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writers at work

What does Gish Jen do to help her write?

Gish Jen in her office. photos by pat greenhouse/globe staff/Globe Staff

Gish Jen, the woman whom Junot Diaz calls “the Great American Novelist we’re always hearing about,” has published five works of fiction and has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Massachusetts Book Award, and a Fulbright. This February, she published “Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self,” a book based on a series of talks she delivered as part of the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures at Harvard University and her first nonfiction effort. Jen works in an office very near her Cambridge home.

THE ROUTINE: [In the morning], I bring my daughter to school. I frequently go for a walk with a friend, and then I will ride my bike over to my office . . . My typical day has all these interruptions, so I stay there until 7 o’clock.


NEED FOR ISOLATION: Once I have walked into my office, I am absolutely, completely antisocial. My editor will call, and I’ll pick up, but in a general kind of way, I do not chat. I am working, and I do not want anybody to call me . . . It’s funny, because everybody knows I’m such a social person, and I am a very social person as long as I’m not working.

AUSTERITY MEASURES: In the early days [of my career], my office was completely empty. The décor consisted of a computer, a desk, a chair; that was it . . . It used to be I didn’t even have books, and I certainly didn’t have a phone. Now, I’m a mother, and I can’t have no phone . . . [and the office] has bookshelves. The reason it has bookshelves is because it stores the overflow from my house — it’s not possible for one building to hold all those books.

Jen rides her bike to her office.pat greenhouse/globe staff

BEST PRACTICES: I think those early days of having just a desk and a computer have trained me to go to my office, sit down, and work. I’m a big believer in habit; students ask me what to do, and I always say [writing] starts with sitting in the same place, your bottom on the chair, your fingers moving.


RITUAL INDULGENCE: I eat an unusual amount of chocolate.

READING CHAIR: I have an easy chair that’s my reading chair, and when I’m reading, I’m very aware that I’m in my reading chair and not in my writing chair where I should be. If I’m sitting at my desk chair, I am sitting at my computer, my hands are on the keyboard, and I’m articulating something to someone. If I take the time to read, I feel like it’s an indulgence — I’m conscious, the whole time, that I’m reading, which is not something I’m supposed to be doing.

She has an easy chair just for reading.pat greenhouse/globe staff/Globe Staff

SECRET WISH: I would love to try a treadmill desk.

DISTRACTING VOICES: In the beginning part of a fiction project, I sometimes do a ritual where I take everybody I know and I put them, mentally, in the hall. First, of course, mother, any critics — Michiko Kakutani, in the hall! — even voices that are really quite friendly, just so I can hear myself think.

WORKING TOGETHER: Over the years, when my children were little, one of the purposes of an office was to be as far away from them as possible, and to be as unreachable as was feasible. Now my office is bigger, and it’s set up so that my daughter and my husband can work here, too. I don’t have a toddler anymore, so it’s not like they’re going to be hanging on me. My daughter will come and do her homework, and if my husband’s in town, he might come and work also. I totally ignore them. It’s one of my favorite things — I just love it when we’re all there working.


Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.