I struggled with writing today’s letter. I just had so much to say on the topic, in several deep directions. I’m happy with how it turned out, finally, at the nth hour! I hope it moves you.
Preorder Dream of the Divided Field
Yanyi is a terrific poet, one who's written for us a book to read when we wake in the middle of the night and need a voice that is filled with longing, and truth, delight of being, despite all the painful odds.
—Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic
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Now, on with the work.
I really loved your letter on rejection from last week, so much so that I tried it as a journaling exercise: “acknowledging that missing part, knowing intimately what it is, and loving yourself so much that you are willing to transform in order to try and try again”. But as I journaled, I realized (and this realization has been coming on for a while) that my missing part isn’t external validation, but simply… talent. What do you do when you realize you are flatly untalented, but you still like writing? Do you continue, embarrassing yourself and anyone who reads your work (because, of course, embarrassingly, I still want my writing to be read)? Do you do yourself and the world a favor and stop?
I know, I know. “What is talent without hard work?” “Many writers weren’t the most talented, but the ones who stuck with it.” But, you have to have a bit of talent, no? Even if just as a base. Even if just as potential. A bird can fly longer and higher as their muscles develop, but a turtle will not fly, no matter how many times they throw themselves off a ledge.
Anyway, I’ve been throwing myself at writing for some years now: writing or editing every day, reading regularly, analyzing other people’s writing, taking classes, submitting, joining mentorship programs… Not good enough to get published or win awards, not bad enough to lose hope completely. I think I did know I couldn’t cut it all along, but so many people around me were so kind and encouraging (I was so lucky to have them, this is not a complaint at all!) that I missed all the signs telling me I should give up. But now that I’ve had this realization, it’s hard to unrealize that even if I worked as hard as I could, the best I could hope for is mediocrity.
Thank you in advance!
Just A Turtle
My first impulse, when I read your letter, was to tell you immediately that awards and publication are meaningless, but that would be disingenuous, coming from someone who has received both. Awards and publication do matter, but they don’t matter in the way that you think. You see them as indicators of your innate ability. And why wouldn’t you? From challenge programs, IQ tests, and writing contests, we’re taught from a young age that there’s such a thing as natural aptitude. Kids are corralled and separated between average and honors. Now, as adults, our stories are awarded first, second, and third place; our poetry collections are either published, finalists, or rejected.
We could go further down this industry critique, JAT, and I have in today’s postscript, but it wouldn’t tell you anything very new about the structural issues in the world, and it doesn’t quite get to what I’d rather do in these letters: talking about writing as it means to you, and what you can do. The structural issues do matter, unequivocally yes, but their influences are not the only possibilities. Life is not, as much as it may feel like, a corporate, imperialist, and patriarchal Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. And giving in to the game as the only reality only leaves us deeper in it.
Instead, I want to tell you a story, as you’ve told yours to me. When I was young—I don’t mean twenty, I mean I was eight or so—I very badly wanted to be a writer. By then I was starting to read through maybe even a hundred books a year, which I would do until middle school. Every year in elementary school, there was a contest called Young Authors, to which every student could submit a ten-page story. Every year, I started a story for Young Authors with the meticulous detail necessary to begin a 400-page novel. Inevitably, the tenth page would come too early in the story, and I would be forced to end them disastrously—either with to be continued or an abrupt plot twist that annihilated everything I had started. I had read so many fantasy books by then that I knew exactly how I wanted my book to feel when I read it. So when that tenth page rolled around, it was never quite what I had envisioned.
However, as you know, I was also eight. I didn’t have the life experiences of a 35-year-old. My knowledge of interpersonal, societal, and geological dynamics were, shall we say, immature. They were, at best, received patterns from books that were themselves only representations of reality. But when one is eight, these considerations aren’t part of the equation. I continued to submit my stories to Young Authors, believing them to represent my merit alone. The contests would pass them over. Eventually, I took the silence as verdict, and I stopped writing fiction.
Why did my eight-year-old self still send those stories, even though I knew they weren’t as good as I wanted? I held out hope that somehow an adult would read them and see the diamond in the rough, and that I would be singled out, exempted from having to hold court in the desert, and someone would lead me all the way to the oasis in which I belonged. My stories were imperfect and barely started, just like me. I wanted an adult to see me as I hoped I was. I wanted an owl to deliver me a magical acceptance letter at eleven; I wanted to be the heir to an ancient kingdom.
Perhaps we want talent because, simply, we want to be chosen. It’s not so much I cared about being called gifted. It’s the fact that I had already learned, at eight, that no one would come hold me if I wasn’t. Talent is the name we give it because talent is what adults see—a marvelous performance, seemingly natural and magic, that comes from children. But children know more than what we give them credit for. I remember the work I put into those stories. I remember how badly I wanted them—and me—to be loved.
You’re not missing talent, JAT. You’re not missing external validation, either. You’re missing care.
When we’re coming into consciousness, we need other people to reflect to us not only our selves as we are but also the selves we could potentially be. Without that reflection, all we have are wild guesses in the dark. The vast, dark ocean. The endless dust of the desert. It’s not the endlessness of potential, but the endlessness of being lost.
Our first way finders, our markers, are the caretakers in our lives. They point in directions we might try to go in; they keep the lights on so we can find our ways back. It’s the absence of this attention that makes us feel that our risks were not enough, or that our risks are too great.
Your potential retreat has nothing to do with your love of writing. Rather, you seem to be at the precipice of a difficult truth of your life. That is, when you said at the end of your letter “that even if [you] worked as hard as [you] could, the best [you] could hope for is mediocrity,” you were talking about yourself. But is this really about you? Or have you, in your life, always been working this hard, only to receive mediocrity in return?
As children, we don’t have the worldly knowledge to understand our caretakers. We only have the power see them appear and disappear from our lives. We know that we want to be loved and will learn what we need to to get it. So we grow up, reinforced by the worldly systems that reward the same behavior: trying to improve our performances, then waiting for love. No one tells you, as a child, what you should have had.
Talent is the internalized, mythic substitute for what you deserved to have, but didn’t. You deserved safety and belonging. You deserved a stable place from which to roam. You deserved a way to fail without losing your worth, a number-one-fan you didn’t have to impress. You deserved someone who could tell you about the world; someone who could tell you that you already had a place in it.
It’s easier, in a way, to turn on ourselves as the reason for our pain. As children, it’s all we have to make sense of it. If it’s about who we are, then there’s hope that we can change and control it. For a while, proving that you had talent was the thing you could work at—it was the thing you could control. Improving over another year of classes, for example, or finally winning that contest. But with all these rejections, your fears are getting confirmed, and the hope you had is getting smaller.
It would be less painful to just give up. If you’re untalented, then the rejections can be explained away. There’s no reason for you to face the pain you truly feel when you receive them. There’s no embarrassment about your desire to be loved, because you can conclude that you’ll never be loved.
But is it true that you’ll never be loved? Yes, JAT, it may be time for you to take a break from writing, but not because you’re mediocre. The adult version of this industry, the talent-mongering side of it with its ulterior motives, has stripped the fun from what you love to do. I want you to take a break from that part, the part about being published and winning awards.
I want you to journal, instead, about the first time you ever wrote. What can you remember creating, from childhood to now? Who was there to witness it? Can you be the witness you never had? Go back and do your due diligence. Give love to that person for every attempt. Your writing can start with an audience of one. But at least it will be a genuine one.
Calling yourself untalented defends you from disappointment, but doing so means erasing all that you have done over these years. To do so means to keep out not only the rejections, but also every person who has tried to give you encouragement and care. It erases, especially, the thin light you’ve kept alive over the years, despite everything you’ve gone through and the neglect you’ve faced.
What ever happened to that eight-year-old? Well, I indeed stopped writing fiction, but only as an interlude. In the years after, I started drawing and playing violin. And some more years later, I would come upon a book of poetry at the library. I started writing for myself and thin light though it was, the path was lit enough to keep going. I stopped, again, when I didn’t win prizes. But this time, it was right before college, when my first-year literature professor would give us an option to write a story or an essay, and then, later, ask if I’d ever taken a writing class. The rest is history.
I had never stopped writing. I would choose it every chance I got. But I needed someone to notice me, someone to care. I’m not ashamed to admit this now because I know what it did for me. More than publications or prizes ever have, care told me not only that I mattered, but that I mattered to someone else.
Like me, you may not be able to keep writing without it, JAT, and it doesn’t have to come through writing. But don’t stop writing because you need it still, and it hasn’t yet arrived. The love you enact doesn’t have to look like the love you’ve received. Keep writing for yourself. Let your own light fill your life, and never let it out. Someone is on their way. Practice letting them stay when they arrive.
Postscript: On cultural capitalism and talent
Elsewhere with Yanyi
- (Tomorrow!) 8 November 2021, 10:00 EST. Writing Space with Yanyi, online. Limited to 20 participants, $5 or free for The Reading subscribers.
- 14 November 2021, 13:00 EST. Hotpot, online. A Writing Space for Asian diaspora writers only. Free.
- 5 December 2021, 12:00 EST. Writing Space with Yanyi, online. Limited to 20 participants, $5 or free for The Reading subscribers.