by Susan Tan

When people talk about writing, they often talk about butts in chairs. This is absolutely true and something I believe. Sometimes, half the battle of writing is just making the time to sit in your chair, and committing to staying there, even on days when your mind is blank and you hate every sentence you produce.

Sometimes, though, I think the vision of the author at their special writing desk, sitting in one place in a large chunk of time dedicated to writing, can set up daunting and maybe even unrealistic expectations. The fact of the matter is that many us have busy lives—raising families, working other jobs, and any number of commitments, which make this kind of ‘butt in chair’ time hard to pin down. I think the same is true for inspiration. Inspiration (unfortunately) doesn’t necessarily strike during the precious desk time you get. In fact, for me at least, it comes most often in motion—in the small flashes of conversation I hear as strangers walk by, in a beautiful view, a bright printed sweater I see on the subway.

So, I thought it would be fun, for this post, spot share my favorite kind of writing (which I find the best for inspiration): writing on the go.

I drafted my first book, CILLA LEE-JENKINS: FUTURE AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE, entirely on the go. I was in graduate school, and at the end of long days when I couldn’t stand the idea of looking at my computer anymore (or thinking about my dissertation anymore), I would get into bed, take out my iPad, and write stories from my childhood, lying down, my iPad above my head, typing with my thumbs.

Admittedly I wasn’t on the go in the literal sense. But I was writing from a place that wasn’t my “official” workspace, and that made all the difference—writing from my bed every night was a joy, a stolen moment when I turned the time before falling asleep into time just for me and the stories I felt compelled to write down.

Cilla started in those initial late night writing sessions, but didn’t stay there for long. Soon, I was writing on the bus on the way to the library, typing on my phone with my thumbs. I wrote waiting for appointments, on park benches, and on one summer trip, during a break from sightseeing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. In some cases, I’d write chapters from my iPad or phone. In others, I’d jot down quick ideas as they came to me in a notebooks, on a work folder, and once, on a CVS receipt.

This patchwork way of writing made my book possible during an otherwise hectically busy time. What’s more, it made the act of writing fiction a treat. I delighted in finding more and more moments in between my other jobs that I could steal to focus just on the work that made me happy.

Now, out of graduate school, I work full time, and while I’ve certainly found ways to make more time for sustained butt in chair writing, a good deal of my drafting still takes place on the go. If you see me hunched over on my phone in the subway, on my way to work, I’m probably writing (I’m told it looks like I’m playing a REALLY intense game of candy crush). And writing on the go remains one of my biggest sources of inspiration. When I’m stuck, I’ll steal from what I see, and anything from a carousel, to curtains, to the snippets of someone else’s grocery list, have found their way into the Cilla books.

I still write in waiting rooms and on buses, too, and I still love the feel that I’m cheating somehow—making a five minute bus delay something entertaining and productive.* In fact, in the course of writing this blog post I’ve been on a park bench, in a waiting room, on a plane, and in the subway.

There’s no one way to write a book, and what works for one person might not work for another. But if you’re looking for new ways to write, and new sources of inspiration, I’d highly suggest trying to write somewhere different than you usually do. Snatch some time, even five minutes is enough, to write where you normally wouldn’t. Make the three subway stops between your house and the store, the delay at the doctors office, or the minutes you spend parked waiting to pick up someone from work or school, writing time. There’s a wonderful, energizing feel to making your office wherever you happen to be sitting (or standing or lying) at the time. And when you make time to write on the go, you never know what kind of ideas will walk across your page or screen, and into a story.

* Disclaimer: I just want to note that I firmly believe writing on the go should be FUN, not an-other source of ‘I should be writing’ stress. So if you start writing in the go, don’t be hard on yourself if you find there are times you just can’t! We all need some time spent just commuting, or listening to music, podcasts, or actually playing Candy Crush, etc.!

Susan Tan is the author of the middle grade Cilla Lee-Jenkins books, a semi-autobiographical series about a mixed-race, half-Chinese 8 year old who dreams of literary greatness: Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire (March 28, 2017); Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is a Classic (March 27, 2018); & Cilla Lee-Jenkins: The Epic Saga (March 2019). She received her BA from Williams College, her PhD from the University of Cambridge, and was the 2015 Gish Jen Emerging Writers Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston. She currently lives in Somerville, enjoys frequent trips to Chinatown to eat almond cookies, and teaches at UMass Boston.

Visit her online at and Twitter @SusanSMTan.

Susan is giving away a 20-minute Skype visit and a set of special Cilla pins.

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!