Jessica Yen, 1001 Interviews No. 1

Jessica Yen is a Chinese-American writer who has lived in California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Beijing. Her personal essays explore the intersection between language, culture, identity, family, and memory.

In third grade, she inspired the school rule “Either read or walk” (it was a very small school). When not reading quasi-serious fiction and memoir, she enjoys mysteries and middle grade fiction. She can often be found on the Springwater Corridor, working out problems in her manuscript.

 

INTERVIEWER

What ruins your whole day? Keeps you from writing at all in a day? What rains on your parade?

JESSICA

Rain rains on my parade! I don’t know what I’m doing in Portland :-P. But on a serious note, I try to write in the mornings, and in an ideal world I wouldn’t check the internet before I write.

But one of my freelance jobs requires I check my email in the mornings, so that can be distracting. If I don’t write first thing in the day, the guilt seeps through the whole day and I tend not to write at all. So I had to stick it in the morning, which is my most creative time anyways.

INTERVIEWER

The guilt seeps through the whole day? Guilt is scary. If you get a little guilt early on, it can keep you from getting started?

JESSICA

Perfectionism can stop me.

INTERVIEWER

And in the morning the editor’s not up yet, right? Or, first thing in the morning.

JESSICA

Hm … I guess I hadn’t thought about that! I think I try to separate the writing and editing phases of my writing. I do a verbal vomit draft and then I do a ton of revision drafts. I hate writing that verbal vomit draft, but it’s unfortunately necessary. So if I’m supposed to be in verbal vomit mode and I’m getting weirdly perfectionistic, that’s a definite word stopper.

INTERVIEWER

The editor sits next to you and won’t leave. Keeps eating his steak, as you said, “verbal constipator,” right in your ear.

You have to charge through a morning of nonsense, keep the editor at bay.

JESSICA

Sometimes I do play mind games with myself. “Editor, you are brilliant … but for you to have any material to work with so you can showcase your brilliance, I need you to go away for 45 minutes.”

Stroke the cat.

INTERVIEWER

Stroke the cat, in fact, take the cat for a walk.

Where are some of the places you have found most advantageous to work? Or do surroundings have little effect on the work?

JESSICA

Right now I write in a closet and I love it. I use this kneeling chair, which is the only time in my day that I use a kneeling chair, I have to get on my knees to shut on and off the power strip – it creates a sort of morning ritual to get my brain in writing mode. And then I can shut the doors and forget about it for the rest of the day.

INTERVIEWER

Are there times when the inspiration isn’t there at all?

JESSICA

Definitely!

But I used to coach people through eating healthier and exercising more, so I’m always looking for ways to trick myself into doing things that are good for me but that I don’t necessarily feel like doing.

Writing by hand helps. Sometimes I just retype the last sentence or two, over and over again, until the brain kicks into gear. Once I forgot I’d done that and I left those repeat sentences in a draft that I showed readers. They thought it was a stylistic choice, haha. That was generous of them.

INTERVIEWER

Ways to trick yourself into doing things good for you?

I text you: I don’t feel like writing. My mind’s all dried up. I’m not writing today.

You text me: …

JESSICA

Just get through 20 minutes or 200 words – half the time, you’ll hit your groove and keep going. And if not, well, you wrote something today!

Sometimes we just have to tread water until tomorrow.

INTERVIEWER

Keeping the discipline up at least.

Staying in shape.

JESSICA

Exactly! It’s like running – sometimes you’re training and sometimes you’re just keeping the muscles from atrophying.

INTERVIEWER

Hmm, running. I wonder if we could extend the comparison. Maybe exercises, maybe meet-ups, etc. are like stretching. If writing is running, what is stretching for you?

What do you need to do to make sure you don’t exhaust your writing-mind?

JESSICA

Oh my god, the questions!! They are good.

Reading. Mental space to reflect on the material, for random connections to happen, insights to bubble up. And recognizing when I’ve written to the edge of exhaustion for the day, so that I stop right there to leave a little juice to seed tomorrow’s writing. Also, I don’t write on the weekends.

INTERVIEWER

Mmm, stopping right before you’ve exhausted a thread maybe. Or to make sure you’ll be excited to get back to the idea you were on in the morning. Teasing yourself, to give yourself something to look forward to And making sure you’ve got the of that thread (where you stopped for the day) to hold and consider.

Consider while you’re not writing. Maybe a chance for thought outside writing, another way of processing information, just Thinking, Experiencing.

JESSICA

Totally.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve talked about exploring other mediums. What medium has interested you? What could you explore in this medium that you can’t in writing?

Or, crossovers I think you said.

JESSICA

I really admire artists who crossover. I only seem to be able to do narratives via the written word, but I’ve noticed my sewing/knitting energy seems to run inverse to my reading/writing energy. Like when I’m on a sewing/knitting binge I’m usually in a “rest” period for writing (and reading), and then when I get heavy into a piece I’ll cut back on the crafting. When I was working on a book-length project, I would joke with friends: I don’t even want to knit hats right now. Just rectangles, please. I think knitting and sewing are my way of “filling the creative well” – reading is great for when I’m in the middle of writing or gearing up for a new project, but when I need to rest between projects I really like non-verbal sources of inspiration – go to a museum, people watch, hike, tactile creative projects.

INTERVIEWER

For “Chinese Cake Mix,” you said you’d tried to write it a year before. Do you read through it before writing the experience again? Do you edit what you’ve already written? Or do you try the experience again from scratch?

JESSICA

Ahhh … that one. How many times have I tried to write that piece? Probably my first stab was in 2013, and I tried at least twice after that, maybe more.

So this time when I wrote it, I was really familiar with a good amount of the material and didn’t look at anything old. I think maybe it was John Gardner who once said that bad writing can be like tar, and at some point when a draft isn’t working you have to put it away and just start over. Depending on how badly something isn’t working, I might completely start from scratch, go back and pull key paragraphs or scenes that I know are working, or maybe I’ll go through a draft and lift specific words, sentences, paragraphs that are working, and then use that as a skeleton. But I often write the same material over and over again. Good thing I type fast!

INTERVIEWER

Like tar… How do you know when you’re in a tar pit?

JESSICA

My anxiety bell? I can’t describe it, I just know when a draft feels flat. Sometimes I can problem solve it, which means I’m getting closer to a working skeleton, and sometimes I have no clue what’s wrong, which means I need to put it away for a year.

INTERVIEWER

Chinese Cake Mix turned out beautiful. What do you think, in rewrites, shows up that was missing before? Just needed time to see it more clearly? Or do you wait for an insight to strike you? I mean, are you you walking down the street, realize, “That’s what this meant,” and then jump into rewriting the story?

JESSICA

Occasionally the latter will happen. I always love it when it does, and it never happens often enough.

But if a draft has a year to breathe, that’s usually enough time for me to separate the core of the piece from all the extraneous junk I stuffed in there.

Or it’s not but I try anyways, and then I get to the end, give up, and stick it in the drawer for a year.

INTERVIEWER

This is a boring question, but how do you keep that organized? Do you date folders in the drawer or write down in a planner when it’s time to attack an old piece?

JESSICA

Oh geez. The most disorganized person in the world!

INTERVIEWER

Hey!

I’ll defend that title, thank you.

JESSICA

I guess I trust my subconscious to throw up whatever piece is ripening? That sounds so woowoo. It helps to be in a writing group or a workshop where there are constant deadlines to hurry along the subconscious.

INTERVIEWER

Say we’re three months in the future. Our IPRC Writing Program is over. What’s next?

JESSICA

First, I don’t leave my apartment for a week as I eat chocolate and sob.

INTERVIEWER

But you’re a trainer. And you know how to train yourself.

Do you need to train for a marathon? A project? Or do you need to keep it up to keep in shape? To keep in the habit of it?

That is, is it more motivating to have an end in mind?

JESSICA

An end is definitely helpful.

It’s funny, I spent two years wrapped up in a book-length project, and those were the years when I began creating a daily writing practice, so I used the book format to create artificial “end”s for myself. The book itself; chapters; scenes. Now that I’m not currently working on a book, I’m not quite sure how I’ll structure things.

Maybe getting to the end of a draft will be enough of an end, but maybe not. When drafts aren’t working, it can be so easy to put them down instead of pushing yourself to get to the end. Even though I think it’s important to finish drafts because that gives you a better perspective, later, on what’s working and what’s missing.

INTERVIEWER

I sympathize with, “It can be so easy to put them down.”

JESSICA

Ah, impossibly easy!

And I’m totally guilty of that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you do any rewriting as you read up to the place you left off the day before? Or does that come later, when the whole is finished?

JESSICA

Depends how ferociously I need to vomit? That usually leads me into word smithing and gets me into a more perfectionistic frame of mind, but it’s so tempting to do because I frankly hate writing fresh material and much prefer editing.

So in an ideal world I wouldn’t, but I often do.

INTERVIEWER

In your writing you tackle a lot of content that, if other writers were writing, they might frame themselves as victims, yet you are reasonable, or adult, about it. You’re able to reflect responsibly.

You treat the self you’re writing about with dignity—a very sober, fair treatment. A self-care in the examination of oneself that is absolutely necessary to have if anyone else is going to read that examination (also necessary if you are going to get anything positive out of it, if you are going to move forward). You’re dedicated, or disciplined, to reflect fairly.

Talk about… care of self in self-reflection.

Speaking primarily about essay form, creative nonfiction.

JESSICA

I think a lot of self-pity shows up in my early drafts, and it’s usually one of those things that tells me a draft isn’t working.

So maybe part of self-care is giving yourself the space to grow and reflect?

I also feel responsible to the people I write about to try to be honest about the situation, including the ways that I’ve contributed to it, my weaknesses and foibles.

INTERVIEWER

Is that space more about going back in and rewriting? Or more about waiting, thinking and growing in life and then going back and rewriting?

JESSICA

Perhaps the latter. Certainly, writing about specific periods of my life helps me get a better perspective on those times, so writing is definitely a stimulus for thinking and it spurs me to try to be a better person, recognize my prior mistakes, hopefully learn from them. Sometimes when I really can’t find that space I write about myself in the third person, like I’m a character in a novel, and that helps create some distance.

INTERVIEWER

So, if I’m trying to grapple with this and I can’t stand the enormity of it, that is, a novel, what could I do? Perhaps…storyboarding?

How does that work?

And why would you recommend it?

JESSICA

When I was working on my book-length project, I had the hardest time getting my arms around the structure of the book, how all the pieces fit together, etc. So I tried storyboarding it and that really helped!

Maybe because storyboarding is visual, which was just enough of a creative shift to get me thinking differently. But also because when you have one picture per scene, it forces you to get specific about: who’s in this scene, where is it, what’s happening + what changes (and therefore, what is the one image and thought/word bubble I will draw here)

So it helped me distill the project down to the point where I could start working with structure, theme, pacing, etc.

INTERVIEWER

What questions do you find yourself returning to most often? What is the kind of story that makes you write? That forces you to keep going?

You write about identity. Are you able to understand yourself and your experiences through writing?

JESSICA

Identity has been a central preoccupation for much of my life – growing up third generation Chinese-American among circles that didn’t know third generation Chinese-Americans exist, and on top of that I’m a crazy oddball in terms of how much I identify with Chinese culture. Interestingly, writing has helped me begin to try to understand the people in my life I had difficulty connecting with – my second-generation peers, my extended family, even my parents (who I connect well with, but whose perspectives had never closely considered). And it’s definitely helped me reflect on the many forces on me, to try to take a 360 perspective on myself.

INTERVIEWER

By writing and understanding the people you had difficulty in connecting with, do you feel you’ve since better connected with them?

Would you encourage others in an identity crisis to write through it?

JESSICA

If writing is one way you make sense of the world, it can make a lot of sense to. But I’d also encourage people to be gentle with themselves. Sometimes we have to peel these layers back slowly, and sometimes there’s only so much we can uncover at one time. And that’s fine. You have a lifetime to do this work.

INTERVIEWER

What about going back in and rewriting? Even if you’re not trying to improve the piece for publication, would it help people to try the rewriting process you’ve described?

JESSICA

When I review old drafts and come up with a plan for the next one, I’m always working off the seeds that I see in the old draft. But inevitably as I’m writing other insights, connections, perspectives, etc., will pop up. So I do think the rewriting process can be helpful.

Read more by Jessica Yen:

Knowing Grandma and The Neglected R., both originally published in Seamwork Magazine. Also, Coming up for Air originally published in The Drum.

Interviewed by Bobby Eversmann

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