A Few Minutes and a Well-Lit Screen

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Those who secured an egg salad sandwich or a small plate of veggies and hummus, a chair or section of couch and a spot to see the writers of Thread read their work, know it’s so: Thread: A Literary Publication enjoyed a magnificent launch last Wednesday evening at the cozy Curt’s Cafe.

But you who came out, parked and then couldn’t find a place to put yourself, who knew? I offer you free admission to the next reading!

For you who couldn’t be there, let me set the scene: An overflow crowd of people sat quietly as nine writers read their essays on a variety of subjects from Lee Reilly’s caregiving curiosity about the life of her charge in “Finding Nancy H.,” to the raging hormones of Anne Heaton’s mid-pregnancy in “Crazy Bird” to what it feels like to want to light up a joint in Timothy Parfitt’s “Smoke Screen,” remember something good about one’s not-so-terribly good father in “The Bath,” or be Tom Wolferman in a job, outgrown, in “A Paper Trail.” It was a night of stories reflecting human experiences across the lifespan. A celebration not only of writers and the premiere issue of Thread but an evening devoted to the truth and beauty of the personal essay. My favorite of all the written forms!

Here’s what the cafe looked like before it was filled with story lovers:

 

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And here’s what it looked like after:

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And if you wanted to get some air in between readings, this is what it looked like from the street:

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Thread will be hosting three readings a year – the next one in April – to coincide with the release of each new issue. I’m already looking for a larger venue, so stay tuned about that! But for those of you who can’t make it for the readings on a Wednesday night, you’ll just have to find a few minutes and a place where you can read from a well-lit screen to soak up these artful word journeys.

What I love about personal essays is that they are indeed personal – sometimes painfully so – and yet the best ones touch on something in the reader, something universally human, and it has the potency to not only move us but even, possibly, to change us just a little bit.  Take Robert Grubb’s “Imprint.” A connection is made from a grown son to his mother when a memory is evoked by a new puppy who is trying his patience.

Here’s what all of the writers – and I –  looked like after the reading:

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I’ll be looking for submissions for future issues beginning in mid-January 2015.  Go to the Submissions Guidelines page of the Thread site for more about that. And so that you don’t miss reading dates and publication releases and posts about writing and creative process, take a minute to subscribe to this blog and to Thread.

Photographs by Jill Howe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling Stories

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Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

I was struggling and close to tears with every step on a steep mountain climb in Italy – as the least physically prepared of seven adults – when I rediscovered the potency of story telling.

Our guide, Claire, gifted not only in sheer strength and selection of the perfect cafe or watering hole after a long hike, also had the gift of gab and could tell a great yarn. As a single American woman living abroad for more than a decade, she had great stories to tell.

She was quick to see that it was going to be a really long day if I couldn’t keep pace with the others. So she dropped to the back of the line and proceeded to spin a series of very extended and hilarious stories that got me up and down that immense mountain. (You can see photograph above to help set this scene.)

Her voice took me into her story and out of my own body consciousness, allowing my legs and arms to go into automatic. Stories, quite literally, got me over the mountain that day.

When I was very young, I loved hearing an animated adult read a story. My children expected them as part of the bedtime ritual. I knew I still loved reading stories, but I didn’t have any idea how much I’d still love to hear them (let alone tell  them),  all grown up.

That trek up the mountain brought me back to the simple beauty of storytelling (now if I could only get back to Italy!) For many years, I wrote and recorded pieces for WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio, but even those stories were higher tech, enhanced with background music and fine editing.

What’s encouraging to me, as a writer, writing coach and supporter of the arts, is how many story telling venues have surfaced, especially in Chicago. How packed these venues get. How reasonably priced they are for one’s entertainment dollar. (Some just ask for donations.) How so many of these venues give money (or instruction time) to young children in the arts. How community building it is for artists. How it gets an artist’s work out there in a new way. How much feedback it gives to the artist. How satisfying it is to hear as an audience member and how much fun they are as an evening out.

As a frequent audience member, I never once thought that I would be standing there with a microphone in hand reading one of my stories. Writing is a solitary pursuit and I was drawn to it for that. I went with with my students to encourage them, to hear what was on writer’s minds. But the more I listened to the voices telling those stories, the more I returned to that happy place – the contented, peaceful state that helped me fall asleep as a little girl, that I created by reading to my daughters, and got me over that dang mountain. This delicious feeling, plus the desire to get my work out there, work that wasn’t getting published in traditional literary publications, got me thinking about trying this form. And then I met Jill Howe

So I’m beyond thrilled to be one of the tellers at Story Sessions this Sunday, July 21st. It’s been great to massage my print writing voice into more of a speaking writing voice. It’s been good for me and for the writing. Tickets for this show are sold out, but there will be podcasts and another show next month (and the month after that) and you can, at the very least, put on your earphones and hear a story to help you get over whatever mountain you are climbing at the moment. (Or, if you prefer, lull you to sleep.)

You can read more about the storytelling movement in Chicago in the Tribune’s story here and if any of this talk of telling appeals or inspires you, email me and we can set up a time to talk about how to get your work from the page to the stage.

 

 

Object Permanence

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Every January for the past 17 years, my friend Mary Ellen has hosted a women’s luncheon in which she serves a luxuriously flavorful winter soup and a refrigerator full of champagne.

As guests, our task is to bring an appetizer and an object that represents the year that has just ended. The afternoon is spent in an adult version of “Show and Tell,” taking turns telling the stories attached to the items. I look forward to it every year and haven’t missed a one.

Over the years, I find myself forgetting many of the details of the women’s stories but remembering what they brought. I can still see the magnifying mirror brought by the woman who just turned 50 and remember the conversation we all had about the ravages of aging. I remember the basketball, soccer ball and baseball from the mother of three athletic sons and the look on her face as she recounted how many games she goes to every week. I see the photographs from the woman just back from Cuba and can recall the travel envy I felt then. And the Mary Oliver poem from the woman who had lost several friends that year still hangs heavy in my heart.

Some five or six years into this ritual, I recognized the value of keeping some kind of record my own luncheon artifacts. A large box is now filled with envelopes, marked by year, with the object or record of it inside.

What’s interesting is how quickly the sight of these reconjur the year in question.

Objects are potent. Work them into your life stories. Readers see them. They are concrete. Usually universally understood. They are a shorthand for much larger ideas. And they can provide a way to move time along without referring to literal time. Objects age. They show wear and tear. They can be refurbished, too.

They can provide metaphor possibilities and the chance to layer your personal stories with visual heft – important in a form reliant on memory and feeling.