Welcome back to The Reading. Last month, paid subscribers received the following:
- The postscript to May’s letter: On writing what’s “expected”
- The Writing: How do you write on top of everything else?
- The Writing: What techniques have you found to write long works effectively?
- The Writing: What are you working on this summer?
- The Writing: How do you know when to rest?
- The Writing: What's your relationship to reading (as a writer)?
- An invitation to join The Reading’s new Discord server
May was a busy month. I’ve just finished teaching this week, and quite a few of you joined me for one of the three sections I held for Starting a Paid Newsletter. If you weren’t able to make it, I’m refining the same materials for a course you’ll be able to find starting sometime this summer. As they say, watch this space.
To continue my promise to share technical knowledge when I left Substack, I’m excited to announce that I’m teaching an online technical intensive in July for those who want to learn how to self-host their newsletter on Ghost like I do, Building an Independent Paid Newsletter. This class is in partnership with Asian American Writers’ Workshop. In addition to being sliding scale ($200–300 USD), we’re actively looking for partners to sponsor scholarship seats.
After a short vacation in August, I’m also looking forward to an online one-day craft seminar on the lyric essay with Kundiman, Architectures of Resonance: Writing the Lyric Essay. Scholarships will also be available for this. August is a ways away, but I’m already thinking about how we’re going to spend our time together.
Elsewhere, I added my two cents to Creative Capital’s how-to guide on email newsletters for artists and was one of a few facilitators for UCI Medical Humanities Center’s collective Pandemic Tarot Card making sessions. Check out the resulting card.
Happy Pride. My quiet goal for the month is to take my film camera out again.
Now, on with the work.
Thank you so much for all the thoughtful labour you have given to this newsletter. I enjoy every installment.
I am a few years out of my undergraduate degree, and have since been working a nine to five job to save money for a Master’s in Literature. During that time, I’ve had a handful of small poetry publications, put a lot of work into a novel, and tossed ideas around for several critical essays. Most of my close friends are in a similar situation – working, studying, or job-seeking full-time while engaging in creative work on the side.
My worry is that I am not prolific or talented enough to get anywhere with my writing. This has been compounded by the pandemic, which has had a severe impact on my productivity in both my job and my writing.
I see my friends repeatedly put their writing and criticism into the world for the joy of it, while I struggle to get anywhere without external pressure. I know that part of this is that they are, for the most part, self-publishing on newsletters and social media whereas I prefer to go via literary magazines. I still envy their drive and talent and worry that I lack it myself. This is in spite of me knowing rationally that we’re all just trying our best to get our fledgling careers going in a world that doesn’t reward this kind of work very well, and none of us is meaningfully ahead of the others. I want to be authentically happy for their successes and appreciate their work, not quietly resent them for it.
It doesn’t help that the state of the world currently has me severely doubting whether any of us will ever be able to build sustainable careers from our writing. I’ve made so much progress on my novel – which is looking to be a beast that will take me several more years to complete – yet can’t catch a glimpse of the finish line, let alone imagine what it looks like.
I feel I’ve lost faith in my ability to finish things and share them with the world. How do I set aside all this resentment and doubt and find the will to move forwards?
Racing For Schroedinger’s Medal
I’d be willing to bet that the question at the end of your letter is haunting many others reading this today. We’re living through a catastrophe of a lifetime, one whose repercussions are as monumental as they are unknown. You know that literature has never been a stable option, but now you’re watching many more possible career paths, even previously guaranteed ones, slipping past the edge. You get to feel a bit uncertain. Uncertainty is the air around us.
I have bad news so I’ll front with it here: I don’t have a magic way to make that uncertainty go away. Doing away with it would require doing away with life itself right now. But what I can do is be your friend and share a bit of the hope I have on hand.
You and your friends are not alone in this model of working day and night to survive and seed your hopes for another life. For that’s what these side hustles are, aren’t they? They’re glimmers of the lives you actually want under the decades-old carpets of the lives you have.
Well, fifteen months of COVID-19 has brought the mold onto those tracts. Perhaps what was irritating before must now be dealt with. Perhaps you’ve been robbed of the resources you usually have to cope with resentment—remembering the mutual support of writing in cafes with those same friends, for example, or making a connection with a writer you admire at a reading you’ve attended. Perhaps your workplace has subtly asked you to take on more hours, not less, since you’ve been relieved of your commute. Perhaps you can’t grit your teeth through the day anymore. In small and large ways, perhaps you’ve had enough.
But enough of what? I’d like to know this too. Because from the tone of your letter, you sound burnt out. When I was in this state in the past, I couldn’t stop the negative thoughts from flying about the people around me. When I finally got around to writing, it was as if an invisible plug was blocking me from accessing my thoughts.
When you’re burnt out, you may want to hold generous feelings for your friends, but nothing comes out when you turn the spigot. You may want to write more and publish often, as the writing advice might have you do, but you find that you’re just too slow, at least slower than the writer friends around you.
Scarcity and uncertainty has left you with less energy and more fear. The meritocracy you may have grown up with teaches that if you’re going too slow, then you need to work harder to catch up. If you’re not performing to the standards you want, then it’s up to you to get it together and pull yourself up.
In a state of emergency, we might look to our left and right to watch how everyone else is putting on their life jackets. You might look to your friends because you’re tired and you wonder if anyone else is feeling this way. So how awful it must feel to look around and see your friends floating easily in the distance! Instead of commiserating with them about your common, fledgling careers, your meritocracy brain sees a new standard you must race to meet.
The problem is, you’re already running on empty. Your comparing yourself to your friends has the net effect of making you work harder when you most need rest. “Ignore that feeling! Refuse that pain! You’ll be able to rest if you just go a little further!” says the voice running laps around your inner monologue. And if you can’t? “Is that all you’re made of?” that voice might retort.
At the end of your letter, you explain that you’ve “lost faith in [your] ability to finish things and share them with the world.” In other words, you’ve lost faith in yourself, and I would venture to guess that you’re afraid that this is a permanent reflection of who you are and not just a result of the pandemic and a generational shift in wealth (see: the US boomer generation holds 70% of the national wealth here; millennials have 6%). That’s meritocracy brain too.
You might imagine everyone as having the same life jacket, when the reality is that some people are treading water on a stray door while others can hop on their getaway yachts. The state of the world is not equal. It’s not your fault that all you got was this lousy door.
Which leads me to my larger point—you’re internalizing the inequities of the world as your own incapability to overcome. If you lionize the individualistic can-do attitude, you likely believe that these obstacles are personal challenges to test your resolve. Taking initiative to overcome obstacles is admirable, right? However, the can-doer may try to individually solve a problem as large as, oh, a historic shift in one’s national economy, stubbornly putting more and more energy into it, but they’ll never catch a break with an issue at that size. The constant problem-solving turns into anxiety. The anxiety turns into the sidelong glance at others and, with it, resentment for those who seem to be doing better.
But how do you know they’re doing better? Perhaps they’re self-publishing more frequently but secretly envy you, who’s publishing slowly in literary magazines and working on a novel, work that might pay off with the traditional publishing industry. Perhaps they’re self-publishing because they don’t believe they’re legitimate enough to try. Everyone is looking at each other, trying to figure out how to seem good. Your task now is look away so you can define what’s good enough for you.
RFSM, what you most need right now is your faith in yourself. You can’t just give yourself an “I believe I can do anything” sticker and get that over with—you need concrete proof that you can get the outcomes that you want. In other words, you need proof that you still have control over the things that matter to you.
Regaining control means scaling back from any goals that require other people and to look at the aspects of your life you can provide for yourself. While you were working day in and day out, what attention have you been able to play in the space you move through every day? Do you find delight in the food you’re making yourself? Have you done anything in the last week that brought you a new possibility for the pleasures of life?
Taking responsibility for your own life can have unintended (and painful) side effects at first. It requires you to face what you have chosen to make small. For me, I had to move through the grief of not being able to call home to ask about the proper rituals for cleaning a house. From there, I had to move through the unfairness of not getting the care I deserved. From there, I had to move through the pain of being all by myself.
It was years later that I could understand that I wanted shortcuts through this process and pursued those instead: I wanted a romantic relationship to distract me from my care; I wanted my career to take off so I could buy my happily-ever-after. I refused to take care of myself because a part of me was still making space for my family to reappear.
Having faith in myself meant confronting my grief. I had to grow, inch by inch, into the space I had left for my family. I learned, in that process, that pursuing success is a decoy from doing that work. Scaling back allowed me to fumble, but still do, the love I was learning to give myself.
All this doesn’t mean you can’t make larger goals. The older I get, the more I understand I have very little control over the goings-on of the world while also having, sometimes shockingly, a big role to play in it. The difference between what I believed then and what I believe now is how much I trust the element of surprise.
You can’t grasp the finish line of your novel because you’re not meant to see how it ends before it ends—there must be room for an unexpected turn, space for you to make a choice you couldn’t have seen in the outline. That’s us, you see, caught in the grip of life, moving through Sunday to Saturday.
This is true even for those of us who have written books before. As a writer, if I want to grow, the beginning of a new book is always a new way of writing. For that’s the thing—the things we held onto before the pandemic were worked for—stability doesn’t just happen out of thin air. It’s fought for; protested for; developed despite of and during the blank of a generational moment. It must happen—it will—if we want to get to our ends.
The world has ceased to model a way out of this uncertainty. So now it’s up to you. You can’t be sure of something you’ve never done, but you can turn toward those around you and notice your friends discovering new paths—not just paths of publication, but paths in how to live. You will need each other.
All of us are about to ask ourselves if we’re ready to make a life never taught to us, never shown us. It’s a life where you can’t trust a kind of sensibility in the world any longer. And it’s important to learn together, to find those who share what you really want, so you can take action for that future. Nothing’s guaranteed. And the things you do take for granted require a certain amount of faith because yes, it probably won’t be everything you want, but success might mean that it’s workable, good enough, and something we can all hold onto.
Elsewhere with Yanyi
Want to learn how to self-host your newsletter? Take Building an Independent Paid Newsletter with me at Asian American Writers’ Workshop in July (starts 7/6; 4 sessions). Scholarships will be available.
What’s a lyric essay and how might you write one? I’ll be teaching Architectures of Resonance: Writing the Lyric Essay with Kundiman in August (8/22; one session). Scholarships available.
Note: Both these workshops are limited to writers of color. If that’s not you, stay tuned for more opportunities in the future.
- Become an apprentice at the Feminist Press (6/17; $15/hr; remote).
- Apply to be the new Digital Communications Coordinator at Asian American Writers’ Workshop (temporarily remote/NYC).
- Apply to be one of five Poetry Coalition fellows at Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Beyond Baroque, In-Na-Po (Indigenous Nations Poets), Lambda Literary, and Zoeglossia (7/6; paid).
- Apply to be a new faculty member at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (rolling; terminal degree in various fields from African American History to Trans Studies).
- Take a class at the OS's Liminal Lab, like Unmaking the Compartmentalized World: Poetics Against Possession with Maryam Parhizkar (starts 7/15).
- Do an interview for an oral histories project: A nonbinary Chinese-American student at Columbia University is conducting research on the impact of COVID-19 on the trans/nonbinary Chinese-American community. If you or someone you know is interested in participating or have any questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org!
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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.