This essay was written by 2020 Emerging Voices Fellow Shannon Gatewood at the culmination of the fellowship.

Shannon Gatewood headshot

Shannon Gatewood

If 2020 has taught me nothing else, it has taught me to get rid of expectations. In the midst of a global pandemic, political turmoil, and racial injustice, I can honestly say that PEN Emerging Voices seemed to be the only thing holding everything together for me. Even in my personal life this year, I faced unexpected changes through a new job, a new home, and a new identity: a writer. Although the last one I was slow to accept.

I came into this program with lofty page goals, ones that predicted my first draft would be finished by now. I also showed up with crippling writer’s block. Some of us can disagree about whether or not writer’s block can truly exist, but the reality is that something was keeping me from putting my pen to the page (or hands to the keyboard).

This hesitation was confusing at first, because I had waited a year to apply to this thing. I watched the 2019 fellows at their final reading and envisioned myself in their shoes. I imagined getting teary-eyed after a speech from my chosen mentor, and then launching into seven minutes of this work that I had been producing and refining for seven months. I pictured my family back home watching the live stream, and friends and peers congratulating me. I saw it all. I waited for my turn to apply, and I was accepted. Suddenly, the vision was within reach.

However, once January hit and we began our first month together, I found myself feeling out of place. An imposter, wondering why my voice? On paper, I understood. I am a Black woman, born and raised in Chicago. I moved to LA without family, after spending time in a few states that most people can’t locate on a map if they’re not from the midwest. I knew there was perspective there, but to call myself a writer felt inauthentic. I felt unpolished and uneducated, and my self-doubt took over.

The fear of not belonging meant that I wasn’t writing enough. I am a notorious overthinker, which is probably why I need to write, but I wasn’t allowing myself to. I knew that the right words, the right story, the right voice was out there somewhere, but nothing that came out of me seemed right. I was setting expectations for myself that I could never achieve, because it wasn’t and isn’t about being right. Being a writer is about knowing that my imperfections are what makes my voice necessary because they are no one else’s. It’s about being open to the process no matter how messy it gets. Although I wish I had come to this realization sooner, when I did finally get it, and was able to shake off the pressure I had created, it cracked something open in me.

I noticed subtle changes at first. I started to say “I’m writing a novel,” without cringing on the inside or somehow downplaying it. I started to talk about my work in a way to make people understand and see me. I embraced the impact of criticism and feedback because it came from a place of love and belief in my voice.

It goes without saying that I couldn’t have reached this point without the author evenings where I could hear about inspiration, process, and the daunting professional side of writing. Without workshops where I learned new ways to improve my skill in something that was once just a hobby. Without readings where both in-person and through technology, I spoke up and resonated. Without my mentor, who nurtured me and challenged me to push my characters further. I learned from each member of my cohort to speak my truth, to represent myself and my culture proudly and authentically, to be vulnerable and tell the stories that are hard to tell. To find the beauty in words that others can’t. To just write.

This year and this experience looked nothing like I thought it would. My final reading was through a screen; I did not reach my large page goals. The book is still in progress. Some days it’s still so hard to put words on the page, but I’m not mad about any of this. I have grown in ways that I didn’t think were possible. Emerging Voices gave me room to see myself, my potential, and to know that my words, in whatever format, deserved to be heard. That in itself shatters any expectations I could have ever imagined.