At Work The Writer Is In
“Storytellers came to me looking for connection—which was, of course, the very thing I’d been craving myself.”
Last fall, I was adrift. My debut novel had come out a few months before, and I was enduring a period of novelistic postpartum depression I had been warned about, yet somehow never believed in or prepared for. My day-to-day life had reverted, more or less, to its pre-book state, and I sometimes woke up wondering if that beautiful moment of feeling work and intention crystallize into accomplishment had ever really happened.
I live in Tucson, Arizona, surrounded by natural beauty, interesting people, and incredible food, and normally I love being here: I go outside; I soak it in. But in those days following publication, I felt like I couldn’t see or taste or touch anything around me, because I was too busy focusing on what my next accomplishment would be and how I might talk about it one day. Part of the problem was how obsessed I’d allowed myself to become with other people and their opinions, their interest, their validation of my work—social media, which had seemed like a great way to plug into the literary zeitgeist, had since become a way to check whether anyone was talking about me. Sometimes, when the summer heat would crack open into an ecstatic rain shower, I’d stand in my doorway and watch lightning break in the thunderheads at the base of the mountain: threads of electricity flashing through the sky in the distance—instantaneous and then gone. Can I get an Instagram of this? I would wonder. How many people would like it? I knew it was bad. But I wasn’t sure how to fix what was wrong.
One day in November, I received an email inviting me to take part in a new Writer-in-Residence program being launched by the State Library of Arizona. If I accepted, I would spend June through August as the Writer-in-Residence for the Pima County Library system, offering advice and expertise to local writers in exchange for a small stipend. In its basic form, my commitment would involve:
1. Five hours of weekly “office hours” in one or (in my case) two branches, during which anyone could come in and talk to me for a half an hour about writing, 2. Three public presentations (one per month), which were basically short-form writing classes, and 3. Eleven weekly hours spent working on my own projects at any library branch I chose.
I wrote back immediately to accept— Someone likes me! my internal cheerleader screamed—and over the next few weeks composed several long emails outlining my ideas for public presentations. On a drizzly day in January, I went to the downtown library branch and met some of the librarians I’d be working with, touring the possible meeting rooms where my downtown office hours would take place. I remember feeling a little worried that there was no dedicated office for our personal writing time— Where would I work? I wondered. But it seemed a long way away.
A lot can happen in six months. First the brand-new roof on our less-than-a-year-owned house, which was supposed to last for twenty years, got a bad leak that cost an enormous amount of money to fix and made me feel like my safe home was suddenly vulnerable to dangerous outside forces. The ranch where I’d been taking riding lessons for several years—one of the pleasures I most frequently cited when people asked me why I lived in Tucson and not, say, New York—suddenly folded and, in one of my life’s most impulsive purchases, I bought my beloved mare, Lady, instead of letting her go at auction. Finally, my husband got a great new job, but it involved months of intense interviews and then a great deal of travel. I had been planning to take time off from my day job for the duration of the residency, but instead decided to cut back my hours instead; I needed the money more than I needed the time.
There were plenty of reasons I was excited for the residency. I love libraries unabashedly and would do anything to help them; I wanted to give something back to my community instead of focusing so completely on my personal goals; I missed teaching, and thought it would do me good to get out of my comfort zone (i.e., my house/couch) for a little while. But two weeks before my first set of office hours, a different set of thoughts began crowding in: What if I don’t have time to finish revising my own projects? I had two novel manuscripts in different states of readiness, and a big part of me wanted to shut the door on the outside world and focus on them. What if I can’t get my schedule to work? I was adding a new and far more restrictive layer of requirements atop my already crowded schedule—it had been years since I regularly had to be anywhere at a particular time. What if I’m bad at it? What if no one likes me? What if no one comes?
I got so stressed out that my best friend reminded me I could drop out if I really needed to. I’d shelved things before to protect my writing time. But while I was scared and nervous, I wanted to see it through. Backing out so late would leave the library in a bind, and I couldn’t do that to the library , for crying out loud.
So I went to work. At my neighborhood branch, the meeting room for my office hours was a small, windowless space off the main entrance, and there I sat to wait for writers to show up. I had several open time slots on that first day. To pass the time, I drew a little cartoon to put up on the door. I had just decided to work on my own writing after an hour of fidgeting and checking my phone when someone knocked on the door.
I didn’t know it then, but I had just experienced the last quiet time I’d have during my office hours—soon I would be consistently booked a week or more in advance. And no two days were the same. Over the next few months I got many types of visitors, from dedicated artists to struggling beginners, from poets who’d been working for years and wanted help ordering their manuscripts to essayists wanting to layer greater thematic complexity into already compelling narratives. There were random guys who wanted to flesh out made-for-TV movie pitches who were surprised by the quality of my feedback, and one woman—if I felt free to play favorites, she’d be right up at the top—who diligently brought me scenes from the excellent novel she was revising, not just every week but every session.
Any of those visitors I might have been able to anticipate, since they’re all recognizable types of writing student. But on that first day, with that first patron, I discovered there was another group of people who I somehow didn’t expect at all, and who I ended up needing as much as they needed me: people who just wanted to talk. About art, about their lives, about what they would’ve written if they’d had the time.
I met some of the most unbelievable storytellers, and I watched them excavate years of beauty and pain from their lives as easily as if they were folding fresh laundry. They came to me looking for connection—which was, of course, the very thing I’d been craving myself during all the hours I logged on literary social media and spent worrying about earning validation from people I’d never even met. I just hadn’t known it, before.
Three hours of work on Friday and two on Tuesday may not sound like a lot, but doing justice to each new visitor meant instantly, deeply embedding myself in their world, whether on the page or in conversation. They all needed me at my best and most critically acute, and none of them got much time. It was tiring, but it was also wonderful. I had been so strung out on other people’s opinions of me and my work for so long that it was both stunning and soothing to suddenly have my judgment matter to so many people—to be reminded that I have a mind, and that I can use it well.
As the weeks of my residency passed, I began to feel connected, not just to my individual visitors, but to the larger library ecosystem. Before and after office hours, I gossiped with the librarians. During my private writing time, I sat at a table in the back of the fiction and periodical sections while old men rustled newspapers nearby, or in the kids’ section where little girls would hug gigantic toy frogs and read with their parents. For the first time in a long time, I started to unwind into my own work, as the advice I offered to other writers echoed back into my own pages: Be precise. Listen to your characters. Think like a reader. That last mandate became a little easier as I found myself surrounded by readers all the time.
Most vitally, my residency plugged me into the community where I’ve made my home. Tucson is made up of a lot of different kinds of people, but some—the students, say, and the artists; the hippies and the young entrepreneurs who ran coffee shops and rustic beer bars—had been more visible to me than others. People run on different tracks of habit and need, and before my library residency I’d never had any reason to talk to so many strangers—I just hadn’t pushed myself to make the jump. Now I did, and it was like being shaken awake. The way that riding my horse can sometimes remind me I have a body, my office hours in the library reminded me I was not just an isolated individual, but part of a community.
Libraries are one of our most valuable public resources, and I was lucky to be a part of that, even just for a little while. I saw how deeply connected the local branches were to their neighborhoods, and my library contacts did better local publicity for the paperback release of my book than my publisher did, in no small part because they understand the places where people focus their attention here: the weekly papers and local radio stations, the afternoon events for parents of small children. They know how to get people’s attention, how to recommend books they will love, because they’re focused on giving, all the time.
When I stepped down at the end of the summer, the grant that funded my residency was close to being renewed for another year. I hope it comes through, not just because the residency was such a good experience for me. I want the program to continue because, week in and week out, I saw the line of people eager to talk to me about writing and about their lives; people who would beg me for just a few extra minutes, or an extra time slot the following session. I saw the neverending line of people who have something to say.