The Merits of Imperfection
Yiyun Li became a writer in an act of reinvention. She had immigrated from China as a trained scientist, nearing thirty; in 1996, she arrived in the literary hub of Iowa City to pursue a master’s in immunology and ended up staying to complete an MFA in creative writing. Since then, Li has published two acclaimed story collections, four novels, and a memoir of suicidal depression and the reading life. Each book represents a further reinvention, exploring subtly radical new forms and material. In July, Li corresponded via Google Docs with Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, another fiction writer unafraid of formal experimentation, whose most recent collection, Likes (2020), features ordinary lives infused with awareness of myths, fairy tales, and social media fictions. Here, the two writers discuss overcoming their own ideas of perfection and allowing stories to take form from within. And they consider how even non-autobiographical writing may be a means of recording one’s life—and may itself be one of the most vivid parts of life.
Yiyun Li When I first moved from writing stories to novels, there was a period of time when I obsessively listened to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, which is not his best or most well-known work, but I was aware that as an early symphony it could teach me how to envision a novel as something with a structure. (I am not a musician or musicologist, so I’m only speaking of music as an amateur.) There was, I felt, an articulable shape to the symphony, which I imagined could be transposed to novel writing. When I listen to his Symphony No. 6, composed at the end of his life, there is a fluidity that feels less articulable. I wonder if that movement in his composing career reflects something we also do as we mature with each book written.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Your observation about the less articulable shape of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 reminds me of what Eudora Welty said about form in Chekhov’s stories. It’s been frequently quoted, but I’ll include it again here just because it’s so wonderful and apt: “The revolution brought about by the gentle Chekhov to the short story was in every sense not destructive but constructive. By removing the formal plot he did not leave the story structureless, he endowed it with another kind of structure—one which embodied the principle of growth. And it was one that had no cause to repeat itself; in each and every story, short or long, it was a structure open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning. It took form from within.”
Allowing the work to take form from within—that’s what I aspire to, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would hope, even with the benefit of experience and maturity. Strangely, I find myself more tentative than ever when I begin something new, more in need of a reassuring model or framework as I set out. I feel like a swimmer, a not very strong swimmer, pushing off from the shore into a vast expanse of water—and I’m holding on to Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories for dear life, as if it’s a kickboard, as if it’s the only thing that will keep me afloat.
YL I love your kickboard analogy. I learned to swim as a grown-up, and it took me a long time to be able to. Even now, I can feel that my arms are not entering the water at quite the right angle, and when I fix my arms for the next lap, my legs are kicking too slowly, or my breathing is becoming suboptimal. And that is close to how I feel with each project. When I finish a story, I can sense that perhaps I have got my kicking absolutely right this time but not my breathing, or my arms have felt strong this time, but then my goggles have leaked so I have lost my good rhythm in the last five feet because I cannot see well. This provisional nature of writing is the most sustaining factor I find in our chosen profession. And Eudora Welty’s comment resonates: “another kind of structure—one which embodied the principle of growth.” That “principle of growth” is quite a hopeful thing, at least for me! There was a time, at the beginning of my career, when my goal was perfection—to write a perfect story, to write a perfect book. But that perfection is also provisionary. One’s life changes, one’s perception of life changes, and perfection becomes imperfection, which has felt like a great discovery.
I often write stories and novels to have conversations with other books, mostly William Trevor’s work, but also Elizabeth Bowen’s, and other writers. (Recently I wrote a story, “All Will Be Well,” as a conversation with an I. B. Singer story, “The Cafeteria.”) In essence, the nature of these conversations remains the same: there is something I would like to figure out, and the time spent writing a story in dialogue with a Trevor story, or a novel in dialogue with a Bowen novel, is the time necessary to figure out that thing. These conversations (which are one-way, of course) function as a model or scaffold. And I don’t feel lonely when I write in this way.
These conversations do not necessarily move me from muddle to clarity, but oftentimes from one muddle to a new muddle. And for all my desire for clarity and precision, this progress feels to me like the biggest achievement I have had. One thought leads to another thought, one set of questions leads to another set of questions; uncertainty, in many ways, has become the only thing I have truly held on to these days.
SSB The relationship between certainty and uncertainty is something I thought about a lot while reading Where Reasons End (2019), your singularly beautiful novel about an ongoing conversation between a mother and a son lost to suicide. Nikolai, the sixteen-year-old son, is outspoken and unyielding, sure of his opinions, someone who insists on being “sharp and bright.” But inextricable from his sense of certainty is his belief in perfection, a belief that his mother understands well, both its appeal and also its power to annihilate. Perfect is a word she no longer wants in her dictionary. Many of their conversations circle back to this difference between them, his insistence on perfection and her relinquishing of it. Their arguments now make me wonder if what you just described—the ability to hold on to uncertainty, to appreciate the movement from one muddle to a new one—is an effect of time. Maybe it’s a way of thinking not available to someone young, no matter how wholeheartedly one reasons with them.
YL I wonder, Sarah, how you think of yourself and your writing in relation to time? When I was reading your most recent collection, Likes, there were moments when I felt I was led to a different place—I don’t think I can describe it, but there was a sense that time slows down, or I was experiencing time in a different way. For instance, in “The Erlking,” a mother and her young daughter go to a school fair, in a harmless, almost magical setting. Toward the end of the story—without giving it away—both mother and daughter seem to be on the cusp of irreversibly losing something. That moment, I hesitate to call it slow-motion as the sensation was not merely slowed down moments but a sense of elevation—as though time passes in a different pitch that is rarely available to our hearing in everyday life. Can you guess what I mean? Can you tell me how you achieve that effect? (I realize this is unfair: I am asking you to help me articulate how I feel about your writing, and then to tell me the secret of how you achieve it!)
SSB This question goes straight to the heart of what’s been preoccupying me in writing and in life: the strangeness of time and its effects. There’s also my growing sense of alarm at how time seems to be accelerating right now, passing ever more quickly and blurrily. Writing is a form of solace in this sense because it offers, if only in an illusory way, a feeling of command—in fiction, time can be slowed down, or sharpened, or folded in on itself, or, as in When Reasons End, made irrelevant. With this new book I think that time may operate in a slightly heightened way as an unintended side effect of my curiosity about consciousness and point of view.
When writing these stories, I found myself wanting to break the rule I had begun following years ago as a graduate student, a rule I then imparted with great vehemence to my own students: the necessity of maintaining a consistent point of view. I argued that the short story was, generally speaking, too small a space to gracefully accommodate more than one character’s interiority. But I’ve become interested in writing stories that allow for multiple or shifting perspectives, stories that aren’t necessarily confined to a single consciousness. (An impulse that favors the hopeful principle of growth over principles of “craft”!) I had this urge to get more minds on the page, more selves. I wonder if multiple points of view, contained within the brevity of the short story, cause time to dilate somehow—if fictional time expands so that more than one mind can move through it.
Did untethering yourself from time (with all its confinements and confusions) in When Reasons End feel clarifying, or liberating (or maybe neither)? Did it affect your relationship to fictional time when you returned to writing Must I Go, your latest novel?
YL “To get more minds on the page, more selves”—that is why I love the stories in Likes so much! Sometimes people talk about being able to relate to a character, or being unable to relate, as though a reader’s experience/view/opinion determines whether a character is legitimate or not, well-written or not. I resist that, but I would like to use that idea to frame why reading your stories has been one of the most extraordinary experiences for me. I don’t particularly seek to relate to any character, but when a story captures a mind, which is one of the most inexplicable or mysterious existences, I feel a thrill as a reader. This does not necessarily mean a character’s mind in your story works as my mind does, but that the story has captured something as ineffable as a mind in the right words. This must be the most hopeful thing that literature offers: that it is possible that one’s mind can be seen, felt, and understood.
And to favor the principle of growth over the principle of craft—I feel fortunate that my career has reached the stage where this not only makes perfect sense but also feels like an absolute necessity. The example of Where Reasons End, as you understand well, is an example of breaking free from a mold. As the mother in the novel can only meet the son in a world made of words, where the concepts of time and space no longer apply to their conversation, the untethering of the narrative from time and space became the only way to write the book.
And yet writing that book was deeply set in a time of my life, and I was aware, when I was working on that novel, that the characters’ liberty from time/space, their freedom to cross the line between life and earth, were not available to me, the person who was writing the book.
SSB You approach time in a completely different but equally powerful way in your recent story “All Will Be Well”—a story that’s tied to a particular time and place. While it’s told by a single first-person narrator, we understand from the start that there are two minds at work, the narrator as she was in the past and the same narrator as she is now in the present. Her thoughts are both that of “an exhausted young mother” teaching at a California college and regularly escaping to a nearby salon, and that of an older person recalling a period in her life that feels so remote and long ago that she introduces it with the fairy-tale opening, “Once upon a time.” We know little about this older person until halfway or so through the story, when we learn about the death of her teenage son. Yet we have felt her constant ache, I think, from the very beginning. The routine activities of the younger self—dealing with student complaints, singing nursery rhymes to her children, listening to her hair stylist tell stories—possess a subtly unordinary quality, perhaps because we are experiencing time in the company of two consciousnesses: the young mother and the mother who now knows sorrow with such intimacy. The effect for me is mysterious and moving and expansive.
As a great reader of writers’ diaries—and as the creator of a fictional writer’s diary (it’s a crucial element in Must I Go)—do you recommend keeping one? Is keeping a diary a good method for managing the vagaries of time?
YL I do keep a journal; over the years I have accumulated ten or fifteen of those Moleskine journals. But I know they are terribly boring, repetitive, inarticulate, and unreadable. When I finish a journal, I seal it with tape. What cannot be said always feels more important to me than what can be put into words. In that sense, Where Reasons End may be closer to a journal, recording a period of my life, than the journal I kept around the same time.
My fascination with record keeping (journals, diaries, letters) was one of the starting points for Must I Go. I used to be much more rigid about not showing my own fascinations and obsessions when I wrote fiction, just as I used to be strict about not writing in the first person. But I have relaxed around that.
Thinking about record keeping leads me to think about your novella “Many a Little Makes,” which brought me into a strange mood of wanting to be young again. I don’t often read fiction to examine my own life, but the three young friends in the novella and their grown-up versions make me think about all the alternatives we begin with when we are young and that we lose over the years. You include text messages in the novella, another kind of in vivo recording of life. (They are less private than diaries, as the text messages are meant to be read, but oftentimes only by one recipient.)
SSB I love that you are allowing more of your fascinations and obsessions into your fiction, Yiyun—and I’m beginning to accept as inevitable the fact that my obsessions are what keep me writing, as repetitive as they sometimes seem to me. The lives and passions of girls, for instance, particularly teenage girls, is a subject that I continue to revisit, helplessly but also happily. I wrote “Many A Little Makes” when I was supposed to be working on a different project; I found myself wanting only to write about these three girls and the seriousness of their friendship. I think my sense of urgency arose in part from my daughter being fourteen, the age at which the girls’ friendship begins to change. I wanted to record a version of what I remember fourteen feeling like—my own peculiar set of perceptions and associations—before the memories became overlaid with impressions of my daughter at the same age.
Many years ago, soon after she was born, Stuart Dybek said something that I’ve never forgotten: that even as having children changes forever one’s secret relationship with one’s own childhood, they give you their childhood to tag along with. The truth of his observation has been borne out entirely. Writing for me has become a sort of race against time—an absurdly uneven race, because I write in such a slow and sporadic way—as I try to capture what I can remember of my own secret relationship while I also jot down on the fly the experience of tagging along with her. There’s the perpetual worry: Does taking the time to write about childhood put me at risk of missing too much of hers? Does the effort and distance required to record something interfere with one’s ability to experience it fully?
What has drawn you to writing characters older than yourself? I’m thinking in particular of Lilia in Must I Go, who is a formidable eighty-one years old.
YL Years ago, I read an interview with William Trevor, who was a dear friend and whose writing influenced mine more than any other’s. In his interview, he talked about when he first started, he was a young man, and he liked to write about older people because he did not know how it felt to be old. (I’m paraphrasing him.) And by the time he gave the interview, he was an old man, and he said he forgot how it felt to be young, so he began to write child characters. In that way, he said, he would not be able to take something for granted but had to force himself to think hard.
When I first began, I was also very much drawn to older characters. I don’t know if writing back then was also a kind of pre-living all the situations and conditions that I thought I might run into in life. But like Trevor, I did feel that writing about older characters took one thing out of my hand, which was the shortcut of relying on my own experience. (It took me years to be able to write characters whose experience might overlap at all with mine—sometimes I resisted even the broadest overlap: a woman, or a woman in a marriage, a mother…) But lately, I do think about younger characters more. I have begun to think about racing against something—perhaps it is racing against forgetting? The story I published in this issue of The Yale Review is about two young girls growing up in Beijing and how their lives diverge after thirty years. I wonder if this is a sign of aging!
I started Must I Go quite some time ago. I looked back at my emails—sometimes when I write a particular paragraph I like, I send it to my friend Brigid Hughes, not really for her to read, but to act as though I have punched a writing card in the time clock. The first passage from the book I sent to her was in the voice of Lilia, the eighty-one-year-old narrator, written in March of 2016. In the next year and a half, I wrote perhaps more than half the draft, in which Lilia lost a child to suicide when she was forty-four. Halfway into writing the novel, the same thing happened to me: when I was forty-four, I lost my son to suicide, and I stopped working on Must I Go and wrote Where Reasons End. After that,
I couldn’t make up my mind whether I should go back to Must I Go. I always preferred to see my life and my fiction as two parallel worlds, and that the parallels ended up intersecting with each other was alarming. Lilia was a demanding character, and as she lived absolutely on her own terms, she seemed to be dictating, at one difficult moment of my life, that her need to be written overwrote my wish not to write. It was an interesting and strange experience, frustrating and exhilarating, as the novel in the end was written as though out of a wrestling match between Lilia and me, or between our wills. The overlap of Lilia’s biography and my biography, in the end, is less important than what she is able to say that I have not been able to say about losing a child: she is speaking from a later point in life, thirty-seven years after losing her daughter. If, in the first half of writing the novel, I was writing to prepare myself for some catastrophe, then perhaps I would say in the second half I was writing to prepare myself for a future moment when more understanding would be made possible by the passing of time.
Oddly, I think my most articulate memory is created when I write about characters much older than me. For instance, I remember my time spent writing about Lilia more clearly than the time when I was not writing—no doubt I was experiencing all sorts of emotions all the time, but writing seems a more reliable way to store some memory, to maintain some consistency and continuity in a life that is often muddled and interrupted.
SSB “I remember my time spent writing about Lilia more clearly than the time when I was not writing”—your observation struck me like a thunderbolt, stunned me. How did I not notice this pattern before in my own life? Because the same holds true for me—I remember the writing, going all the way back to high school, when I wrote my first stories. I can remember the room I was working in, the computer I was using, sometimes even the books sitting on the desk. The music I was listening to. I can remember looking up certain words in the dictionary and deliberating over the weight of certain details and once in a while stumbling onto a phrase that surprised me and made me happy. The various circumstances under which I’ve written fiction are vivid and coherent to me in ways that so much of my past experience is not. The particular kind of concentration or grappling that writing requires—does it preserve time in a different way?
When I read your phrase “writing seems a more reliable way to store some memory, to maintain some consistency and continuity in a life that is often muddled and interrupted,” I thought of the trail of white pebbles that Hansel creates as he and Gretel are taken deeper and deeper into the woods. And somehow that thought led me to the word cleave—maybe because Hansel and Gretel’s father has brought an ax with him, supposedly to cut firewood.
Cleave is such a strange word because it has two entirely opposite meanings: the father cleaving a log in half, the two children cleaving to each other in the darkness of the woods. What you said about having always preferred to see your life and your fiction as two parallel worlds made me think about the contradictory nature of cleaving—the desire to cleanly split something in two versus the tendency of things to stick together. Maybe, as one lives and writes, writes and lives, there is a constant, unpredictable movement occurring between the poles of splitting and adhering. But I find comfort in realizing that no matter to what degree my biography does or does not overlap with that of my characters, the fiction I write is a recording of certain periods in my life, and probably the most precise recording available to me.
YL Writing is truly one of the most consistent and precise ways of recording. I cannot think of a better way than how you put it, and I cannot think of a more hopeful way to proceed!
SSB And I will take hope in the provisional nature of writing, as you put it—and I will think of you learning how to swim as an adult, the great bravery of that, the next time I feel myself hesitating to get into the water.
This conversation appears in the Winter 2020 print issue of The Yale Review. Purchase a downloadable version of the issue at the low rate of just $5, and get writing by and conversations with Anne Boyer, Julia Cho, Samuel R. Delany, Aleshea Harris, Bhanu Kapil, Yiyun Li, Jonah Mixon-Webster, Namwali Serpell, and Maria Tumarkin.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is the author of two novels—Ms. Hempel Chronicles, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Madeleine Is Sleeping, a finalist for the National Book Award—and a new story collection, Likes. She lives in Los Angeles.
Yiyun Li is the author of seven books, including her recent novel, Must I Go. Her books have won awards including PEN/Jean Stein, PEN/Hemingway, and many others. She teaches at Princeton University.
Images: photo of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum by Mara Casey; photo of Yiyun Li by Denise Applewhite.