November 21, 2017

Write Here | Programming

THE WRITE STUFF (Clockwise from top l.): Denver PL’s Hard Times Writing Workshop; SpeakEasy Book Authors Signing for the Community Novel Project at Topeka & Shawnee County PL, KS; Corvallis–Benton County PL, OR, National Novel Writing Month plot planning party;  White Plains PL, NY, Families of Veterans Writing Workshop (FVWW) participants (l.–r.) Ekaterina Quinones, Julie Geisler, Amanda Cerreto,  and Kareem Brown; (inset) FVWW book cover

THE WRITE STUFF (Clockwise from top l.): Denver PL’s Hard Times Writing Workshop; SpeakEasy Book Authors Signing for the Community Novel Project at Topeka & Shawnee County PL, KS; Corvallis–Benton County PL, OR, National Novel Writing Month plot planning party; White Plains PL, NY, Families of Veterans Writing Workshop (FVWW) participants (l.–r.) Ekaterina Quinones, Julie Geisler, Amanda Cerreto,
and Kareem Brown; (inset) FVWW book cover

Everyone has a book in them, it’s said. While Christopher Hitchens completed that phrase with “in most cases that’s where it should stay,” it doesn’t seem the public agrees. This is dramatically demonstrated by the expansion of U.S. publishing, as measured by Bowker, the U.S. issuer of ISBNs, the numbers that help track book sales. In 2002, Bowker issued 247,777. In 2012 (the most recent figures available), demand rose to 2,352,797—an increase of 2,105,020, or a whopping 849.5 percent.

Part of that rise is driven by the enormous growth of self-publishing. Bowker reports that in 2011, 148,424 self-published print books were released in this country, which was about 43 percent of the year’s total traditional print output (books printed ahead of purchase, rather than on demand). In 2012 and 2013, 391,000 and 458,564 self-published books, respectively, hit the market.

Production of ebooks is also growing fast, with Bowker estimating that 87,201 such books were published in 2011, a 129 percent increase over the previous year. It’s worth noting, however, that this number likely underreports ebook production. Author Earnings estimates that 30 percent of ebooks purchased in the United States do not use ISBNs.

Memoir is the largest genre for self-publishing and accounts for a large portion of books released through traditional channels as well. Close behind is sf. Our society is ever more accepting of personal expression, and there are numerous outlets for exercising the impetus to get words onto paper—or intopixels. Library writing classes and clubs, not to mention Maker spaces, many of which encourage writing as a facet of Making, are both beneficiaries of and contributors to the boom in self-publishing and all kinds of writing as a form of relaxation and self-help.

The range of writers’ helpers

At the low-cost end of the spectrum for libraries is providing relatively hands-off assistance for local scribes: dedicated space for them to work in, perhaps together, and books that will aid them in jump-starting their creativity or improving their writing skills (see Learning the Craft for recommended titles). Using this approach, a library can foster a welcoming environment for local ingenuity and perhaps boost circulation. Tapping expertise from local authors can promote engagement and build community. The Montclair Public Library, NJ, for example, offers meeting space to the long-running Write Group, an independent gathering of writers that runs several subgroups dedicated to memoir, novels, and short stories; the Write Group also hosts general writers’ support groups, “Free-for-All” events, and “Free Write” workshops that start with a prompt and take off from there. (A writing group at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, KS, the 2016 LJ Library of the Year, collaboratively writes and releases a novel annually.)

Lissa Staley, a public services librarian who helps run the library’s writing program, explains that she and her colleagues also promote the option of submitting work to SELF-e, a database that provides a home for self-published work, to their customers. Created by LJ and BiblioBoard, it chooses the best self-published work submitted and makes them nationally available in various genre modules. Works not selected for the modules can still be made available within the author’s state.

The Write Group believes that “if you write, you are a writer, whether published yet or not,” and just as such patrons consider themselves professionals, many libraries take a professional approach to their writing services. Especially at larger systems, it’s now common to find advanced services for writers that come at considerable cost to the library, whether with regard to funds or staff time or both, though they’re usually still free to patrons. Some librarians teach composition classes, often outside regular hours. A number of libraries collaborate with foundations and other philanthropic bodies to offer instruction. Still others directly hire a writing instructor, and many now offer classes as one aspect of their writing-related services, with subsequent advice on finding an agent and getting published. The Sacramento Public Library, CA, even launched I Street Press, whereby aspiring authors can publish a title in print via an Espresso Book Machine, for a small fee. On the ambitious end of the scale are full-on writers’ conferences hosted by libraries such as the Broadleaf Writers Conference in Decatur, GA, and public-facing writers’ festivals like the one in Rancho Mirage, CA.

A writer in residence

Forbes Library, Northampton, MA, is an example of taking writing instruction to a deeper level. The library engaged Naila Moreira as its writer in residence, a position that sees Moreira teaching classes in the Pioneer Valley region, which she says is “an incredible literary hub.” The program at Forbes, explains Moreira, was the brainchild of local writer Diana Morton Gordon, who, beginning in 2003, worked with Forbes director Janet Moulding to get it off the ground. Gordon was the first writer in residence, for four years; then came novelist, editor, and writing coach Susan Stinson, who held the position for five years and, says Moreira, “put a big stamp on the program in terms of what it is and what is expected of it”—a lengthy tenure, it seems, allows for significant development of ideas and events. Forbes’s residency was at first a volunteer gig, but now the position, which lasts for two years with an option to renew, pays a modest stipend. As well as providing creative assistance and arranging programs, the resident has input into collection development in the area of writing instruction titles.

One of the programs Stinson began that is still running is a twice-weekly, three-hour group, members of which range from a New York Times best-selling author to those who have never published a thing. Each meeting opens with a brief introduction to what each person is working on, “and then we just write,” says Moreira, “until 45 minutes before the end, when we have a discussion of how the writing went…and an option to read aloud…. Everybody knows what the structure is, and the structure is undeviating. That [allows] space to get work done and get work heard.” At Forbes, writers can also benefit from a “submissions and revisions” group, at which where to send completed material is discussed.

The writer in residence is responsible for arranging a monthly literary series. Themes have covered nature and historical to contemporary fiction, and three or four local or regional authors such as Jane Yolen, John Crowley, Anthony Giardina, and Jedediah Berry read from their works and answer questions. “[Hearing] professionals speaking about their work and the process of putting [it] together is really helpful,” says Moreira. The group holds its own readings at the library; a recent well-attended event, for example, saw 20 writers presenting their work in three-minute installments.

Hard times at the library

Hard Times Writing Workshop meets every Tuesday afternoon at the Denver Public Library. Anyone can come, but librarian Simone Groene-Nieto explains that “it focuses on allowing those affected by homelessness, poverty, or other difficult situations to tell their story.” Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop pays an instructor to lead the program, and the library provides the space and promotes the program. The class doesn’t offer help with the mechanics of writing, but the library has a subscription to LearningExpress and attendees are shown how to access those modules. Mainly, though, the meetings are about creativity. Instructor Jane Thatcher starts each class by reading something short—often a poem or perhaps an excerpt from a longer piece. She then offers related prompts. After a period of free writing, attendees are invited to read what they composed.

Prompts are a common tool in writing workshops: Australian librarian Matt Finch, for example, tells LJ that he’s had fun prompting workshop attendees to write about “the worst song I’ve ever loved.” But at Hard Times, the prompts are personal. Thatcher, says Groene-Nieto, gives Hard Times participants “prompts that are geared toward life experiences and the way we talk about them, especially…inside our heads.” Feedback is facilitated to be safe and positive and focuses on the craft and language instead of the experience related.

The program, which started this April, is already achieving success; the space can accommodate 20 writers, and staff have had to turn people away. About half of the attendees, says Groene-Nieto, are currently homeless; the rest have been homeless in the past or have been affected in some way by homelessness. The library’s social worker and other such professionals refer clients to the program. Hard Times has been positive in a way the library never anticipated: the Lighthouse Writers Workshop and the Denver Voice have created paid publishing opportunities for the writers. The Voice will now have a monthly Hard Times column, and authors whose pieces are accepted for publication will get a higher payment than other Denver Voice columnists receive. The Lighthouse will consider the Hard Times authors for inclusion in its Write Denver program, which places works by locals in unexpected places—“think poems on the backs of buses,” says Groene-Nieto—and pieces that are accepted will also garner higher fees than the program normally pays.

Groene-Nieto explains that one key to the program’s success is the library’s provision of food to attendees. About $25 per meeting, she says, is spent on coffee and snacks, and attendees have begun to bring food donations as well, “especially after one woman, a homeless cancer survivor, let it be known that she was sacrificing dinner at the shelter to come to Hard Times.” Additionally, the program is offered in tandem with a Hard Times weekly meditation class, which is aimed at the same population. “People who are experiencing homelessness and poverty need more than just food stamps, shelter, and clothing,” says Groene-Nieto. “They also…[need] to be creative, to connect, to feel safe, to have some ownership in their community.”

Veteran voices

Kathy Degyansky, assistant director, White Plains Public Library, NY, tells LJ about a writing group that the library until recently ran for veterans (the program will restart after renovations to a meeting space are completed). Initially, White Plains hosted a similar ten-week program run by an organization called Veterans Writing Workshop. “Working with a professional organization is great,” notes Degyansky, “because they promote it to their various constituencies. You get double the marketing bang for your buck.” Later, the library hired writing teacher Julia Rust to run the weekly gathering. The series of workshops culminates in a published anthology of the attendees’ compositions and a reading at the library, says Degyansky. “It attracts a large cross section of people,” she notes, “not only participants’ families and friends but also local veterans and others.”

The most recent program was for writers whose family members were veterans, and it, too, attracted a wide range of attendees, including people with family members currently or recently deployed, as well as writers whose parents served during World War II. “Some of the writers are disabled physically, some have emotional issues, and they find the program therapeutic and cathartic,” explains Degyansky.

Creating writers

Laura Cavers, a readers’ advisor at the Darien Library, CT, has an MFA in writing. Soon after Cavers joined the Darien staff, a local author offered a one-off memoir-writing class at the library that was filled to capacity. The head of adult programming was interested in making the program a more regular event, and Cavers offered to lead the way. She created a series of six-week classes, with the final class an opportunity for attendees to read to the group. The class is quite low key, says Cavers; it is targeted to “people who’ve always thought, ‘What would it be like to write about my family, or my favorite uncle?’ ”

Darien’s memoir-writing class has been such an accomplishment, says Cavers, that the library has branched out to also offer fiction-writing classes and lectures. On the day she spoke to LJ, for example, a lecture called “How To Publish” offered writing class members who have published the opportunity to sell their works. At each event, Cavers takes along library materials on how to write, as well as related magazines—Poets & Writers, for example—and books that are examples of the genre discussed. Those who finish the class are invited to join Darien’s monthly writers’ workshop, which, says Cavers, is a more serious group drawing participants from outside of the city. Cavers emphasizes giving writing patrons as much confidence as possible. “In all emails, and any time I speak about them, I call them writers,” she notes. “Being told that ‘you’re a writer now!’ buoys them a bit. If you’re an avid reader, you can become a good writer. That’s a realization I give them so that they don’t feel so daunted.”

Several of the libraries highlighted in this article are locations for the Come Write In component of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual challenge in which participants are tasked with writing a 50,000-word novel during November. Grant Faulkner, executive director of the not-for-profit NaNoWriMo, and Sarah Mackey, its director of community engagement, attribute the effort’s enormous success in libraries in part to the organization’s recognition that libraries are an important space for writers and that they offer the encouragement and camaraderie participants need. Libraries that sign on to be Come Write In locations receive a kit that includes promotional materials.

Encouragement is key to NaNoWriMo and writing success generally, says Moreira, who will also lead a NaNoWriMo writers group this fall. She has found that NaNoWriMo has a younger demographic than her library’s regular writers’ group—it attracts college students, a difference that Moreira partly attributes to the challenge’s profile and marketing. She also adds, however, that “NaNoWriMo is so demanding, you have to be young. An academic schedule makes the program more manageable.” To keep up participants’ spirits, Moreira celebrates patrons’ intermediate word-count milestones.

Whether over a month or years, learning a new craft is a process—and libraries are helping aspiring writers along the way.

While the best way to become a better writer is to read as much as possible, a task libraries are uniquely well suited to assist with, some patrons will want more direct help. To offer them instruction and inspiration, try stocking the space where your writers work with some of these titles.

Creative Collections

Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Putnam. 2002. 272p. ISBN 9781585421473. $40; ebk. ISBN 9781101156889.

Though not specifically for writers, Cameron’s seminal title offers anyone who feels that they could be more creative permission to grow.

Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. HarperCollins. 1989. 111p. ISBN 9780060919887. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061863820.

On the formal, slightly cutthroat end of the spectrum is this guide to being ruthless with what you’ve written. Patrons who struggle to self-edit will gain encouragement Dillard, whose prose shows that she takes her own advice to heart.

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Farrar. 2002. 192p. ISBN 9780374528584. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781466819016.

Since many patrons will be trying their hand at memoir, recommend Gornick’s guide to making an exciting story out of everyday life.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner. 2010. 288p. ISBN 9781439193631. $27.

There’s no doubt that King can write a book that sells. Here, in his customary forceful yet plain prose, is his behind-the-scenes look at how the scariness gets onto the page.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences About Writing. Knopf. 2012. 224p. ISBN 9780307266347. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780307958495.

A how-to book that doubles as inspiration, Klinkenborg’s prose is beautiful as well as useful.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor. 1995. 272p. ISBN 9780385480017. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780307424983.

Lamott’s irreverent take on anything is priceless; here she turns her quirky pen to writing advice.

Lerner, Betsy. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. 304p. Riverhead. 2010. ISBN 9781594484834. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781101444078.

Not a writing how-to title, this book covers everything else about being a writer. Revised and updated to reflect the major changes in the publishing industry since it was first published in 2000.

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. Amazon. 2013. 253p. ed. by Jocelyn K. Glei. ISBN 9781477800676. pap. $14.95.

The main way to get your words on the page is to get your you-know-what in the writing seat. If getting started is an issue, Glei is here to help.

Strunk, William, Jr. & E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Longman. 1999. 105p. ISBN 9780205313426. pap. $15.95.

Just because you were forced to use it in college doesn’t mean it’s no good. This succinct and wonderful guide advises readers to “omit needless words” and describes how to do that.

Websites

Home Page of Paul Brians
public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors

This valuable site by a retired professor offers a wealth of tips on composition. Most useful are the lists of commonly misused words and of nonerrors (“Those usages people keep telling you are wrong but which are actually standard in English”).

Purdue OWL
owl.english.purdue.edu/owl

Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab) offers material specific to academia, such as citation guides, but also provides advice for niche genres such as technical writing and art history. For librarians who are tasked with becoming writing coaches, the site includes resources for teachers and tutors.

Librarian Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization. Her book Reviews Are In will be published by Mission Bell Media in August

SELF-e_SiteLogoLibraries are driving a new era of ebook discovery for indie authors and small presses. SELF-e helps develop robust local writing communities and keeps libraries at the center of the indie book movement.

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Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma (hverma@mediasourceinc.com, @ettaverma) was formerly reviews editor at Library Journal. Etta, who is from Ireland, has also been a reference librarian and a library director and is the mom of two avid readers.

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Comments

  1. Lori Latimer says:

    “Hard Times At The Library” had me in tears. This is what public service and libraries can do to make a large difference in the lives of those who are often without a voice; or whose voices are drowned out by shame and weariness.

    Thank you for sharing all of the various ways libraries are programming creativity.

    We too were a “Come Write In” participant in 2015. It was our first time, and it was beneficial to those wanting to rise to the challenge of creating a novel in 30 days. It was good for staff members too. Our library system is signed up to participate again this year.