Next up in Writing Lessons is Josh Hanagarne, author of the marvelous book, The World’s Strongest Librarian. If you don’t know the book, you will. It’s getting a lot of well-earned attention. After reading this, I think you’ll agree you need to read more. Here is Josh on one of my favorite topics – the first draft. He is part of a group of fine writers you will meet here, all of whom are going to teach us a thing or two about writing memoir. Each entry in Writing Lessons includes a piece on how to write memoir, an excerpt, and a chance to win the featured book. Read to the end for more.
The First Draft
by Josh Hanagarne
Nearly every time I give a talk, when I open it up for questions, someone asks: “What was it like writing about people in your life, and how have they reacted?”
Fortunately, all of the stories (or at least those in the final version) I tell about my family, my wife, and some of my close friends who appear in The World’s Strongest Librarian are positive. My closest friends and relatives are the heroes of the story, which made it easier to write about them.
But when I was writing my first draft, every time I needed to write about someone I’m close to, I came close to freezing up, worrying in advance about how they’d feel.
Am I being too harsh/nice/flippant/glib?
Is this really how it happened?
Would they remember this the same way?
Is this going to ruin a friendship?
Could this hurt my family in any way?
Will this embarrass someone?
Does this particular anecdote really move the overall story along?
These are valid questions that every memoirist should consider, but ultimately I found that they weren’t questions that were pertinent to my rough, raw, abominable first draft.
I had a choice: I could either write, make the mess, and then clean it up later, or I could obsess about details that didn’t matter yet and not get anything done.
Also, I didn’t quite know what the story was yet, or how the structure would work. And of course I continued to live my life during the writing of the book, so the story changed in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
So during the first draft, I included everything I thought might be relevant. Most of it wasn’t. But I didn’t ask permission from anyone during the first draft. I didn’t double-check with family to see if they remembered things the same way I did. I didn’t worry about anything but getting it—whatever it was—down on paper so I could then take a look at what I had.
Once I had that initial mess, things were clearer. I knew who I needed to talk to about their involvement in my story, and I knew which questions to ask them. I had a better idea about what the overall story was, which made many of the questions I could have asked myself, pre-first-draft, totally irrelevant.
During the second draft—and third, and fourth, and and and—I approached everyone I need to and we compared notes. And because of the work that had come before, I could explain my choices to them, which made it all pretty slick.
If anyone reading this struggles with memoir, my suggestion and advice and encouragement would be this:
These details and questions will all matter. But they might not matter yet! The priority has to be words appearing on the page. Anything that cancels that production, particularly in the first draft, is noise you don’t need. Not yet.
The World’s Strongest Librarian, an excerpt
Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through. The building moved. It breathed. It seethed with bodies and thoughts moving in and out of people’s heads. Mostly out.
“You tall bigot!”
I stopped and wondered if these two words had ever been put next to each other. The odds were astronomical; even someone with my primitive math skills knew this. I laughed, which didn’t help the situation, which was this: A guy wearing a jaunty red neckerchief had walked by the reference desk, yelling about the “motherfucking Jews and lesbians on the Supreme Court.” I had asked him to lower his voice and voilà! Now I was a tall bigot…the worst kind of all.
“What are you, some kind of Jew?” he sputtered. I’ve never seen someone so enraged. I wondered what he’d do if he knew I’d been raised Mormon.
Maybe he was mad because he couldn’t find the anti-Semitism section. The library has a robust collection of what I call non-cuddly hate lit. This is one of my favorite things about working here: If you believe censorship is poison, here lies paradise. We have sections on anti-Mormonism, anti-Semitism, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-atheism, anti-God, anti-feminism, pro-gay…there’s something to offend everyone.
Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed the Salt Lake City Public Library, won numerous awards for his vision and technical derring-do. He thought big, appropriately, because a building that can hold 500,000 books is enormous. The number of items circulating each hour is rivaled only by the number of people napping in the corners. But nothing is as impressive as the way the building looks. I work in a beautiful building made almost entirely of glass. Seen from the air, it looks like the Nike Swoosh if it got frightened and began to cower.
An older librarian—one of the few other males—once said to me, “Whatever we deal with, coming here is always a visual reward.” This statement is poetic, accurate, and maddening. Because most of the time it feels like people show up just to fight about something with total strangers like me. Which is fine. I’m not here for the good company.
One of the reasons I work here is because I have extreme Tourette Syndrome.* The kind with verbal tics, sometimes loud ones; the kind that draws warning looks. Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally can’t sit still. Who can’t shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity.
A patron recently took exception to a series of throat clearings I couldn’t suppress. As he approached, I put on my customer service smile and readied myself for one of those rare, mind-blowing reference transactions that I hear about from other librarians. Instead this man said, “If you’re going to walk around honking like a royal swan, you don’t belong in the library. I’m going to call security. Somebody needs to teach you a lesson.”
I stood up. I’m six feet seven inches tall, and I weigh 260 pounds. “Is it you?” I’m not confrontational, but I don’t lose many staring contests. I’m good at looming when it’s helpful. He walked away.
I also work here because I love books, because I’m inveterately curious, and because, like most librarians, I’m not well suited to anything else. As a breed, we’re the ultimate generalists. I’ll never know everything about anything, but I’ll know something about almost everything and that’s how I like to live.
Earlier today a young woman asked me to help her find a book about how to knit lingerie. This is the sort of question library school recruiters should feature in their dreary PowerPoint presentations, not claptrap about how we’re the “stewards of democracy.” They would definitely attract more males to the profession. When I arrived in my library department two years ago, the alpha male was a sixty-six-year-old woman.
On our way to the lingerie section—yes, the official subject heading is Lingerie, call number 646.42—I tripped over another young woman who was lying on the floor beneath a blanket, nestled between two rows of law books. I’m thirty-five years old and it both relieves and elates me to know I can still be surprised.
“I’m sleeping here!” she yelled.
I’m rarely at a loss for words outside the library. But within its walls I’m required to form sentences that no logical person should ever have to utter, for instance, “You can’t sleep on the floor at the library under your blanket.”
“I don’t snore!” she said, gripping her blanket with both hands, as if I might snatch it away.
“I’m sure you don’t,” I said. “That’s not the point.”
“Well, there’s no other point!”
This was an occasion when my need to be right didn’t feel that important. I made a phone call. Security interrupted her derailed slumber and led her out of the building. And stay out, I pictured them yelling, tossing the blanket after her, where it would be swept into traffic by a sudden gust of wind.
I felt a twinge of envy. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a nap. I’ll admit to often feeling sleepy in the library. Most of the time, in fact. The building was constructed with the ability to save power and warm itself, so the glass walls make it difficult to find an area that isn’t bathed by soporific sunbeams. I briefly considered lying down on the floor between Black’s Law Dictionary and the Morningstar investment guides. Someone would probably report me, but I might be imposing enough to buy myself a power nap. Then someone came to the desk for help and the plan ended before it began.
I really want someone to ask me a question that is not “How many times can I fall asleep in here before I get kicked out?” I really want this building to serve the purpose for which it was intended—as a breeding ground for curiosity.
I work on Level 3. If you’re on my floor you’re probably looking for information about Bigfoot; the healing powers of crystals, self-help, or psychology; you’re trying to expunge something from your record and need the law section; you need to lose weight; you heard that people make money on the Internet; you need to summon some pixies; you want to get into hat-making; you can’t sight your rifle; you’re sick of the Jews; you’re sick of the people who won’t shut up about being sick of the Jews; you’re looking for a Bible; or you’re cramming for the SAT. Unless you’re just looking for a place to sleep, in which case I’d direct you to any of the comfortable chairs laid out around the perimeter, out of my direct line of sight. And if you’re hooking up with your drug dealer, that’s usually conducted in the restrooms.
Later this morning, something actually happened that didn’t require me to wake someone up or tell him to watch porn at home. An African American man asked me if the Hutu tribe in Rwanda had any Jewish ancestry. What a fascinating question. We started hunting through the library’s incredibly expensive, underpromoted, and underused research databases. After an hour we realized that the question was bigger than we could complete during one session, but he had enough leads to pursue on his own. We’d forgotten that the rest of the world existed as we leaned over my computer and hurried to and fro in the stacks grabbing books.
As always, many patrons wanted to research their genealogy. I always wonder why. Were they trying to discover whether they might have an inheritance coming to them? Being kept from them? Researching the people who led to their own genetic impairments? I have Tourette Syndrome because of some combination of my parents’ crazy innards. His genes met hers and said, “Hey, let’s get stupid!” I can’t blame them for not knowing any better. If there’s a memo out there that says Never cross a Navajo and a Mormon or you’ll create a twitchy baby who will be a burden forever, they never got it.
At lunch, many of the librarians lurched up to the staff room and fell onto chairs and couches with their books and magazines. Librarians as a rule move about as well as the Tin Man did before Dorothy brought him the oilcan. Their heads often sit so far forward on their necks that they look like woodpeckers frozen in mid-peck. Their shoulders are rounded from answering the phone, typing, eating, and reading. Their hands at rest inevitably rotate into the typing position. They spend so much time looking down at computers and into books and talking down to people from their tall desks that it’s become an unnatural effort to raise their eyes to make eye contact during conversation.
I move quite well, partly because during my lunch break, I go downstairs to the library’s diminutive fitness room, wrap my hands in thin, well-seasoned leather strips to protect them, and bend horseshoes. I’m also working on the goal of deadlifting six hundred pounds, but I do that outside the library walls. The sound of six hundred pounds hitting the ground is serious. Dropping that much weight in the basement of the library would echo up to the top floor and wake everyone up. When I hit a snag, I call my coach, a man named Adam.
Adam is a former air force tech sergeant, an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and the sort of hard-ass who describes poor haircuts as “a lack of personal excellence,” even though his hair is currently poufy and awful and makes him look like a Dragon Ball Z character.
He has the entire poem, all sixteen lines, of “Invictus” by William Henley tattooed on his left arm.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
More on him later.
After lunch a teenage boy with chains crisscrossing his pants slumped into the library, limping as if he’d stepped into a bear trap. He needed some books for school, he told me, “Books that aren’t all gay and shit.” I’d love to have a sign demarcating that section. We probably need another one for the child abuse books. The teenagers love that stuff. One of our most popular books is a memoir about child abuse: A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer. I tried to read it once and was too unsettled by the second chapter to ever pick it up again. But the teens can’t seem to get enough of it.
I can always tell the kids who’ve been sent to the library to find a book from some teacher’s boring reading list. They trudge in with their eyes on the carpet, breathing hard with annoyance. Many of these kids will do anything to avoid talking to us. Many of these kids have never said anything to me besides, “Yeah, I have to read this book called Johnny Tremain.” Kids who want to read Pelzer’s book practically jump on top of my desk in their eagerness to read about a child being mistreated. We should probably just give up and order a hundred more copies of A Child Called “It.”
After helping the kid find the not-gay section, I watched another patron vomit into a garbage can.
“Pardon me, sir,” I said. “Could you make it to the restroom?”
“I’m fine here,” he said.
I did lots of dusting. I focused on the tops of shelves that only the very tall can see. I helped a delightful elderly woman with an unidentifiable accent create an e-mail account on the public computers. When I asked her what she liked to read—I can’t figure out how to quit asking this question of total strangers—she said, “I enjoy the nakedest of romances.”
There was some excitement in the afternoon. We had a break in a two-year-old mystery. Someone has been waging a war against the harmless 133s. Occultism. Crystals. Sylvia Browne. Summoning pixies safely—yes, there is apparently a wrong way to do it. Energy fields. Enneagrams. Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey. Angels. Satan. These books have been vanishing.
One day a shelver spotted a shelf that was wrenched open at the bottom. In the hollow underneath it was a bunch of Wicca books and the timeless classic Witch in the Bedroom: Proven Sensual Magic. When we looked under the other shelves, we found a couple hundred books that had been hidden. We pretended to be outraged—this was censorship!—but it was hilarious. I wanted to know who was doing it, and how.
When we put the books back on the shelves, they vanished again. Replacement copies disappeared as well, sometimes within an hour. I’d taken to patrolling the perimeter every ten minutes, determined to apprehend the crooks and thank them for entertaining me so well—and to remind them that there were a few Sylvia Browne books on the shelves that they’d missed. We found no one.
But today a shelver saw two men raising the bottom shelves! They escaped. We investigated and found dozens of missing books. Now we’re trying to figure out how to entice the shelf-secreters back and trap them. I suggested leaving some books about Stonehenge and the Mayan calendar strewn about as bait. I long to shake the hand of the man or woman who scuttled Accepting the Psychic Torch out of sight, out of mind, out of reach, in the dust below the bookshelves.
I can’t imagine the monks in the libraries of yore dealing with this nonsense. Waking people up, encouraging them to view porn, vomit, and procure drugs elsewhere. Sure, those monks had to condemn Jews and lesbians, but they didn’t attend patron education workshops because there were no patrons, only themselves. Beyond the occasional visit from a grand inquisitor, they were left alone to use the libraries as they were meant to be used.
The purpose of libraries—to organize and provide information—hasn’t changed. They’re billed as the Poor Man’s University. (Many librarians also bill them as the Poor Man’s Day Care or the Poor Man’s Urinal.) I love working here because the reasons behind libraries are important to me.
The public library contains multitudes. And each person who visits contains multitudes as well. Each of us is a library of thoughts, memories, experiences, and odors. We adapt to one another to produce the human condition.
Libraries have shaped and linked all the disparate threads of my life. The books. The weights. The tics. The harm I’ve caused myself and others. Even the very fact that I’m alive. How I handle my Tourette’s. Everything I know about my identity can be traced back to the boy whose parents took him to a library in New Mexico even before he was born.
The library taught me that I could ask any questions I wanted and pursue them to their conclusions without judgment or embarrassment.
And it’s where I learned that not all questions have answers.
Excerpted from THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN by Josh Hanagarne. Copyright (c) 2013 by Josh Hanagarne. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
About the Author
Josh Hanagarne is the author of The World’s Strongest Librarian. A librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library, he battles his own case of Tourette Syndrome and works to help others. He believes in curiosity, questions, strength, and that things are never so bad they can’t improve. Josh’s popular blog, World’s Strongest Librarian, currently gets more than 80,000 visitors each month. Josh lives with his wife Janette, a professor of history at Eagle Gate College, and his son Max in Salt Lake City, Utah.
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons, this week with the great Priscilla Gilman and her take on what to leave in and what to take out of your memoir writing.
The winner of Josh Hanagarne’s fine book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, is Linda Segrest. Congratulations, Linda! I’ll be in touch to send your book.