The Writing Life: A Life in Libraries by Hilary Meyerson

inside of library with book shelves close up looking down a hallway

I loved everything about the library; the labyrinthine stacks, the wooden card catalog cabinets, the shelves of books that towered over my small self. My library card was my most prized possession.

In the story of my life, libraries have been the setting. The answers I sought have always been found there, whether I was delving into Yeats’ symbolism or a breastfeeding dilemma. However, it was the question, “What shall I do with my life?” that somehow eluded me for so long. The answer was of course, at the library. I didn’t just want to read the books there – I wanted to write one, to make my own contribution to the catalog. Now that I’m an adult and a writer, the library is my office as well as the extension of home that it always has been. But I finally realize it is more than that as well. It is the place where I experience my greatest solitary happiness.

As a child, a trip to the library was more exciting than an outing to the pool. At the hint of a trip, I’d be in the car, waiting impatiently for my parents. I loved everything about the library; the labyrinthine stacks, the wooden card catalog cabinets, the shelves of books that towered over my small self. My library card was my most prized possession.

At seventeen, I did the requisite college tours, searching for a home for the next four years. I ignored the field houses and boisterous dorms, focusing instead on prospective libraries. The library I ultimately chose was one I considered properly academic, with cool limestone outside and polished oak within. It had a faint musty smell and study lofts with oak carrels adorned with two hundred years worth of student scratchings. I didn’t spend much time thinking about what future career would bring happiness. Like most of us, I asked the wrong questions at eighteen.

It was during college that I developed my routine of setting up a writing camp. I’d stake my claim by laying out my textbooks, my smuggled soft drinks, my pens and notebooks. Then I would kick off my shoes, tuck my feet beneath me and begin to write. I’d leave the library for a bite at the dining hall, my belongings left as silent markers of my proprietary interest in that table. Sometimes it would be days before I’d pack up and take everything back to the dorm. I reached the apex of library residency in my senior year, when I had my own thesis carrel where I could leave books and items indefinitely. A pied-a-terre in the stacks with my name affixed on the side. In those days before email and cellphones, the guy I was dating knew how to reach me. He’d leave small gifts on my carrel shelf or a scribbled missive in my open notebook, next to my notes on Virginia Woolf. My happiest hours were spent writing my thesis at that carrel.

After graduation, I moved to Seattle, ready to put my writing skills to use. I got a job waiting tables and bartending. The college boyfriend moved out a few months later and we found an apartment so small, the spacious public rooms of the local library were a welcome retreat. The library was also our sole source of entertainment. I got a library card and checked out books and movies that hadn’t been in theaters for fifteen years. I read Middlemarch on slow nights at work, the cellophane-wrapped copy tucked under the bar with the Mr. Boston bartender’s guide. During the day, when normal people were at day jobs, I spent it at the library, scribbling poems in a notebook.

After the thrill of tending bar waned, I sought my “real” career, the one that would support my writing habit. Thus, the three years as a law student. I spent most of my waking hours in the law library, a building whose architecture would have made Stalin weep with joy. But I had my own assigned carrel again. I was married now, and my husband would stop by on his way home from work, usually when I was making a dinner run. He would leave me Diet Coke and suggestive notes on my carrel, just as he had while I toiled away on my thesis years before. I wrote academic papers, but my creative writing fell by the wayside. Soon I’ll get started on my real writing, I thought.

My professional life as a lawyer started out promising enough. There was a gorgeous library at my firm, a modern-day Dickensian workplace with a circulation desk, familiar rows of bookshelves, periodicals, long tables with brass and green-glass bankers’ lamps, all under a curved glass ceiling. It seemed like a perfect fit. I much preferred reading cases in the library than in my office, with its nagging phone. I sought any excuse to do research, but ultimately, I couldn’t set up my familiar camp there. Apparently, that’s what offices are for. I wrote legal briefs. Many, many joyless briefs. Happiness was not to be found in that library.

The infant and toddler years of my children marked the end, not coincidentally, of my law career but they also cemented the essential role of libraries in my life. In the surreal life of a new mom, libraries were an oasis of sanity. Every day I would push my jogging stroller the few blocks to the library, yearning for adult interaction and entertainment for the kids. I knew every story time in a five-branch radius in Seattle. I pored over library newsletters, milking them for every opportunity. When the kids fell asleep in their stroller, I’d quietly wheel them to a table in the stacks and read, but rarely had the chance to write much before they awoke. I didn’t question whether I was happy. I was too tired.

Having kids vaulted me from being a casual user to a full-blown library addict, the quiet desperation of a new mother. I could rattle off my library card number with more ease than my social security number. When my wallet was stolen, my first act after canceling my credit cards, was to head to the nearest branch and get a new card. My husband thought it unlikely that the thief would assume my library patron identity, but I had been waiting for Cutting for Stone for months, and I couldn’t risk it.

As the kids got older, I finally returned to serious writing. And so began the next phase of a life in libraries, the life of the professional writer. I’ve always been a feast or famine writer, despite every writing teacher who has told me to write every day, to set aside the same few hours each day. That schedule doesn’t work with my lifestyle, with the vagaries of kids’ field trips to chaperone and visiting family to ferry around. After a drought of writing time, I need a flood of words to balance it out. I don’t like to work in coffee shops, with the throngs of caffeine-laced patrons, jockeying for a wireless connection. I wondered if I could write off the library as a home office on my taxes.

When I began work on my novel, I went to my local branch. I saw my neighbors, picked up my reserved books, chatted up the librarians who knew me by name. However, this became a problem. I needed anonymity. Not to mention that the books I was checking out for research drew some curious looks. One day I ran into my neighbor, who wanted to chat about the upcoming block party. Her eyes drifted to my stack of books on the table next to me: Judaism for Dummies, Bacterial Diseases in Deciduous Trees, and The Empty Cradle: Surviving the Death of a Child. She pointedly asked after my kids. I assured her they were fine. I was thankful all the books on incest were still in my bag.

I have moved on to other branches, in the endless quest for wi-fi and an empty table. I have a whole cadre of charming satellite offices. I know all the storytimes in the city, but now only to avoid them. If it’s toddler storytime at one, I’ll be writing at another, away from the stroller set I once sought out. When my usual writing hours of the school day are eaten up by other obligations, I’ll scoot out to the nearest branch in the evening to clear the backlog of words. It will seem I’m only there minutes before the librarians kick me out at the eight o’clock witching hour.

Then it’s time to pack up and head for the nocturnal life of the university law library. I don’t have an after-hours access card, so I’ll time my entrance as a student is leaving, breezing through the door as if I have an urgent case citation to check. I’ll set up camp at any carrel not already claimed with Nalgene bottles, highlighted pages, a laptop, or even an actual student. I want to shake some of them, Are you sure you want to go into law? Don’t believe what people say about using your writing skills! I’d say, but they look so peaceful sleeping on the updated version of the constitutional law text I have at home. It seems a shame to disturb them.

I’m not sure what the future holds, but no doubt there is a library in it. Will I ever walk into any branch in the city and find a shelf full of my novels, waiting to be checked out? Perhaps. Regardless of my professional success, I know that I’ll always be able to be found a few days a week, typing away at a long, lamped table, surrounded by high shelves of books. I realize now that the goal isn’t the final published tome. It’s the act of writing itself. The release, the expression, the joy of creation. The state of being happy and content, playing with language and temperamental words while sitting in a library. Why did it take me so long to realize it?

Today is another day at the office. I pack my kids’ lunches and fill their backpacks, and at the same time toss the usual paraphernalia of writing into my own bag, already bulging with a computer and power cords. The quiet excitement is already building, and I wonder what will emerge from the keyboard today. I mentally scroll through possible branches for today’s workplace. Wherever I end up, I’ll unpack my bag and arrange my pencils, notebooks, thesaurus, caffeine–a routine familiar after twenty-some years. Then I’ll unfold my laptop and begin work on the next chapter. I will be content.

hilary meyersonHilary Meyerson is a contributing writer to Hippocampus Magazine. She loves the writing life in Seattle, where she migrates from library to coffee shops with her laptop. A recovering lawyer, she refuses to wear confining shoes ever again.
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  • I’m really interested in everyone’s memories of libraries. When I was a teenager, my mom worked at a mall in Tulsa, OK. I’d go to work with her some weekends, but I would bore quickly from the mall. I’d find myself hanging out in the Tulsa Public Library South branch, which shared the parking lot. I LOVED it there. I loved looking at old newspapers on the microfiche. I loved making copies of things from reference book, the ones you couldn’t check out. I loved, loved, loved the smell of the books. In high school, I was able to work in the school library as an aide instead of taking a study hall. I got a kick out of desensitizing the books when they were being checked out so the alarm didn’t sound. And way back in elementary school–get this–my librarian’s name was Mrs. Due!! Library was my favorite “special” class; some kids like art or music or gym. Me? I loved the books and learning about the card catalog. Now that I think about it, I wish I had spent more time in libraries as I grew older.  -Donna

    • Julie

      I LOVED the library as a child, teenager, young adult and now.  The library was my first experience of independence.  I was allowed on Tuesdays as a 2nd grader to walk to the library to wait for an hour until Brownies started across the street at the church.  I stole some of my first kisses at the library and whenever under stress or disturbing mood, the library was my fix.  Even now, when I walk into the library something in me just feels everything is going to be okay 🙂  –Julie

  • Fabulous essay, Hilary. I appreciate my beautiful, comfortable local library in Glenview, Illinois, and visit public libraries in all my travels. Pure magic!

  • Oh, how I love this! As a child, I lived across the street from our local library — and I think I was there every day. Your description of early motherhood library salvation is perfect. And your closing words about writing for the joy of it . . . I needed that. Thank you.