Packing to leave for a week of uninterrupted writing and reading, I found myself in my office evaluating the books on my shelves. I was headed to the former summer estate of a once-famous architect, now turned artists’ retreat, and contemplating what to bring to what seemed like a latter-day house party in the country. I had already packed long pants and a sun hat for traipsing through the fifty acres of prairie adjacent to the property, one linen dress for who knows what, my laptop and some yoga pants. Still, something was missing.
I felt sure the visual artists would arrive at the retreat with materials—blocks of clay and sculpting tools, or sketch pads and dusty tin cups filled with charcoal pencils. Certainly, I thought, writers must have their own tools of the trade? Items necessary to the production of their craft? The answer came to me after some thought. These tools were, of course, the works of other writers; namely, books.
So it came to pass that I was standing in front of my bookshelves, considering books both read and unread, deciding which to bring with me. To some degree, it was a question of who I wanted to spend time with; at the same time it was also a matter of both reference and resource. Rebecca Solnit came, as did Thorstein Veblen, if that gives you any indication.
In the Solnit vein, I selected a few essayists whose voices were not only enjoyable but would also, I was hopeful, serve to strengthen my own. Using this criteria, I pulled Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind, off my shelf and placed it in the cardboard box of books headed for the trunk of my car. It didn’t hurt that I had not read all the essays in the collection either. To borrow a wonderful, obfuscating phrase from the writers I would spend the week with, I had “read around in it”, but there was definitely untouched work waiting for me to discover.
Once at the retreat, I got down to work of my own. I didn’t just work—I read and wrote like a person starved for unencumbered time. At home, almost all of my daily written output took the form of email, text or the occasional work memo. As such, my style had devolved to something functional and terse; I was a master at orchestrating a carpool in five texts or less, summarizing a complex meeting in a single short paragraph. On the retreat, I felt another voice start to return. Freed from the drudgery and sheer quantity of my daily written communication, my written voice relaxed. I reinstated a habit of journal writing. I revised a collection of essays that I had been trying, slowly, to move toward publication. In this, I made some quantum leaps forward. I wrote a funny little piece about my boys. These were the energizing parts of the week.
Less energizing were the revision sessions that left me writing in circles, often ending up back where I started, or—on the more frustrating days—somewhere back behind the starting line. Equally discouraging were the communal dinners with the other artists—particularly the writers. I am not a writer by trade, only by hope. I don’t have an MFA. I am not in the academy. So during the dinners I sat quietly and listened to those I perceived to be living the “writing life”. Eavesdropping on the poets and professors who live squarely within the boundaries of the literary world, I heard tales of the shuttering of small presses. Of the dwindling of honoraria for readings. Of teachers who stole and plagiarized student work. Of optioned books that disappeared into the oblivion of half-hearted promises. Of the increasing fees to submit work. At night I would return to my bedroom strangely thankful for my workaday reality, glad for the way writing had been marginalized in my life.
Even as I began to question this thing I had understood as the writing life, I remained in love with writing. I woke up every morning grateful for the unstructured hours ahead of me. I wrote into them with joy. I began, in the deep recesses of my own brain, to understand what I was working on as an actual book. I started to see my essays as more than a series of related pieces and to see them instead as something that was adding up to more than the sum of its parts.
On the fourth morning of the week, I decided to set up shop in the public library in town. I had hardly exhausted the pastoral beauty or all the little nooks and crannies of the estate, but the piece I was working on that morning was about the importance of libraries, and I felt the work might benefit from some time spent in an actual library. So I packed up my laptop and water bottle and walked the mile into town to the little brick library building at its center.
The day was humid; the temperature registered ninety-one degrees on my weather app. When I arrived at the library, sticky with sweat, I greeted the chill of the air-conditioned reading room with open arms. I settled in, opened my laptop, scrolled to the correct spot in the text, and began to edit.
The library essay on which I was working was from my collection (slowly becoming book) on the topic of consuming. And the interesting observation I was making about libraries, or so I thought, was that they are spaces free of consumerism. My essay arrived at this point by comparing my intermittent pattern of library use to my intermittent pattern of churchgoing, noting, finally, that in neither institution is there active buying or selling. These two places, I argued, are among the last public spaces where this is the case.
(Despite how I may be coming across thus far in this essay, I am not totally naive. I am aware of a vast amount of writing on libraries by everyone from Andrew Carnegie to Neil Gaiman. Several months earlier I had devoured Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. Reading not “around in” but rather through that entire volume, I held my breath, waiting for Orlean to arrive at my exact point. But while she came close, she never landed precisely in this space. And she never compared libraries to church.)
After several productive hours revising the library essay, I stood up to stretch. I could feel myself approaching that threshold of having nothing more insightful to say, and I felt a break was in order. Rather than return to my computer, I decided to head upstairs to read book jacket flaps in the essay section of the little library. The previous night’s dinner conversation had left me with the impression that it might be good to familiarize myself with flap copy as it seemed I would eventually need something similar in order to find an agent, or an editor, or to sell a book, or whatever would happen when I got brave enough to push my writing toward the door.
So I stood in front of the short row of essay collections, randomly selecting books, skimming the insides of their jackets and becoming disheartened. The library’s limited shelf space was devoted mostly to collections by already famous authors. These book flaps were full of accolades for the writer, a list of his or her previous “beloved novels” or “regular contributions to…” As I was yet unpublished, these examples were of little help. If this is how flap copy reads, I thought, I am going to have to make stuff up. This thought was problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that I write nonfiction.
Eventually, on one of the lower shelves I noticed three thick-spined colorful copies of Zadie Smith’s most recent collection, Feel Free. And while I was certain her jacket flap would contain more of the same over-the-top biographical prose, I was curious to find out what this newer collection was all about. Taking down one of the volumes and opening to the jacket, I buzzed through the first paragraph reminding everyone how she “burst spectacularly” onto the literary scene with White Teeth.
I moved on to the next paragraph. And there, the gut punch:
Arranged into five sections…this new collection poses questions we immediately recognize…Why do we love libraries? "…what a good library offers cannot easily be found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything to stay." [emphasis mine]
I snapped the book shut, picked up my purse, and hurried downstairs. I closed my laptop, shoved it in its case, and dashed up to the front desk to ask how I could borrow the book. Then, successful in that endeavor, I rushed outside into the steaming heat and plopped down on a concrete bench next to the front door that had been baking all morning in the sun. The backs of my legs burned as I opened the book in my lap and began scanning the table of contents looking for Smith’s library essay. The glare of the noontime sun made the white pages almost impossible to read, but I couldn’t be bothered to dig around in my purse for my sunglasses. I needed to find that essay.
In retrospect, I am not entirely sure why I was in such a hurry. I think, perhaps, in a very short amount of time I had convinced myself that if Zadie Smith had already written exactly what I had literally just written about libraries, I had been outed as an imposter—a pretender-writer incapable of original thought. This failure of originality would be proof that my instinct was right: I was a phony who had no business being on that retreat. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of standing adjacent to the literary life, peeking over into the lives of “real” writers, but in those few minutes since coming across her essay, I had somehow endowed Smith and her book with prophetic powers. I was rushing through the book to discover whether I was going to join them. Whether I would be a writer or not, if I would ever have a book of my own. A bead of sweat trickled down my right temple.
Anyone acquainted with the collection can tell you that there is no essay with “library” in the title. I flipped to the index. The book, with its clear cellophane library cover, began to slide foreward off my sweaty thighs. I caught it and returned to searching. There it was. “Libraries” on pages 3, 4, 6, 7-8, 9-13... Oh, so many pages on libraries!
The rest will be familiar to many of you. Not only did Smith make my exact point about the absence of consumerism in libraries, but she was ahead of me on the church thing and funny about it too, “In the modern state there are very few sites where this [not buying] is possible. The only others that come readily to mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership.” Later, “[the library is] the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want your soul or your wallet.” To avoid spoilers all around, I will simply say that Smith takes her essay to the same end toward which I had been heading in mine—an extended reflection on the importance of libraries, made with “pathos”—a fundamentally emotional argument for their existence.
I shut Smith’s book and tucked it under my arm along with my laptop. I stood up, slung my purse over my other shoulder, and began the long walk back to the estate in the ninety-one degree heat, trying to remind myself with every step that I had the fortune of other, interesting work. That I liked to write just for the joy of writing. That I missed my husband and kids and would see them in three days. That sort of thing. When I got back to the main house and pushed opened the heavy wooden door, I heard talking - a rare sound in the cloister-like atmosphere of the retreat. I squinted down the dark hallway and saw three fiction writers sitting in the mansion’s sunroom, exchanging papers and laughing. I had forgotten that they were holding a workshop for themselves that afternoon. I went upstairs and got into bed.
I am not proud to admit that my first, irrational response, as I lay there considering the situation, was to be mad at Zadie Smith. Like, really mad at her. Resting listlessly on my pillow, I turned my head slowly toward the books I had brought from home. There, standing upright on my desk, next to a volume of Szymborska poetry, was the other Smith collection, her name on the spine in large scrolling blue font. How could you, I thought. You were one of the authors I brought to inspire, to keep me company.
But I knew, rather than pouting, I had to face facts. Simply put, I’d been scooped. Smith had beaten me to the analysis and stated it better than I ever could. Plus, with her fame and excellent writing and all, she’d had the jump on me from the start. I was clearly not going to be writing my way into some literary life. In the quiet heat of the afternoon I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
An hour later I woke up groggy and half-aware that I had fallen asleep in a very bad mood. I sat up as the entire episode came rushing back to me. Ah right, I reminded myself, time to give up on this writing business.
I am nothing if not a realist, and I am actually pretty resilient too. So believe me when I tell you this wasn’t a moment of total despair. In retrospect, I think was taking the whole thing as more of a corrective. I wasn’t meant for real writing. I’d take my way with words and write up some classic family stories to pass on to my sons. I’d keep submitting cute tales of my kids to parenting blogs. My emails would rock. But never again, I was sure, would I pack up for a week and leave my family behind to pursue my writing dreams.
As complicated for me as my writer identity, actually, was the question of my now book. No longer a manuscript, or “collection in development”, over the course of the retreat my essays had grown into a book. They were in conversation with one another, and they collectively had something to say. I was less sure of what to do about that, but my instinct was—for at least the rest of the week—to leave well enough alone. I figured I could decide later whether to let the manuscript languish, or whether to dissect it and send off a few pieces to friends and family. Just for kicks.
Sitting there on my bed, the late afternoon sun streaming in through my windows, I decided I the very least I could do (and it wasn’t much of a hardship) would be to read my way through the remaining two days. And I had to laugh, if a bit ruefully, as the first book my eyes fell on was the library book I had borrowed that morning: Feel Free. I bent down to pick it up. I stood up, refilled my water bottle, and opened the door to the little screened in porch adjacent to my room. The heat enveloped me as I settled into the small wicker rocker on my porch.
Well, Zadie, I thought as I opened the book, let’s see what else you have to say. And turning to the book’s foreword, I began to read.
Looking back now, I think it is fortunate more time had not passed between my discovery of Smith’s library essay and my reading of her foreword. Had I picked up the book weeks, or even days, later I may not have continued to vest it with special, prophetic powers. As it was, however, Smith and her words still held particular sway over me. So you can imagine the slight lift I felt in my stomach when I came across Smith offering the following reflection on herself as writer:
“It’s true that for years I’ve been thinking aloud—and often wondering if I’ve made myself ludicrous in one way or another.”
“I think the anxiety comes from knowing that I have no real qualifications to write as I do.”
Um, say more.
“Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist.”
(Did I mention there was a trained journalist at my retreat?)
“I’m employed in an MFA program, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you? Essays,” said Smith, looking right at me, “about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on.”
Not a single leg.
“All they have is their freedom.”
And with that sentence, Zadie Smith set me free. Free to write about what I know of libraries, and, for that matter, what I know of church and community and pathos. She liberated me from the tyranny of MFAs and PhDs and publishers and submissions and agents and queries and readings. She released me from my insecurities and doubts, or at least gave me the freedom to make friends with them. Knocking down the border wall I had constructed between my life and the lives of other writers, Smith reminded me that I was most free when I was writing.
I stood up, put the book on floor next to the rocker, and went back into my room. I sat down at my desk and looked out the window for a solid five minutes, thinking. Then I opened my laptop and began to write.
The final two days of the retreat flew by in a flurry of reading and writing from which I emerged at the communal dinners dazed and happy. I spoke more. I asked questions. I allowed myself to believe I belonged at the retreat. It was, perhaps, in response to this change in me that, during our final meal together, a fellow writer turned to me to inquire whether it had been a productive week. Oh yes, I assured him as I reached for the wine, I had gotten a lot done. I had written a short piece on my children. I’d had some frustrating bouts but had also made huge strides forward on the essays for my book.
I did that. I said, out loud to another writer, the words “my book”.
Hey, he responded, perhaps we could exchange writing some time? He had some essays he was working on and would love feedback. Might he email me to make arrangements to share?
Oh yes, I replied, feel free.
Susannah Q. Pratt is a Chicago-based writer, mother and consultant. Her work can be found in various online and print publications including Under the Gum Tree, Motherwell, Role Reboot, LiteraryMama, and The Mindful Word. She is also a regular contributor to the blog at Ruminate Magazine. Find her at http://www.susannahqpratt.com.