‘What’s an “Emerging” Writer and How Do I Become One?’

Welcome back to The Reading, radical empathy for writers with Yanyi. Last month, paid subscribers received the following:

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Hi there,

After trying out this new offering this month with subscribers, I am pleased to introduce a new offering to everyone this month, Writing Space, a monthly writing space held virtually for two hours with me. Limited to 20 attendees at $5 or free for The Reading subscribers. We will gather, check-in with our intentions for our time together, and work before an optional check-out with what we did.

This month, Writing Space will be held on Friday, August 20 at 12:00 EST. Paid subscribers can find their voucher code in this week’s postscript. I’m unlocking this past week’s Writing on writing spaces to everyone if you’d like to learn more.

Two days later, I’ll be back to teach a one-day course on the lyric essay, Architectures of Resonance, with Kundiman on Sunday, August 22 at 13:00 EST. I’ll be talking through what I mean by “architecture of resonance” and why it is crucial to my understanding of the lyric essay form, as well as providing some takeaways for you to make and revise your own. The course is $50, including access to a recording for one month.

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Photo by Yanyi: You look over the lake dock on a morning shrouded by fog and wildfire smog. You can see the ghosts of trees and the shoreline in the distance as well as some nearby reeds. The dock comes in from the right with an empty bench looking away from you. Someone is sitting on the end gazing at their own reflection in the water.
Dear Yanyi,

Long time reader, first time writer. Thank you for providing this community. It really feels like home.

To put my letter short, I have a single question: What does “emerging writer” mean?

Sure, many contest or grant or fellowship guidelines write their own definitions of “emerging”, so in terms of logistics, I feel like the best answer is “it depends”. But to make my letter long, well, as someone who has always been writing, it feels weird that I can’t call myself “emerging” by seemingly any of the terms.

Many of the writers I admire are still considered “emerging”; it took me a while to learn that chapbooks aren’t considered “published books” and that fanbases of tens of thousands of cross-social-media followers mean nothing.

I’m using a lot of quotation marks, but really it’s because I still don’t get it. If writers who have been nominated for pretty major national awards are “emerging”, then if I don't have an agent or a fancy manuscript ready, then does that make me a non-emerging writer? Whoops, that’s two questions.

I guess I just want to know your thoughts on how to fund your writing for your writing’s merit, aside from, of course, just working a ton of non-writing gigs, when you’re a non-emerging, non-established, seemingly secret writer.


New Haven, CT

Dear E,

Once upon a time, I was part of an emerging poets issue of The Shade Journal. In it, editor and poet Luther Hughes asked each of us a set of questions, including “What does the title, ‘Emerging poet,’ mean to you?” At the time, I replied with this:

To be called emerging is a type of naming, and the exercise of naming, of categorization, of taxonomy, is also a performance of power. An emerging poet is only emerging to those who call them as such. Emerging poets always are the ones with potential. Interchangeable, never fully formed, the next one always available to be discovered.

You know and I know that the term is relative. Moreover, the term is relative to power, like the power to pick who sits on the jury, the power to appear knowledgeable enough to be picked, or the power inherent in reiterating the hierarchy. Back then, I was paying attention to who was getting called an emerging poet and stayed there, when writers were being named new and fresh but also junior and subordinate at best, allowed entry but not establishment, even if they were many years into their careers.

It seems you wrote to me because the “emerging writer” label seems lopsided, unattached to your reality, and as you look at contests, fellowships, and grants that might help you financially with your art, you’re unsure not only if you technically qualify, but if there’s any point in applying when you’re up against these “emerging” juggernauts. That’s because you’re not only up against them. You’re also up against a changing tide of aesthetics and concerns in, say, US poetry. You’re up against longstanding editors who may not understand new poetics and inexperienced ones might be getting swept up by impressive bios, growth metrics, and the double-edged convenience of publishing one’s friends.

My point here is not to explain everything systemically but to emphasize that much more decides on your “emergence” than the merit of your work. It takes the right writing at the right time with the right reader in the right position of power, and no amount of planning or networking can get you the last three even if you have the first. It’s not so much that you’re not emerging—it’s more likely that these other, nationally-recognized writers are being subordinated to permanent emerging status. An emerging writer is forever new, forever unfamiliar. And there are reasons of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability that keep their stories “new.”

For technical purposes, I’ll give you my definition off the top of my head: an emerging writer really does encompass anywhere between having published anything to having up to two full-length collections out in the wild, and even that limit might be questionable depending on the prestige of the prize. If you’re questioning if you qualify, then ask. If you can’t ask, then apply anyway. It’s that tired-in-talk-but-useful-in-action adage: don’t say no to yourself when someone else can. Allow yourself the adventure of the crapshoot.

At the end of your letter, E, you asked me how to make a living as a writer. Not: how to live as a writer. Yet, this is the only question I can answer for you, because it is the question I am figuring out as I write to you now, as I am writing ever. And because it might be the real question you’re asking me, as I’ve had to understand it was the real question I’ve been asking myself.

In the years that have passed, I’ve participated and benefited from what emerging means in the publishing industry, and after writing and (soon) publishing two books, winning awards, getting my MFA, and now teaching writing, I feel even stronger about what I said in The Shade Journal, having lived what it means. To be called emerging is a definition, like so many others, that others foist upon you. Even with it, perhaps because of it, public success is not financial security.

And now I have a hard question for you to answer, E: it may be that funding your writing with writing is your permission to write. If that’s not possible, would you still want to write?

I joke about this, but it’s true—about every few months I have an anxiety spiral over how I’m going to make a living as an artist. The drive to somehow fund my work becomes an obsession for a couple hours—I meander over tech jobs I don’t want, compile grants I won’t apply to, panic over courses I haven’t yet been asked to teach, and outline “commercial” books I’ll never write.

During these spirals, my previous successes don’t matter. In fact, I think no matter how many books I write, courses I teach, or subscribers I have at The Reading, I will always be starting over with myself. The sirens will blare their drones over my desk and try to pluck me from my seat. Their refrain nowadays is that my money and time are running out. There’s always the days they succeed and I will fly into the waves, again, for jobs and grants.

But days are better than years. There were the years I spent studying computer science and then working in tech, telling myself I would write when I had time. There were the years I spent loving other people, telling myself I would write when I had found a new family. And there were the years when I was never alone, telling myself nothing, because I was afraid of hearing what I had to say.

Ironically, the stable job writers usually aim for now is to be a college professor, where one’s daily role is not writing, but teaching. As an emerging (emerged?) writer, I now write after I’ve planned my next class or written my next letter. There’s always one more thing I have to do or that seems more important. There’s always one more thing I need to have to afford the luxury—the luxury of being who I say I am.

Today I am remembering that Linda Gregg used to call thrifting the last great treasure hunt: today that is how I feel about writing. And what I’m searching for, what I really want, is writing that reminds me that I’m alive. Writing that presses time and space past my singular body. Writing that tells me that at the same moment I’m breathing, you are breathing; that there are organisms alive I have never heard of; cities I have never truly understood; kinds of love that requires years upon years of accumulation.

Therefore I can only share what emerging has come to mean for me. It has not been the publication of a book, the gaining of an audience, teaching appointments, or speaking events: it has been slowly and painfully coming to terms that there is no such thing as a stable income for solely writing as I want to do it and slowly and painfully doing it anyway. A writing job, even if I had an office with a brass plate that said YANYI — WRITER, would not make me a writer.

As a writer, I must emerge from myself. I have to take myself out to that little office I now rent and take myself seriously. In there I have no editors or agents, no fans or department chairs telling me that I’m a writer. I have only myself. And in this it is no different from where I started out: alone in a library or my bedroom. The only difference is that I have tried desperately in the past to run away from myself—not because I was in some way lazy, but because I had been set aside by my own family to solve my “problem” by myself; because I had no concept of giving enough to the first person I loved; because I needed a job to get away from my family—all of this had to be dealt with because I could proceed with the simple act of sitting in a room by myself.

Before having a room’s of one’s own, there is the work required to reach it. Even now, after years of therapy and space and time, I still find it difficult to arrive at my desk at the customary time. I am doing better. But for years I wanted so desperately to have permission to be a writer first, I didn’t build the life I needed to write.

Would I say that I’m still an emerging writer? Yes, certainly—somewhere in that Neverland between a poem with my name under it appearing in public and the years of showing up, finally, at this space in where I now practice my craft every day. But the years between emerging from oneself and then being, simply, a writer, are many, and a good number of them so far have been uncertain and difficult.

A book is an occasion, an accumulation of the reams I’ve traveled to some point in my life. Often, by the time you’ve found my pages, I will already be on the road again. Each book is, in a way, an accidental destination, created from the realization that I am carrying too much again. Writing is my time; it is my journey; it is my life. I write to let the pages go.

So you see, the time of the writer and the time of the reader are necessarily separate. By the time you read my first lines, I have already given up the last. The readers who determine me “emerging,” who I was thinking of when I wrote that response a few years ago now, are judging a writer who doesn’t exist.

For this reason it’s impossible to pinpoint when a writer—you?—is emerging and when they have already emerged. A self vanishing into the woods, the last look of an eye before the head goes underwater—what does it mean to emerge? By the time the writer reappears, the work has already been done. The person who was in the process of emerging, well, that is not visible to any of us. In a way their disappearance into what others can never witness—well, that was always the point.

Postscript: On finding one’s own measures (Part 1 – My first acceptance and my first writing group)

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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.