A Novel Performance: Thirty Days in Seattle’s Central Library
The summer I relocated to Seattle, the downtown branch of the public library moved into the Washington State Convention Center, its temporary home until a new library would be completed three years later in 2004. I never knew its predecessors—the Beaux-Arts Carnegie library that opened in 1906 or the International style replacement that followed in 1960, complete with ashtrays for its Mad Men patrons—but I was certain after touring the newly opened building that this so-called library for all would never be a place for me. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the modern steel and glass structure jutted into the sky like a cranky old man waking from a nap. It felt too angular to be inviting, too cold and hard inside to relax and, well, read a book. For the next decade, I would glare at the Central Library from afar—until I relocated my living room there last November.
Growing up, my parents weren’t art or museum people, so the public library was my only connection to the cultural world at large. During the 1980s, my summers revolved around the hours of the Phoenix Public Library where my best friend, Jennifer, and I devoured as many books as we could. Since we had no neighborhood library, our mothers drove thirty minutes each week from the suburbs to the main branch on the outskirts of a mall. There was nothing dignified about that library’s architecture or urban context—a seething sea of asphalt and desiccated mesquite trees clouded over with gritty exhaust from the surrounding six-lane thoroughfares—yet the interior scale of the squat beige building felt approachable to grade school girls like us searching for a safe, cool place to flop. We were seduced by its colorful book displays and the aroma of paper and glue bindings, which seemed the very definition of a library. Each week we hunted for books in the manila-musky card catalog, jotted titles on scraps of paper with never-sharp golf pencils, and proffered our hand-laminated library cards to the librarian as she stamped the due date in ink on the check-out slips. Three decades later, as I settled into Koolhaas’s so-called architectural icon, I wondered: was it really the Central Library’s modern design that offended me, or was it the loss of a beloved, if antiquated, childhood experience?
In June 2014, I was awarded a grant for A Novel Performance, an installation in which I sought to reveal the creative and practical challenges intrinsic to writing. As an emerging artist, I hoped to challenge myself by exploring the writing process in ways that would be meaningful—and, hopefully, entertaining—to the general observer. By turning writing into performance, I wanted budding authors of all ages to connect the experience of books, meaning finished products, with a living human being who made them. To catalyze this task, I framed A Novel Performance under the rubric of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which takes place each November—in short, I would attempt to write at least 50,000 words, the first draft of my first-ever novel, in thirty days while the public watched.
Given my prejudice, the Central Library was not my top choice for a venue. I wanted to reach people in places they wouldn’t expect to encounter a writer, so I approached art galleries and Nordstrom’s flagship store; I pictured myself working behind a grand wooden desk amidst fashionably dressed mannequins in the storefront at Sixth and Pine where shoppers would gather outside to watch. Each week, the space would host well-attended parties that would make people wish they were writers. I quickly learned that art galleries book up far in advance, as do Nordstrom’s store windows. After a month of fruitless searching, I grew nervous. I had grant money to spend, an installation to design, and the summer was half over.
My relationship with the Central Library first kindled when a friend connected me with Linda Johns, a librarian there. I was only doing my due diligence—I needed to cross off the library so that I could continue searching elsewhere—but ten minutes after my inquiry, Linda’s email appeared: she loved the idea. I should have been elated, but my inner skeptic insisted that libraries were helmed by works of long-dead writers or those famous enough to appear only in bookstores where people paid for autographed copies. I couldn’t see it then, but when the Central Library agreed to host A Novel Performance, my project became less about a fashionable artistic maneuver and more of a meaningful exploration.
Around that time, I discovered a quote by John Green that cemented my resolve: “Writing is something you do alone. It is a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” Why is it cool for writers to perpetuate their own isolationism? I wondered, and how are we to expect anyone to value our craft if we, ourselves, mystify it? This conflation of writers with shy, lonely destitution is why my parents steered me away from a writing career, a path I’ve long regretted following.
I spent the fall working with Linda and Jared Mills, the librarians who championed my project. A ten-year moratorium against changes to Koolhaas’s building had recently expired, so they would help me navigate A Novel Performance through the municipal chain of approvals.
Enclosed by a sweeping glass expanse that rises to a height of fifty feet, the third level of Seattle’s Central Library has a sense of lightness and freedom, no matter the weather. Known as the Living Room, the space where I would install my furniture functions like a vibrant city street with a healthy buzz of activity, yet its carefully attuned acoustics buffer the whoosh of pedestrians streaming in from Fifth Avenue. I would soon discover that this bustling corner of the library was as enjoyable a place to write as a sidewalk cafe—made even more comfortable by virtue of my own furnishings.
On Halloween, the day before my installation opened, my boyfriend and a friend helped me construct a simple wooden stage near the library’s Teen Center. Michael, Jeff and I draped the platform in black cloth then set down a Persian rug and my green microsuede sofa and ottoman along with a rustic floor lamp and a hand-painted side table. We trimmed the set with plants, a framed photo and red velvet throw pillows. By noon, the library’s Living Room contained an exact replica of my own.
Are writers really introverts, or do we hide our craft out of insecurity? I was about to find out via a large screen positioned behind my couch which, when connected to my laptop, allowed visitors to watch, word by word, as I wrote. Within the first hour, I realized that I would have to push myself in order to work under the eyes of the same strangers I hoped to inspire. I would have to endure people reading my unformed thoughts before I deleted and rewrote them again, sensing the cast of their unspoken scrutiny. My hands shook for most of the first few days; perhaps I was more of an introvert than I thought.
To frequent visitors, my overnight appearance, and that of my living room, required explanation. On the second day, a woman pulling a large suitcase paused near the stage. Earbuds in, not even at 3,500 words yet, I typed on, noting her body language as she squinted at the screen, a hunched loggerhead in a stream of rain-dampened humanity. Here I was, a forty-something woman in jeans and a black sweater typing on a laptop with my feet up, protected by stanchions as if I wasn’t just an artist but art itself. The woman snorted, loudly, “Why you so special?!” as the crowd broke left and right. I chuckled at what was both a question and a dis. My living room set, a sincere revelation of a personal place, hovered on preciousness—the same solitary encapsulation of authordom that I aimed to break down.
Did I think I was special? In my mind, anyone could have been on that platform, including the woman pulling her life behind her, but that was my privilege talking. My growing up years may have held adversity, but they also came with white middle-class advantage, a reality that revealed itself throughout my time on stage. The woman’s comment also struck a deep-seated insecurity: how could I call myself an artist when I had sold out for corporate jobs? I had given up my dream for fear of ending up penniless, yet here I was on a stage claiming to be just that. How could I be a real writer if I wasn’t living exclusively on my art?
While not a full-time scrivener, I was the first in my family to attend college, and the first to accrue student loan debt. My mother died when I was in high school and my father dropped out of my life shortly thereafter, so no one challenged the decision to change my major to English during my senior year at the University of Arizona, an eleventh hour rebellion. After I graduated, however, I was forced to admit that my parents had been right: my bachelor’s degree seemed only to lead to low-paying clerical jobs; the few advertised writing positions in Tucson paid even less. I could rarely afford to buy meat, let alone pay for rent and student loans. Five years later, I moved to Seattle and maxed out the rest of my student loan borrowing capacity to earn a degree in graphic design, thinking that, combined with my English degree, it would lead me to a career in publishing. After graduation, finances remained lean, but eventually, I found better work that made occasional use of my writing skills although none of my jobs have ever included the title, Writer. Today, one could say that the American dream has proven true for me in an economic sense—I can buy meat as well as pay on my student loans—but as my time in the library played out, I questioned the choices that have brought me here, both on and off the stage.
Was I really a sell-out? Faced with a never-ending stream of people struggling for food and shelter, my creative angst, no matter how hard-won, seemed like a luxury. My time in the library also held up a mirror to my writing practice. First, I learned what a slow writer I am, one who dreads ugly first drafts more than blank pages. Where it typically took weeks to write a first draft of a short story or essay, here I had to create the same amount of content in days. Painful as it was to lay down sentences without polishing them, I realized that premature editing had become a means of procrastination and made for unevenness in my work. There was no time for that in the library; I had to follow my plot outline as best I could and not look back.
A Novel Performance also changed my idea of what was possible despite a full-time job, which I maintained throughout the installation. With only ten minutes to code switch on the bus between my office and library, I couldn’t wait for inspiration to strike, so I created a mental ritual to get into character. Beginning with the long escalator ride up from Fourth Avenue and ending in the back-of-house space where I wolfed down protein bars for dinner, I chanted, I am here to write, over and over in my mind. Once fortified, I emerged from backstage and ducked under the stanchion rope where I removed my laptop from its case, connected it to the screen, unzipped my boots and plugged in my headphones before tucking into the corner of my couch. Like Stations of the Cross, once completed, each step in order, I transformed into the novelist-in-residence.
I was surprised and a little embarrassed when the library bestowed this label on me. I feared that I’d be called out for my inexperience, but in time, the title became less about prestige or worth, and more of a demonstration that I was, indeed, a writer-in-residence simply by showing up every day to write. Still, as I began to embrace this role, I found that it came with a price: when passersby lingered to watch the screen, my fingers trembled and sentences often stopped dead in my mind. Strangers with opinions stood three feet away, their eyes poised on the monitor behind my head waiting for something brilliant to appear. I felt gutless for disappointing them when nothing did.
Soon, these observers influenced my work in other ways. Two weeks in, a teenager asked about my installation. She wanted to know the same thing that the woman with the suitcase did—how did I get to where I was?— so I told her about 4Culture, the organization that supported my project. As the Teen Center librarian helped her find the information online, I wondered how my life might have been different if I had received encouragement at her age; perhaps I would have made different choices—scarier and more fulfilling ones—if my parents had supported me in believing that I could. Suddenly, I saw that an artist’s responsibility is not only to make art but to light alternate paths for those who experience her work.
That Friday, as I passed 30,000 words, a gaggle of middle school boys pooled near the edge of the stage, trying to distract me. I recalled Green’s quote about shy writers, so I smiled coolly but without encouragement as they hooted and waved; I was on a roll but the little mongrels wouldn’t let me be. Finally, one boy gestured emphatically and shouted something until I removed my earbuds. “You’re not indenting! You’re supposed to indent!” he insisted, pointing vigorously at the screen.
“You’re right. I don’t indent,” I winked, feeling kind of badass—this was supposed to be fun, right? He jawed incredulously with his friends until I realized that I owed his teacher an apology. “But the writer in the library doesn’t indent!” he was sure to insist when she graded his next essay.
The following day, someone else tried to change my work, a woman who stopped me to note that I hadn’t capitalized the word, God. “It’s a proper noun. You’re referring to the one true God,” she argued.
“It’s only a rough draft,” I shrugged. Like the boys, she lingered at the stage, waiting for me to change my work because she said so. When I didn’t, she motioned in disgust but wouldn’t move away. Perhaps I was being stubborn, but I felt strongly against an observer’s right to alter my content. The woman’s persistence demonstrated to me, if in a small way, the influence that audiences can have on art, particularly serial works.
Despite my creativity coming under the intense, ongoing demand of daily word goals, I was surprised that my capacity for writing actually increased with time. People asked if I was ready to be finished, and I probably said yes, but the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. The accountability of showing up every day—my schedule was posted on the library’s website—helped to cement my commitment, but also protected it. It’s easy for a nights-and-weekends writer like me to pick laundry, errands or exercise over writing—chores that need to be done, after all, whereas writing is “just fun.” A Novel Performance offered me the opportunity to make a real commitment to my work, and ultimately changed my self-perception. By the third week of November, as I passed 60,000 words, when someone asked to speak with the novelist-in-residence, I learned to answer without blinking.
I also learned that I do not write by thinking, but think by writing. Jo Ann Beard once commented during a seminar that she lays down her work sentence by sentence, and that she doesn’t go back to edit because, “If the sentence wasn’t perfect when I wrote it, I wouldn’t have put it down.” She said that she continually re-works things in her head before she writes, a process that would have made for poor theater in my case. Perhaps I was also a little nuts. On Mondays, I hosted public question-and-answer sessions where I met a thirty-something woman in a black wool cloak and matching beret during my final week. She seemed normal enough except for her non-sequiturs about mental illness, which soon eclipsed our conversation; turns out, she was toying with writing a memoir about her own struggles and those of her family. Upon leaving, she thanked me and confessed her relief that I was, “a nice, normal person.”
“Why’s that?” I asked. Most days, I felt like the most average, boring person in the library.
“To be honest,” she confessed, a smirk hooking her full, red lips, “when I saw that you had moved your furniture into the library, I thought you might be crazy.” As she disappeared into the inky night, Seattle poet Richard Hugo came to mind, who best articulated my hopes for the installation: Writing is hard and writers need help. Oftentimes, watching someone do something crazy is all a person needs to take on a challenge in her own life. I hoped that my seemingly nutty enterprise inspired this woman to write; whether imagined or true, her story would make an excellent read.
The last weekend of my residency, two grade school girls—the age that Jennifer and I were when we first visited the library—tiptoed to the edge of the stage, watching my words appear on screen. Their arms linked, they shimmied with excitement as my sentences appeared one by one. Finally, I couldn’t resist; I paused to smile at them.
What’s the name of your book?” they whispered in unison, leaning forward.
“The Year of the Tiger,” I said.
“That is so cool!” they squealed, running back to their parents.
I remembered rushing home from the library at their age to dive into a fresh stack of books. Jennifer and I weren’t just going to be readers; we were going to be writers, too. Only a few years later, my parents began to encourage science over writing; after all, a person had to be very good to be a real writer, and even then, real writers didn’t make much money. These messages—that I might not be good enough, that writing didn’t pave a bright economic future, that security was more valuable than creativity—have haunted me since, canceling the possibility in my own mind of a viable career doing what I loved. Hearing the girls’ chipmunk chatter, I hoped that seeing me writing at the library would inspire them to believe they could be writers, too—that this is where taking chances could lead.
I was thirty-five before I took my first creative writing class, but I quickly became serious about writing, enrolling in craft workshops and professional practice courses. Eventually, I placed a few pieces in journals, but until my month in the library, I still hesitated to call myself a writer. Real writers have MFAs, agents, and publishers; they don’t have jobs that don’t involve real writing. In the end, A Novel Performance gave me a platform upon which I could push through my doubt and uncertainty—and the shy moments that John Green spoke of. Once I got going, I had no choice but to believe that I could meet the challenge of writing a novel, right there in public, an inner resolve I still carry today.
On the last day of A Novel Performance, people lingered near the stage as I began the final chapter. I wanted to explain that I was just banging out a bunch of brutalist prose, but instead I allowed the story to pour out of me, which it thankfully did. No one protested or tried to correct my work; they observed, nodded and walked on. My writing wasn’t yet beautiful or economical, but that was okay; for now, I was getting paid, albeit a small sum, to create something messy, imperfect, and real. That’s when I got it: being a writer is about leveraging life’s failures and learnings, big and small, into art that people can connect with. It’s also about reaching places that my practical side could never have imagined, such as earning the permission to call myself a writer after all these years.
All told, it took me twenty days to write 50,000 words, thus meeting the NaNoWriMo challenge, and another seven to reach a final word count of 70,355. Upon completing the first draft of a novel in a month, I concluded that what was actually crazy was trying to write in the dark without a supportive community, the way I had been for most of my life.
On the morning of November 30, 2014, I reinterred my living room in its rightful place and returned to the Central Library to take down my signage from the Fourth Avenue windows. Each night, I had closed my writing ritual by updating my increasing word count in white placards and the dwindling number of days in black. As I removed the signage, I thought of Jennifer, whose zeal for stories had invigorated my early literary life. It was no accident that, without an adult friend like her, my library patronage had dwindled; it is, of course, not only books but also people who make our libraries places to be. Once a building that I couldn’t even like, the Central Library had become a home that I loved, particularly due to the librarians—David, Andrea, Misha, and my patrons, Jared and Linda—who helped me see the importance of being physically present in our public libraries. The more distant we grow from these cultural commons, as many of my contemporaries have become, the farther apart we drift from each other as a people.
The day my installation came down, I arrived at the Central Library before noon where this new community awaited. I could have signaled to the guards to let me in before everyone else—I had to finish removing my signage after all—but I chose to stand with the crowd. Men loitered, talking and smoking amongst clustered families, the girls dressed in pinks and purples, the boys in green-and-blue Seahawks gear. Elderly women sat on benches while college students swayed under the weight of heavy backpacks, clouds of breath ringing their reddened cheeks. I recognized the regulars—the petite woman with penciled-in eyebrows who mumbled aloud to herself; two Latino men in hiking boots; a tall, thin man with a white, well-trimmed beard and round glasses who read the Seattle Times each day; and a soft-spoken gent in dreadlocks and a green military jacket who preferred popular fiction. Off stage, I was no longer anyone special, if I ever had been, just one of many who wanted to be warm inside where the staff welcomed me. When the security officers unlocked the doors at last, I shuffled forward, merging with the crowd. No one would refer to me as the novelist-in-residence anymore, but I was, at last, a novelist, if only in draft form.
When I moved to Seattle fourteen years ago, I could never have guessed that the Central Library would become part of the writing community I had long sought. Each story has its plot twists and lessons; the moral of mine, it seems, is that the library is indeed a place for all and, to my great fortune, this now includes me.
Feature photo and first photo provided by author. All other photos © Nick Spang.