We’re delighted to welcome Susan Stinson back to the LAIP this week to continue her series on her experience as the Writer-in-Residence at Forbes Library!  Susan’s latest novel was just released from Small Beer Press, and here she shares her emotional connection to the library and her experience of writing and researching there. Read on to learn more about this wonderful program that both supports local authors and deepens library service.  It’s a fantastic model! ~Erinn

Susan Stinson web and Religious Affections photo by Jeep Wheat

Susan Stinson web and “Religious Affections.” Photo by Jeep Wheat

by Susan Stinson

One summer when I was writing my most recent novel, I worked in the library every day. This was before I became writer in residence here.  I didn’t know more about what was going on at the library than the average patron, but there was no missing the fact that they were rearranging the books. My book is about Northampton in the time of eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards, and I frequently referred to the volumes of the Works of Jonathan Edwards that I had found on the shelves. The books had been published by Yale University Press ever since the 1950s. They were thick volumes in faded white or powder blue covers, or in black with gold lettering if the cover was gone. I was having intense aesthetic and emotional experiences with the contents of these books.  Feeling intensely grateful to the librarians who had made sure that the books were there when I needed them, I often rose from the desk by the window where I liked to write and walked down the stacks to refer to them. When, one afternoon, I got up to find one, and discovered that the whole familiar line-up of books I needed was gone, what I felt was rage.

I am grateful for the books, for the generosity of the library. And zeal?  Oh yes. Fiction matters. Ask me why, and get ready for a rant.

In his treatise “Religious Affections,” JE (I call him JE) writes, “The Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.”  His defense of strong emotion in religious life was central to his theology, especially as it was expressed in the religious revivals that swept the colonies in the 1740s. Although my own emotional volatility might have been influenced by being immersed in trying to imagine the inner lives of those caught up in such revivals, I’m far from alone among writers in having mysteriously strong feelings in libraries.

Works of Jonathan Edwards shelves Mezzanine Forbes Library photo by Jeep Wheat

Works of Jonathan Edwards shelves Mezzanine Forbes Library. Photo by Jeep Wheat

I’m far from alone among writers in having mysteriously strong feelings in libraries.

Susan Stinson light from book photo by Jeep Wheat

Susan Stinson, writing in light. Photo by Jeep Wheat

Here are some of the feelings that being in the library arouses in me. Passing through stacks of books fills me with desire: to read, to write, to have written. Sometimes I envy books, for how good or how popular they are. I am afraid that books are losing their place in the culture, that even the most beloved of books will pass into another media that isn’t such an intimate part of my own history. I am shaken with hope for what I might experience in reading, and what a book might do in the minds of the world. I pull a book from the shelf, openly, freely, sit, and read. This is joy. Not always, though. There are books I hate. I work with other writers in the library, and we often hear each other making sorrow into language. Myself, I think I feel more sorrow when I try to express something, and find that I cannot. I am grateful for the books, for the generosity of the library. And zeal?  Oh yes. Fiction matters. Ask me why, and get ready for a rant.

The Jonathan Edwards books that I needed weren’t really gone that day, of course. They were a few feet away on another shelf. They were moved once or twice more that summer, until they finally went up half a floor to the mezzanine, where now I walk past them on my way to the writing room twice a week. The anger I felt at having them temporarily elude me when I wanted them to stay in one place was completely irrational. I knew it at the time. I don’t think that the range of feelings I experience in a library is any more intense than that of most writers I know who work or browse there. All of the heat brought on by the powerful, suggestive presence of so many books generates writing. It generates light.

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Susan Stinson photo  by Jeep Wheat highresolution (2)Susan Stinson is the author of four novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays.   Her work has appeared in anthologies from Ballantine Books, NYU Press and Scholastic Books, and in many periodicals, including The Common, Early American Studies, and Kenyon Review. She has received numerous awards and honors, including Lambda Literary Foundation’s Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. Currently Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, she is also a freelance editor, a writing coach, and regularly gives cemetery tours. Her most recent novel, Spider in a Tree (Small Beer, October 2013), is about eighteenth century Northampton in the time of theologian, preacher and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. Alison Bechdel has called it “a revelation.”  Spider is also a Publishers Weekly pick as one of the  “Big Indie Books of Fall 2013.”  Susan can be found at home online at susanstinson.net.

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