Photo credit by Robert Vrshek of Chicago
Anybody’s who’s spent much time writing knows that it’s a pretty solitary pursuit. Just you and the keyboard, or the typewriter, or the legal pad and a sharpened pencil or fountain pen. Sometimes stuff absolutely flows, more often you have to drag it out of hiding, from under sofas, the backs of closets, the deepest recesses of your brain where it digs in its hooks and tries to hide, comfortable in the dark, appearing just at the edges of consciousness. Flashes of insight between sleep and waking, leaving you thinking over your morning coffee, “now what was that?” For a gently encouraging, laugh-out-loud, dead-on description of just how squirrelly we can be when we’re trying to write, I can’t recommend Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird highly enough.
But lately I’ve found something just as wonderful and encouraging, and can’t say enough to promote this idea too. And that is getting up in front of a crowd and reading what you’ve written. It goes kind of counter to the idea of the writer as the tortured soul toiling alone in a garret for art…but who really thinks that sounds like fun? Over the past year I’ve forayed back to my home town of Chicago on multiple occasions to read at events called “essay series” and “live lit venues,” and I have to say the experience just opens windows into inspiration and encouragement and variety and connection.
The first few of these I went to were at a series called Essay Fiesta which takes place monthly at The Book Cellar, a bookstore in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago’s near north side. The first time I stood up in front of the group, my mouth was dry and my heart was pounding. Just about what you would expect from someone setting sail in unknown waters. It’s gotten easier since then, and not just because I’ve figured out how to work the electronic parking meters down the block.
Yet another adventure took me to a place called The Beauty Bar at 1444 W. Chicago Avenue. This was yet another connection I made through getting to know folks in the Chicago Writers Association over the past several years, and at nearly the last minute (emboldened by a dry weather forecast and the fact I didn’t have to drive to work the next morning) I made the long drive down to Chicago yet again to read at something new. What a great bar! What a fun theme, outfitted like a beauty parlor from the 1960s! One of the bar’s owners, Victor David Giron, is also a novelist and operates a small but exponentially growing press, Curbside Splendor Publishing.
The drive down California Avenue from the Kennedy Expressway to get to The Beauty Bar took me down an unexpected part of memory lane as it passed along the eastern edge of Humboldt Park where I used to play and swing and sled as a child. In the winter dark, it looked cold and forbidding, bare trees and structures illuminated by streetlights and their reflection on snow. But as I drove I remembered finding lost marbles on wooded walks with my father, and sitting on a limb of a weeping willow tree stretching over the lagoon in simpler, easier times.
And so, after many meet-n-greets and longer introductions, once again I had a few minutes in a spotlight, to read something that I had once wrestled from the ether and agonized over subject matter, syntax, structure, and generalized angst. It was great. Some of the other writers read poetry, some read essays, some read both. There was so much edge-of-your-seat hopefulness and attention and goodwill and awe flowing toward the small stage at the back of the room from the folks in the audience. The feeling of connection was golden.
So, once again, I say “VIVA ESSAYS!” And that if you think you’ve been spending too much time in your garret wrestling with words and worrying about whether they’re ready to fly…look for a reading series to go to. Even if you’re only sitting in the audience, I guarantee you’ll come away from it inspired.