Interview with Tiphanie Yanique
Tiphanie Yanique is an author, poet, professor, and mother. She recently received the 2016 Forward/Felix Dennis Prize for her first collection of poetry, Wife. The Sarah Lawrence Graduate Writing Program was lucky enough to have her teach a craft class this semester. Our assistant blog editor, Victoria Johnson, interviewed Tiphanie to find out about her writing process.
VJ: So, why do you write? It’s a very broad question, I know.
TY: I have always understood myself to be a writer. On the most elemental level, as long as I’ve known my own name, as long as I’ve had a consciousness, I’ve also been writing – creating stories. So in that way, it’s always been part of me. But a lot of people feel that way about writing, and they don’t necessarily become professional writers, you know? I mean, lots of people feel like they’ve always been painting, or they’ve always been dancing – probably dancing is even more elemental for all of us than writing. But I think the reason I’m a professional writer has to do with the fact that my mother and my grandmother were both writers before me. My grandmother was a storyteller, and she wrote down stories; my mother was a poet. They never published books, but they were active literary beings, and I wanted to follow in that tradition.
VJ: Okay, well that kind of covers another question I had, which was how and when did you become interested in writing creatively; I think you answered that. What is your writing process?
TY: So, I don’t really believe in process. I think that kind of question is also dangerous for young writers, who might be reading this, because the idea is, “if I learn this person’s process or understand this person’s process, that might help me write,” or “that person’s process might be some sort of portal of knowledge into how to actually get this shit done.” And none of that is true. Lots of people have very disciplined processes, and they create lots of garbage, or they don’t produce that much good material. Lots of people have very haphazard processes or no processes at all, and they are productive. So I don’t know if it really matters. I also don’t really believe in the preciousness of process, the idea that you have to do this thing in a very certain way, otherwise you can’t produce. I think that’s just a way to prevent yourself from writing, because then it’s like a crutch; “I need my special pen,” “I need to be in this special room,” and all these things end up being ways to not get writing done, because you don’t have “your pen” or “your room.” I also feel like those things are privileges; having even a relatively uncomplicated process seems like you have to have free time, you have to have the luxury to have a spare room, or a special pen. [laughs] I don’t know. Something about the word “process” seems to me like a way to prevent particular kinds of people from creating. So I would say I don’t really have a process that I keep precious. I write when I can, and where I can, and I try my best to forgive myself if I don’t get more done. I’m super busy: I got kids, [laughs] I teach, and I’m really committed to both those things. I don’t see those things as less valuable, or less powerful and beautiful than my writing. I know some writers feel that way, like the most vital part of them is their writerly self, and I think, “Oh, that’s so sad.” [laughs] That’s so sad that the most powerful thing about you is a thing, sort of narcissistically, that you create alone in a room with your pen. I feel like I have lots of other things in my life that are also powerful and important to me. So, I just write when I can and try to not beat myself up about it. I will say though that I like to read as part of my writing practice. When I feel stuck in writing something, I will read some master of the craft who I think is doing something that I might want to strive towards, or that might jiggle something in my brain. So I do try to read. I don’t necessarily read the same genre or even the same subject matter. Just reading read any master to sort of get my own muscles flexing, I think is helpful.
TY: I feel like that was a long answer.
VJ: It was a good answer.
VJ: How do you approach fiction and poetry differently when writing?
TY: For a long time I used to say this thing, which was: because I write in both genres, there’s very little cross-genre writing within the genres for me. I don’t write narrative poetry, and I don’t write fiction in stream-of-consciousness. Because I have the freedom to write other genres, then I don’t feel the need to bend the genres within the genres – that’s what I used to say. And then I realized that I do write narrative poetry, and that I was creating this myth about myself that was untrue. And that my fiction is very deeply lyrical, and that I do think about language in my fiction the way poets tend to think about it in their poetry, and I think about character in my poetry the way that fiction writers might think more about character. So I would say that there’s probably a lot more on the really elemental craft level that goes across the two, for me. That being said, I don’t know; my feeling still - and I’m still exploring this within myself - is that when I want to write about a moment, or an idea, I write that in poetry. When I want to be directly political or intellectual, I write poetry. Maybe it’s how memoirists feel when they write journalism. Which might be me saying that both my stories and my poems are fiction. Either way, when I want to write about community, I’m more likely to write that in a short story or novel.
VJ: That’s really interesting.
TY: Yeah. There’s no logic for this, it’s just how it has developed for me. None of this is to say that poetry is better for ideas than fiction, or that fiction is better for community than poetry; it is simply how it has developed for me as an individual writer.
VJ: How do you get past writer’s block? Or do you believe in that as a concept?
TY: I don’t believe in that as a concept. [laughs] I feel like, again, this is another handicap on writers that keeps them from writing. I think “writer’s block” is about fear or frustration, or boredom, or you’re just interested in other things. Unless you have an assignment for class, I don’t feel like writer’s block is even a thing to worry about. You don’t feel like writing today? Then go to the movies. So what? I don’t think that it matters. It’s completely legitimate to not be feeling like you want to write, and feeling like instead you want to go live. And maybe that’s what writer’s block actually is: it’s about needing to go have more experiences and live so that the inspiration can come, and not fretting about sitting in a room in front of a computer, hoping that a lightning bolt will smash you. Again, what kind of privilege is that? Just to sit – there’s quiet in your life, and you can sit in a room and just wait. So, no, I don’t believe in it. I believe that maybe you’re distracted; or that there are other things that are happening in your life that probably need to be attended to, and might be more exciting for you than writing. And if you attend to those things, and live in them, of course those things are going to help your writing. My solution to this phantom thing called “writer’s block” is just to go live. Now, that’s not very helpful if you have an assignment. [laughs] Your teacher is like, “You have to hand in ten pages of poetry by tomorrow.” You know, in those situations, I think reading other literature that can kick-start stuff is helpful. But even then, that’s like everything, that’s like any assignment – anytime you have to do homework, if you wait until the last minute, you’re screwed. So I would just say that in those cases feeling “blocked” is more about waiting until the last minute. It’s not some made-up artsy thing that we create: “Artists are so complex. We have these complex psychological traumas that no one else has.” I just think, “Oh, bullshit. Everybody’s got that stuff.”
VJ: Yeah. I like that answer. I’ve never heard anyone say that before. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
TY: Yeah. Since this is a grad student publication and I assume grad students are the primary audience. Given that, I’ll give a slightly more complex answer than I’d normally give. Normally to a question like this, I would say: “Go read, and read, and don’t worry, the writing is secondary to the reading. The most important part of writing, actually, is reading” – but because you guys are grad students, I am going to assume that you are reading and that you might benefit from a more nuanced answer. So, I would say that reading deeply within your own canon is very important; first one has to figure out what that is. Spend time thinking about the kind of writer you are, and the kind of writers that you might be writing with, or towards, or in response to, and then reading those writers deeply, deeply, deeply. Develop your personal canon, which is so different than the canon that exists out in the world, or than your teacher’s canon. Spend time thinking about the writers who are your personal masters, and then read them deeply, read everything they write, and learn deeply from them. Reading broadly is also important. Conversely, you also have to make sure that you don’t get trapped in only reading the writers that you think are your masters, because there are probably some other people out there who you think are not for you--but are. Maybe you’re a white writer, and you have never really read Toni Morrison. Well that’s a sin, and you should never become a writer. [laughs] But really there is something to be learned from writers who are also doing things that might feel foreign or different to you, that could expand and help you do something new and fresh within your own tradition. So I would say, also it is important to read broadly; to go outside of the writers who are obviously connected to your work, and find ways to be influenced by difference. I’ve heard lots of students say, “I don’t like magical realism. I don’t get it.” Well, that’s exactly why maybe you should read more of it. Or, “I read the Great Gatsby in high school and hated it.” Well, maybe you should attempt to reread The Great Gatsby; how you read it in high school might be really radically different than how you experience it once you’re actually trying to make this art yourself. So my advice is to do these two contradictory things at once: be knowledgeable about your own traditions, but also be adventurous outside of those traditions.