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Librarian Writers, Writer Librarians

Half of writing school is reading other students’ submissions and submitting intelligent feedback on their work–a great way to learn from others and to polish analytical thinking and the ability to closely read texts. During the semester, I am assigned between one and three pieces every week, and I try to write at least one full single-spaced page on each piece I read. So I’m sitting here halfway through my morning cuppa, trying to wake up the brain enough to type up my homework, which I hand-wrote on a bumpy plane last night after re-reading everyone’s pieces for the third time. “Good var. on theme,” I wrote on one student’s essay. “Drawn into narrator’s efforts. Makes me want to know more.”

I occasionally hear off-blog from librarian-writers and writer-librarians, and I feel the same about this group. The writer-librarian is a great variation on a theme. Who better to explore the meaning of the world than someone educated to seek and find information? We’re wired for this work.

I am also drawn into the efforts of other writer-librarians. This January, at ALA’s midwinter conference, a good dozen of us writer-librarians sat around a table at a restaurant and shared our goals for the year. Afterwards, I felt myself committed to my goals far more than if I had just taped them to my office wall or even shared them with a sympathetic family member.

Finally, I do want to know more about the librarian-writers among us, and I believe you feel the same way. The emails and comments I get tell me that we seek community, encouragement, and identity (even though in our deconstructionist, hypercritical world, it can be hard to say “I am a writer,” particularly if your publishing history runs slim to nonexistent, or is restricted to the world of library publishing–Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That).

As I wrote in a post last year, ALA has a discussion group for librarian-writers, NMRT-Writer, and it’s open to everyone. I suggest you w-l’s join it, and pitch it a question or comment once in a while. Ignore the “New Member” affiliation; the list belongs to NMRT for historical reasons, but some of the NMRT-Writer subscribers were “new members” in the Nixon administration.

Still, NMRT-Writer doesn’t fill the bill. The list has never really taken off as a community for librarian writers. One reason is that it’s hard to talk about personal goals when you don’t know who you’re sharing these with. If I am going to belong to a community I want to know who’s in it (a weakness of many lists). But Free Range Librarian–which is global, so you know who reads it: anyone who wants to–can’t be the librarian-writer town pump, because by definition it is my turf.

It’s possible that by nature we aren’t going to speak in community, that as writers we believe we’re already doing that through our writing (and are so busy writing that writing about writing seems more than we can bear). That’s a powerful argument I’ll buy, if you share it, though I expect us to break that rule at least three or four times a year at conferences, where we can eat and laugh and give one another moral courage–and perhaps through local connections, where we can meet away from the glare of binary digits. We can also continue to send one another emails of hope and encouragement. But if you have other ideas for creating community–even a secret handshake or a special hat–do share, on this blog, off this blog, wherever.

Finally, the most important way we can be in community as writer-librarians is to be supportive of one another. We don’t need to offer false flattery, but we can approach one another’s work (bloggy or otherwise) with the idea that most writers have gifts worth cultivating–and for that matter, emulating. Many of us in librarianship, with its service ethos, come to this naturally, but some librarian-writers have a habit of trashing others, as if decrying what they describe as the sad state of librarian literature made their own writing significantly better. It’s not surprising to me that the scarce handful of librarian-writers who insist they are rare gems poking out of the literary trash barge–and I won’t give them Google-juice, though one is quite famous, the Voldemort of the Blog People–tend to be writers who could use a bit of workshopping themselves. (Lesson: if you’re going to be a public scold, try not to be a pompous snore.)

The writing program I attend has an ethos of constructive feedback. Students do not tear into one another’s work in the snide, articulate, but ultimately lazy manner of the verbally gifted, but instead struggle hard to see the positive aspects of everything they read (as well as areas that invite “questions and comments”). This ethos is key to the success of this writing program. I have learned a lot by approaching the texts I read with the idea that every piece has at least one good thing to teach me, and usually I find more than that–often much more. I appreciate the feedback I receive that is offered in the same spirit. The positive feedback also makes the “questions and comments” far more credible, since it means the students read and thought about what I submitted.

I wouldn’t expect us to automatically praise every bit of writing we read any more than I intend to abandon my commitment to our good friends Mr. Comma and Ms. Apostrophe. But I’d like to see all writer-librarians share an ethos driven by the desire to cultivate the best within us. It’s good for us as individuals, and it’s good for our writing community.

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