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writer it would be heartbreaking to discover that no one ever checked out your book from the library, and it was being withdrawn.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.