“There was sanctuary in the library…from the storms of our family and our anxious minds. Libraries are like the mountains, or the meadows behind the goat lady’s house: sacred space.” – Anne Lamott
On a quiet afternoon this week, I decided to work on my novel-in-progress in my local library. I sat in a wooden cubicle covered with scratchiti, plugged in my laptop, and had a blissfully uninterrupted writing session.
After years of writing in the same room day after day, writing in the library felt unique and energizing. There’s just something special about libraries that makes them great for creative focus.
In this post, I’ll talk about pandemic cabin fever, the importance of choosing the right writing space, and why writing in the library may be just what you need to reinvigorate your writing life.
New day, same sameness
Confession: I’ve recently been writing my novel in bed.
This has its benefits — I can say that I have the same writing habits as Edith Wharton and Mark Twain, which is good for my ego — and I can also wake up, open my laptop, and start writing without putting on pants.
But something about it feels…off. Isn’t this just another symptom of the blurring of lines between spaces? Of the blob-like remote-work lifestyle that I’ve become accustomed to, where no boundaries are possible? Of portable devices creating offices and TV rooms and writing rooms out of every room?
Or maybe it has nothing to do with the pandemic or evil devices. Maybe I’m just lazy!
Either way, one morning this week I woke up to find that I couldn’t stay in my house another minute. And so I decided to visit the only remaining sanctuary I knew.
Writing in the library
“When in doubt go to the library.” – J.K. Rowling
Like most writers, I love libraries. Always have. It seems like every writer has a childhood story of library-induced wonder and awe.
But it’s been years since I actually sat down in a library. At least a decade. I come to pick up books I placed on hold, zipping through the self-checkout line and back out to my car. In between work and home life and all the to-do lists, I don’t have time to browse the stacks or fight for communal desk space. The last time I came to the library to get work done was probably college.
Now, after 18 months of semi-isolation, I crave public spaces. And aside from the DMV, what other public interior spaces do we have now, other than libraries?
(If anyone has tried to write in the DMV, let me know.)
My library has been closed for most of the pandemic and only recently opened for visitors. But when I visited this week, it was comfortingly familiar: three stories of faded industrial carpet, miles of bookshelves, and awesome librarians. Only now they were sitting behind plexiglass, six feet apart.
Since I’d given myself the luxury of a few hours, the first thing I did at the library was browse the oversized art and design books, a.k.a the adult picture books. I’d forgotten how nice it is to go into the stacks without any particular aim in mind, just to see what had arrived new on the shelves.
I gathered up a few treasures and spent the next half-hour at a desk looking through them. By the time I opened my laptop to write, I felt like the wheels of creativity were already turning.
To be honest, the writing itself was still as hard as ever. (Not even libraries can cure that.) But I felt focused and energized. My mind was oddly quiet, as if my ordinary home-bound anxieties were put aside for a moment. I wasn’t bothered about the pile of laundry in the middle of my bedroom or the hours of work waiting on my work laptop in the next room. No one came in to ask me where the extra roll of paper towels was.
It was glorious.
A change of scenery is never a bad thing. But a library isn’t just any scenery; I have positive mental associations with libraries, and these positive associations matter.
Multiple studies confirm that our sense of well-being is directly impacted by our environment and our memories of that (or similar) environments. It’s our positive memories of libraries that produce feelings of well-being, that then improve mood, focus, and all the rest.
I would also argue that the ordered nature of a library — books carefully organized on shelves, everything in its place — strengthens this sense of well-being. Cluttered, chaotic environments (like my house) can trigger coping and avoidance strategies, like binge-watching Netflix rather than writing my book. Disorganization and clutter negatively impact our ability to focus and process information.
In other words, being surrounded by the Dewey Decimal System is a nice reprieve for our overtaxed brains.
The last 18 months have unsettled and changed me, not always for the better. As I start to venture out into the world again, I find myself being more intentional about where I choose to spend my time.
Libraries are sanctuaries for many writers, including myself. I’m grateful that every once in a while, especially on really hard days, I can visit my local library for a few hours of productive peace.
Have you ever worked on your novel in the library? How has your perception of libraries changed at a time when sharing public space with strangers can be stressful?
Art: In der Bibliothek by John Arthur Lomax