Community Writes: South Siders put their stories in print with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance

(courtesy of Carrie Splitler)

“So what do you guys think?” asks Tony Lindsay, the workshop leader for the King Library’s branch of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance. The question is met by wordless expressions of approval, and a few satisfied “phews” and “yeahs!” With the immaculate intonation of an audio book narrator, Lorraine Minor has just read her new story, “The Deceased,” to kick off the writers’ workshop. The story turns a stroll down the sidewalk into a meditation on domestic violence, animal abuse, and the feeling of being powerless to stop them. “…Excellent,” someone ventures. “Excellent why?” Lindsay presses. And then things get rolling. The group of about ten fellow writers analyzes Minor’s story using Aristotle’s narrative arc, identifies its themes, and jots private comments down on their copies of her piece.

Meeting every Tuesday evening at the King Public Library in Bronzeville, the group is organized by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, a nonprofit based in Hyde Park. Since 1996, the NWA has held free writing workshops across Chicago, focusing, according to current Executive Director Carrie Spitler, on “areas where there are few opportunities for adults to engage in hands-on artmaking.” It also publishes writing from these workshops in a quarterly magazine, the Journal of Ordinary Thought, which bears the motto, “Every person is a philosopher.” JOT was founded in 1991 by Hal Adams, then a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It began as an outlet for the writing produced by parents at Chicago public schools, but expanded in 1996 when Adams recruited Deborah Epstein and Sunny Fischer to start the NWA with aid from federal grants. Currently, the organization operates between ten to fourteen regular workshops on the South and North sides of the city, but the exact number often changes due to fluctuations in funding. It is run by two to three full time staff members, with the help of volunteer workshop leaders and proofreaders, and a board of directors who bring diverse expertise to the table.

Though the written word brings NWA’s philosophers to the table, teaching is not the organization’s only goal. The workshop leaders introduce writers to different kinds of verse and provide criticism, but according to Jeanette Jordan, who has frequented sessions at the King Library since 2006, “There’s no attendance taken. You don’t have to do homework. You don’t have to do anything. You come and you enjoy each other. Everybody writes differently, and that’s wonderful.” Says Lindsay, an MFA student at Chicago State University and the author of several books, “I come to pass on what I have and also to get the input and the conversation. So it’s a table of equals. Even though I may be the person who may have the more literary skills in terms of information–and that’s very questionable–there are other things I pick up. It’s opened my mind a lot.”

In addition to providing literary lessons, the NWA aims to open minds and dialogues, to build connections between its writers, as well as between individual lives and larger social questions. JOT serves as evidence, says Spitler, that “people can narrate their own story, can be in control of how their own experience is portrayed, can be involved in civic engagement and push for political change.” The workshops are not only a space to write, but also a space for writers to discuss issues that impact their daily lives. A recent issue of JOT devoted to transportation provoked discussions about the Chicago Transit Authority’s budget cuts. Writers are currently being encouraged to think about environmental issues for a future edition of the journal.

The workshops are also perpetuated by this kind of grassroots communication. Jordan tells the story of her own induction into the King Library writers’ circle: “On my journey to work every morning, I would meet this lady, and we would say, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good evening,’ ‘Have a good weekend,’ that sort of thing. But we never knew each other’s names or anything.” One day, they struck up a deeper conversation, and Jordan learned that this familiar stranger was a published writer who frequented the King Library workshops. “She said, ‘Why don’t you come?’ I said sure. I loved to write, but I really didn’t have structure until this man came into my writing spirit,” she says, gesturing towards Lindsay. “I have writing friends of all ages, sexes, and everything. We share our words, and our inner spirits, and it’s wonderful.”

Of course, one of JOT’s biggest audiences is the writing family that produces it. “We want them to see their work published,” says Spitler, “and they take a lot of pride in seeing their writing in print.” But through JOT, the NWA also hopes to bring an understanding of its writers’ daily lives to a wider public. “In the same way we want to start conversations in our workshops, we’re hoping something in the journals will strike people and start a conversation.” She adds that the organization hopes that readers will “see the creative capital of neighborhoods that might be outside their experience, or that they only read about in newspapers.” Copies of JOT are sent out to various policymakers, with the hopes of, in Spitler’s words, helping them “find out what’s on the minds of their constituents.” She notes, however, that the NWA has received “very little” response from politicians.

Though many of JOT’s writers have stuck with their workshops for years, the NWA looks forward to bringing in new faces and broadening its mission. The workshops record each writer’s name, address, gender, ethnicity, and other information at the beginning of each meeting, and according to Spitler, “the demographics have changed over the last few years. For a time, we had 75 to 80 percent women, mostly older and African-American.” But the workshops have managed to bring in a greater Latino population, and, with the introduction of the St. Leonard House branch, based at the halfway house for released prisoners, an increase in the male population. The NWA also hopes to expand into the online world in the near future, in order to spread its message further and to encourage tech literacy. And of course, each new issue of the Journal of Ordinary Thought brings new writers to touch on new subject matter.

On Wednesday, the evening after the King branch’s meeting, the latest edition of JOT is unveiled to an audience packed into the Harold Washington Library’s Author’s Room. Based on a classic writing prompt, this issue’s theme, “Where I’m From,” asked writers to explore their cultural, spiritual, and geographic origins. The event brings writers from different branches together, offering them a chance to share words and experiences. Jeanette Jordan moderates the reading, opening with the poem “What Is,” specially written for the event. The release of this issue of JOT has special importance for Jordan. Not only are two of her pieces included in the new issue, but it also takes its title, “Whistle Talk,” from a piece by one of her fellow writers at King Library, Phyllis Roker. At the end of the two-hour marathon session of thirty readings, the room erupts into applause, then cools into a crowd of congratulatory hugs and book-signings. The library closes and everyone is shuffled home, but as the evening’s first poem “What Is” had predicted, “The words bloom like flowers/Each having fragrances for hours.”

Check back in a few days to see a short film of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance reading, produced by the Chicago Weekly.