Settling into the Writers Room has been a process of settling into new routines. On the days I reserve for writing, it’s no longer a question of which coffee shop will have space, or if I can get work done from my bed, or if my housemates are out and I can snatch uninterrupted time at my kitchen table. Now, it’s a quiet routine of the coffee brewed and the bag packed: the computer, the charger, and of course, a snack for later.
With my new routine come new rituals too. The twenty-minute T ride from home to Park Street has become a meditative time: my phone turns off, and with quiet music or in simple silence, I angle my mind towards the work of the day. I try to take the walk from Park Street briskly, getting my thoughts flowing. From there, I’m ready to set up at a desk and settle into the bright quiet of the Room.
I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals and routines since receiving the Gish Jen Emerging Writers Fellowship, which opened this space up to me. I’d thought, when I sent my application off on a wing and a prayer, that the only routines I’d change – and indeed, could change – would be the physical: the space, the commute, the desk. I had no idea that in these first few months of 2015, I’d have to confront the fact of two, deeply rooted routines, two ritualized assumptions that, until now, I’d never realized had always surrounded my writing. The first of these is that writing, for me, is natural, necessary, and inevitable. And the second is that I am not a writer, and can never claim to be, until I’ve published a book.
This disjuncture between act and title had never occurred to me, until I – elated by the news that I had received the fellowship – told a close friend. “That’s great,” she said, sincerely. And then followed it up, equally sincerely, with “But I had no idea that you wanted to be a writer.” And so it’s gone from there. Barring family and my best of friends, the news that I’ve joined the Writers Room has to be accompanied by a long prelude, bearing the news that for years, I’ve been writing books.
Confronting this contradiction – that I’ve never allowed an entrenched part of my daily existence to become a part of my outward, projected self – has been startling. Until these last few months, it had legitimately never occurred to me that the act of writing makes a writer, or that my writing, in the action itself, was worth talking about. In the twists and turns of my head, my writing was some sort of fraudulent attempt at being a “writer” (or at least it would be, in my thinking, until the outside world affirmed my writing, retroactively granting my labor ‘legitimacy’). Needless to say, this unwillingness to define myself as a writer went hand in hand with my own devaluing of my work and efforts. And, as a result, it left a large and important part of my life unarticulated.
The gift of this fellowship and this space has been substantial. I have a beautiful place to work, I’ve met a community of inspiring people, and listening to the sound of other writers typing is the best possible thing you can do for your own productivity, I’ve learned. But I think my biggest takeaway, so far, has been this: the empowering realization that it’s okay – and in fact, important – to be an “emerging” writer. It’s a gift of affirmation, not publishing or reviews (though fingers crossed that will come, someday), but the permission to take myself and my needs, desires, and that pesky compulsion to write seriously.
I’m grateful for this disruption of my routines. It’s shown me that the hours I spend typing, deleting, and revising are productive and valuable. It’s helped me clear away old routines that paralyzed rather than produced. And it’s made space for new routines, for the things that are the most important of all: the commute, the meditation, and the slow, steady work of a writer writing.
Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers