Reflections on being a writer in residence

A shorter version of this article was published in Metro Edmonton on Dec. 20, 2013.

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An Instagram from my first day on the job – January 2, 2013.

I can’t believe the year is over. It feels like just yesterday I arrived in my Edmonton Public Library office, said something scandalous about books and clutter, and then had to recover from that gaffe on my first day.

It’s been an incredible year as one of two Metro Federation of Library writers in residence. When I became the Edmonton Public Library’s 2013 writer-in-residence in January, a little girl asked, “Does that mean you live in the library?”

Not quite, I told her. Though there were some long stretches of writing in my office when I wished I could just roll out a sleeping bag and dream my story’s problems away.

What the library writers-in-residence do is help nurture other storytellers with mentorship, feedback and public programming, while nurturing their own stories with the time and space the library provides. I will miss that.

In twelve months I probably saw 100 writers of shorts, novels, plays, journalism, whatever.  I said yes as much as possible and relished the variety of manuscripts cascaded across my desk. The range of interest was broad, the range of talent was expansive, but the passion for storytelling was always consistent. Meanwhile, I worked on improving my own writing, specifically my first-person journalism.

It allowed me to tell stories about rogue restaurants, elusive billionaires and ambivalent millennials. The one I’m most proud of, and which I worked on longest, is a story in Eighteen Bridges about Eddy Haymour, a controversial modern folk hero. Without the residency, I would not have had the space and time to complete the copious research and travel to tell this story right. So needless to say, I’m eternally grateful to the writer in residence program.

I want to extend my thanks to Natasha Deen, the keenest writer I’ve ever met, who would need a rocket launcher to keep up with, and the Metro Federation of Libraries committee: Librarians Michelle Papineau-Couture, Stacey Wenger, Lori Purvis, Sally Neal, Anna-Marie Klassen. I especially want to thank Mona Bacon, a member of that committee and whom I worked closely with at the EPL. (She’s burgeoning author herself – check her out in Prairie Fire.) Above all, I offer my gratitude to the staff and especially librarians at EPL.

The Edmonton area is lucky to have two new writers in residence bringing different skills and passions to their respective offices, Margaret MacPherson, who’ll be stationed in the bedroom communities, and Jason Lee Norman, who takes over my office at the EPL. I’ve already told Jason where the best bathrooms are in the building, so he’s halfway settled.

Friday, Dec. 20th, as I packed up my Canadian Oxford Dictionary and made room for him, I looked back at my year and thought about what I’d miss the most. The office was a luxury and the writers were inspirational, but it’s watching the modern library in action that I’ll miss the most.

That libraries aren’t just about books and reading anymore has become a tired truism.

I never saw a librarian shush a talky patron. That too is an old cliché. But I have watched a librarian help a grandmother contact her grandkids on Facebook; organize a community group meeting; and borrow change from the staff coffee jar so that a down-on-his-luck man would have bus fare for a job interview.

One librarian I met at the Lois Hole branch even helped a Nigerian immigrant bring his daughter to Canada because he struggled to understand the paperwork. She thought it was her duty to succeed where customs had failed him.

“There has always been an element of social work to my job,” she told me.

Seeing librarians at work, and this institutional evolution, has been fascinating and humbling, especially at the Stanley Milner branch.

It’s no secret that from the minute the downtown library opens to the second it closes, it’s a home to the homeless. But this, too, is only a small picture. Truly, the central branch is the city’s most egalitarian space, a place that nobody is too rich, or too poor, or too uneducated or too privileged to need.

One-hundred years ago, the Edmonton Public Library was born with a simple goal to make knowledge democratic. In its centennial year, it continued to reinterpret what that means by adding a makerspace, a video game lounge and an outreach worker for youth.

Some might say that this is the library trying to stay relevant in a digital age, but in fact libraries have never been more popular and never been more relevant.

In our hyper-consumerist society, we’re running out of free public spaces. Edmonton’s public parks are only hospitable for half the year and at our many malls there’s pressure to spend. But without asking you to open your wallet—not even to retrieve a membership card—the library allows you to access all its resources, whether it’s a computer, book or resident writer.

To have spent a year playing a small piece in the library’s mandate, to share, is a privilege. But the best thing it shares is its space.

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