Arts·Where I Write

"My writing space can be wherever I am." How Jessica J. Lee thinks outside the box when it comes to process

The Two Trees Make a Forest author still doesn't have a devoted space for writing — but for her, it doesn't matter

The Canada Reads finalist still doesn't have a devoted space for writing — but for her, it doesn't matter

Jessica J. Lee in Taiwan. (Photo by Ricardo A. Rivas)

Leading up to Canada Reads, CBC Arts is bringing you daily essays about where this year's authors write. This edition features Two Trees Make a Forest author Jessica J. Lee.

When I began writing Two Trees Make a Forest, I was living in a 400-square-foot studio apartment with my partner in Berlin. I had recently finished my PhD and my first book, Turning, and was juggling time between two part-time nannying gigs, a serving job in a restaurant, and freelance writing. My desk was 1/3 of an unvarnished Ikea table tucked into the bay window of our one room. It goes without saying: this was not a good place for writing or for the chaos of piecing together a story from fragments. But years on from that apartment and all the part-time work, I still don't have a single, devoted space for writing.

In mid-2017, with the support of grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the U.K. Society of Authors, I was able to travel to Taiwan for three months and focus entirely on the task of writing. But most of that writing took place far from a desk. I jotted notes into my phone on fissured outcrops of mountain trails. I snapped photographs that served as a record on long bike rides through wetland reserves. And on train journeys between Taipei in the north and Kaohsiung in the south, I scribbled scraps in a turquoise notebook my mom had bought me at Chapters.

Jessica J. Lee in Taiwan. (Ricardo A. Rivas)

When I wasn't hiking or biking or swimming, I spent my days in Taipei lazily strolling to 樂樂咖啡, my favourite coffee shop in Songshan district, writing in a tranquil corner as my Americano went cold. I spent afternoons searching old books in the National Library. But what I could produce in Taiwan — up against the immediacy of my experiences — was limited. I needed distance and time.

So it wasn't until I returned to Berlin that I began to write in earnest. I think many writers tend toward immersion — devoting their lives wholly, with every fibre of their being, to process. And while I don't resist giving my thoughts over entirely, I have struggled with my own workaholism long enough to know that for my body — for sleep and meals and relaxation — total devotion takes too heavy a toll. So for six months of 2018, I asked myself simply to sit and write for an hour or two each morning. I gave myself the time it took to drink two cups of coffee and eat a croissant at my local coffee shop, Lorch und Söhne, every week racking up a free coffee on my loyalty card. There was one stool by the window-bar I called my own, and from there I dreamt myself to mountainsides in Taiwan, to 1930s Nanjing, to my own childhood in Canada.

Lorch und Söhne in Berlin. (Photo by Christoph Lorch)

It didn't matter that I didn't have a desk or even an entire day to write: I built myself a world in those moments. I changed my desktop background to a photograph of Taroko Gorge that my father took in 1981. I wrote with headphones in, looping the same song by Taiwanese chamber orchestra Cicada on repeat. The space of its rhythm was where I wrote. I did the same thing daily for months, until I had a manuscript I could stand to part with.

Writing amidst part-time jobs, in cramped spaces, on long-haul journeys taught me that my writing space can be wherever I am. More often it's in the music I choose for a story or the photographs I stare at daily.

Jessica J. Lee in Taiwan. (Ricardo A. Rivas)

I'm typing this now at the dining table that's become my desk during COVID, as all the coffee shops are closed. My dog sleeps next to me. In an hour, I'll take him for a walk along the river, and it is then that I'll write, entirely in my head — sowing seeds of sentences that may one day see light.