The Ecstatic World: Jennifer Tseng on the Writing Process

Writing by Heidi Sistare, Illustration by Lesley Numbers
January 6, 2014

The Ecstatic World is the first in a series about the writing process. During each month of 2014, Freerange Nonfiction will post a new piece from this collaboration between Heidi Sistare and Lesley Numbers.

Jennifer Tseng prefers to work early in the morning. On Martha’s Vineyard morning is all ghost slips rising off the grass and crows startling the sun with their blackness. She writes poetry and fiction in pencil on the blank side of scrap computer paper. “Writing is sort of like having a baby, but on a daily basis,” Jennifer said. jennifertseng_printversion (1) Her whole life is organized around her writing. “Writing has inspired me to make choices in service of its continuation,” she said. “I have pared my daily routine down to a monk-like sequence, so that I can be alive on the page.”
She writes for six hours every day while her daughter is in school. She takes a break for yoga and a break for lunch. She creates a sense of peace, routine, and simplicity. For Jennifer, writing requires sleep, good food, and time.
Her routines and the simplicity of her daily life help to cultivate her reception to the world, and might explain the almost-palpable vibration of her excitement. Jennifer’s vivacity spills off the page. She seems to be amused by a personal joke with the world, betrayed by the way she smiles and how she looks at everything like she might pounce on it. When she tells you something important, she leans in, like you’re the first person to hear a secret.
“I love people who give away their gold. You know, the great chef who gives away her recipes, the friend who lets you wear her best dress,” she said. When Jennifer teaches she likes to share her favorite piece of poetry advice right away, a quote from Franz Kafka.
“You do not need to leave your room, remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Jennifer lives and works on Martha’s Vineyard, an island that’s seven miles from the coast of Massachusetts. It’s a small place: a year-round population of about 15,000, no 24-hour anything, maybe a handful of unfamiliar faces. “Writing, perhaps especially writing on a small island like Martha’s Vineyard helps keep my sense of the greater world alive and intact,” Jennifer said. “To whom am I speaking? Writing constantly asks this of me. Who’s there? Who cares?”
She’s asking from her room: a small space with yellow walls and nubby white carpeting. It’s on the second floor of her apartment and hosts a tiny desk that looks out the one window, a larger desk with books and notebooks on it, a computer, and a printer. This is where she creates her poems and novels, sentence by sentence. Sometimes, she writes lying down on the floor. “I think it has to do with receptivity,” she said. “I’m closer to a dream state when I’m lying down.” When she pauses for breath, she squints her eyes and smiles. Jennifer smiles even while she’s talking. If she wants to think before she speaks then she does, letting the wheels of her mind be visible to the outside world. Her face looks soft and her cheeks rise into hills or fall into roundness. “No need to make plans,” Jennifer said, “no need to evaluate or criticize, just listen, just watch. The writer’s simple job is to accept what the ecstatic world has to offer.”
Jennifer Tseng’s first book The Man With My Face (AAWW 2005) won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s National Poetry Manuscript Competition and a 2006 PEN American Center’s Open Book Award. Her forthcoming book Red Flower, White Flower, winner of the 2012 Marick Press Poetry Prize, will include English originals alongside Chinese translations by Mengying Han and Aaron Crippen. Tseng is currently at work on a novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. You can read more about Jennifer and her writing on her website. Two Flowers is a poem from Jennifer’s forthcoming book, Red Flower, White Flower.
Two Flowers
I loved the wrong flower. Its color
of apples & fire & blood
from a body just opened
by the world’s knife.
There was one without color
that waited for me. The one
I should have loved
I could not see.


meHeidi Sistare is a writer and community-builder who lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. imageLesley Numbers is an art educator, printmaker, and mom who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Lesley and Heidi met as roommates at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. There, they transformed their cinderblock and linoleum room into a magical living space, listened to lots of Townes Van Zandt, and plotted collaborative projects. They’re happy to be sharing this project with Freerange.