Hit a Wall? Try Sleeping in the Library

Sometimes you have to take radical action to deal with an impasse in the writing process. For some that may involve long walks, hypnotherapy, workshops, or large doses of the self-medication of preference. For me, it involved moving into the library. 

No, really. Sleeping there, and everything. 

Luckily, I found a library willing to let me do that, in Wales, and within hours of my arrival I wondered why more libraries aren't offering this kind of experience to subsidize their existence.
I've been stuck for a very long time (*mumble, mumble* years, actually), while simultaneously feeling very homesick for England.

Deciding the two things might be related, I set off for my homeland, and while on a retreat with a friend in Wales I found out about Gladstone's Library, a residential library in the Welsh Marches, which houses the private collection of a Victorian Prime Minister noted for his intellectual curiosity. There, you can rent a room, get fed five times a day (if you want), and enjoy extended library privileges, such as almost round the clock access to the library and a relaxed borrowing system in the beautiful, collegiate surroundings of a Grade I listed building.

So how did this come about?

In a political career lasting over sixty years, William Ewart Gladstone served as Prime Minister four separate times, more than any other person in British history. He was also Chancellor of the Exchequer four times, a great orator, a potent political mind, and a famous enemy of not only Disraeli, but by extension, Queen Victoria, too. Yet he was a magnificent bibliophile, and his estate in Wales boasted one of the world's largest personal libraries.

After his death in 1898, Gladstone's main request in his will was the completion of a building intended as an inspirational meeting place for people to engage in debate, research, and discovery. It is now home to over 250,000 volumes on theology, politics, history, and the humanities, as well as an impressive collection on Islamic culture, curated by the current Warden, Peter Francis.

Not only that, but the nearby castle ruins set in rolling Welsh countryside provide an extremely pleasant way to rest one's eyes after a long day in the library.
For the first couple of days I reveled in the Hogwarts-style atmosphere and deep sense of peace. I loved being able to run down the rabbit warren of corridors from my room under the eaves to the deserted, glowing library to grab a copy of the Mabinogion and The Way of Awen to read in bed. At 10 pm. In my owl pyjamas. But I still couldn't make any progress. There was a block in my mind.

The library at dusk
In the morning I had breakfast with the Warden, the Chaplain, two American professors, and a writer-in-residence who is working on a book on weather. The writer told me, "I find, when I'm stuck, that I can usually get going again by reading with focus." Taking his advice to heart, I searched for my current field of interest (magic, faith, and myth in Elizabethan England) on the Library's online catalogue. Most of the books were in the stacks, readily available; but one, the private diary of Elizabeth I's court alchemist, Dr John Dee, would have to be requested from the vaults. 

Back in my room, books scattered over the bed, I snuggled under a woolen blanket (even though the attic room was cozy and warm) and delved in. And the ideas came thick and fast. 
I covered the walls of my room in post-its. I scribbled in notebooks. 

I walked in the Chapel's grounds and gathered character names from the gravestones. 

The view of the graveyard from my room

I visited an ancient well, reputed to have healing properties, and begged St Winifrede to help me sort out the mess in my mind (yep, I was desperate).

St Winifrede's Well
I visited a spa within walking distance of the library and floated in water for half an hour.

Cherry Floatation Centre

Feeling a bit out of myself by this time—half in this world and half in another one entirely—I found a deep leather chair by the fire in the Common Room and steeped myself in the Mabinogion (the Welsh source of the Arthurian tales), and began to find connections between Merlin and Dr Dee and Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, fortified by a bottle of Fentiman's Traditional Victorian Lemonade. 

Fireside heaven

And it came to me. What I was trying to say. Where I'm going. What my teenage boy protagonist's journey must be. And how the girl he meets will complicate it. 

During the hearty meals served as the chapel bells tolled the appointed hours, I shared my progress with fellow residents, and found that the act of articulating things to someone who knew nothing about what I was writing helped enormously to focus and consolidate my ideas.

Discussions in the Common Room

Their questions led me to new avenues of discovery, and by that evening I realized I'd made a crack in the wall between my self and my writing. A celebratory glass of wine was in order.

The Gladstone Room

Reading, and removing the noise of the outside world in an academic environment, helped me. I know it's not the whole answer—that will require sustained effort on my part—but after a week here I now feel familiar with that hypnotically peaceful state of mind, and believe I will know how to find it again.

My desk in the library, overlooking the front quad
Besides, if I ever lose sight of it again, I have only to return to the Library.

The Theology Room
I know I was incredibly lucky to be able to come here, and that we can't all rush off to Wales whenever we get stuck, but I can't help wondering why there aren't more residential libraries like this.

Do you know of any places like this in the States?

And if there was one near you, would you go?

LIA KEYES is represented by Laura Rennert, of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

A British expat, she's currently finishing a fantasy adventure for young adults. You can find links to her online haunts on her website.

Lia's other musings


I would sign up in a heartbeat! Am now planning a trip to Wales...

Hurray! I'll join you there, if I can...

Utterly! An experience I'll never forget.

Oh, I love this post, Lia. LOVE. I've been to Wales before, but only saw a few places and would love to return. This library sound divine, and it sounds like your experience gave you some terrific inspiration and brainstorming.

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