Writing was not the thing. It got me to the real thing—how I saw myself and my relationship to the world.
I was visiting a book club in Brooklyn discussing Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Though slow to convince others, I defended my love for the book with glee. I recalled my work in critique, which practices reading with suspicion, and I noticed its damage. I wanted to read as I lived, and that was gently. Instead of me reading the book, the book was allowing itself to be read by me. Reading a book, do not seek to be a force acting upon it. Let the book be a force acting upon you. This is how books are loved.
I loved books again instead of trying to save them. I no longer asked them to be enough for me. I spirited myself toward a new possibility. If critique is a knife, it must gently pare back the rind to reveal a thing both beautiful and alive. To see harm done is no great skill. To experience light where unseen is.
My book editor called to ask why I must cut out a whole chapter. I’d cut several already. I wrote an amount I would never find again. I was proud of what I had wrought. I said, “It’s too cheesy.” She said, “But aren’t you a little cheesy?”
Who can embrace a book that isn’t embraced by its own author? I wasn’t cutting words from a book. I was cutting out parts of me from myself. This was my violence. I had done this before—a missing chunk of my throat, a hole in my stomach. I had a pattern of a self-harm that appeared as if it were harmless, as if it were the chapter I disliked and not my own person.
Treat your words and your person kindly. They have traveled a vast distance over the span of human history to be with you.
I had not prepared a place in my heart to hear these next words: Your writing cannot take place for the sake of itself.
Writing was not the thing. It was the thing that got me to the real thing—how I saw myself and my relationship to the world. Years ago, I had given up on books and decided to write a thousand love letters to strangers. I learned that I could live without writing, but I could not live without human connection.
When I had forced myself to write in my small room, I observed that the greater discipline might be to participate in life’s events with writing as a means to kinship and togetherness.
Who can embrace a book that isn’t embraced by its own author?
Perhaps it took me longer than others to nourish a sense of value in my own life. In my youth, I regularly attempted to take my life.
The verb live bothered me in its action, which opposed my inaction. However, the noun life suggested that whether I chose to live or not, I was life. The verb, a hindrance. The noun, a place of calm neutrality. Rather than living to sacrifice and overcome, life became a thing to observe and contemplate.
If there was value in any life on earth, then value must be present in mine. If I believed in this one thing, I could write freely.
I learned to know my life as valuable. Whatever I wrote was a natural occurrence of life. I trusted that each day was building up to say something to me, then me to the world. There was no such thing as alone. I practiced joy and ease the way I practiced my writing; this freed me to imagination, sincerity, and compassion.
E. J. Koh is the author of A Lesser Love, winner of the Pleiades Editors Poetry Prize, and the memoir The Magical Language of Others. Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Academy of American Poets, Prairie Schooner, World Literature Today, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Slate. Recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the MacDowell Colony, her work has been featured in PEN America, The Stranger, and TIME magazine. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @thisisejkoh.