How to Write Authentically

An Interview with Yanyi


Foster’s Charlene Wang and Nanya Sudhir hosted award-winning writer and critic, Yanyi. Currently, he is poetry editor at Foundry and gives creative advice through his newsletter, The Reading. On this call, Yanyi talked about writing authentically, communicating with an audience, and creating both poetry and prose.

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What is your creative process like?

I have to prepare to write. I meditate. I let it enter my thinking ecosystem and I'll start to notice when I'm experiencing something that might be related to a potential piece.

When I'm observing something, I'm feeling it, and I give myself a couple of days. Then I will first do a rough draft where I blurt out every single thing that comes to mind. And a lot of the time what I end up writing in my notebook doesn't actually end up in the final product. It's just a way for me to get all of my thoughts down until I get to the actual good thought or the thing that the reader can take away. 

Sometimes, when I'm stuck, I jumpstart myself by transcribing what I've written in my notebook to my computer. Then I'll either finish writing the piece or I'll walk away from it and give myself a couple of hours to think about it.

If you're a writer, it's important to know when to actually write and when to stop. That's what I've been working on perfecting. It's different for everything that you write.

When I was a software engineer, I would work on solving technology problems: bugs. A lot of the advice that I got was that if you have been hammering away at a bug for over an hour and you still haven't gotten anywhere, it's time to walk away. You never know what you're going to see on that walk.

Who is your audience?

One of the most important parts of relating to another person is really knowing yourself and expressing yourself in a genuine way. 

When you're writing, you have to understand what you're writing. If you don't understand what you're saying, someone is going to ask you a question one day in an interview and you're going to say, "I don't know, I just wrote it." This is especially important in poetry because you can write a poem that makes perfect sense to you, but someone is going to wonder why you included a semicolon instead of a colon, and you better be able to explain it. You have to have that kind of attention to your own work. 

There's a younger me who is the audience, too. My 20-year old self didn’t think I could, would, or should be a writer. A lot of what I’m trying to do is give people permission to take part in the dreams that they have, not just the job they're supposed to have, the family they're supposed to have, the children they're supposed to have, or the gender they're supposed to have. 

If you have a K-12 education, there's always something to do next. I want people to answer the questions, “What would you do if there was nothing to do next? Who would you be?” Writing and art are some of the best ways for me to contemplate those questions.

How does poetry shape your writing?

Poetry is the kind of writing where the observation is the point. The feeling of perceiving is the point. It's an art form of language which is something we don't have to go to a museum to look at, to experience. Art has freed me in many ways and it's the translating of those experiences for other people that is the way poetry informs my writing.

It's all a practice of attention, whether at a micro or macro level. Sometimes that attention is looking at another person and the things that they have written to me and trying my best to understand where they might be coming from. It's the attention of a good friend. Someone who really knows you and who has spent time with you.

How do you apply an editorial lens to your own work?

I'm still experimenting with how I edit my prose. I like doing a lot of feeling around and researching and going down rabbit holes.

When I write an outline, I usually start with eight different threads of what I can talk about. It can be difficult to write an essay that has all of those things comprehensively threaded with each other. I always end up with a lot to say but try to distill it into only the things that are really new, insightful, or helpful.

I don't force myself to write poetry. I get to a place where I really crave it spiritually, and I just let it happen if it happens. I keep a semi-regular journal. Some of my poems started out as journal entries where I think in metaphors.

The editing aspect is being open to the poem happening at any time, and not discounting or underestimating any of your writing. After six months, you may discover that the journal entry you wrote was saying something really important and you can make it into a poem.

How do you make space for yourself to be who you are, while catering to your reader?

The way to get to that level of authenticity is to pay attention to yourself. The best thing that you can do to create an authentic presence in the world is by actually having that presence.

It's about having spent a day taking care of yourself. Going to the spa, getting really great food, whatever you do for yourself that really energizes you and gives you life — that is the way you will have space for another person and to genuinely be ready and able to give generously, and not give in a way that's about giving only so you can get something from another person.

My friend, who is a medievalist and a professor, gave me some teaching advice last summer. All you have to do for students is give them attention, because attention is love. If I can muster the energy to take care of myself and recharge my batteries, then I have the capacity to actually give that love in a genuine way, and that comes out as attention.

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To learn more about Yanyi, follow him on Twitter and visit his website.

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