‘My Brain Fog Won’t Let Me Write!’

This is a case of a change in heart.

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Now, on with the work.

Photo by Yanyi: A flat yellow field is partly covered by snow in front of you behind some grasses. You look onto a mountaintop fogged in a passing cloud in front of a deep blue sky. A handful of bare tree branches peek in over the top-right corner of the frame.
Dear Yanyi,

My brain fog and my sluggishness are getting in the way of dreaming of and starting projects. All I want to do is write but I don’t know if I am ambitious enough anymore. When I was younger I dreamed, planned, strategised, and eventually got to places I thought I wanted to be. When I got there I no longer wanted to be there (of course I didn’t, those first dreams were generated by a sticky kind of class shame and a borrowed definition of justice). These places had had nothing directly to do with writing but, alongside the unraveling of the ill-fitting dreams, it became apparent to me that writing was the thing that had ever gotten me anywhere. Not writing writing, but the sorts of dispositions that notice things, name things, cast spells and shapes of recognition and strangeness, make slanted contributions to political projects. I might now know that I want to write (and that it has always been there) but I don't know how to sync up to the ambition part – the motor – to animate the want. I do find bolts of joy in my life. I do also manage to write very occasionally, and when it happens it feels like a humming kind of yes in my chest. So I know it is there. If I didn’t know it was there I think I could feel quite happy in this smaller, post-ambition life. Sometimes I wish I didn't know it was there but, having felt the hum, it is all I want, and it feels like a little spectre at the corner of my vision. This letter is not a ‘why strive when the world is shit’ kind of plea. I do have these thoughts, but they are rebutted by the ways I am nourished by the writing of others – writing that someone has shared their beating blood supply with to bring into the world. And if there is time to cook a nice meal or go for a walk then there is time to write – why not! But as soon as even the scrap of an idea or a phrase visits me a white noise fuzzy static crackles in and all I feel is a bone-tired anaemic kind of fog, before I’ve even started a thing, pulling me under.

Missing A Pulse

London, UK

Dear MAP,

Your letter was a joy to read. It’s rare and difficult to come to a point of balance in your life when you can hear your own fears without getting swamped by them, as you do whenever the ‘why strive when the world is shit’ thoughts come into play. I liked that you specified that yours was not this kind of letter. This showed me part of what keeps you going nowadays, namely how other writers—your community in life and literature—remind you there is nourishment in words.

You know, too, that you can write, so your question is not so much about why the writing won’t come but why the flow of it can’t seem to be controlled in the way your (previous) ambition would want to.

I love that your letter is full of no’s. I love that it’s about what you are not right now. You no longer work ambitiously because your ambition was made of  “class shame” and a “borrowed definition of justice.” The writing that has gotten you somewhere isn’t “writing writing” but the writing before the writing: the reality of the writer as they pay attention to the world.

I recently heard some advice from another writer (whose name escapes me, alas). To use your words: if you’re not in a “writing writing” place right now, this is a good thing. It means your desires have gotten farther than your abilities. It means you’re in the midst of catching up with yourself.

In your letter, you align ambition with your ability to make something real: to start projects and to animate your desires into the world. However, it sounds like your mind and your body are at odds in this mindset, as demonstrated by the end of your letter, when you feel yourself slipping into a “bone-tired anaemic kind of fog” every time you try to apply ambition’s motor to your writing.

I’m taken by this metaphor of your ambition as a motor, the machine version of the heart that gives life to your body. In your previous life, you were probably acclimated to this ambition, allowing the motor to run, as you said, on class shame and a grafted-on idea of justice to overpower the natural rhythm of your heart. This motor ran you faster, past the speed you wanted to go, and you followed it because it seemed better than whoever you were without it. You accepted this motor, your ambition, when you were a person who needed it. Your body became used to living around it.

Yet, when you got to the motor’s grandly promised destinations, you discovered you didn’t want them. Something in you has changed irrevocably—something in you doesn’t want what ambition has to offer anymore. Whatever it promised doesn’t hold weight with you anymore. You stopped using the motor. You began to allow different things to motivate you.

Sometimes fact and fiction mix, and the metaphor isn’t so symbolic after all. The body, out of the operating room, can start to reject unwanted objects.

You want to write but you don’t know how. And that’s because you’re in the midst of starting over in the name of your true desires. You’re not missing a pulse—you’re recovering from a mistaken identity of the heart.

But transformation doesn’t happen so quickly. You find bolts of joy in your life, yes, and you do write on occasion, and when you do, I know what you’re talking about, that humming in the chest. And you have room in your life to “cook a nice meal” or “go for a walk,” but in the afterglow of ambition, you can’t help but also see this time as time you might write. Yes, there’s room for writing then, but perhaps that’s time you (as in your body) simply wants to go on a walk!

There are many possibilities for the brain fog you’re describing and you should consult an actual doctor or therapist and just look at how quarantine has affected our bodies. That all said, if this really just shows up when you get a scrap of an idea and want to write it, what outlook are you summoning when you do just that? Are these moments when you’re trying to “turn on” the motor again? Because this brain fog may be your body reacting to an unwanted mode of life. Maybe, even, there was always this fog, but because you have a new baseline of what feels good, you just notice it now when you dissociate.

You know this in part already, but the reason your writing isn’t happening isn’t because your ambition isn’t aligned, it’s because you’re developing a whole new sense for how and why you work and live at all.

At the beginning of my life as a software engineer, I was quite enthusiastic to learn new technologies. By the end, I remember being in a goal-setting meeting with a manager and feeling, like you, a cold indifference pulling my whole body out of the room.

What had happened in those intervening years? I had started to write again. I had come out and gone to therapy. And the writing, with a publication here and a fellowship there, had finally added up and was chafing against the time I had leased to my job. I no longer wanted to do more because I knew I had other work that was more meaningful to me.

The motor likes to say “you can do it, so why won’t you?” The motor only knows blank space in a schedule; it only acknowledges your extreme energy or extreme exhaustion as far as your body goes; it only knows the schedule it gives you and that you’re either on-time or running out. The motor teaches you to ignore joy in favor of “higher” goals.

Tell me: in the time you followed that motor, did you ever think to stop to take a walk or cook a meal? How often did you allow yourself as much time as you wanted to read other writing and be nourished by it? How often did you allow yourself to write?

It might be clarifying to ask yourself what your intentions are when you attempt to write. Do you feel pressure to make your writing time productive, to bang out a piece in a short period? Are you feeling beginner’s dread, fearing that you won’t write anything good, or you’re already preparing to work yourself into the ground again?

If you’re coming to your writing and this fog descends on you, I hope you will be kind to yourself about why. You may be in a post-ambition phase of your life right now, but that doesn’t mean you’re free of a decades-long training on how to work. That meanness is part of ambition too.

What comes after ambition? Attention to your body. Attention to your soul. Attention the quality of your life. Learning the granularity of how you wish to live is just as important as the detail with which you observe the world around you.

The time you’re spending right now on following your whims is very important. You are honing a sense of permission; that is, you’re honing a sense of freedom. The conviction you hold as a writer is contingent on how free you feel not only in your work but in your life.

If you want to bring something truly original into the world, you not only have to feel free enough to do it and share it with others, but you also need the conviction to believe that it should exist even if no one else read it at all. That is, you need the conviction that you yourself are enough for the writing to matter.

Ambition is the belief you need to be bigger than you are. It scoffs at the story published in a “second-tier” journal. It doesn’t want you to stop until you reach the end of a novel. It doesn’t think this draft’s good enough or that idea is at all interesting—it won’t accept the smallest scrap or observation; it requires the whole poem. Perhaps your body is protecting you from this moment ambition starts to hum again. Because it knows, and now you know, that it doesn’t feel good.

No matter where you go, ambition will follow in the whispers and crevices of your mind; it will follow you on billboards and your friends’ trajectories. It will try to drown out your burgeoning heart. But the conviction required to, say, write a poem or a story has nothing to do with ambition. It’s the ability to hear and differentiate the slightest changes in yourself—to remember that you are in relation to the world even when you are alone—that is required to write. Write everything that does appear, stop when you want to, and let it build on its own. Your new writing may feel smaller than ever, but that may be exactly the size you need.

Postscript: A secret about craft.


  • 13 April 2021, 17:30 ESTWriters at Newark – Yanyi, Rutgers University-Newark, Newark, NJ (Online - Link pending but will be updated online in a week)
  • 22 April 2021, 18:30 ESTPoets in the Round: Shira Erlichman, Asiya Wadud, and Yanyi – Cambridge Public Library, Cambridge, MA (Online)
  • April–May 2021Contemporary Queer and Trans Asian American Poetry – Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH (Online). I am teaching this class at Dartmouth and I’m pleased to announce that part of the class includes a free series of readings and discussions with some of the creators we will be reading in the course. You can follow along with the event schedule and reading list on the dedicated post linked above.

Recent Work

  • Earlier this year, Cathy Linh Che and I judged Lumiere Review’s poetry contest, which announced their winners this past week! Congratulations to Sean Cho Ayres and all the finalists. You can also read an interview I did with their editor-in-chief, Jessica Kim.
  • A two-part piece from my forthcoming book, Dream of the Divided Field, is out in a friendship folio edited by poet Noah Baldino in West Branch.
  • Danny Silva Soberano wrote this beautiful review of The Year of Blue Water in the Australian journal Meanjin. Thanks for the cry!


  • Based on a voluntary survey I sent out in the fall, I tentatively decided to pilot a mentorship program with a writer from The Reading. I’ve been having an excellent time working with fiction writer Ysabelle Cheung, whose timely and fantastical story, “Please, Get Out and Dance,” came out last week in AAWW’s Transpacific Literary Project.
  • My partner, HK, has launched their newsletter focused on intuitive learnings and teachings, Practice*. If you like tarot, yoga, and inclusive bodywork, definitely check it out.


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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.