‘How Do You Begin Again?’

It's not how you begin, but how you continue.

Yanyi, how do you begin writing again after a prolonged spell of not-writing? In many ways, I see writing kind of like a muscle — one that needs to be worked out in order to grow stronger. I’m also aware, though, that people need rest. That you need to live life, touch some grass, earn money, and just do other things that can enrich the writing practice. But I’m wondering, after you’ve done all that, how do you begin again? How do you get back in to the writing life?

Things change. Times change. Your life changes—the city around you changes, or you change cities. Cities of trash and bodega flowers and cities of not looking at your neighbors in the eye to cities of endless little libraries; cities of rain-wise gardens and crows thick in the trees; cities of mind and spirit.

I had forgotten that when things change, it is not just the laundry list of new doctors and grocery stores; not just the literal laundry, or the meals that must be made, or the dog walks we must go on. Even when the furniture’s settled in the living room and dust again has ravaged once-new and now familiar corners, my insides spring from here to there. Wondering about where the writing desk went, the routine gone with it.

I had forgotten about this: that there’s a lag between when one is physically present and when one becomes spiritually present in a new life. It could be a physical city, but it could also be a spiritual city—the city in which you learned to touch grass again, the city in which you do not love that person, the city in which you become a mother, or the city in which you no longer have one.

In New York, it took ten years, just like they told me. Although I’ve left, it still feels like home whenever I go back. Like Borges tracing the alleys of a city that he discovers are the folds of his own face.

It is not so much a matter of whether you’re writing or not writing. It’s more about where you are in this other transition—in a decade, say, of becoming in a new vantage point of your life. If you’ve been paying attention. If you are ready to.

By ready I don’t mean when you go back to writing because you feel guilty for not writing because, say, you are already famous, or you’re hoping to be. Sometimes, being ready means remembering a sweet happening after a long time away, and the sudden nostalgia that overcomes. More often than that, it’s an itch, a stray thought that comes in that asks if you want it and will have it. This happens gradually and repeatedly, until you have the energy to follow through. (That is how I ended up here, in this newsletter, writing to you again).

The energy and the noticing are important. If you find yourself thinking that you still have something better or more urgent to do, then the moment will disappear, and you won’t write, but it’s not a failure, it’s honest. One day that stray thought will come again, invite you as you may feel invited right now. Then, again: do you have the energy? Are you willing to make room, be silent, and, importantly, open yourself up to create, even if most of the time, what you write will fail? It’s only with energy, time, and attention that one continues to write and not just begin.

When you are ready in that way, here are a few things that have worked for me.

Make yourself a writing space. Clear off a desk that is only for writing, or furnish yourself with a kit that creates a writing space for you—a scarf you love, stones, a favorite dictionary. Then, pick a time to write. Nowadays, I’m writing between twenty minutes to an hour in the mornings and sometimes at night. I started with one short twenty-minute session. My only rule is that strict but low minimum for writing.

In recent years, I’ve been getting to know my mind and what sets me up for success. Use what works for you too. I accommodate my needs around time-awareness by using a physical timer that I bought for this very purpose. To help stimulate focus and stave off inattention, I have a separate user account on my laptop that I only use for writing. While I have access to the internet, I don’t log into email or messaging from there. It simulates working on a library computer, which has historically worked well for me.

I also keep a process journal. Some people have an excellent sense of long-term rewards. When it comes to art, that is not one of my mind’s strengths. When I am working on a painting, I can see exactly where I left off in a second. The case is not true for writing when, at volume, it is impossible to leave with an impression of the previous work without considerable review. A process journal has given me the gift of continuity between writing sessions. I simply write about what I’m going to work on, work on it, and then reflect on the writing session with ideas for what I want to do next. Instead of returning to a blank page the next day, I work on the prompts I’ve given myself from the last.

This continuity is crucial in that it helps me track my progress even if I’m not upping word counts every day. Writing is a long-haul art. The rewards of finishing a novel or a collection of poetry are few and far between. A process journal rewards me not for brilliance, but for showing up. It holds the energy that comes before and after what other people want—it reflects back proof that I was here.

Going back to writing isn’t just a matter of starting somewhere. There is no blank page. Look closely at where you really are. You’re returning, but you want something new from your art. You won’t write how you used to. There are new lines and new stops. If you want to return, make your aim to be not just starting where you are, but also setting up structures that aid you and witness you. Writing again is about knowing where you are, where you are going, and how you’re going to get there. And how you’re going to get lost getting there. And always, at the end of it, how you are and will be getting home.


Sine Theta Magazine x Red Bean Poetry Reading
with Chen Chen and Minying Huang
3 March 2024 12:00–13:30 PST

Launch Reading for ALT-NATURE by Saretta Morgan
with Saretta Morgan, Keeonna Harris, and Paul Hlava Ceballos
5 April 2024 19:00 PST
Open Books, Seattle, WA

Shawn Wong Books and University of Washington Press Reading
with Willyce Kim and Ching-In Chen
26 April 2024 19:00 PST
Seattle Public Library–Central Library, Seattle, WA

Meet Me at the Snack Panel
with Jane Wong, Carlina Duan, and Muriel Leung
27 April 2024 18:30 PST
mam's books, Seattle, WA

Terrance Hayes at Seattle Arts and Lectures
2 May 2024 19:30 PST
Rainier Arts Center, Seattle, WA