‘How Do I Find Joy in Big Writing Projects?’

You're juggling two minds, but you only need one.

Hi there,

May was discombobulating for me. Just ask my therapist—I managed to completely forget about my appointments three weeks in a row. I hope you have done better. Or can commiserate. A special thanks to the regulars who keep showing up at Writing Space. Writing quietly with you all has been unexpectedly grounding as my practice, like me, has been thrown around a bit. I look forward to writing together again this month.

Tomorrow, I am giving a lecture on the making of Dream of the Divided Field to close out the incredible 6-week poetry manuscript class I taught with One World last month. Then, on June 21st, Luther Hughes and I will be in conversation at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. Due to COVID concerns, it’s looking like the event will be virtual now, but I will still be town and you’ll be able to find some pre-signed books there!

Writing Space returns with some short lunch sessions this month. Discount code for members at the end of this letter, as usual. Sign up for a session here: 6/8 (12:00–13:00), 6/9 (17:00—19:00), 6/15 (12:00–13:00), 6/30 (17:00—19:00).

Also, Foundations of Asian American Studies with Ida Yalzadeh starts in July! The course is limited to 15 Asian diaspora students. Limited scholarships are available by application.

Finally, The Reading letterbox is still pretty low. Share the The Reading with a friend in need or if you have a dilemma that you feel I could help with, I hope to hear from you.

Now, on with the work.

Dear Yanyi,

Over the past year, I’ve been reflecting on how writing has lifted me up from lulls and difficult times, mostly because it’s been failing to do so of late. It’s been jolting to realize that I’ve relied upon the pleasure I get from making a good sentence, and later from the calm of completing something I worked on, for my well being more than anything else for the past ten years. I’m at a bit of a loss now that the once-reliable bootstrapping technique is failing me. I have been lucky to have good support systems in my life, but protracted pandemic isolation has made it harder to find resonance in some of those other places as well.

I recently told someone that I liked writing for how quickly I could close the execution gap between what I wanted to make (a sentence) and that thing existing in the world. In contrast, making visual art when I was younger felt like I was constantly working against a technique deficit where nothing I made lived up to my ideas. I really enjoy the buzz of generating an idea, and then tending to it with relative immediacy and bringing it into the world, as I discovered with writing short stories and essays in college. Now, writing a dissertation (and, lately, tending to the seedlings of an idea for a novel that took me by surprise) is a much different kind of writing that involves far more revision and refinement than ideation. I’ve continued to write shorter pieces of criticism and collaborative writing along the way to break up some of these longer timelines, but even then, finishing up something no longer feels quite as satisfying. I wonder if my evolving sense of what “good writing” is, as I become more disciplined in my academic practice, is precluding access to what I instinctively came to love about writing in the first place.

So I really have two connected questions, I suppose: how do I find joy in writing projects of different scales which involve processes that I find more laborious, and as the execution gap between the idea and what the work needs to become grows once again? And, what do I do if writing is has come to be the best way I know to ground myself, and that joy is suddenly eluding me? Thank you so much for your care in reading–The Reading has always been such a salve.

With thanks,
Fizzy Gone Flat


Dear FGF,

It’s good that you’ve noticed your fizz has gone flat here, and that you’ve taken steps to jumpstart it again. Perhaps I can add to your perspective, and you’ll be able to see something with my observations that either of us alone wouldn’t have been able to do.

First, let’s talk about the larger picture here. Writing may have been comforting for you in the past because it was a place where you can be by yourself. After years of pandemic, where protracted isolation has been the norm, to be alone may no longer feel particularly freeing. The world brings not only obligations, but also affirmation and difference—expansions of what’s possible, ways to be in our bodies more than a head and torso on a screen. Perhaps the joy eluding you partly has to do with how you want—and should have—more than that.

Writing about or with others is not the same as these encounters. Encounter, something lived, happens on accident or surprise. No matter how much one loves writing, there is only so much that can happen solely on the page. The page is the aftermath to something lived. And if your main way of soothing yourself, up until now, has been writing, then it’s possible you’ve written through all the things lived, and it’s time for you to replenish with a little more of living.

Writing from encounter is for you. It’s writing you do to make sense of your own life. So criticism, collaborative writing, and the long haul of a dissertation, although they involve more voices than you, are limited in that the writing is not just for you. Writing with or about others always involves more than one priority in the writing. You can’t truly be alone.

I now want to turn to your second question about changing scales of work. A few of your statements give me the sense that you’re someone who likes getting things done quickly. Your interim solution for the long timelines of a dissertation and novel was to pursue shorter projects. Unfortunately, these projects didn’t satisfy you, so now you’re wondering if your taste has changed.

As you say in your letter, you liked writing for how fast you could go from idea to execution. I wonder if your dissatisfaction comes not from taste but from the reality that your true ideas right now are these two big projects, and these other projects you’ve given yourself are just not offering you the same kind of challenge.

Long works are different than short ones because they make us show our work. Their length and ambition demands it. Thanks to your early ease with writing, this may not have been something you had to do when you first started. You had to reach a kind of project that would truly challenge you and alas, there’s finally appeared not one, but two!

In the past, I’ve mistaken my own experience as a reader with my experience as a writer. Years before attempting a book of poetry on my own, I read enough to recognize when a collection was good. However, just because I could recognize what I wanted to make didn’t mean I knew how to make it.

Any artist worth their salt has to go through, and learn, their growing pains. If you’re already good, the end-product comes out immediately. You don’t see the weird in-between state. You don’t have as many experiences of reassuring yourself that this imperfect thing will grow into a beautiful butterfly, and that that can actually happen. You just have the imperfect thing. And perhaps you feel some shame when you look at it, so you try your hardest to revise it into shape the moment it hits the page, which makes the whole experience especially laborious.

That is, the impulse to scrub a sentence is the same one that compels a child to hide a bad grade under the couch. Perhaps you want to hide the parts of you that aren’t talented, that aren’t naturally good—the parts that can’t go from zero to a hundred in three seconds flat. Did your caretakers expect you to be like this, when you were young? Trace the feelings of impatience with yourself. Who told you to hurry up when you weren’t getting it fast enough—enough that it seemed no longer worth it to carry on with the things that weren’t fast? What makes you feel like you’re not fast enough?

Your writing process can reflect the way you treat yourself. What parts of your writing do you wish you could leave behind? The parts that you don’t want to admit live inside you, that may even help your process feel a little freer or enjoyable? You could seem more genius, more desirable to some parties, when you erase everything between the equation and the answer. But every artist has a process. Every person takes a bit of living between their best ideas and what they execute. You don’t have to be exceptional to make exceptional art. You don’t have to be exceptional to be loved—or to love yourself.

No matter how quickly you try to tackle a large project, it is, by nature, made by seeing—and often going through—the innards. The large sloshy novel needs all those phalanges in order to move. That hefty dissertation requires every piece of background research, analysis, and new research you’ll have to do for it. There’s no shortcut. There’s no talent that gets you a dissertation in a day.

Going through the belly of the beast may be painful and difficult for you because you may be imposing that learned impatience on yourself while also learning, and being humbled by, the behemoth of the task you’ve set for yourself. You have to learn how to write again. It is writing that requires much more revision, as you say, but also writing that needs to be rough before it’s good. And thus you have to learn how to write roughly and leave it, not just to finish the work, but to allow it to grow, however messily it needs. It’s often the wayward sentences that mark new directions when I’m stuck or my document of “cuttings” that end up growing new ideas altogether.

I say this because there are ways to make both your novel and dissertation more creatively satisfying, but they require that you contend with your feelings of perfectionism and shame. You need to be able to witness your writing’s loosest, strangest forms. You need to be able to put things down on the page that feel easy, even casual, as if you were explaining things not to your dissertation adviser or a literary agent, but a friend who already likes your work. You must become that friend to your writing. You must become that friend to yourself.

Without capitalism and careerism, what is the point of creating a long work? For me, writing a long piece allows me to track a thought larger than I could handle in my mind. A long work is not just a work of creation, but a work of synthesis and connection. The tradeoff, however, is feeling a bit lost on the way to making the bits that are supposed to stick together. There’s a lot more exploration necessary.

Instead of your in-between state looking like a book sequentially being written, paragraph after perfect paragraph, give your mind freedom to roam, to tack on, and to expand as you are writing. You may go off the rails of the plan, but perhaps your plan was a little too expected, even for you, and there’s discovery you can allow yourself around the corner.

To find pleasure in a book, you need to find the trick that will unlatch your mind to the point where you feel like you’re speaking, not pushing words onto a page. It’s the moment when a voice in your head takes over, is just a little bit ahead of what you’ve got on the page. It’s when you’re confident of the direction you’re going, not the destination it will be.

So many of the things that matter in life don’t happen after we’ve had years to plan for them. They show up and then we must react and discover ourselves anew—new parts that give us the mettle to move on from first relationships and homes, or the parts that can live on, and through, a death of a loved one. You and I—we can show up for ourselves. Not as experts, but as people working on each new challenge the best that we can.

If you want pleasure and surprise in your writing, and your life, you must let yourself have it. And perhaps in doing so, you’ll write a whole new version of yourself. But you need to invite the process in order to do it.

Postscript: Writing strategies for perfectionism

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