It’s a scene we all know. Some young hopeful needs a major pep talk backstage, because tonight, there’s a hotshot in the audience, someone who could catapult you to stardom overnight. Usually, the young hopeful is a wannabe movie star or rock star and the hotshot is a famous critic or music producer. But live lit has made it possible for us to imagine a future in which writers are discovered by publishers not just in slush piles, but also in bars, cafes, libraries, bookstores, and even concert venues. Whether or not this is even more improbable than the rock star fantasy, public storytelling is a great way to develop your writing chops—and it can sometimes lead to publication. Just take a look at these local kids who made good. Here are five books that grew out of live lit in Chicago.
I’m a religious fanaticism survivor. The church I grew up in, it was of the “God-hates-fags” variety and I’m a better, happier person for having escaped it. But there are things I missed: the ritual, ceremony, fellowship, and passionate language that can sometimes lead to a sense of spiritual transcendence. More than a decade later, I still felt the loss—until Write Club. For me, this live lit series is like church, only without the bigotry and intolerance. And Bare-Knuckled Lit, well, maybe I won’t go so far as to say it’s the Bible, but it’s a damn good book.
In it, founder, host, and “overlord” Ian Belknap lays out Write Club’s genesis story, rules, and mission in the introduction, training the unversed: each installment has three bouts of two opposing writers on two opposing topics. But, unlike most real ministers, Belknap quickly steps aside to share the pulpit with some of the best “combatants” who have graced the Write Club stages of Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco, each presenting a short, lucid, and compelling persuasive essay. Leaving out the photographs, sidebars, and pull quotes one might expect from a book about such a raucous, popular show, Bare-Knuckled Lit makes it clear that, in the end, like church, Write Club is about beliefs—only, the ones we figure out for ourselves.
— Reviewed by Alba Machado
Perry and Baby Girl are fake-ass thugs. They blast tough music; they joyride through their double-wide, poverty-saddled rural town in a stolen red Mazda; they are teenage girls who aim to raise hell.
Let me put it out there: as one of the nerdy, stay-in-at-night good girls these two despise, I was ready to hop in the backseat and blaze off after Lindsay Hunter’s partners-in-crime. But Ugly Girls is not a glorification of the wildchild days. This debut novel from one of the founding hosts of the now-defunct Quickies reading series struck me, beyond all else, as a study in claustrophobia, where every environment has its own chokehold—from prison walkways to truck stop donut stands to quarry drops—and each character rides out flight-or-fight instincts, looking, not always hopefully, for a way to get free.
The prose combines gristly fragments and vicious dialogue; Hunter writes with a clammy realism and tough, punchy swagger I ate up in two sittings. She doesn’t deny it; the ugly girls are headed for disaster. But knowing that made the final lap of their race no less of a heartbreak—a violent, upsettingly abrupt ending that left me feeling, like Baby Girl, perturbed, itchy, and disgruntled. And maybe like I ought to try sneaking out my bedroom window some night.
— Reviewed by Jess Millman
There’s a certain intimacy inherent in this collection of personal essays. Honed, perhaps, from Megan’s time on the stage, where she stands, or sits, as comfortable as silk. But also in the way in which she opens the compendium of her life to show strangers: “This is who I am, and this is how I got here.”
For period of time—I don’t know how long it took to read Once I was Cool, I read slow, reread multiple essays, did everything in my power to prolong the experience of this book—I had this partner in crime. I was the passenger in the journey of her life. The Robin to her Batman, except with pants. The short-round to her Indiana Jones, except slightly taller, by like an inch—seriously I am so short. Megan made me feel like an important fixture in her life. This almost seems absurd to type, but the blend of her voice on the page with the structure of each essay made me feel as if we had always been friends.
After the last page had been read and the book was shut I found myself a little heartbroken.
— Reviewed (again) by Scott Eagan
(for his full review, see “The Power of Story“)
I’m always a little confused whenever I read that Samantha Irby, Bitches Gotta Eat blogger and live lit performer, has only a cult following. That’s because I feel like everyone I know is a fan of Sam’s. But maybe I’m just lucky in my friends.
Irby wrote Meaty, a hilarious and poignant collection of essays in 2013 that is still cracking me up this year. I was turned onto her blog by fellow LC staffer, Alba Machado, a few years ago, and that was it for me—every week I hit up BGE for Irby’s multi-hued (and often ALL CAPS) posts covering everything from “manecdotes” to reading lists (she’s as much a hermit as a charmer).
She worked with Curbside Splendor on the raucous and bittersweet array of personal tales, including “My Mother, My Daughter,” the devastating story of caring for her mother from a young age. Meaty’s the culmination of years of shocking and awing on her blog and taking her incisive storytelling on the road: Irby has slayed at Write Club, and founded her very own live lit show, Guts & Glory, with Keith Ecker. It’s also raised the bar on personal narratives.
— Reviewed by Danette Chavez
If I had to pick a Chicago reading series for my first-ever live lit experience (and I sort of do), it would be 2nd Story. Hands down. No other series better prepares its writer-performers for a show. Committed to the mission of “building community” and using stories to “connect people to one another,” members of its large staff work for up to four months with each storyteller, editing content, directing delivery, and coordinating sound and music. And the care and attention each story is given is as apparent in this collection as it is at their shows and in their podcasts. This is personal narrative at its best.
Although I might be somewhat biased here, since scanning the table of contents gives me a this-is-your-life-in-Columbia-College’s-creative-writing-program-so-THANK-YOUR-LUCKY-STARS feeling (thank you, STARS), this line-up would impress the hell out of anyone who follows the Chicago literary scene: Once I Was Cool’s Megan Stielstra, The Bradbury Chronicles’ Sam Weller, Bedrock Faith’s Eric Charles May, The Temple of Air’s Patricia Ann McNair, and a number of others who have made names for themselves as inspiring teachers and powerful live lit performers. But even if these names mean nothing to you, these stories, they’re ours, they’re the stories of what it means to be human. Inside each of them, you’ll see, there’s a story of your own waiting to be discovered. That’s why they call it 2nd Story.
— Reviewed by Alba Machado
“Ugly Girls Author Lindsay Hunter Reads at the Hideout,” Chicago Magazine