Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Learning to Write, Writing to Learn – For Free

Look to the adage, "There's more than one way to skin a cat," if you believe you can't afford to study writing. Learning how to write—not just getting ideas and putting things together, but developing your own style—can be free, or nearly so.

First off, read. Writers shouldn't forgo that experience in the rush to put together their own work. Notice the way authors tell their stories, what voices they use, how they use dialogue and plot to move forward. Notice what works for you, as a reader, and what does not. There are a couple of good books out there—one of them is "Reading Like a Writer" by Francine Prose—to help you read effectively.

Writing fiction and nonfiction differ, so read in the genre you've chosen. Jane Smiley (Pulitzer-winning author of "A Thousand Acres") published "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel." In it, she explored novel writing from the perspective of a writer who is also an avid reader. Many authors have written engagingly about their craft, so if you find yourself liking a book, search the internet for the author and see what they have written. You may find a great craft book, such as Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird," Stephen King's "On Writing," Elizabeth George's "Write Away" or—to read less about more writers—The New York Times compilation of "Writers [on Writing]" essays by several dozen writers about their craft, originally published in the Times.

What else is out there? As much as one can imagine—just look for it. Library shelves (in the nonfiction, 800 numbers section) often have books about writing. At Thayer Memorial Library here in Lancaster, I recently inventoried what's available and found at least 50 books on writing by, for and about writers. That doesn't include anthologies of great writing. Over the years, I've collected dozens of craft books—though I have to remind myself about the magical bliss of mistaking reading on craft, as opposed to actually sitting down and doing it! Can't have one without the other.

In many communities, there are free and for-pay writing courses. Some colleges allow older writers to audit writing courses, and most instructors don't care in the least if participants follow all the requirements expected of regular students. In fact, one writing instructor said he valued having the perspective of older writers in his classroom—and the students were accepting, and fun to be around. I took short fiction at Mount Wachusett Community College (disclosure: its instructor, Don Hosley, is now one of our writing class members as he works on scripts). I also took Spanish. I'm over "that age," so I paid no tuition, although I had to pay for my books. Check around colleges in your area and see whether they offer seniors a discount. I'm of the opinion that they ALL should do so, but it "ain't necessarily so".

There are monthly free workshops (except during the summer) at Thayer Memorial Library, offered mornings and evenings. Check the library in your town. Most of them also bring in authors to discuss their craft; these sessions are NEVER a waste of time. NEVER. Regardless of genre or style, you will learn something from each writer. One of the most motivating sessions I ever attended was by science fiction writer R.A. Salvatore from Leominster. I'm not about to write sci-fi, nor had I read his books, but his love of writing and discussion of how he stuck with his books despite the challenges of life and work was common to anyone pursing writing. I also loved the wonderfully rich session—Shirley's Hazen Memorial Library provided chocolate desserts—with mystery writers from the New England Crime Writers, held several years ago. This group travels about, so watch for them. I've seen them at Clinton's Bigelow library as well. Just recently, noted historical writer and Harvard professor Jill Lepore came to the Thayer library and discussed her work researching the life of Benjamin Franklin's sister, Jane, for a book that last year became a finalist for the National Book Award. They all answered questions, patiently and generously.

There is so much more out there, and you don't have to pay for it. The lesson you'll come away with is: I can do this.

(Ann Connery Frantz is a cofounder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster, and a retired journalist turned freelance fiction and nonfiction writer and editor. Contact her at ann.frantz@gmail.com)

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