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.
1. BE DIFFERENT. While Chicago’s live lit movement may be revolutionary, it lacks variety, at least in terms of literary form. Of the 39 shows listed on our reading series page here at Literary Chicago, 26 present true, personal stories, and 18 of them do so exclusively. That’s nearly four times more than fiction and poetry. While not the only competitive reading series in Chicago, Write Club is the only one centered on argumentative writing.
2. CREATE STAKES. Story Club’s Dana Norris recently said that she loves Write Club because “it’s terrifying for the performers.” It’s easy to see why. Host and “Overlord” Ian Belknap kicks off every show by cranking up the angry call-to-arms music, mounting the stage, and booming into the microphone: “ARE YOU READYYYYY TO WRITE CLUUUUUB?” Appearing every bit the emcee of an Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament, he gets the audience thinking from the very start: “Well, damn. SOME SHIT IS GOING DOWN TONIGHT.” This Tuesday, Belknap tells the crowd, “You may be worried about the little feelings up here. YOU HAVE TO STOP. There is glory and there is shame, and nothing in between.” He makes it clear: this is a competition; there are winners and losers; there’s a strictly-enforced time limit; it will be loud and we will all help make it loud; money will be raised for charities; and the guy at the wheel, he’s pretty fucking scary.
3. ESTABLISH EXPECTATIONS. According to The Way of the Overlord, not only is it important to make the stakes of a reading series clear, it’s also important to make its rules and structure clear. His approach is very teacherly—although, of course, squarely on the authoritative end of the spectrum. He takes the time to train his audience, and he builds from previous lessons. For example, he asks who’s been to Write Club before, and repeat showgoers hoot and holler; then he asks who’s new, and the uninitiated follow the veterans’ lead with volume of their own. He lets the simple lesson sink in for a moment, then reinforces it, plainly stating, “So, NEWBIES, what you have learned is that whenever I ask you anything, anything at all, YOU WILL NOT respond with—” And here he whimpers and nods nervously, lampooning the weak, indecisive, and cowardly audience member who has no place in the here and now—and since none of us like to think of ourselves as wusses, we laugh and agree to muster up roaring responses. This type of training is ongoing throughout the evening. There are a number of protocols and procedures, but not so many that they become tedious and tiresome, just enough so that there’s a sense of order, a well-oiled machine. All this—plus, paradoxically, Belknap’s belligerence—helps make his audience feel safe, secure, and in good hands, even as they are surprised by the breadth of variety possible within the constraints of argumentative writing in seven minutes.
4. PROVIDE A LINDSAY MUSCATO. Okay, maybe not exactly a Lindsay Muscato, since, after all, there is only one of her, and I’m not sure how open she is to the idea of being cloned. But a personality. A recurring character. One who adds tension, balance, and complexity to the evening. Muscato’s very appearance and demeanor stand in stark contrast to Belknap’s. She is the designated time keeper of Write Club, and as such, she might be expected to take up the Overlord’s angry, uncompromising posture, but she does not. She is full of light and smiles, plucky and enthusiastic in a subtle, airy sort of way. Speaking few actual words, Muscato mostly uses body language to convey the dynamic between herself and Belknap, and to draw out his softer, more whimsical side. This is never more apparent than when she prompts audience members to announce that they are ready for a performance. She answers the question “Are you ready?” with a gesture, a flourish, a different one each time, always playful, often absurd and extreme, and then those in the crowd are supposed to imitate her. Before they do, though, Belknap interjects an observation, translating her movements to the audience: “You begin like a mad scientist, but you realize immediately that you are drowning in jello.” Little moments like these make all the difference.
5. FEATURE GOOD WRITERS. This is the no-brainer. It’s what every good reading series works tirelessly to achieve. In a show centered on argumentative writing, though, it might be surprising to find that the wordsmiths here follow no formula, and don’t even stick to the essay form. There are some tried-and-true strategies, sure, like using anecdotes, and comparing-and-contrasting. But most Write Club performances seem to be as unique as the series itself. Take tonight’s show. Arguing for crash in the CRASH VS BURN bout, Stephen Walker starts off by referring to the novel Crash, the one about “a group of fun-loving folks” who get sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car crashes. He also brings up the sort of crashes people pay money to enjoy, like at amusement parks. Then he turns his attention to burning, saying, “Who fetishizes that? Well, nobody with the literary pedigree of J.G. Ballard, I’ll tell you that.” Walker goes on to talk about his own failures in life, about how, while crashing, at least he was trying to get somewhere, there was forward momentum. “Burning is entropy.” His opponent, Sondra Morin, fires back with literal fire. She shares what seems to be a prose poem about difficult memories and decay and the need to burn things and start anew, with lines like “Somewhere there is a full moon burning fire in your honor” and “If too much mold gets in, the body begins to rot” and “You knew she would die young, you were wrong about the way”—and then, finally, “The way we dress ourselves in satin. The way we prepare ourselves just in case it’s love,” while lighting a candle. Apples and oranges, that’s what these two pieces are, and that’s what both adds to the excitement of the evening and mercifully undermines the sting of the competition—while real and meaningful, it’s also outrageous, since, clearly, there is no good way for two such differing pieces of writing to be subjectively evaluated in this context, perhaps in any context. Still, Walker won his bout. And so did Jeffrey Yosephus Dorchen arguing for kick in the KICK VS PUNCH bout with his essay on how men like Nixon, the war criminal, should be kicked for the good of humanity: “Let ‘em know you’re alive. Kick and scream. Do not go gentle into that good night.” And so did Belknap himself, arguing for butter in the GUNS VS BUTTER bout, suggesting that, while the planet would be better off without humans, “there’s really no hurry to shuffle off this mortal coil,” and so, naturally, the preferred method of suicide is “the only method worth drizzling on your popcorn.” The losers—Sondra Marin, Scott T. Barsotte, and Maggie Jenkins—may not be leaving with a Loving Cup of Deathless Fucking Glory, but they put up admirable fights, Barsotte recounting the story of the grandfather who ultimately made the birth of Barsotte’s daughter possible by punching his commanding officer in the face during World War II, and Jenkins satirically portraying an off-the-rails gun-toting Sarah Palin devotee. Charities benefited: The Greater Chicago Food Depository, Exceptional Minds, and Open Books.
6. HAVE AN AUDIENCE. You would think that this is another no-brainer. But it’s not. Believe it or not, there are reading series out there with only a handful of audience members in attendance each month, mostly friends and relatives of the performers. It’s a sad, uncomfortable affair, largely the fault of showrunners who fail to put the work into promoting. Write Club has press, Facebook, Twitter, business cards, presence at fairs and festivals, educational outreach, and of course, word of mouth. Anyone who knows anything about live lit in Chicago has heard of Write Club. Which is exactly as it should be.
EVENT: WRITE CLUB | TUESDAY, JUNE 17, 2014 AT 7PM | THE HIDEOUT
Bare-Knuckled Lit: The Best of WRITE CLUB (anthology available for pre-order)
Write Club Concludes for the Summer with A Crash, A Kick And Butter