For Librarian Writers: How I Find and Maintain Creativity and Brain Space
“Wow, you’re a librarian, huh? Do you get to read a lot?”
What an old, tired question. I can already hear the collective sigh from other librarians reading this, because the truth is, librarians don’t get a lot of opportunities to read at all. In fact, when I was reading a book on a new arrivals cart, a colleague snapped, “Are you reading?” I put the book back like it was a half-eaten cookie from a jar and said, “No…..?”
If I’m being honest, I became a librarian because I wanted to be a writer, but the reality is, libraries have a lot less to do with writing and books than people think–and writers juggling both careers have a lot of day-to-day challenges that can often feel like a candle burning at both ends.
The Day Job Minutia
In my experience, librarians, by nature, tend to make things more complicated than they need to be, which tends to make work days drag. It can often feel like being stuck in traffic slow enough to see cows peeing. I’ve walked past research consultations in which the student (or patron, or whoever) is staring up at the ceiling while the librarian talks, and looking like they’d asked for directions and ended up in the wrong part of a bad neighborhood. I’ve also been in meetings where we spent a half hour trying to tweak a policy sentence to sound just the right way. And with enough hours like that, coming home to write creatively feels like a very tall job indeed.
This isn’t to say that librarians are bad people; the majority of the ones I’ve worked with have been great. And, like a lot of other jobs, librarians are part of a leaner workforce, and it’s not uncommon to for one person to do the job of two or three people. But this can create a sense of helplessness among librarian writers, because like any writer with a day job, they can often feel like they don’t have enough energy to devote toward their creativity. It’s also probably they aren’t always forthcoming about their creative pursuits, especially in workplaces where it feels like their every move is being monitored.
The Five Hindrances
Every day, like many people, I was confronted with the conundrum of whether I was meant for something else. That even though I was good at librarianship, there was this gaping hole, a piece of me that got lost amid the static. Some days, the only thing that kept me going was my writing, and the hope that came with it. That, and an Emily Dickinson quote on my bathroom wall: “Dwell in possibilities.”
Another way I’ve found to help eliminate the forces dragging me backward is conquering what are known as The Five Buddhist Hindrances. This philosophy posits that everyone has a pristine pool within–and the Five Hindrances disrupt it. The Hindrances are mentioned in relation to meditation, but they can be applied to most situations.
Hindrance 1: Desire for what you don’t have
Or, the “if only” syndrome. If only I was a published writer, or if only I could get the hours in the day to hone my craft, or if only…blah blah blah my life would be better/different/tolerable. In my librarian career, I was plagued with these if-onlys–and most of them involved having more time to write.
I realized, though, that I had more control over this than I thought, and that the real answer lay in finding satisfaction at what I did throughout my day and taking pleasure in my accomplishments while striving for something greater. And if I didn’t get as much done as I’d wanted (which was usually always the case) I could keep striving a little bit each day. Kind of like eating an elephant. A little bit at a time.
Hindrance 2: Anger or ill-will
I also didn’t want to become like some other librarians I’d worked with who had resentment oozing out of their pores. Like any profession, some people have been stuck for so long that they take out their bitterness on others; I quickly found that being surrounded by a bunch of external vitriol can often get invasive. The best way to get past it was to recognize it, be with it, and move on. I had to think of other people’s negativity like a hot potato. I could briefly touch it, but let it go before it burned me.
Maintaining a sense of hope amid the deluge is necessary, not only for well-being, but for overall creative drive. Even more importantly, writing can help maintain a sense of self outside the day-to-day shenanigans.
Hindrance 3: Sloth/torpor
I think this is stops a lot of writers from cranking out material, even when they want to keep writing. Sometimes it comes in the form of exhaustion after a long workday. It’s okay to take breaks, but if one month turns to two without writing, try to find some motivational tools to help you get back in the game. Maybe start small–500 words written by sundown, or something along those lines. Or, carve out a set amount of hours during the day to write, edit, or do whatever else you can to reach your writing goals. For example, I started getting up at 6:00 AM to write because I wanted ensure my manuscripts were handled with my freshest brain. Do what works for you.
Hindrance 4: Restlessness/worry
I’m probably the most guilty of this one. If Hindrance 1 involves “if only”, Hindrance 4 is the “what if” syndrome. For example, I wrestled with having to fill my brain with librarian stuff rather than making room for the kind of creativity I wanted. This usually came with the usual writer worrier questions, like: What if my work isn’t good enough? What if I never get published?
These worries were usually unfounded, of course. I found plenty of ways to get published in nonfiction during my librarian career, and my writing improved the more I did it. It’s all in figuring out whether to put brain energy into worrying, or actually getting tasks done.
Letting go of restlessness and worry also involves recognizing the things in life beyond our control, and accepting them as they are. Take your challenges one day at a time, and keep moving forward even when it feels like the world is trying to pull you back. Write because you love it, and don’t concern yourself with the rest.
Hindrance 5: Doubt
You might ask yourself if writing is what you should be doing, especially when library work is pulling you in a bunch of different directions. For me, it became clear early on that I couldn’t not write. So I managed what I could, when I could, and it eventually helped establish a sense of purpose amid the chaos. Writing was something that was mine, that I could decide, when every other part of my day was spent doing what other people wanted me to do.So hold on to what’s yours, and seize it.
My hope is that no matter where you are, you can still maintain a sense of wonder in your writing journey. Or, as SFGate columnist Mark Morford says, “…being so deeply present, so connected, so alive, so pulsing and breathing and awake in the moment you are in that no matter what your job status, kid status, celebrity status, no matter where you live or to whom you are married, life is already full to bursting.” Make your stories. Craft your words. Shake your fists. But most of all, keep writing. Keep making. And keep doing. You’ll make it.
Outside her librarian career, Karen McCoy has written full-time since 2008, including reviews, book chapters, short stories, and an article for School Library Journal. She also maintains a blog, The Writer Librarian, where she interviews one author a week.