We’re delighted to welcome Susan Stinson back to the LAIP this week to continue her series on her experience as the Writer-in-Residence at Forbes Library! Susan’s latest novel was just released from Small Beer Press, and here she shares three wonderful and supportive writing programs that she runs at the library.  Forbes’ Writer in Residence program is a fantastic model in that it leverages the library space to support both the resident and the greater writing community. Read on to learn more! ~Erinn

Local History Local Novelists Celebration of Local Novelists Susan Stinson, Karen Osborn and Marisa Labozzetta. Photo credit Bonnie Burnham

Local History Local Novelists Celebration of Local Novelists Susan Stinson, Karen Osborn and Marisa Labozzetta. Photo credit Bonnie Burnham

Three Programs: The Writing Room, the Writing Life and Local History/Local Novelists

by Susan Stinson

Three programs are central to the work I do as Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts.  All have been running since 2010.  They are the Writing Room, the Writing Life summer discussion series, and the Local History/Local Novelists reading and lecture series.  Between them, they create an active, intentional, shared space for working writers; make room for discussion among writers working on long projects; and sustain a conversation between creative work and geographic place that has involved many members of the library’s communities.

The Writing Room is simple in design, but its power in the working lives of the writers who use it on a regular basis is intense.  On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, I go to the Watson Room, a small room on the mezzanine of the library that has a large, rectangular table with eight chairs around it.  Early in the program, I requested that we bring in folding chairs as well, which are now stored in the room.  I put a sign-in sheet and three index cards with writing prompts down on the table, close one blind and leave another open to try to be welcoming to both those who crave sun and those who dread glare, and set up my computer at one end of the table.  At 9:30 sharp, we do a very brief check-in with those who are in the room: we simply say our names and what we are working on that day.  Then, we write.  People come and go as they please.  Some write in the Watson Room, while others prefer other parts of the library.  At 11:45, those of who want to come back together to check in about how the writing went that morning, and then to share announcements and other things we’ve been thinking about in relation to writing or other kinds of art. At noon, there is an option of reading aloud for up to five minutes each, up to five or six readers, depending on the length of the pieces read.  We don’t critique or respond to the work, but listen intently.  The role is witness.  When the readings are over – we always finish by 12:30 at the latest – we applaud.  Once a year, those of us who wish to give a well-attended public reading, offering our work in tight, polished three minute bursts.

This simple structure, with its emphasis on writing rather than discussion or critique, allows writers at all levels doing work in many different genres to support each other.

This simple structure, with its emphasis on writing rather than discussion or critique, allows writers at all levels doing work in many different genres to support each other.  Poets, novelists, short story writers, memoirists, translators and others have used the writing room.  Those who have published books work productively alongside new writers or those who are returning to writing after long absences.  New York Times best-selling novelist Jacqueline Sheehan thanked the Writing Room in the acknowledgements of her most recent novel, Picture This, for  “the collective juice of other writers.”  The Writing Room helps address the isolation that can sometimes come with writing while meeting the need for an open, quiet place to write. It lets writers hear each other’s work and forms the basis for new relationships without the need for screening or ranking the work, and it also allows the wider library community to enjoy new writing generated there without regard to publication.

The Writing Life summer discussion series, on the other hand, is specifically directed at writers working on long-term projects.  The discussions happen once a month for three or four months,  and always include a specific topic and some open discussion time over food.  I facilitate.  I originally thought of the series as meeting the hunger that might arise from the mostly silent Writing Room for more extended conversation, but another advantage is the evening time slot and the change in focus to welcome those who are not drawn to writing with others.  Topics have included beautiful ambitions, creating access to literary culture for ourselves and each other, changes in media, and livelihood issues. Before one Writing Life session, I was interviewed in a video for Paradise City Press, a project of Northampton Community Television about sustaining long-term writing projects:

The Local History/Local Novelists series moves from sustaining writers during the process of creation to presenting the work of published fiction writers and poets grouped with other such authors and also with knowledgeable people speaking about topics related to local history.  The premise of the series is that the depth, complexity and urgency that a person, community or culture engages with history is strongly related to the depth, complexity and urgency with which a person, community or culture engages with story.  Topics included figures such as Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Henry James, Jonathan Edwards, Grace Coolidge, and the cookbook author, novelist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. There have also been evenings inspired by Jewish Writers, History and New England; the Quabbin Reservoir; the history of three very different local house; and French Canadians in the Connecticut River Valley, and local connections to the war in Vietnam. One collaboration with The Common, a magazine based at nearby Amherst College, was a reading and discussion on “Writers and a Modern Sense of Place,” facilitated by Jennifer Acker, editor of The Common, featuring novelists Amity Gaige, Victoria Redel and Claire Messud. As is the case with most of the Local History/Local Novelists programs, the evening was recorded by our local cable channel, NCTV.  The audiences for the events range from thirty-five to a hundred and fifty people.  The series uncovers gorgeous and unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated acts of perception and creation, makes writers and scholars more aware of each other’s work, and taps into a great New England tradition of people coming together to listen to writers and speakers as a way of deepening both their inner lives and their community relationships.  The beauty of these evenings is made both more matter-of-fact and more intense by the ways that the public library in Northampton draws writers, readers, speakers and engaged listeners together.

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Susan Stinson photo  by Jeep Wheat highresolution (2)Susan Stinson is the author of four novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays.   Her work has appeared in anthologies from Ballantine Books, NYU Press and Scholastic Books, and in many periodicals, including The Common, Early American Studies, and Kenyon Review. She has received numerous awards and honors, including Lambda Literary Foundation’s Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. Currently Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, she is also a freelance editor, a writing coach, and regularly gives cemetery tours. Her most recent novel, Spider in a Tree (Small Beer, October 2013), is about eighteenth century Northampton in the time of theologian, preacher and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. Alison Bechdel has called it “a revelation.”  Spider is also a Publishers Weekly pick as one of the  “Big Indie Books of Fall 2013.”  Susan can be found at home online at susanstinson.net. 

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