Loving the Long Creative Life

Hong Kong (now U.S.) author Xu Xi has published essays, appeared in and published anthologies, and novels, including The Unwalled City: A Novel of Hong Kong. In sum, fifteen books. In an interview, she shared some thoughts about the creative life that would encourage authors, both aspiring and experienced. “Being a writer is also an issue if you’re not published” (or, perhaps, not published where you want to be). And it’s hard to break into U.S. literary journals, short story publishing, “never mind selling novels.”

Xu found that living in New York City, enough people were trying to be an artist of some kind—musician, painter, actor, novelist—that made life easier. They understood her. They understood her day job was just a way to put groceries on the table. This is a heartfelt validation of the importance of “community.” Some of us find it in groups of other writers. Some find it in groups outside the writing community.

Still, Xu had to reach a point where the daily demands on her were not primarily about relationships, family, and work, in order to be free to write beyond herself. She quotes Confucius’s description of the various decades of life, which culminate at the point that you can “follow [your] heart’s desire without overstepping the line.” Alas, the Master said that point comes when you reach an advanced age, which maybe is why we hear about authors (like me!) whose first book is published after age 50. Not that that’s a piece of cake, either.

Xu, who is past 50 herself says she thinks of writing “as fate, destiny, the thing you were born to do but didn’t know how to go about or weren’t quite ready for when you were younger.” Interestingly, in her day jobs she was considered a quick study, but she finds the process of writing, “incredibly slow.” Nevertheless, she finds pleasure in learning how to improve, which is long-term and yields incremental improvements. It’s fulfilling in a deep, “things are right with the world” sense, which more quickly mastered accomplishments often lack. How many times are authors pitched on “this book,” “this course,” or “this software” that will lead them down an immediate and short path to success?

International artists who write in English, Xu believes, are one way for readers to better understand both the universal aspects of life while appreciating differences in human experience and building empathy with people whose perspectives are different. This comes to the fore in her writer’s guide and anthology, The Art and Craft of Asian Stories.

At some point Xu realized she “could waste an enormous amount of creative time and energy on all kinds of ‘okay’ things, and, as well, produce work that might actually prove more readily publishable.” That choice would mean other work would suffer—work that require a deeper examination of our interior selves to reach for the fundamental, rather than the superficial. Such works don’t demand that you stretch your writing muscles. Xu is willing to do this and thereby is, she believes, writing to the future of the English language.

Xu Xi is the Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.