Looking at the pile of library books I have ready to return tomorrow, I realize that the absolute best writing class I’ve ever taken has consisted of trips to the library. I love reading memoirs and autobiographies. I’m a sucker for the details of other people’s lives. I read for fun and to learn, but I also keep my writer’s hat on when I read. I pay attention to the way the content is structured, and I always keep an eye out for elegant wording.
I also read a wide variety of fiction. Sue Grafton is a favorite for her wry humor, her occasional eloquent descriptions and the general adventure of her novels. Rosamund Pilcher’s ability to pen lyrical prose is sublime, and some (but not all) of Anais Nin’s work gives me goose bumps.
When I find authors I admire, I study their style and the way they express ideas or describe scenes. I notice the selection of words, the pacing, the phrasing, the rhythm. Good writing is like a melody, and it sticks in my mind. I won’t copy specific phrases, but they do have an influence on how I write. I have copies of a few early stories I wrote a quarter of a century ago. Once in awhile I let other people read them, and they never believe I wrote that stuff. Most of the difference is due to reading and developing awareness of words.
Classes and exercises from books are good. I’ve learned a lot from both. Maybe you’d expect to hear that from a writing coach, but you may not expect to hear that reading widely to study examples of excellent word use is the most powerful learning tool you can find.
Of course I encourage people to buy books written by authors I know, and especially those written by yours truly, but I also encourage people to visit their library often and fill their arms full of the treasures you find there. If my husband and I had purchased every book we’ve ever read some or all of, most of the walls in our house would be lined with bookshelves, and the cost of all those books is staggering to consider.
Check your library’s catalog for books on creative writing in general and writing memoir or autobiography in particular. If you don’t find many, ask them to buy a few titles. Click over to my profile and send me an e-mail if you want suggestions. Most libraries are quickly responsive to reasonable requests for new acquisitions. You don’t even have to physically go to the library to find this out. Nearly every library has an online catalog now, so if you are reading this blog, you can Google your own, click on the catalog and search away.
Write on, and also read on,
Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal