Secrecy and the Writing Life

A Poetry Squawk
By Jenna Lê
Author of Six Rivers and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora

Jenna LeLike all kids who grow up to be writers, I was a daydreamer from the start. My childhood daydreams were straightforward wish-fulfillment fantasies: I dreamed of winning Olympic medals in figure skating, of being a detective who brought criminal gangs to their knees, of owning a goldfish, of being someone’s best friend. These daydreams were nothing special; I expect there are millions of kids around the world nursing these exact same daydreams at this very second. What made them special to me was that they were secret. If my schoolmates had been able to see these hyperactive Technicolor filmstrips flashing through my brain, I would have died of shame; keeping my daydreams secret meant that I could revel in seeing visions of alternate realities and possible futures that those around me were not privileged to access. In a sense, those mundane childhood daydreams were my first pieces of writing, although I never wrote them down.

Entering adolescence, I began tentatively committing words to paper, in an effort to try to make sense of the flurry of feelings I was experiencing. My feelings at that age largely revolved around boys I had crushes on, authority figures I resented, and symptoms of diseases I fancied I had, so it seemed only natural to keep my writings secret. I went from having a ribcage full of secret daydreams to having a bottom desk drawer crammed with
secret poems.

At times, secrecy seemed a necessary prerequisite for bravery, the bravery to think and write honestly, with an independent mind. Other times, secrecy appeared to be merely an offspring of fear: fear of being rejected, laughed at, psychoanalyzed, pitied. When I submitted my writing to a literary magazine for the first time, I did so in secret, looking back and forth furtively before quickly releasing my carefully spit-sealed envelope into the mailbox’s maw, my face as hot as if I had been helping myself to a handful of the school nurse’s prominently displayed free condoms.

Even after I began accumulating publication credits, I kept my writing vocation a secret from my family and friends for several years. I simply didn’t mention my unconventional pastime to anyone I knew, and since no one reads literary magazines anyway (wink-wink at my fellow travelers on the literary path!), the fact that I was a writer flew beneath my acquaintances’ radar for far longer than you would think possible in this era where Google
knows everything. Only when my first book, Six Rivers, was published did I finally come out of the literary closet. This abrupt discarding of secrecy shook up my inner ecosystem like the introduction of a predatory carp species into a Northwoods lake: for one deranged instant, I even wondered whether it was the cozy knowledge of having a secret that I had loved the most about being a writer, or was it the actual writing?

Today, five years after my first book’s publication and four months after the publication of my second, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, I still feel a teensy bit uncomfortable about being the public face of my own writing. In this age where she who conquereth Twitter and Tumblr ruleth the world, I’m that dunce in the back of the classroom hastily looking up “brand building” on Wikipedia. Living openly and authentically as a writer is invigorating but also rather like being the spokesperson for one’s own cereal brand: Don’t look at me; focus on the flavor of those cornflakes I’ve placed before you. I put my soul into growing those grains, and trust me, that bowl’s sweeter than I am.

Jenna Lê is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. Le is a second-generation Vietnamese-American, born and raised just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. She holds a BA from Harvard University and an MD from Columbia University. Learn more at