Tag Archives: Ian Belknap

Chicago Live Lit Makes Books

Hotshot in the audienceIt’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.

BARE-KNUCKLED LIT: THE BEST OF WRITE CLUB | Edited by Lindsay Muscato and Ian Belknap | December 16, 2014

Bare-Knuckled LitI’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

UGLY GIRLS: A NOVEL | Written by Lindsay Hunter | November 4, 2014

Ugly GirlsPerry 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

ONCE I WAS COOL: PERSONAL ESSAYS | Written by Megan Stielstra | May 20, 2014

Once I Was Cool with BordersThere’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“)

MEATY: ESSAYS | Written by Samantha Irby | Released October 1, 2013

MeatyI’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

BRIEFLY KNOCKED UNCONSCIOUS BY A LOW-FLYING DUCK: STORIES FROM 2ND STORY | Edited by Andrew Reilly and Megan Stielstra | Released November 12, 2012

Briefly KnockedIf 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 

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Fuck Yeah: Ray’s Tap is Back.
by Alba Machado

Oh PicklesDid you know that a number of Chicago’s foremost live lit performers are either current or former members of The No Cussing Club? That’s right. This Saturday, for one night only, playwright Chris Bower reunites this unlikely group of malediction-conflicted writers for an installment of the popular Ray’s Tap Reading Series: Ian Belknap, Daniel Shapiro, Carly Oishi, Dave Snyder, Stephanie Douglass, Mark Chrisler, Tim Racine, Alicia Swiz, Ben Harpe, Matt Test, John Cahill, and Randall Colburn. These members of the “most cyber-bullied anti-profanity club in history” will each offer a literary response to the NCC’s manifesto, as well as its alternative-to-swearing handbook, Oh Pickles, shedding some light on what it’s like to “remain PG in an X-Rated universe.” Music by Tijuana Hercules will also be featured. Author and seasoned potty mouth Mason Johnson (Sad Robot Stories) highly recommends the series, saying, “Ray’s is, without a doubt, my favorite reading series in Chicago. Now that Encyclopedia Show has ended at least! It happens rarely, it happens late, and it goes for a long time, but it’s all worth it (especially because of the “happens rarely” part). For those involved, this isn’t another reading series they have to read another goddamn piece for, this is extra special, and you can tell by the quality of the readers’ pieces. It’s fucked up and it’s amazing and everyone should go.” Bowers seems confident that this event will be as successful as the club meeting his reading series hosted four years ago for The Grand Lodge of the Steam Donkey Operators.



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The Way of the Overlord: 6 Steps to Hosting Live Lit the Write Club Way
by Alba Machado

Write Club


Taking over the Hideout for the last show of the season, in an installment entitled “Violence, As It Turns Out, IS the Answer,” Write Club continues to set a high bar for all reading series in Chicago. Here’s how we can learn from its example. Continue reading

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Write Club

“Literature as bloodsport.” In 2013, this show was named the “Best Literary Event” by the Chicago Reader and the “Best Reading Series” by Chicago Magazine, and it is undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the local and international live lit movement. The premise: three bouts of two writers each, who get seven minutes apiece to defend one of two diametrically opposing ideas, such as “rain versus shine.” “Combatants” fight not only with persuasive essays, but with a range of literary forms and theatrical techniques—and they win or lose according to audience applause. At the end of each show, there are three victors, three charities benefited, and three “Loving Cups of Deathless Fucking Glory” awarded. Hosted by “overlord” Ian Belknap. The Hideout | 1354 W Wabansia Ave | $10 | 21+ | 7pm every third Tuesday of the month | Website

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Fighting Words at Write Club
by Alba Machado

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We are here at The Hideout for the three big fights of Write Club, Chapter 16. The place is packed. Clearly, previous audiences have honored the first rule of Write Club: those who attend Write Club must tell five to seven people about Write Club. If this keeps up, Ian Belknap, the host and “Overlord” of this “bare-knuckled lit” reading series will have to consider either taking its fights to another, larger venue, or amending the first rule of Write Club. The latter is unlikely, given Belknap’s penchant for rules. Since his first public match in January of 2010, when, at Prop Thtr, as part of Rhino Fest, he fought on behalf of Light in a match against fellow local writer Jenny Magnus (who represented Dark), he has come to insist that each bout conform to the following format: two opposing writers, two opposing ideas, seven minutes apiece, audience picks a winner, and winners compete for cash going to a charity of their choosing. With a large clock and bell to signal the end of each round, he begins the show by roaring, “ARE YOU READY TO WRITE CLUB?”

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Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic
by Alba Machado

While figuring out how best to present sixth graders with poems last year, I discovered that the fear of poetry had become so common that a medical term was coined for it by the American Psychiatric Association: metrophobia. Many people feel that you have to be highly educated to understand poetry and highly pretentious to appreciate it. Its themes seem too lofty, its language grandiose, its structure complex and confusing.

Tonight at the Vittum Theatre, it’s apparent that no one in Chicago need suffer from metrophobia any longer. It’s nothing a single treatment of The Encyclopedia Show can’t fix.

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