| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life Selling Books Helped Me Get My Groove Back
As I got better at articulating what customers should read and why, I was becoming equally capable of articulating what kinds of stories I wanted to write.
I grew up with a glamorous idea of bookselling—Meg Ryan looking impossibly chic in You’ve Got Mail , slinging children’s books and falling in love, you know, just as a bonus—and recommending the right book to the right person at the right time has always generated an electric thrill. My bookshelves served as a lending library of sorts throughout my childhood and adolescence; my friends trusted my taste, and I was determined to not let them down.
In 2015, a few months after graduating from college, I was hired at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn, just before the holiday rush. While I fielded my fair share of frustrating customer requests (“I’m looking for a book with a red cover and the word girl in the title!”), and though my first few shifts felt like trial by fire, it remains one of the best jobs I’ve had. I was consistently heartened by the range of conversations I had at the register—from international tourists purchasing literary kitsch to smart and stylish Brooklynites asking for Rebirth of the Cool . Unlike Meg Ryan, my bookselling experience didn’t involve a pseudosexual rivalry with the manager of the nearest Barnes & Noble, nor did I lock eyes with any handsome bookish strangers (although Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame, did make several appearances, albeit with his wife and children). Instead, I spent most of my time chatting with my coworkers, all talented writers themselves, and asking elementary school kids what books they loved. They reminded me of me.
I was raised on words: my mother the songwriter, my father the journalist, my grandfather the playwright, my grandmother the voracious fiction reader. In our home, writing was never regarded as a mere hobby or indulgence. It could actually be a career, a life. From a young age I read books on my lap at the dinner table without admonishment; my first story was printed and framed. My mother’s voice, singing songs she’d written, permeated every room of our apartment; poetry was often read aloud at mealtimes. If I’d told my family I wanted to study medicine, I surely would have been confronted by blank stares. By the age of five I proudly called myself a writer, and I even had the audacity, at age seventeen, to submit a short story to The New Yorker . (Their personal rejection, clearly written with care so as to avoid crushing my dreams, praised my “sense of lyricism” and “good eye for imagery” before gently suggesting I “study how plot is constructed, and consider building a narrative arc.”)
All I wanted was to read and write books. Choosing to major in creative writing during college seemed, then, like the inevitable, obvious decision—I never considered studying anything else. I decided to attend Colorado College because it offered what I sought—an immersive curriculum in which students took only one class at a time for three and a half weeks. No distractions! But come senior year, when it was time to write my thesis, I froze. Outside the parameters of workshop, the unadulterated time felt oppressive. I had no idea what I wanted to say or to write. Somehow, I painfully squeaked out word after word until it amounted to something resembling a novella. And yet, after graduating, I could barely look at the thing. I was relieved, rather than proud, that I’d finished it, and also more than a little disturbed by how, during an incredibly sheltered semester in which my only responsibility was to write, I’d needed to force myself to work. Abashed at squandering an opportunity to singularly focus on art making, I decided not to apply to MFA programs yet—or at all. I felt like I needed to prove I still deserved to call myself a writer. (I wish I’d known, then, how common my own resistance was, how it didn’t make me any less of a writer.)
I’m aware that my family’s normalizing of the artistic life was a privilege. So many of my writer friends fought hard to prove themselves worthy of the perilous career path they’d chosen, often disappointing their families in the process. But as I cheered them on, I felt a strange envy bubble up in me: instead of placidly receiving bolstering shoulder squeezes from my family, I half longed for familial resistance. For the very first time in my creative development, I no longer believed their unwavering support was, or had ever been, earned. Instead, their encouragement and praise paradoxically fed my self-doubt. Perhaps with a little more resistance I would have felt the freedom to take more risks in my work; with nothing to lose, my only responsibility would be to myself. And wouldn’t it be far more rewarding to prove someone wrong about what I was capable of, rather than to fall short of their lofty expectations? (Trust me, I know how this sounds! The compulsion to romanticize the struggling writer trope is a dangerous one, and yet I’ll admit I was guilty of it, and I keenly believe I wasn’t alone in that.) And so, brimming with writing dreams and doubts, I moved back home to New York after graduation and pursued employment where books were daily celebrated, and where I could hopefully seek comfort as well as inspiration: a bookstore.
In our home, writing was never regarded as a mere hobby or indulgence. It could actually be a career, a life.
At powerHouse, during slower hours, I sat behind the register and read several books that came to define that yearning, restless, uncertain phase of my life. Melissa Broder’s essay collection, So Sad Today , validated my most neurotic and insecure thoughts, in a sense giving me permission to create Naomi, the impulsive, troubled narrator of my debut, A Novel Obsession . I also became enamored with the Spanish writer Javier Mar í as, specifically his captivating novel The Infatuations . This passage particularly resonated: “When you want something for a long time, it’s very difficult to stop wanting it.” But waiting for so long, he asserts, “solidifies desire and turns it to stone.” During those quiet moments at my laptop, back home after my bookstore shifts when words still wouldn’t come, Mar í as’s passage haunted me: Had my desire to write solidified into stone? Was I unable to challenge the stubborn dream I’d nurtured since childhood? Was I following complacently in my family’s footsteps, or did I have something unique to offer?
As it turned out, a bookstore was the perfect place for me to consider these questions. As I became increasingly skilled at articulating what customers should read and why, I soon realized I was becoming equally capable of articulating to myself what kinds of stories I most wanted to write . When my coworkers and I were asked to refresh the store’s staff picks, I chose Aimee Bender’s story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt . “Call My Name,” the second story in the collection and my favorite, is about a woman who spots a man on the subway and follows him home. Why? This incredible passage might give you an idea: “I can’t tell you exactly what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when it happens. I want to be breathless and weak, crumpled by the entrance of another person inside my soul. I want to be violated by insight.”
As it turns out, the books I read in those hours behind the register became a blueprint of sorts, a collage of what I most wanted to explore on the page. Several months into the job, I even began to draft a novel loosely inspired by my experience as a bookseller. Some of those initial scenes still exist, in some form or another, in my debut novel. Bookselling allowed me to become a more purposeful writer and to slowly regain pride in my own work. My initial doubts were nothing more than a fear of failing to live up to the books I cherished. When I reflect on my thesis project now, I realize I was beginning to experiment with the very same themes I explore in my novel: triangulation; the limerence between women who envy and admire one another; writing and ambition; familial rivalries and insecurities.
I even began to draft a novel loosely inspired by my experience as a bookseller.
Nearly two years after my first day as a bookseller, I finally felt ready to enroll in an MFA program where, with a renewed doggedness, I finished a first draft of the novel that would become my debut. I’m still tremendously proud of it, but now, as its publication date approaches, I’ll admit to feeling a kind of dread. How could a day I’ve spent almost twenty-nine years dreaming about ever hope to live up to the dream itself? I’m grateful my grandmother was still alive when my book deal was announced, but now that all four of my grandparents are gone, all that remains is the confidence they once had on my behalf, their unwavering belief that this day would indeed come. And come it has, with all its terror and glory. When, during the whirlwind of excitement following two starred trade reviews, I received a less-than-ideal one—a true mismatch between book and reader, resulting in a woeful misinterpretation of the book’s intentions, but I digress—I swear I could hear my grandfather’s musical laughter in my head. After a show of his opened on Broadway in 1958, the legendary Walter Kerr, in the Herald Tribune , said: “This is not so much a review as a confession. I spent a good part of last evening laughing at a very bad play . . . Tawdry, tasteless, and tatterdemalion as the evening is, Make a Million is—as often as not—stubbornly funny.” My grandfather somehow managed, with good spirits, to shake this one off, and the play went on to run for 309 performances, often to riotous laughter and applause. (How could a play, quite literally billed as a comedy, be “bad” if it made Kerr laugh?) I know my grandfather would advise me to buckle up for the ride ahead, to be grateful for any and all readers. It’s a privilege to be read and recommended, and it would mean the world to me if even one bookseller someday hand-sells my book with the enthusiasm I once had for Aimee Bender’s.
As I now anticipate what comes next—besides, hopefully, writing and publishing another book!—I haven’t ruled out a return to bookselling. Of course, the dream is to someday write full-time, but for now, I want to keep working in the literary world in some capacity, to continually stumble upon writing that moves, challenges, and energizes me, and to discuss it with others. I’m particularly inspired by how successful novelists like Emma Straub and Ann Patchett have opened their own bookshops in recent years, a beautiful tribute to how every writer gets their start, and I’d certainly welcome back the sense of clarity and purpose bookselling offered me. I’ll see you in the stacks.