As recently as a few weeks ago, I thought I might be on the verge of becoming what I’d always wanted, always planned to be– a full-time writer.
I never intended to be a librarian. I needed a job during college, when my husband and I were living together in a tiny studio apartment, and applied to work as a children’s library assistant– essentially, a part-time children’s librarian, someone to do nights and weekends so that the professional librarian could work a 9-5 schedule in my university town. I love children’s literature, and my knowledge of child and teen development and my love of popular literature helped me land the job.
But I wasn’t studying librarianship, or even considering library work for my future, at the age of twenty. I was studying creative writing, because I knew that one day I was going to be a novelist. Librarian, though it might be what I did as a job, was never my intended career.
The longer I worked as a librarian, though, the more I began to understand about readers: their needs, their wants, what they sought in the books they asked me for. Even as I began my journey from general courses into advanced literary criticism, from the creative writing workshops for non-majors into those reserved just for writing majors, my experience with readers broadened just as my education narrowed and focused.
During the day, I read books I had to read three or four times to comprehend. I read critical theory that hurt my brain. At night, I helped my patrons search for GED study guides and recommended cozy mysteries for fans of the Cat Who. . .series. (Note: children’s librarians? We do everything. The title just means that we can do children’s services in addition to adult services. And we usually get paid less than adult services librarians. My theory is because we’re usually women, but I’ll save that rant for another time and a different blog.)
My identity as a writer was developing at the same time that I was learning about reading and writing, from every direction and every end of the spectrum. I studied infants and early literacy and language acquisition; I learned about adult learners and second language learners and reading disabilities. I read about inequalities in urban education, and then I went back to my own university and tried to understand feminist theory. I read my fellow students’ experimental science-fiction novels and tried to write critical notes that would help them develop their characters, plot, structure.
In many ways, my education was incredibly unique, and it continued through graduate school, since I worked in public libraries all over the South Side of Chicago while I completed an MA in creative writing and worked on my first literary novel. I led book discussion groups with teens, some of whom were incredibly smart, and some of whom were sixteen and in the eighth grade (which didn’t mean they weren’t also incredibly smart, but did sometimes indicate a serious reading disability). My perspective on books and reading was not the same as my classmates’ perspectives on books and reading. My professors noticed, and some appreciated the difference, while others did not.
Somewhere along the way, while I’d been developing my writing voice, I had also begun to develop what I consider a set of writing values. I think all writers have a set of values, shaped over our writing lives, and probably set initially around the same time my writing values were set– although I also think they probably get re-set as we grow and change and our general values redevelop.
Some writers value the beauty of language. Others value the ability to convey the complexity of their thoughts or emotions. The more I think about my own writing, and the more I look back at the comments I have consistently heard, from professors, from CPs, from my own internal system that tells me what I find irritating in others’ work and important in my own, the more I realize that above all, I value clarity.
I like to understand what I read. That doesn’t mean it has to be simple, or that I can’t comprehend a complex novel, but I appreciate clarity. And in my own writing, my main goal, other than telling a damn good story, is to be clear. To keep from creating unnecessary work for my reader. And I can point out exactly why I value that so deeply, and exactly how I developed that value.
My chance to quit working in libraries full-time passed me by for now, so I’m still working the day job. In a way, I’m glad. I don’t know how my writing, and my values, might change if I weren’t a librarian, doing this job that has shaped so much of how I think about books and writing and readers.
I have to wonder if other writers can identify their core writing values– what do you find most important in your own work, or in others’? And if you can identify that value, do you know what shaped it? I’d love to hear.