Why Bother?

Photo by Evan Lawrence Bench
Photo by Evan Lawrence Bench

My “real” job (i.e. the one that pays), is in the public library. Mostly, this job is pretty great. I get money in exchange for being in the library, where I’m inclined to be anyway, and the Dewey decimal system appeals to my sense of orderliness. Sometimes funny stuff happens, like the time a guy came in to use the computer in his bathrobe and slippers, or the time someone abandoned a Dachshund in the stacks. But sometimes, like today, my job makes me sad.

Today I had to “weed” books. Which means that I had to remove books for withdrawal according to a computer-generated list, based upon frequency of checkouts. Some of the books I weeded had been checked out a lot when they were new, but ages have passed since anyone cracked them open. Others had never been checked out, maybe hadn’t been touched by human hands since they were placed on the shelf. Putting them on the weeding cart was like systematically drowning a litter of kittens.

I thought about the labor that had gone into each book. I thought about what the writers were trying to say, and I wondered how much of each author’s soul was inside the dust jackets. Some of the books I wouldn’t enjoy, with characters like plastic sheeting stretched over a scaffold plot. And some, like the books of Camus, will go back onto the shelf regardless of whether anyone has checked them out lately, because there are certain titles and authors that any self-respecting library should have. But some of the unknown and unread books were probably good, if not great. Some of them looked interesting. I’d have checked them out and given them their moment in the sun, if only I’d known they existed before today.

This got me thinking. What’s the point of busting my tail when such a sad fate is a very real possibility for whatever I write? (Providing that I can even get someone to publish it. After all, I’m not interested in writing a series of books about cats who solve mysteries, or political thrillers emblazoned with flags and warships — and those are the books that really circulate.) The whole situation was depressing, and it could have gone very badly for me; I might’ve decided to throw in the towel. But something wonderful happened instead.

I realized it didn’t matter.

Of course, as a writer it would be heartbreaking to discover that no one ever checked out your book from the library, and it was being withdrawn. Had the writer known the fate of their book at the outset, maybe they wouldn’t have written it. Maybe they would’ve pawned their typewriter and gotten a job selling life insurance. But they didn’t know, and so they just pushed on, into that creepy fog we call The Future. So what if they and their book didn’t become famous? So what if it isn’t included in high school English curricula around the country? They still wrote it. Some computer gives it the ol’ heave-ho in favor of an inch of shelf space — and what does that really mean? Computers are not the arbiters of taste.

It was an epiphany, right there in the stacks. You see, ever since I finished grad school, I’ve felt the “weight of my calling,” if you will. It was like an apostolic directive: Go Ye Therefore and Write Glorious Things. And, not surprisingly, when I sat down at my computer, I couldn’t. I was cowering before an inner critic, which sounded eerily similar to the members of my thesis committee, chanting like those witches from Macbeth. Every sentence elicited a cackle. Stories wilted on the vine, and I started to wonder if I would ever write anything worthwhile, or meaningful, or good.

But I can’t know that. I just have to write what tickles or moves me. I have to write the kinds of stories I’d want to read if they were written by someone else. Then whether or not they get published, whether or not they eventually get put on the Weeding Cart of Doom at some library, it won’t have been in vain because at least I’ll have enjoyed myself.

So, today after work, I came home and started a new story. I wrote all afternoon.


10 thoughts on “Why Bother?

  1. I wrestled with that exact troll… for months. I know the odds of “making it” as an author are tiny. I know that virtually all of us are just deluding ourselves. But, it doesn’t matter, as you said. Writing is “it” for people like us. We’ve really passed the point of no return, and that’s not a bad thing.

  2. I’m so glad you spent the afternoon writing! There’s a reader for every book and a book fro every reader. Even if the reader didn’t find his or her way to a book in your library that doesn’t, as you suggest, devalue the author’s work or intentions.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post, and — essentially — think that you’re right. All the same, I wonder whether I write because I enjoy it. I write because it’s what I do, because it’s who I am. I write because the empathy with my narrator, and to a lesser extent the other characters, allows me to experience someone else’s world. I write because my books are my babies kicking in the womb of my soul.

  4. I notice a common thread running though this and the recent posts on cover art, that is: contemplation of the means by which we discriminate as readers. Those means are pretty arbitrary, it’s necessity really, the choice is overwhelming otherwise but the tendency is–to either retread familiar ground continually or what’s worse, allow your parameters to be defined through means external to your own volition. (Ooh that last bit reads a bit farty Marty, sorry) The implication being that selecting a book by cover art is as likely to produce a satisfying experience as other means of selection. Which I think is true, if you’re ready to extend your horizons.

    You relate your own motivation to these thoughts, naturally of course because the implications are obvious. You know the kind of thing, those doubts: is it worth it, I’m just another wave expended against those rocks. I’m glad, you’ve reconciled those doubts positively for purely personal reasons because I happen to like your stuff. I don’t want to get all fannish, I know what a turn off that is but when I encountered your work, there was an: oh look someone good, moment. Of course that has little relevance your personal perspective because it’s my personal perspective. Anyway, great news you’ve got a new story on the boil, good luck with it.

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