A Spot on the Shelf
In the summer of 2022, when I got the phone call that I had won the Associates of the Boston Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence fellowship, an opportunity I’d applied for multiple times, the nerves in my stomach did a happy dance. My brainwaves went all a-scramble as I tried to say something that (1) actually made sense and (2) conveyed just how ecstatic I was.
Soon after the call, reality set in and along with it, a dash of pressure, all of it self-inflicted. I promised myself I wouldn’t squander the opportunity. This was my chance for dedicated time and space to write—the Fellowship came with a generous stipend and a private office in the Central Library. But as an older writer, well into my forties, this was also my chance to be noticed, to land an agent, maybe to sell a book. It had taken me a long time to get here, and I should make it count.
On my way to making it count, I assembled a list of goals that I dutifully posted in my new office. I knew I had to guard against the writing becoming drudgery, that sometimes driving too hard causes the writing to feel like work.
And so, leading the list of goals was: Find Joy in the Creative Process.
There were other things meant to keep my creativity and imagination blooming, like Explore poetry; Connect with kids; Teach something! And more practical and ambitious things like, Meet with Agents in the Library.
And just in case I got so distracted by all the fun things on my list, I made sure to add the last and probably most important thing:
FINISH THE DRAFT
So, I wrote.
I wrote in the dark-paneled office above Blagden Street.
I wrote in the quiet of the Bates Reading Room under the glow of an iconic green lamp on a table as old as the library itself—and in the Elliott Room, under the watchful eyes of the white horses and winged women on the ceiling mural.
Sometimes I wrote in the Boylston Building, settled in among the books in the fiction section. Sharing my table one time with a college student who worked across from me, a Crimson H on his laptop, we worked quietly for thirty minutes or more. Then the smell of something sour interrupted my thoughts. Looking under the table I had my answer: my tablemate’s feet, in socks and free from the constraints of his running shoes. That day, I was especially glad to have a private office to retreat to.
In addition to writing, I went to Story Time, where I sang and clapped along with toddlers and their parents.
I hosted a couple of poetry workshops for the library’s youngest patrons, reading some of my own poems and being utterly delighted when the kids wanted to share their poems with me.
During the Boston Public Library’s Art and Architecture Tour, I happily took notes, always open to the unexpected ways new ideas pop up.
I connected with friends, old and new, for coffee or lunch in Copley Square.
At the North End Branch of the BPL, I talked about finding empathy through reading with a group of eighth grade students honored with the Mary U. Nichols Award.
I attended readings and literary events in and around Boston, crossing paths with former Writers-in-Residence who were celebrating book launches.
It was at the Literary Lights Dinner, hosted by the Associates, where I decided books absolutely make the best centerpieces.
On Zoom calls with writer friends too far out from Boston, I offered a virtual glimpse of my cozy office.
Between bouts of writing, I took breaks and stretched my legs, walking up the stone steps for a bit of inspiration and to gaze at John Singer Sargent’s Triumph of Religion. Almost always, I’d find myself
staring at the blank panel in the center of the room, left unfinished by Sargent who died before he could complete it. At some point, I realized that was it, that was why I was so determined to make this Residency count. I didn’t want to leave work unfinished. And not just unfinished, but unpublished, unknown. I at least wanted a chance to get my stories out in the world. I wanted a spot on the shelf.
But here’s a truth worth remembering: sometimes you just have to let go of the exhausting work of making it all count and just be. Sometimes I sat in my office and watched the rain beat against the window or dozed in the leather chair with my laptop warming my lap. Sometimes I just enjoyed it. I ran my hands along the smooth polish of the old desk, got lost admiring the red rosettes stenciled on the ceiling beams overhead, and soaked in how grateful I was just to be there.
In the end, I did most everything on my list. I did meet with my agent-to-be over coffee in the library. And I finished the draft of my novel. And more.
As I claim my spot on the shelf, I plan to pause and take a moment to just enjoy where I am. I hope I can continue to strike that balance between working hard and finding joy in the creative process. Mostly I hope I’ll be able to complete whatever I begin, leaving no empty panels. And if I’m lucky, on the way to finishing, I’ll have more chances to meander up old staircases looking for a bit of inspiration.
Rhonda’s forthcoming novel, Top Heavy, will be published in Summer 2025 by Holiday House. You can read more about her road to publication in this interview with The Boston Globe.