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Interview with Yanyi: “Good writing doesn’t come from a desire to be published.”

Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019), winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. 

His work has been featured in or at NPR’s All Things Considered, New York Public Library, Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, and he is the recipient of fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Poets House. He holds an MFA in Poetry from New York University. He was most recently poetry editor at Foundry. Currently, he teaches creative writing at large and gives creative advice at The Reading.

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Hi Yanyi, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m a poet, most recently the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale). I also offer an advice column for writers, The Reading.

Can you take us through the creative process behind your recently published book, Dream of the Divided Field

The poems for this one were written very quickly, between 2018 and 2019, in two main notebooks. One was a diary. The other was a more typical notebook of writing and reading notes—morning pages for a spell and the workshops from my first part-time year at NYU. It was my last year of holding down a day job, unbeknownst to me.

Every book is different, I’m finding, though once I realized I had enough for the main body of the book, I was quicker to put it together than my first book. Unlike that book, the short writing process for this one evened out with a long revision process. I added two major poems, “The Friend” and “Dream of the Divided Field,” during the revision process. That was new for me.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

My best working time is the morning, so I try to get to my desk first thing for about an hour before I take my dog out. When I get back, I take on time-sensitive emails from the day before, and then get on to an hour or two on a project I’m working on. When I have more than one, I will rotate. Sometimes it’s writing or reading. Either way, I’m pretty much spent by 1pm. In the afternoon, I read or work for my “public” life — prepping for events, talks, or writing my advice column.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns affect your routine? 

For my writing life: I’ve had to, and still am, experimenting a lot to include patience and compassion for my own process. COVID was also an occasion to change everything else, so I did. I now have a family life beyond just myself. I cook and bake a lot more. I don’t live in a city. The way I artistically nourish myself has had to change. And that does affect the writing.

Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day? 

I have experimented with this and find that it doesn’t work for me. I have time targets instead.

What would be your top advice for writers out there trying to get published? 

Find your other reasons. Good writing doesn’t come from a desire to be published.

What does your writing workspace look like?

I have had a few over the years now. I like to keep visual art around me, mostly paintings of landscapes or abstract work. My work space always involves a desk I try to keep clear but that piles up with books and papers. I like a nice table lamp for reading and appropriately warm accent lighting.

If I’m lucky, I have at least one good window, but not always. Sometimes I throw in a rug. A sun lamp for the winter months and my seasonal depression when waking up at 6. Then I’ve got a reading spot—I prefer a chaise or daybed but armchairs will do—with a lap desk or tray where I will also write. I have too many books for the wall space I have, so my family just has to live with bookshelves everywhere. With the flowers of the season.

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