Writing Gratitude Countdown: (3) People who Rocked my Worlds

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Is this enough cake for all the people who’ve already helped my writing along? Café Profittlich in Rhöndorf, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the third post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. I’m noticing that gratitude is like a pair of sunglasses. My writing journey takes on a whole color.

(You can find the earlier posts here: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission.)

3. The Gift of Hospitality: the value of an invitation into another world

A surprising thing about writing fiction is how much information you need to do it. Send a character to film school and you’ll have to go there yourself. Set a novel in the Middle Ages and spend an afternoon figuring out how to get your characters dressed and out of the room.

Your job as a writer is to find a way to inhabit an unfamiliar world so your imagination can fill in the gaps. This is what I’ve learned about working with hosts of unfamiliar worlds:

  • Someone knows all about your story world, no matter how obscure you think it is. You have to find them. My husband is a curator at a natural history museum so I know that research collections exist to be used.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, has a collection of 1,000 year old manuscripts. Feeling like an imposter, I called up the very distinguished Dr. Martina Bagnoli listed on their website, and shyly described my middle grade manuscript. She graciously listened to me and gave me permission to visit the collection.

At my appointment, the classically-trained Dr. Kathryn Gerry showed me spectacular 1000-year-old manuscripts from all over the Mediterranean. She also generously answered my questions about all the ways manuscripts could be wounded. See their beautiful work in The Medieval World: The Walters Art Museum by Martina Bagnoli and Kathryn Gerry.

  • Take courage. Throw yourself (politely, of course) on their mercy.
    For my first novel-length manuscript, a professor at the film department of Burlington College gave me an insider tour of the facilities and answered my hundreds of questions.

I went to an open house for prospective students and the organizer gave me the professor’s name. He told me his roommate was a novelist and gave me an inside view of a film student’s world. A wonderful example of paying it forward. To my shame (!), I can’t find where I wrote down his name, but I won’t forget his hospitality or the way the tiny room full of colorful film-editing keyboards felt.

  • Get as prepared as you can. Do whatever work you can before you bother the experts. Richard Nelson Bolles said it best in WHAT COLOR IS YOUR PARACHUTE: “Ask me what I alone know.”

Librarians are the obvious first choice. Google and Wikipedia can lead to great materials, but the research librarians at your local university can point you towards research archives and collections you’ll never find on your own. They also have contacts.

Original sources give the five senses details writers need to create a fictional experience. The University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe library pointed me towards reference books for medieval costumes.

Before I visited Washington, D.C. for a work trip, reference librarian Robert Resnik, at the Fletcher Free Library, sent a request to the Smithsonian for me to find out what medieval manuscripts could be seen. The Smithsonian suggested The Walters Art Museum.

There are other, imaginative kinds of prep. Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power suggests using personal experiences to bring dry writing to life. Camping to remember what it feels like to live out of doors. Drafting also helps you find out what you need to know and makes you feel less of an imposter when you ask experts questions.

Unexpected bonus: The amazing children’s librarians–Hoorah!–at my local library, Beth Wright, Christine Webb, and Rebecca Goldberg, also helped me find comparative titles and suggested ways to pitch my story that fit the current market: “Go for the spunky girl narrator.”

  • Bring gifts and pay it forward where you can. My eldest child patiently looked at medieval coins in The British Museum with me when we visited London. We went to tea and a play, but that didn’t really cover the debt. Gifts never do. They are only a physical token of our gratitude. I’ve written about other ways my family helped me here.

A calendar, a coffee date, or a thank-you card are reminders that someone went out of their way for me. A link to their newest book is no hardship either.

Maybe the truest way to show gratitude is to keep on keeping on. Doing my best work is another way of paying off debts to people who went out of their way to help. They invested in me and I’m cultivating that gift to the best of my ability. When fruit finally appears, it will be because so many people took time to share their worlds with me.

Happy writing!

So that’s my third installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (The earlier posts are: 1. The Gift of Attention , 2. The Gift of Permission.) More to come!

If you’d like to share about people who invited you into their worlds, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!

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Half a Library: 6 Libraries That Changed My Life

Librarian with hand on bookcase full of books in a new library room with table.
A new library is born. Hard-working librarian who made a half a library into a whole.

In 1775, James Boswell wrote, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” I’ve turned over half a dozen libraries in the service of my current work-in-progress, but library fever started much earlier. After all, where does anyone get the idea to write a book in the first place?

It all starts when you get a library card. I got mine as soon as I could write my first and last name in shaky capital letters. My family name had 9 letters, so it required some study.

The first library I remember vividly was in my elementary school. If I close my eyes, I see the tables and chairs, the built-in bookcases, the expanse of carpet and the steel knob you had to touch, after crossing the carpet, to get out of the library. I learned that the price of reading was shocking, but I paid it willingly, again and again.

The second library was in my Junior High School. Alphabetical fiction covered three walls and branched out into freestanding bookcases. I started with Joan Aiken’s MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE, Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING. . . and worked my way around. The school was overcrowded, troubled with drugs, and plagued by mashed potato shortages. Some days, we ate gravy for lunch. I didn’t mind the gravy, but the other things made me search for, and find, refuge in the library.

The third important library in my life was at the University of Utah. A friend had gotten a job, that paid money, to shelve books.

This was for me.

I filled the job application with volunteer orchestra ‘experience,’ hoping to suggest reliability. The gentle interviewer hired me because I’d rescued cassettes from our family tape recorder on long car trips. In the Audio-Visual Department, I played records and videotapes for people ten hours a week. A side effect came in the form of a dozen roses from a mysterious admirer at carrel #6. The only thing I knew about him—judging from the orange hair on his records—he had a cat. Libraries are full of people to meet.

In my fourth library, the Charles Babbage Institute, I met the inventor of the first hand-held calculator. The Institute needed a graduate student to transcribe an oral history (basically a recorded interview with the questions taken out) for Curt Herzstark. His name describes him perfectly: Herz and stark mean heart + strong.

Imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he somehow got permission to invent things “after hours.” In his Austrian accent, he described the invention of his calculator. He talked about a calculator in the shape of a glorified pepper mill, ten hours a week, for a trimester or more. His voice stopped when I took the headphones off, but I felt the Buchenwald atmosphere for hours afterwards.

The fifth library to capture my imagination is the one belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They have 900 illuminated manuscripts from 300 B.C. to the 19th century. That’s a library. I washed my hands, checked my book bag at the door and promised to use nothing but pencil while I was in the room.

In return, I touched five books that were 1000 years old or more. The corners were soft and wrinkled—like a piece of leather that has been bent back and forth too many times—where the thumbs of the monks must have fit. They probably dripped tallow on them.

In exchange for writing my whole name and enduring the shock of a library door, I found a refuge, got a dozen roses, visited a concentration camp and the 11th century. That library card really paid off.

The sixth library is where it gets interesting. My husband researches bats and other small mammals in West Africa. A few years ago, his work took him to an isolated village in Sierra Leone with no school or library.

Friends have been generous with books of all kinds. In my husband’s office, there was—literally–half a library. The other half has grown over the years. The local field-biologist-turned-librarian built shelves to hold the books and put up a roof to shelter the readers.

Now the village has a little library. How long before some reader turns half of it over and writes a brand-new book?

I can’t wait to check it out.

Young people reading books at a library table in a one-room library in Sierra Leone.
What will come out of this library?

 

References
Boswell, James. LIFE OF JOHNSON. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc. (Oxford World’s Classic Paperback). 1998, pg. 613.

This essay originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 issue of catapult magazine under the title “Half a Library.” The archives don’t seem to work.