E. Lily Yu is that rare creature: a writer of exceptional skill who is grounded in faith, literary history, and a lifetime of reading. Her short story collection Jewel Box was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, her novel On Fragile Waves won the Washington State Book Award for fiction, and Yu herself has received the LaSalle Storyteller Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards.

In her new book, Break, Blow, Burn, and Make: A Writer’s Thoughts on Creation, Yu meditates on reading, writing, and creativity while both celebrating and lamenting the current condition of these holy pursuits. Writer and English professor Karen Swallow Prior spoke with Yu about the relationship between Christian faith, the craft of writing, and the fearless pursuit of truth.

(Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

A recurring theme throughout your book is that good writing, like all good art, emerges from love rather than anger, anxiety, or contempt. You point out that “God created out of love and delighted in life, and when he looked upon his work, he pronounced it good.” As creators, we create best when we imitate the Creator. What are some cultural conditions that present obstacles to creating from love rather than from aggression or fear?

Setting aside for the moment the fact that love can be angry—that there can be loving anger—I think there’s a great deal of vagueness and confusion around the definition of love, which leads to people pursuing 50 different things, only one of which I recognize as deserving of the word.

In the book, I use Erich Fromm’s definition of love: giving out of one’s aliveness, out of what is most vital in the self. That is, in some ways, a very old-fashioned, forgotten, almost obsolete understanding of the word. We have to know what we are talking about before we can even describe what we are seeking or what is missing. And it takes a great deal of time to reach that point; as Fromm says, it is the love of a mature person. It is not a child’s love or a dog’s love. It is not the love of ice cream; it is not the love of money.

Throughout the book, you draw parallels between robust faith and robust art. Can you talk a little more about that correspondence?

I think the work of an artist can only be as deep as the artist herself, whether or not that depth is a permanent condition—whether or not it is achieved by the grace of God. Faith is one avenue that has been known for thousands of years to deepen the self past where we might expect it to go.

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Drawing on observations from the essayist Sven Birkerts, you point out that as our world has grown more connected laterally, it has grown shallower and flatter as well. How do the shallowness and the flattening that you see in our creative life correspond to the shallowness and flattening that you see in our faith life?

Decades ago, Guy Debord and Neil Postman wrote about the transition of human society away from print, toward images. That was likely the first step into shallowness: the reduction of attention, of internal subjective engagement with words, to that which could be grasped visually within seconds.

That process has accelerated. It resembles a reversal of the spread of literacy. Prior to widespread literacy, images were all that we had. But those were meant to be pointers to a deeper truth. Giotto’s gold paintings were not supposed to represent the self or self-expression but a deeper relationship to God. So even those images were not functioning in the way that images are today: as marketing tools, as entertainment, as objects of consumption.

Can there be deep images? Certainly. Are we primarily creating and interacting with deep images? I do not think so. There’s a hypothesis that poor teaching of reading in younger generations has led to a greater embrace of the video format. That may be the case. It may also be that video and visual formats are easier to interact with, demand less from us, require less skill to grasp. But whatever the source, we are disinclined to grapple with difficult, thoughtful, deep texts and very much inclined to spend our time on screens. This has produced much shallower writing as well.

You have an entire chapter on vocation in the context of art and writing. Here, you use the powerful example of an orchestra inside a rehearsal room full of toppled chairs and music stands, with only a few instruments being played. But outside in the hallway are a hundred violinists brawling.

The point of the illustration is that all the violinists think everyone else should be a violinist and have persuaded everyone to play the violin. The orchestra, of course, is the less for it.

I’ve noticed in human beings, regardless of affiliation, a tendency to move with the majority, to agree with the majority, which makes living easier, which makes thinking easier. But it doesn’t make living deeper or better, and it doesn’t make thinking deeper or better.

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There is also a deep insecurity in people who have not yet grappled with their own smallness, with the inconsequentiality of being a handful of stardust in a vast void, such that they require other people to reinforce their own sense of self. One way of doing this is pressuring others to conform to the exact same decisions that one has made personally, because to see other people making the same decisions is comforting and reassuring, whether or not those decisions are correct. You can see this in the church and in society, in every country, in every time, in every place.

It is both true that people whose lives appear similar to the lives of those around them can have deep faith, incredible character, and integrity, and also that those qualities can belong to people whose lives do not conform at all. The point is not nonconformity, which is very often as shallow and meaningless as conformity, but something else entirely. It’s not the image or the performance that matters here but obedience to the call.

The orchestra, in other words, needs all the players.

The orchestra represents a very specific instance of this. I think the body of Christ is called to work toward a single higher purpose, for which we are all in harmony but not in unison.

You mention in passing that many adults prefer the genre of young adult literature. Why do you think that is? And why is that a concern?

I think the vast majority of human beings have lost a great deal of the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time on complicated and ambiguous texts and on complicated and ambiguous art.

I’m not fond of genre distinctions in general—these are a recent marketing tool introduced in publishing to help categorize and organize the explosion of books coming to market. But if you look at the books that were written specifically for the YA market as opposed to books that were slotted into YA, which I think are two different phenomena, you see a tendency toward simplistic, Manichean situations of good and evil, simple ideologies, shallow characterizations, and thrills and exciting scenarios that don’t require a great deal of understanding to enjoy.

I don’t think this movement toward more digestible reading is limited to YA. You can see it everywhere, including in literary fiction and other genres, and I think it’s indicative of how we’re changing as a whole.

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Related to this concern, you spend some time arguing against the idea that literature can or even should increase empathy. You question, as well, the idea that literature needs to be justified by its moral goodness. Following H. L. Mencken, you attribute this impulse to our history of Puritanical thinking. What do you think we lose in literary appreciation when we depend on these rationales?

I’ve never been particularly concerned with classifying human beings as good or evil, because we have the potential for both good and evil within us at all times. I am not a good person; I am not a bad person; I am a human being, with all that that entails.

What I think reading can do is remind us of the values that outlast millennia, that outlast empires, and remind us to search for what is greater than ourselves. The 21st-century focus on empathy as a means of developing morality has taken us to some very dark places, where feelings substitute for justice, for fact, or for truth.

You talk about how essential it is for writers to have a deep love of language. How is this inextricable from a love of truth?

Writing is a means of thinking. It is a way by which we come to understand what we ourselves think, and then revise what we think when we see how badly we have written it. Searching for precisely the right words, the right vessels, into which we can place our meaning in such a way that it can be received as completely as possible by our recipient has a great deal in common with searching for the truth. Writing is a means of finding the form in which to place the truth that—if we are lucky, if we have searched for long enough, if we have endured long enough—we have found.

Even a hundred years ago, this would have been a very rare way of looking at language. For most people, language is a means of getting what they want from the world and from other people. It does not involve an allegiance to the truth. Orwell, W. H. Auden, and Victor Klemperer wrote about this.

We see the sequel of the degradation of language they observed in the rush toward AI-generated text: the devaluation of the slow seeking out of truth, the slow seeking out of the right form with which to express that truth, in favor of what is fast, often incorrect, cheap, and easy. It is essentially an assault upon the reader’s time and attention. And it is done, as it was in Orwell’s day, in the search of profit, personal advancement, and convenience.

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You write about the importance of solitude and courage in creating good art. Why are these so important to one’s craft?

Ultimately, the decisions by which we live our lives must be made individually, each of us for ourselves. Other people can advise us, but there has to be a moment of retirement, a moment of singleness, when you say, This is how I choose to live, this is what I choose to stand for. And to make that decision without solitude, to make that decision in the middle of a crowd, often a shouting crowd, means the risk of taking on the crowd’s values, as opposed to living by your own values, which are almost never found in the middle of the crowd.

I think courage has always been a standing apart. Kierkegaard talks about this in one of his posthumously published writings, “On the Dedication to ‘That Single Individual.’” He writes of the need to become an individual apart from the crowd, apart from the judgments of those upon whose approval your livelihood, your social standing, or your well-being depend. Courage is the ability to say, It will cost me a great deal, but I have examined the matter to the best of my ability, and I cannot do otherwise. It is very lonely. You have to say yes to that loneliness.

Break, Blow, Burn, and Make: A Writer's Thoughts on Creation
Break, Blow, Burn, and Make: A Writer's Thoughts on Creation
Worthy Books
240 pp., 24.13
Buy Break, Blow, Burn, and Make: A Writer's Thoughts on Creation from Amazon