Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang: bitter writer

This week, I talk to Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang about communities of bitter writers, not-writing, and the dreaded question, “What are you working on now?” Sarah is the author of the poetry books Status Update and the Gerald Lampert Award-winning Sweet Devilry. She is also the author of several children’s books, including A Flock of Shoes, Warriors and Wailers and the YA book Breathing Fire. She is currently working on her tan, and her latest book, The Night Children, will surely be her last since she has nothing else to say.

SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Sarah. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

SARAH YI-MEI TSIANG: There’s a whole lot I could write here. 🙂 But I’ll just focus on thing that kind of consumes me. When I wrote my first book of poetry it took me years (poetry always takes me years). I had a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in that baby. And then I had a whole lot of rejection in trying to get it published. When it was finally picked up (yay!) and then published (yay!) it even received an award (yay!). Then it just disappeared. It feels like it fell off the face of the earth. I think of all the time I spent away from my daughter to write those books. All that time squirrelled away with my very important thoughts (lol).

I don’t learn either, the very same thing happened with my second book of poetry. It’s hard to stay focused when you feel like you’re writing on sand. What’s the point if the tide keeps washing it away? And yet, when I’m enjoying time with my kids, when I’m out on a beautifully sunny day and I get an idea I feel like I should be writing. I feel like I’m wasting away my time not writing. Everyone always seems to ask “What are you working on now?” and I feel like I should be working all the time. On something I basically think is futile and useless and maybe even terribly egotistical. So whether I’m writing or not writing I feel pulled in these two completely different directions.

Poetry especially seems like such a small world. Everyone is always fighting, and it seems laughable when we’re fighting over something that doesn’t really matter at all in the larger world. To get so hateful and apoplectic over an audience of hundreds (ideally). I’m not immune either. Social media can make me crazy with insecurity and jealousy and negativity. It’s toxic in a way that we never acknowledge. It’s like Pinterest for books — everyone is perfect and all the projects are perfect. Whereas on a day to day basis I feel more like a “nailed it” kind of gal.

SM:  The “what are you working on” question makes me feel, in turn, embarrassed, flustered, angry, shameful, and fraudulent. It is usually followed by a vague and stammering version of the project description pulled from my last grant application. I go for long stretches of not-working but it’s really hard for me to admit that.

What does a “productive” time look like for you, writing-wise? What does a “non-productive” time look like for you, non-writing-wise?

ST: You know, I only ever feel productive in the moments that I’m actually writing. I don’t have any kind of routine or way to get writing. The few times I get an idea I’m usually out with the baby and it’s hours until I can get anything down. And sometimes in those hours the idea fades or loses its lustre. But let’s say I actually get an idea or I have a project and Isaac is napping and the dishes are done and the supper prep is done and I’m not so tired that I want to cry. In those few minutes when I write, when I actually write and it’s good (so that’s rare too), it’s a beautiful feeling. And I feel like a writer. That gorgeous buoyed-up feeling lasts during the writing and usually a few hours afterwards. And then I go back to feeling desperately, terminally, pathetically unproductive.

As for non-productive times, that’s most of the time. Once a project ends I usually feel complete confidence that I’m at the end of my career. Part of the reason I hate it when people ask what I’m working on is that I’m almost always in a deep despair that I will never work on anything ever again. I tell them what I worked on last or whatever is due to come out. I think from now on whenever someone asks me what I’m working on I’ll just say “my tan” and leave it at that.

I know that’s all silly and I shouldn’t be sensitive about the question – I  know that people who ask that are trying to be encouraging and are actually interested. It’s just hard to see past the all the words that aren’t written.

SM: I’m glad we’re agreed on this “what are you working on” question. Let’s agree here and now to never ask it of each other again.

Going back to the ‘nailed it’ feeling among the Pinterest-perfect Facebook posts. The inspiration for this series was in part a closed Facebook group called “Bitter Writers” that you started. The description you wrote states:

This is a group that asks “what the hell are you doing with your life?” and responds with an apathetic shrug. If you’ve just landed a big contract, or received a great review, or been handed the Nobel prize for literature – fuck off. We don’t want to hear about it. Bring us instead your stories of defeat, rejection, and general malaise. No humble brags, no asking for affirmation. Embrace what sucks to be a writer.

I love this group. I find it so refreshing to hear people speaking honestly about the bad stuff on Facebook, land of the highly-edited life. It’s a semi-private space, though – it’s a closed group and its membership is still fairly small, and what people post in it doesn’t really reflect what they are posting on their own feeds. Can you talk about what the impetus for Bitter Writers was? Can our readers join the group?

ST: I’m so glad that you love the group. I love it too! I was feeling really quite depressed and isolated when I started it. I had actually thought about starting this Facebook group for a long time but I wasn’t sure if there would be any interest. And then there’s the Facebook way of setting up groups where I had to pick some people and just plunk them in the group. The first reactions from people were “thanks… I think?” I’d actually love to know what you thought when I plunked you in because we’ve never met in real life. I chose you because you had posted a lovely bitter sentiment on your feed and I felt like maybe you would appreciate being a part of my bitter-fest.

The good news is that everyone seems to have found bitter writers a surprisingly refreshing place to be. I think that as writers we’re conscious of how potential readers might be following our feeds. So you feel like you can’t mention the bad review, or the 25th rejection, or the fact that you think you have nothing left to say. It muzzles us and it also makes us believe that others are all doing so much better than we are.

I think there’s been a real sense of relief in the group at being able to disclose our failures. It brings us together. I think it even allows us more generosity of spirit in feeling wholly happy for those who get success when we can see all the heartache that went into the process. Uh-oh, I’m sounding less bitter. I better stop here.

As for your question about joining – yes absolutely! I would prefer that anyone working in publishing does not join (for semi-privacy) but all other writers are welcome. As long as you stoke a bitter flame in your soul you are welcome in our group.

SM: I was a little surprised when you plunked me in, as you say, but I was happy. Disclosing failure does bring us together, doesn’t it? It’s the comfort those articles about famous peoples’ rejection letters bring up. When it happens – when you’re opening the letter up at the mailbox and you realize what it is – that moment is so soul-crushing, so isolating, so singular, like a gigantic beam of shame being shot from the deepest and oldest part of the universe directly into the ego. We have seen the best you can do, and frankly, it’s not good enough for us. So it helps me to hear about other people’s’ souls being crushed, too.

Someone might say that as writers we need to be our own online brand ambassadors. How do you feel about disclosing both in semi-public in Bitter Writers, and now in public-public here in this interview the not-shiny feelings you sometimes have about being a writer?

ST: I think the thing that’s missing with the whole famous people rejection letters is they still don’t feel like peers. It’s one thing to know that someone was a regular person before they became a superstar, it’s another to know your neighbour struggles with the same kinds of things you struggle with.

But yes, your description of what it feels like to receive a rejection letter is bang on. Publisher should save their ink and only ever send out your phrase since that’s all we hear anyway.

As for being a brand ambassador I think that matters more if you’re writing stuff that actually sells. I write poetry and books for kids. I doubt five year olds will care about my nihilistic attitude and for the 7 people out there that buy my poetry (thank you) I’m sure you’re a little dark yourselves. But I think even if I were someone who wrote books that people bought it wouldn’t matter to me. I don’t think we really care about the artist and I don’t mean that in a bad way. If Miriam Toews is actually hugely insecure or even an asshole (and I doubt this, but still) I would still rush out to buy her next book. I mean, Woody Allen still has a career — people care more about the art than they do the artist. I don’t know why we have to put such a sunny face on writing. That said, I’m still not posting bad reviews on my Facebook feed.

SM: Posting bad reviews on our own Facebook feeds: the final frontier of openness.


Looking for a good place to kvetch about the writing life? Twitter or comments on this site too public for you? Why not join Bitter Writers, the Facebook group that inspired this series!

Next week I talk to Anita Anand about hypersensitivity – the alertness to the world that makes writing happen also makes the rest of life unbearable.

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One thought on “Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang: bitter writer

  1. Yes! Thank you for this! I’ve been blogging about this for the last little while and have found my posts on these subjects – rejection, failure, etc – to be so widely read. Everyone wants to talk about the negatives, but for some reason we don’t. Instead we post about our recent great review or our recent award nod or our recent publication. It’s good to acknowledge our successes as writers, but I”m all for honesty. Being a writer is a profession and like all other professions, there are good days and there are bad days and it’s important (especially for all the silent people out there who are struggling to get their own art out into the world) to acknowledge that…

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