Thursday, February 24, 2011


Today on Facebook I noticed a friend had listed one of my favorite books, The Fortress of Solitude, as one of his favorite books, so I clicked the link to read the page for the book. Reading the synopsis made me think, again, about my obsessive love for Jonathan Lethem, and then I noticed the link to his name at the bottom of the page and it occurred to me that he’s a real person, who probably has a real Facebook page and it’s deeply creepy that I think I have a connection with him just because I read his book.

But literature is like that. The experience of reading a novel is so intimate. I bring books to bed and to the breakfast table, use them to escape a crowded train or dreary break room. When I’m in the middle of a good book I spend more time with it than I do with any real person in my life. Even when I’m with someone else, I’m often thinking of the book. What is that, if not obsession? The best books are like one night stands that leave your head spinning. It all feels so personal and real, it seems bizarre that the author never knows about your connection. The real embarrassment is knowing that all the other people you see on the train later reading the book are having the same intimate encounter you had, and there’s not a trace of you left in the book. Spooky.

It was easier to keep the romance of the book alive before all the authors started showing up on the internet. Several decades ago we didn’t have the opportunity to tweet an author kudos on a great plot twist and get a response before we’d reached the book’s third act. There was no chance to read an author’s blog and discover that a novel’s dashing hero was named after the author’s childhood pet. Disappointing! When I first fell in love with reading, every book was proof that somewhere out there was someone who understood me much more deeply than the real people I knew. Authors were soulful, hyper intelligent beings who would swoop me up into their milieu as soon as they read the books I would write. Writing my own book was the only route I had in the days before the internet. Now – the horror – if you want to talk to an author you just email/instant message/tweet/facebook them.

Granted, I benefit from that accessibility. It’s wonderful to know the mundane details of writers’ habits; how many hours each day are spent at the computer, what candies make the best fuel, the prime hours for rewrites. But, I can’t get over that creepy feeling of intimacy. I hand an author a book to sign at a bookstore reading and want to ask “don’t you remember me? That weekend in February when I was snowed in with your book and ate nothing but saltines so I wouldn’t have to put it down?” How couldn’t she remember being there? Or I turn the last page on a book and turn immediately to the author’s twitter looking for some mention of myself. Could he already have forgotten me?

It’s a funny contradiction, but for some authors I’m just too close to ever risk speaking with them. I couldn’t handle the rejection of knowing the greatest loves of my life don’t remember me.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Libraries I Love

Today I’m camped out at the Concord Free Public Library’s Reference Room to get a little writing done. When the weather is nasty, or even sometimes when it’s nice, the library is a wonderful destination for getting out of the house to enjoy a day of introvert fun without having to spend any money.

The Boston area is blessed with some of the best libraries for hanging out. What makes a library great for spending time in is a mix of feng shui and practicality. The most important factor is at least one open room filled with plenty of tables and chairs. Great lighting, including a mixture of natural and indoor, is essential, as is free wifi or at least a strong cell phone signal. I like a variety of seating options, though I almost always opt to sit in a straight back chair at a long wood table with lamps, if that’s available. The next important factor is the quality of the distraction space. I like to get up and take a walk every half hour or 45 minutes to find inspiration for whatever I’m working on. I like a library that’s always putting interesting books in my path. I’ll never understand why, but there are some libraries I can walk into with no particular book in mind and walk out of with a whole stack of exciting discoveries, while at other libraries I can’t find anything unless I come in with a list.

So here are a few of the libraries I’ve spent time in, and what makes them special:

Concord Free Library: This library has a great range of study spaces, form the quiet Reference Room with its high windows, chandeliers and bankers’ office furniture, to inviting sitting chairs in hidden nooks. The heart-stoppingly lovely room that houses the fiction section is a mahogany room with a fireplace and a second story wrap-around walkway protected by filigree iron handrails. In architecture, it is the platonic ideal of a library; each room is tailored to the contents of that room. The children’s room is full of inviting furniture for kids to play on and the lighting is bright and inviting, the reference room has big tables to spread out your work and crucial electric outlets for laptops, the fiction section has all the romance you hope to find between the covers of the books. My only complaints would be that beyond these rooms it gets a little dull, and the library isn’t easily accessible by public transit from where I live.

Cary Memorial Library (Lexington): The Cary Memorial Library’s writing space beats out Concord by doing everything just a little bit better. The room I like to write in has more tables, more windows, and the walls are lined with periodicals rather than encyclopedias and dictionaries. Magazines are reference materials for fiction writing, as much as dictionaries are for nonfiction, so when I take a break at the Cary library I can usually find fresh inspiration without even needing to leave the room. This is a big benefit because I would never leave my laptop unattended, and at most libraries taking a break means I have to pack everything up and carry it with me (and risk losing my seat!). The downside of the Cary Memorial Library is that they’ve stuffed the fiction section in a bleak little room in the basement. Why, why, why, why, why? It’s the equivalent of storing food in the chicken wire box on the floor. Nothing’s going to look appetizing that way. I find it impossible to check out fiction books there.

Cambridge Public Library (Main Branch): I once heard that the goal of the redesign of the Cambridge Public Library’s main branch was to emulate a bookstore, and they absolutely accomplished it. The airy, open layout and prominently displayed new release books mean if I go in looking for one book, I will walk out with ten. The library’s old section (as opposed to the new addition built on a few years ago) has a gorgeous Richardsonian study room so beautiful I could live there. Unfortunately, the study room is not very well lit, and like in Lexington, the regular fiction section is in the basement.

Robbins Library (Arlington): I think highly enough of this library that we’re getting married there next August. It has a beautiful reading room, and a well-lit fiction section. The only problem with this library is a problem that much of Arlington’s businesses suffer; there are simply too many people in town looking for somewhere to sit for 5 hours without having to buy anything. Every coffee shop in town is perpetually full. Walk into Starbucks, Jam’n Java, Quebrada or the library and you will see knitting groups, book clubs, parenting groups, nanowrimo-ers, and online daters. There are just too darn many of us! And don't even get me started on the subject of restaurants on Saturday night.

Brookline Public Library (Coolidge Corner Branch): I have a book of essays by Brookline authors titled “The Fruitful Branch” and that’s just what this library is. The layout is similar to the library I used to go to in Michigan; it’s not large and doesn’t have a lot of seating or study space, but for some reason it’s really easy to find a good book to read by browsing here. It occurs to me at this point that I haven’t been giving proper credit to the librarians of these libraries for their part in the collections, but a lot of times it really is about the architecture. If I’m looking through a fiction collection under fluorescent lights in an underground lair, I’m not going to find anything no matter how good the selection. However, the Coolidge Corner library’s architecture doesn’t get in the way of the collection, and the library has a great collection. Be forewarned, there really isn’t that much space at this library for setting up your workspace, and Coolidge Corner, like Arlington is full of coffee shop squatters, so you can’t count on finding space at a nearby Starbucks or Peets either.

Boston Public Library (Main Branch): What can I say? It’s the Boston Public library! Great place to find books, great place to write books. It even has a secret garden with a restaurant in the middle. I will say it can be a little drab in the winter, though.

So that’s my list of great local libraries. Now I think I’ve earned a break to take another look at the fiction room…

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I'm Back!

Obviously, it’s been a while since I updated this blog, and a lot has changed in that time.

In September I made some big decisions that altered the course of the rest of my 2010. The first change, maybe the biggest, was that I became engaged to my long-term boyfriend. We’re in the midst of planning the wedding now, and I’ll definitely blog a bit about that process, and link to some of my favorite new blogs I’ve discovered.

The second big change was that I decided not to apply for any mfa programs for Fall 2011. Even though I made some great strides in my writing in 2010, I knew by September that I didn’t have enough finished stories to put together a strong writing sample, and I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to pull together the money to apply again next year if I didn’t get in this year. (I’ve blogged before about the prohibitively expensive application process.) So, now I’m looking to apply at the end of 2011, for Fall 2012.

In my first post on this blog I said that my goal was to create a writing life for myself, and that continues. For the first few months after the engagement I gave into the temptation to plan, plan, plan ... and I didn’t get much writing done. But, it’s a new year and I’m back on track now with my daily morning pages, blogging (I swear!), and maybe even a story or two. Stay tuned.