“No writer should be without a Very Large dictionary.” – Priscilla Long
On a bitter cold Tuesday afternoon when hat, scarf, gloves, and wool coat were not enough to keep the icy air out of my bones, I popped four quarters in a meter in downtown Blacksburg, bent my head to the needling wind, and strode across the Virginia Tech campus. It was my artist’s day out, and I wanted to spend it in the four-story Newman library.
I volunteered in our son’s classroom that morning, and now I had two hours to myself before I needed to be home to meet the bus. After I picked up the books I had reserved – two novels set in Alabama that are not in our county library collection – I bustled, coat over my arm, scarf around my neck but tangled in the strap of my now heavy tote, over to the reference librarian. As they always do when I sit on the oak stool, he smiled at me, delighted to have a visitor.
I smiled back. I read an author once who gushed about his reference librarian, how skilled she was in digging up materials, how he couldn’t have written his novel without her. I thought that sounded lovely, the author-librarian bond, and thanks to that writer’s story, I overcame my fear that I might be bothering a librarian who has more important things to do than answer questions I could (eventually) solve myself. Well, the novelist’s story, and the fact that I have very limited time these days. If a librarian can find something in five minutes that it might take me five days to find, I’ll ask the librarian.
“I have several questions for you,” I said, and stuffed my wool hat into my purse then bent to collect the books that spilled from my tote when I set it on the floor.
“I’m working on a project and I’m trying to figure out the best way to approach my research for it.” He clasped his hands on the desk between us and waited.
“I want to read my way through the United States, and I’d like to read three works of fiction from each state: one by a man, one by a woman, and one by a non-Caucasian author.” He raised his bushy white eyebrows. “I started in Alabama, and finding male and female authors was no problem, but they were both white, and when I tried to find a minority author, I had a really hard time. I mean, it’s Alabama! The population is 26% African American,” (I checked) “so why is it so hard to find an African American author?”
He swiveled in his chair and started typing into his search engine. “Well, you can certainly search by state in our system – just type in ‘fiction Alabama’ for instance – but,” he traced the author names with his finger. There was no telling what ethnicity they were. “You’re going to have to do the legwork with the authors.” I thought as much. Perhaps if I cross referenced with “fiction Native American” or ” fiction African American.” But that wasn’t my main reason for being there, so I moved on.
“What about literary prizes? Do you know of any resource that might have, say, Pulitzer or National Book Award winners mapped out? A map with ‘pins’ in it reporting where each author is from?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
“Hmm. Maybe I need to create that resource.”
“Yes, please do,” he smiled, “and then sell it to us.” He reached behind his computer terminal and his hand emerged holding an ecru business card. The card was embossed with a maroon Virginia Tech logo, just like my husband’s card is. “This is our librarian who specializes in literature and the humanities. She may be able to help you figure out a strategy.”
My eyes opened wide, as did my mouth, as I accepted the small card. A literature reference librarian! The resources I was unearthing! I had only recently discovered, thanks to local Twitter friends, that though I am not a student at Virginia Tech, my status as a resident of Virginia grants me access to the University libraries and all of their riches.
I closed my mouth and uncrumpled my list, which had been crushed in the bottom of my tote. “Okay, where might I find literary journals?” I scanned the vast space around me, then moved my eyes to the ceiling, above which I knew there were two more floors of stacks.
“Do you have a specific title you’re looking for?”
“The Georgia Review.”
He tapped his keyboard, told me where to find the current volumes (fourth floor), then turned to me for my final question. The real reason I was there.
“I’m looking for a Very Large dictionary,” I said.
His mouth twitched and his eyes glittered. “Do you want to carry one around,” he swept his arm to indicate the whole of the library, “Or do you want to sit with one?”
I’ve joined a writing group – not a critique group, but a practice group – and our homework this week was to play with words. We are working from Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, and the exercise I chose for myself from the first chapter, which covers gathering words, sound-effects, and verbs, was to inscribe a working title on the cover of my new composition book, and before I began sketching ideas, before I began drafting, I was to create a word trap for the piece. I would Find Good Words. I would list 50 to100 juicy nouns and verbs I might want to use in the piece. And I wanted to do that using a Very Large dictionary, which I do not yet possess.
“I just want to spend some time with a big dictionary,” I told him, and rubbed my hand across the cover of my new composition book, on which I had written “Sun on my skin.”
The librarian stood and walked to the shelf behind him. He bent sideways to read titles, then pulled a yellow-bound, 4 inch thick tome. I stood and began slinging bags over my shoulder so that my hands would be free. He held the heavy volume in both hands, and presented it to me like a gift.
“Thank you,” I said, and my arms dipped under its weight.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and smiled again. “Have fun with your dictionary.”
I trudged, laden, to a table barely ten feet away (I didn’t want to waste time hiking all over the library), heaved the huge volume open, then turned the pages in chunks til I got to S. I paged through to sun, read for a few seconds, and began scribbling. From sun I flipped to sun rays, then solar. I read definitions, scanned for succulent words, chicken-scratched into my notebook while my eyes drank the dictionary. Summer, sunshine, sunbaked, sunback. I studied and scrawled and riffled and wrote, lured by the glistening gossamer of word strands. Beach, shore, sand, salt. Grit, splash zone, sandbar, surf. I wrote sunbrowned, ruffled pages to tanned. Became ensnared by the idea of the sun as a tanner. Turned to tawny, hide, leather, skin. Paged to skin and saw epidermis, and – ooh! sebaceous! – then sweat, then swelter, then sizzle, then prickle. Then sunburnt. And blistered. And speckled. And freckled.
I was about to heave back to the beginning of the Very Large dictionary, I was about to leaf to cancer, when my phone vibrated on the table. Wha? Then the telltale sound of crickets.
My phone alarm.
Crap! My meter! I slammed the 4 inch tome shut (taking care to smooth the pages first), dashed it the ten feet to the reference librarian, thanked him again, then tripped over my bags in my rush to re-dress. Hat (yank), scarf (wrap), coat (where’s the damn arm hole?). Shoved spilled books back into tote. Slung bags over shoulder. Jerked my mom’s leather gloves on while my boot heels rapped a staccato on the vinyl tiles.
I clanked open the building’s heavy door and cold air rushed in. I braced myself and launched through the exit. I barely escaped in time.
I found a title set in Alabama by an African American author, Albert Murray, and will soon be moving on to Alaska in my reading adventure. If you know of any great fiction set there, please let me know. I’ve only got one title so far – The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Likewise, if you have favorite fiction set in a specific state, please share your titles with me. I’d love your help with suggestions. Thanks!