Read like a writer

Whip-smart, funny and talented author Francine Prose will speak at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 19, at Ashland High School's Mountain Avenue Theatre as part of the Chautauqua Poets & Writers series. Every year, Chautauqua's all-volunteer board brings well-regarded writers such as Prose to the Rogue Valley to give public readings and share their expertise with teachers and students.

Prose has written numerous works of fiction and nonfiction and been hailed as one of America's best writers. I recently read her New York Times best seller, "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them." The book is a treat for book lovers, writers or anyone even mildly interested in books or writing.

"Reading Like a Writer" is both a fine lesson in the craft of writing and a valentine to masterful writers such as Dostoyevsky, Flannery O'Connor, Jane Austen and many others. Prose, who also teaches creative writing, has been a passionate reader since childhood. She notes that her understanding of writing came not from the classroom, but from reading.

She points out that while creative-writing classes are fairly new to our writing culture, aspiring authors always have turned to others for inspiration.

Prose writes, "They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes."

Using examples from a variety of novels, each chapter discusses the basics of writing such as word choice, sentence building, characters and dialogue. She asks readers to closely examine a certain idea or word, and question why the author made such a choice. Her advice is not made up of a series of firm rules. Rather, she shows examples of how writers have succeeded following (or ignoring) certain rules.

While the goal of the book is to encourage better writing through careful reading, it may be enough of a lesson to simply read and appreciate good writing.

Prose writes, "With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it's essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it's surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted."

A friend of mine recently told me her writer husband has a copy of "Reading Like a Writer," and that he dips into the book every now and then for both pleasure and inspiration. That is exactly what I like best about this book. It is the sort one can return to over and over. Open it to almost any page and you'll find something useful. Maybe it will spark a desire to revisit a book you hadn't read in many years or write that story that you've always wanted to write.

If you haven't read any of Francine Prose's novels or nonfiction, the Ashland library has a number of her books available, including her acclaimed novel "Blue Angel." Check out her work and come hear this engaging and inspiring author at the Chautauqua event. She also will be interviewed on JPR's Jefferson Exchange radio program at 9 a.m. April 19.

The Mountain Avenue Theatre is located at 201 S. Mountain Ave. in Ashland. Tickets are available at Bloomsbury Books, the Bookwagon or online at General admission is $15 and reserved seats are $20. Student tickets (sold at Ashland High School) are $12.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at

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