‘I Have a Big Pile of Writing. Now What?’

It’s time to explore your own archive.

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Dear reader,

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Photo by Yanyi: You look into a mirror at Atlantis Bookshop in Oia. The mirror has a thick wood frame in a dark finish and everything around it is out-of-focus, though you can make out some words below it and some prints hung around it. You see, instead, what the mirror reflects: three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a spiral of words on the ceiling on white walls.
Dear Yanyi,

As I am writing to you I am staring at all my notebooks, neatly organized in a shelf across from my living room table where I am seated - notebooks filled with journal entries and random written materials which I have produced throughout the years. Lots and lots of them! But I never really open them. I know that I could probably try to publish something autobiographical, an auto-ethnography of sorts, but I never get to actually sift through all the materials and rewrite it. The same goes for the files in my computer (I do prefer writing by hand though, so most of my material is on paper). Any tips on how to go about this? It feels so daunting. I have no idea where to start. Am I the only one who writes and writes and then....never does anything about it? Greetings from snowy Denmark.

Rosa Rosae

Copenhagen, Denmark

Dear RR,

Greetings, too, from a snowy place across the ocean. I want to say congratulations first on cultivating a writing practice that has allowed you to get all that material down—it’s a huge part of the process.

From your letter, it seems as though you’re ready to dive back into this writing you’ve been doing for quite some time. You know that you “could probably try to publish something” from it, but something has gotten in the way of your doing it. Whenever I hear of a fellow writer with this sort of block, I urge them, as I urge you, to take some time to ask yourself why you’ve avoided getting to your notebooks up until this point.

You mention that it feels “daunting” and that “you have no idea where to start.” Check in with yourself before proceeding, too. Hesitance is also a kind of self-protection. Were there difficult times wrapped in those years you were writing? Do you have the emotional tools to confront them? Are you afraid that no matter the volume of notes you made, you’ll hate what you find and feel discouraged from moving on?

I, too, write mainly be hand. The bulwark of my forthcoming book, Dream of the Divided Field, came from a notebook that I had written during a difficult summer. It took me a full year to revisit it. Take care with your fears and, while you need not obey them, consider why they’re there. Clarity around them will only help the next part of the process.

You probably wrote these notebooks without thinking about them as drafts at all. This mindset probably gave you confidence and lowered the stakes enough for you to be quite prolific. Now that you realize you “could probably publish something,” you’ve gone from thinking of your notes as complete play to a potential completed work. In other words, your notebooks are now a project, and you’ve put your project hat on. But perhaps these notebooks seem uncontrollable, unwieldy, even. You haven’t found your way “in” to the project per se—you might be daunted by the lack of a conceptual backbone, a discernible path.

If you’ve been writing for a while or just have gone through a creative writing institution, you might notice that often-times the process is divided between generating and shaping your work. There’s the “shitty first draft” and then the molding of it, as the usual writing advice goes. Perhaps this comes from the usual divide in writing workshops, where the new piece gets immediately commented on and shaped by a “public” of classmates.

It seems to me quite a hurried process—more interested in saleable 50-word concepts than 50,000-word books, or, more interested in the production of the words than the actual insights of the words. And like everything else in our lives, we writers are taught to start with a concept and then live up to it, rather than the other way around. This, to me, is the biggest weakness of contemporary books today: that book ideas are optimized for grant proposals, comps, and soundbites. The writing is overdetermined, edited to the line of its predetermined theme, and never has space to explore what it could become.

My suggestion for you, RR, is not to swing from “something” to concept just yet. I implore you to resist, even, thinking of these notebooks as an “auto-ethnography.” Rather than writer or editor, I suggest that you act in a role in-between: as a reader.

As a reader, you become a witness to your archive. We are constantly remaking ourselves in our writing—writing is just the fragments of how we experience being alive, pieced together over and over again like images in a dream. Gradually, the regular images and metaphors change. You’ve collaged yourself into a different person. But the process in which this happens is barely perceptible until you have a means of looking back, like through your notebooks.

A version of you wrote those notebooks, but you are no longer that same person. Time has given you distance. Time has given you the opportunity to approach yourself as a like-minded stranger, a soulmate of sorts. Time has given you yourself, your own best reader.

Imagine yourself as a reader and the work before you as the new exhibit or book you’re getting to see in someone else’s private archive. You already know how to do this: as you encounter a flash of insight or interest, copy down what resonates for you or respond to it. Take your shelf one book at a time, one entry at a time. Give yourself plenty of space to think with your past self, have conversations, and see what you still have in common.

The reader will jot down favorite lines. Respond to whole passages that are electrifying and, likely, didn’t seem quite as exciting at the time. I learn this lesson myself again and again, both in photography and writing: it’s rarely the photos or drafts I thought were “brilliant” that shine bright in hindsight. It’s often the absent-minded shot or those passing thoughts I hastily jotted down, mildly interesting then, that bear kernels of insight I feel compelled to answer in the present.

You will not copy down, say, the entries that embarrass you, or that include to-do lists. But pretend you are speaking and reading the work of another person. You are at your own personal archive of the world. Treasure the privilege of this private exhibition.

Remember, RR, you’re just reading your own notebooks. The writing should not be “productive,” but loosely cultivated. If you pay attention, you will notice what holds your attention and, in time, some themes will accumulate in the process. This writing you’ve done is a memory map, an opportunity for encounter. For the truth is, even if you were writing toward a larger idea, you’re already a different person from the writer who was writing then. But by reading, you discover the overlap.

Writing is a kind of memory-work. We leave trails and marks on our way through our lives, but time weathers our way-finders; new growths overcome our former sites. We hope, when we return someday, that some fragments will lead us back to those vistas and caves: those secrets of inspiration. Yet, it would be foolish to keep what we don’t want or to expect to retain what we didn’t choose at the time.

Like watching sunlight shift across a forest floor, we do not capture a self as we write. We capture our changes, made possible by time. As you write in the present, you are also anticipating the future: the moment you return to the ruins of who you’ve been: who you thought you were, who you wanted to be. Tell me, what has come to pass? And what will you write now that it already has?

Postscript: The lifecycle of a draft.


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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.