It is September 25, 2014. I am at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, which was established in 1910 and is based on the collections of David Scott Mitchell, Australia’s first and greatest collector of Australiana — items of historical or cultural interest of Australian origin. It has more than 800,000 items, books mostly, but also a variety of literature in other formats like CD ROMs, pamphlets, government reports, performances, sheet music, even invitations and menus. If you’re researching anything Australian, be it historical or contemporary, this is the place to spend most of your time in. The Mitchell Library is part of the State Library in New South Wales, which dates back to 1826.
No, I didn’t end up here because I was researching about Australia. After coming to Sydney, I signed up for various writers’ meet-up groups. Members of one group, called ‘Write Together’, assemble in this remarkably quiet Mitchell Library room on alternate Thursday evenings and write in absolute silence for a couple of hours. And this is what they and I are doing right now.
The organiser of this group is a young girl who works as a data analyst and is passionate about writing. Caitlyn is writing three books currently, yes simultaneously. Her science fiction fantasy novel with 130 characters appears to be the centre of her attention these days.
Dr Christine Williams, who is the author of several biographical books and a number of short stories, organises another such group, ‘Sydney Writers Circle’, but the members don’t just write quietly there — certainly not in silence as the meetings take place in a pleasant, and at times noisy, cafe at Redfern, a Sydney suburb. She shows each of the participants an image, an illustration or an unfinished sentence, then off they go scribbling or typing. It feels like a race sometimes. I often find myself getting frustrated over the time my laptop takes to be switched on. With a pen, I can only fill out forms as my handwriting is so poor. Then, Dr Williams shares her feedback. Next, the members share their manuscripts/writings followed by a critique and advice session. Dr Williams teaches memoir classes and her books are published not only in Australia, but also in England and India.
While toiling with my writing, I ended up writing a scene for one of my many fantasised short films. That felt good. Writing is so pleasurable when it’s effortless. It is so frustrating when you are trying too hard. I think the cause of my recent writer’s block was that I was trying too hard.
The story of the impressive Mitchell Library would be incomplete if I didn’t talk about another library I spent a few hours in. Located in the suburbs, a couple of kilometres from my place, it has a very hospitable and friendly staff. The library has quite a large collection of books from many genres, placed neatly on the well-organised shelves. I didn’t see anyone going near them though, or any of the library books on any table. Instead, there were food, cans and very loud conversations. This was also the place where I heard people talking in Urdu.
This led me to ponder over the fact that there are contrasts like this everywhere. In every city of the world perhaps, be it Australia; be it Pakistan. In the DHA library, in the pricey neighbourhood of Karachi, it’s very quiet and nice too, very library-like. Whereas the Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai Library in Old Golimar — now almost a slum in Karachi — was not as calm and peaceful a place when it was functioning as a library.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2014.