the same time, if you’re lucky, you’ll also have people cheering you on: some people who love your poems about X, others who love your writing about Y. Your dreams will multiply with their influence, for your avenues of success will seem various and long.
But you can get lost in the dreams of that primordial soup. Dreams are ambitious because they are certain. In them, household chores have been done; the years spent working have already passed; the rewritings dissolve beneath final versions. Dreams can be summarized into stories. Lives cannot.
Dreams had are not dreams realized. And the realizing part is perhaps the most painful not only because of how we disappoint ourselves with our work, but also because there is no certainty in achieving what we are trying to achieve. Ambition can bring focus and tenacity, but it is the view from the summit, not the steps you take getting there.
Although you’ve already scaled two boulders, you’re now staring at a slab of rockface, unable to see a grip. You are at an impasse, but the work of an impasse isn’t getting over it. The work of the impasse is understanding why you’re being held here. Perhaps the universe knows you don’t give yourself stillness, so it’s taken matters into its own hands.
Before you can move on, SOOO, you have to ask yourself what these two books really mean to you. Were they your companions over these past six years? Places of joy, of comfort, of discovery, when the needs of others overcame your own? Or were they the first steps you took to saying what you meant, not following what you were expected to? Did they count as victories even if your ambition can’t account for them?
At the first accounting of success, your standards were “modest.” You tempered your expectations while your ambition is large, so your hope is stuck on what seems large next: a reading public as big as the world. But a reading public can’t experience the years you groped through the dark. A reading public can’t fathom what you chose to do in order to find your way. Just because the public, your colleagues, or even your family can’t see the value in what you’ve done doesn’t make what happens to you and only you any smaller in proportion. A reading public can’t tell you that you are good as you are. A reading public can’t tell you that you’re not.
The measure of your life must be in proportion to your self. So too is the work you do. Much of what happens is invisible, even to ourselves, until the universe demands that we pay attention. It may not be that you’re meant to get to the top of this mountain with these books, but neither books nor mountains are done with you. What you did together will stay with you forever.
When you are always moving forward, you forget to remember. What have you learned about your practice as a writer? What did they give you that is worth grieving now? Something is calling you back to where you started. Look from where you are. Retrace your steps. It is only in returning to the beginning can you truly appreciate how far you’ve gone.
Postscript: Facing it—a grief exercise.
Apply for the Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Award for Emerging LGBTQ Writers (2/15; LGBTQ writers with 1-2 books). Apply to be an Undocupoets fellow (2/28; LGBTQ poets previously or currently undocumented). Apply for resident at Baldwin for the Arts (3/15; BIPOC; $10 fee).
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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). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.