How to Build a Public Library

Dear you,

My day begins and ends with some form of writing. I wake up while it’s still dark, make the coffee, and go upstairs. The attic is only partially insulated so in the winter there are blankets included on my chair. The kitten does her own duty—she jumps to my lap as soon as I’m settled and settles herself in her rightful place: space heater, mascot, teeny monster for now asleep. I organize the various slips of post-its carrying seeds of ideas littered across my desk; I choose which document to open on my computer that particular day. I block the internet. And for an hour and a half, I work.

And then, session over, it’s done. I close everything down. Rouse the kitten and carry her and my empty coffee mug downstairs. It’s 7:30 am—time for the other work.

My other work is the library. What to wear today—what will we be doing. Approachable but professional casual for those long days on the desk. My attempt at business professional for the days with meetings. Lately, it’s been jeans and a t-shirt because we are in the process of building a library.

When I got a library job here in Nashville, I was lucky enough to get the librarian spot at the branch that sorely needed a makeover. It’s one of our larger branch locations with some of the highest foot traffic and, to be honest, it was a very sad building. Carpets stained, furniture cracked and beat up from years of abuse. The whole place a dim reminder of the nineties and not in a good way. I loved it, despite its sadness.

I loved it, because for the first time in my library career, I felt a real duty to this community. In all libraries, we are doing the Lord’s work. But in this library, with these patrons who needed help opening email accounts so they could apply for jobs online, for housing, for food assistance, these patrons who just wanted a quiet, safe place, and those children who needed safe people—in this library, the Lord’s work was always close at hand.

It was in the way we sat with them at the computers and assured them that it would be okay, we would get this frustrating thing figured out. It was in the way we talked aimlessly with people who just needed to talk. It was the kids who wanted daily hugs. (In Texas, I had a no hugging policy because I didn’t want it to be misconstrued. That has now changed. When a child screams your name upon seeing you and runs at you with a hug, you have no choice but to comply and mean it.) And all the while, we did this holy work in an old building with bad lighting, with a layout that was outdated, with an aura of dimness. Not for lack of trying by the staff obviously, but it’s hard to fight the environment, something these patrons knew very well.

I had been told when I got the job that they would be shuttering the branch soon to renovate it. After a year there, they finally did. The designer asked us what we wanted to see in the new building. I made my requests—natural light, earth tones, a calming atmosphere, long sight lines, a children’s area that looked like it belonged to children. And then we went our separate ways for the year.

The year away from the branch has been a big one for me—I got to know the system very well, got to know everyone in it. I worked downtown and loved every minute of it. I re-wrote a novel, got addicted to checking email throughout the day to see if it’s a yes or a no (and it was always a no, up until last week.) I bought a house with an attic just for me; I grew my literary life. And now, the year almost done, it’s time to go back to the branch. It’s time to build the library.

I had checked in on the branch during renovation, nodded at the wood framing as the designer walked us through and told us what would be where. I couldn’t picture any of it. It wasn’t until the first day back, everything painted, the furniture in place, and all of us back to put books on the shelves and settle our work stations that I could finally feel it.

The building had been painted in soft greens and oranges. The floor was wood vinyl, with the appearance of hardwood but the noise reduction of carpet. The desks were all dark wood-paneled, the furniture very mid-century/70s modern. I could see from one end of the building to the other where the reading room ended in large, open windows of soft sunlight. The children’s area—my children’s area—was bright, playful, with a well-lit story room and stained glass windows featuring Aslan, the protective lion king of Narnia.

Reader, I cried. And then I set to unpacking the books.

I learned that there is nothing more satisfying than arranging a book display in anticipation of all the patrons who will come searching. I hand picked items that reflected the community, stories I knew they would want to read, covers with black and brown and white faces all smiling, all deserving of their spot in the light. I sat at the desk and envisioned it—the ways the community had changed in the past year, the ways it had stayed the same. The regulars sure to return and those that maybe moved on by now. And I thought again of them all and how deserving they each were of this light, this beauty, this perfect space.

They will come in again tired and bedraggled, some carrying too many bags, some in need of a shower. There will still be children who need hugs, patrons who just want to talk to someone, anyone. But they will do it now in a clean, well-lighted place. They will do it in a place of dignity and beauty, a library deserving of them.

I will start my mornings with writing. I will go to work and put books in the hands of people who need them. I will come home and pick up my own book, one that I need to round out that day and help me write for tomorrow. And then I will go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again.

And that is how we build a public library.

 

To the writers at this write-in

Dear you,

When I arrived here at this coffeeshop early in anticipation of all of you, I feared for a moment that no one would arrive. But like the writers you are, you arrived late.

I am sitting at a table of fourteen other people, none of whom I know, and we are writing. I am at the head of the table because I am supposed to be the head of this thing but you all know what you’re doing. You would all prefer for me to quiet down so we can get to the writing and we have.

I have managed to infiltrate the Porch here in Nashville. They are a fantastic, non-profit writing institute that offers classes, readings, author events, and small things that make my heart go pitter-patter like this write-in. I show up enough that I have been put in charge. That’s how it goes sometimes. I’m not complaining. I’ll show up every time I can and if you know me at all. you know I love to boss.

But right now, I would just like to admire my own dumb luck. I have stumbled into a write-in on a night that promises tornados at a table full of people I don’t know. But I do know them — I recognize the furrow of their brow as they squint at their computers, the hover of their pens and concentrated stares. This coffeeshop just turned the lights down for a mood that no one wants. We are here to work.

Nail-biters. Slight shakes of your head as you hit the backspace. Long, languid sighs. Blank stares that aren’t blank at all. I watch your mouth as you silently read your words, shake your head, and erase them. This is how we do the work.

I was told to offer a prompt before we started. I personally hate prompts. No, I don’t hate them. I just never use them. But we are writers of different stripes — some are here for novels, short stories, a blog — and some are here to extend wings. For those of you, I offered this prompt:

Write a piece in which a celebrity is doing something utterly mundane.

Not being a prompt person, I had to change it for my own purposes. I wrote about all of you doing the most mundane thing you could all be doing. Chewing your lips as you work through a plot. Shifting in your seat as you type faster and faster. Showing up on a rainy night when it is cold and the lights are too low and the kids are out of school tomorrow. Utterly mundane and utterly important. After all, it is the mundane things that matter, the simple act of tearing off a new sheet of paper, of opening a new document on your computer. Nothing about it is slight.

Every morning we sit down to work we are trying again. It’s always the same. There’s the scroll through news feeds, the myriad of ways we can avoid the page. But we get there, eventually. And out of all that — all the typing, the nail-biting, the scribbles, the torn pages — we have our souls. So mundane. And yet, so sacred.

So I am glad to be here, with all of you that I barely know. I am happy to watch your quirks as you type. God knows, I have many.

And now there, I think. I have fulfilled the prompt.

The Relentless Trying Again (or how to fall in love with a home)

Dear you,

We have bought our first house. I am writing this from my very own space—a whole floor!—a not-too-warm in the mornings, hardwood-floored, all-mine attic. I have grand plans for this attic. Whole walls full of large swaths of paper for brainstorming, an isolated dormer with a window overlooking the neighborhood for drafting, a bookshelf with a shelf for publications I and my friends wrote or were published in, a shelf for books of writing techniques and memoirs, and a shelf to hold those things which serve as research or inspiration for whatever I’m working on now. The floor is littered with old family photographs as I warm up for book two and it’s okay that they’re littered on the floor because nobody but me will be up here to be disturbed by it. Did I mention that I painted the walls a pale pink which gives it the impression of a womb which only makes me love it more?

I am, in a word, enchanted. By the beauty of the space, by the possibilities in it, by the whole fresh start feel of all of it. And in being so enchanted, it has been nearly impossible to actually write in it. Even now, once I got through the fun of describing the space, I spent five minutes sitting with a blank stare at the computer.

Buying a house was a dream for us, one that we weren’t sure would come true for quite some time. Wouldn’t we have to win some kind of lottery, or save for many more years, or compromise by buying in a neighborhood we didn’t love as much which honestly wouldn’t feel like as much of a compromise as it did a failing? But no—we found the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, with the perfect amount of space for the two of us, and the perfect amount of room to expand into the future. It has been beautifully re-modeled, sold to us by a couple that loved it dearly and did well to make sure we felt welcome and had everything we needed to start our new chapter. The house sits in a historic neighborhood surrounded by other beautiful houses full of wonderful neighbors who make it a point to throw parties and see each other often. I hear Halloween is an incredible affair with literal thousands of trick-or-treaters. If you know me at all, you know how important trick-or-treating is to my fall soul.

Really, Husband and I wake up every day with a mixture of how in the hell did we get so lucky euphoria and the oh god we bought a house panic. I walk around making a list of the things we need to buy or do in a perpetual point of nesting I’m not sure will ever end. Husband rubs his hands over each crack in the wall with a worried stare. We sit on the porch dreaming of the deck we will build. We eye the garden shed with a low-grade phobia of brown recluses. We make plans to finish out the basement, the attic, expanding into additional rooms, studios, a workshop in the back, a yard full of gardens and flowers and trees. We check our bank account for the moment our mortgage payment, the water bill, the electric, all of it go through. It’s not a problem of not having enough to pay; it just seems irresponsible not to continually check.

In short, the past two months have been an oscillation of living in a dream and living in work that will never end. And in between all of it, in living in my dream space, I have not written a word. Two months and no production.

I am being too hard on myself, I know this. Moving a life, even if just a few minutes down the road, does make everything stop. Plus, the attic needed to be painted first (a task I still haven’t totally finished and worry I may never), the house set up to be comfortable, so on and so forth. I was busy at work with program wrap-up. But the program is wrapped up and we are, for all intents and purposes, comfortable enough in the house to get through each day. And still, I sit in my beautiful room, surrounded by old family photos and all the large paper, post-its, and markers I could need to start plotting, and still—nothing.

It occurs to me that perhaps I am waiting for some kind of magic to happen. After all, it seemed like the house came to us via magic—why not the writing with it? I can hear my critique group laughing all the way from Texas.

Another thought, this one much more real and worrysome—do I dare disrupt the dream of what this writing space will be by actually writing in it and discovering it is just as much “dream” as all my other writing spaces were? Because for all the extra room, the silence, the solitude, the morning light, it still comes down to a desk, my computer, and work. For all the dreams come true, will I find that I work no better here than I did there? Green grass abounds everywhere but right in front of me.

Ultimately, the house came to us the same way the writing does—a dream, perseverance through rejection, day after day of going at it again until something falls into place, an acceptance is given. No wonder it feels like magic—it feels like the struggle will never end until it does. Writing is a forever lesson in patience, one I never learned well. But perhaps perseverance outweighs the patience. And that is one thing I have in spades.

So I will sit here, 6:00am every morning without fail, staring at the computer usually, staring at my notebooks always, sifting around in my mind and looking for that thing that will spark, waiting for the magic that only I and a relentless trying again can produce. It’ll spark eventually. It has to. But for now, I will lean back in my chair, admire the way the morning light catches on the windows, and dream.

The Delicious, Infinitely-Layered Cake

From Alex:

How do you make sure the middle of your book isn’t a slog, spinning its wheels before the good stuff comes along?

Dear Alex (and you),

It was four years ago (almost to the day) when I first started writing the book that I am still rewriting today. I remember the exact moment I started it; I was in my car driving home from work. I had just gotten married the week before, I finished my library degree and for all intents and purposes, had nothing on my plate for the first time in three years. I had stopped writing three years ago too.

I shouldn’t say I stopped writing. I didn’t really. I wasn’t writing a blog anymore or working on a novel that suffered a fate of perpetual false start, a story with the same problem. I had no plans to submit anything—at the time, I thought I would never write professionally again. One too many burns and a whole lot of anxiety. Plus, I had no money and it was 2011 and we were occupying wall street after it had already occupied us. I needed a real job, full-time, benefits. Stopping and starting the same novel/story for eight months proved to not be a real money maker after all. So I closed up shop and applied for my library degree.

But I was still writing. I kept a blog I wrote on for six months until I transitioned into poetry. I wrote so many poems between 2011 and 2014. They were perfect for the not-writer I considered myself to be. They would bubble up, a line here, an image there, and I would sit down and hurl the words out of my fingers faster than my mind could keep up. At first they were random documents on my computer. Then I collected them in a binder so I could look at them. Then I took them to readings. And eventually, I started to submit them. And once I started submitting them, it was as if the flood gates broke and everything I had been trying to ignore about myself (that I did want to write, that I would always write, that I wanted writing in my life more than anything else) washed away. The first day back to work after my wedding, (literally a Monday), I drove home with the thought of what now and of course. I got home, opened a new document on my computer, and started my novel.

At the time, I thought all I had to go on for the story was a single image and a flickering idea. I wrote around that image, dictated from the voice I heard talking about it. Just pages, no chapters. People but no story. I kept writing some poems but they got swallowed up by the other things I was doing—the stories, the essays, the book. I let them lie and took up the task at hand that I thought was far more important than the small things that had no bearing on anything else.

There was one point, a year after I started writing, that I thought I would give up on the book. I was doing the same thing I did before—starting, stopping, rewriting, starting, stopping, rewriting. I got a little mad at myself. I tried to make an outline, some kind of plan, but that only made me madder. I’m a super planner in life but when it comes to writing, I can’t plan a thing, not even this piece I’m writing right now to you. I went back to the poems. They’re easier, you see. They don’t have to work a certain way, call up anything for anyone except for me. They could be whatever style I wanted and it would still be right, at least to me.

But upon reading the poems, I noticed something. I was already telling the story I meant to write with each one. All the characters I was trying to sketch, all the setting, the theme, the trails. They were all already there, just a little buried. I thought I was writing something different and it turns out I was writing the same thing all along. It was clear, reading those poems, what mattered to me, what path I needed to follow, cause I couldn’t get myself off of it, even in my subconscious. I went to bed. I woke up the next morning. I opened the doc and added another 500 words like I did every other morning. Four years later and I’m still doing the same thing, still not tired of it, still ecstatically delighted with every new thing I learn.

All this to say that if we are writing, we are always in the middle of the book. And it’s always a slog. The wheels always spin but the point is they spin. Good stuff becomes shit stuff becomes good stuff again and you just have to show up and trust the process. Everything looks different from day to day because you are different from day to day. You are evolving with your story. (That’s all writing is—evolution via words.) You’ll write it and re-write it and write it again, uncovering each new discovery like a delicious, infinitely-layered cake. You’ll never finish. You’ll realize you began way before you thought you did. And one day, it will click and feel right and you will know that it is as close to true as you can get it. Not done, but true. And then you’ll give it to someone else to read and you’ll start on the new slog, already buried in the muddled middle.

Writing in the Dark

Dear you,

The past three months have felt a little like an entire year. For one, it’s cold. I don’t do well in the cold. Two, I am both in between projects and not in between projects. (It defies all natural laws but here we are.) And three, I am working in isolation.

First, the cold. Really, who in their right mind loves the cold? I know you’re out there. It makes my bones ache. My muscles tighten to rock. I’m not sure if it’s new allergies or age, but now it seems that winter also always brings an illness or two. I see people walking to the bus wearing flats without socks and I kind of want to scream at them for any number of reasons. Cold makes me anxious. Anxious me tends to be an angry me. It’s the most readily available emotion, easiest to call up and worst to feel — my junk food emotion. I check the weather every day looking for the little sun icon, for a number above 50. Meanwhile, I have become a person who thinks 40 degrees isn’t too shabby. Despicable.

Second, the projects. For reasons I can’t go into detail on here, I am rewriting my book. Again. Yes, again even after that last time. There is no deadline to this except for the one I put on myself so of course there’s a deadline and of course it feels tight. Before I can rewrite, this time I must outline. It is required. And I will tell you a not secret — I am not a writer who outlines. I am a writer who understands how much easier her life would be if she were, but I am not. And so writing this outline has been a lot like how I wrote the book: paste it together, tear it down, paste it together, tear it down, paste it together and rejoice because I finally got it right, tear it down two days later when I admit a glaring error, rinse and repeat, on and on. Oh sure, I’ve taken breaks. I set it down and walked away over the holidays. And it helped in that it made the tearing down just a little easier, the rebuilding a little faster. Holes filled, pathways revealed, all of that. But still — tear down, paste, tear down, paste almost every morning of every day because every day there was a little more light, another clue clicked into place, a little more hope that I was getting it right. I won’t say I got it right this time because I no longer believe in “right.”

IMG_4023
This took five days and an untold amount of coffee. And no, it still wasn’t right.

 

Meanwhile, another book is tapping. Lightly on my shoulder, yoo-hoo over here. I make notes. There is a flash every once in a while and I think “Oh, this one will be such a good book!” and then I file it away because there are other things that need finishing right now. Anyone else would tell me to start writing it, to take advantage of those moments, and they’re probably right. But there’s a part of me that thinks there are not enough of those moments yet. They need to build and simmer and wait until they’re impatient and then and only then will I sit down and do what needs to be done. If there’s any alchemy to the job, it is this.

Third, the isolation. Not true isolation, obviously. I live in a city and I have social media. I have writing friends, a critique group I attend. But in the end, there’s no one else in the room when I work. Specifically, there’s no one else in my head (I hope.) Planning this outline, shifting things, cutting and pasting (literally, in some cases) has felt like an elaborate never-ending chess game played against the computer and I am somehow both the player and the computer. I am the winner and the loser, the enemy and the friend, depending on the hour or the day. I tried to pull others into this madness with me — I got critiques, I talked at my husband (who graciously listened and then backed away quickly because of that whole anxiety/anger thing), and I complained to the friends who love me enough to listen and tell me to get over it. But still, it’s only me waking up every morning and working in the dark.

This sounds more sad than it is. But as much as I hate the cold, I love this quiet dark. There is something so freeing in waking up well before the sun, sitting still in a quiet room, and looking out a window where nothing is happening. No birds, no cars, no one walking their dogs. I can feel time stretch out before me like a blanket; I can wrap myself up. Just me, a couple pieces of paper, the glow of the computer, a dark window of the kind only found in winter.

The truth is, once I remember that it is only me at the table, a kind of peace settles over. I stop searching. I tune in to work. That is what we’re here for anyway. Space to do the things we love. Loving it enough to do it without anyone watching. All potential, no applause. Leave it to isolation to set you right.

So that has been my winter. Frustrating and eye-opening and hopeful and still here. Six more weeks to go and then we go again.