By Adrienne Gunn
Write Club, Chicago’s pre-eminent storytelling brawl that pits two writers with opposing themes against one another in front of a live audience, has collected its funniest and most badass bouts into a new anthology, “Bare Knuckled Lit: The Best of Write Club.” The live show, taking place in Chicago on the third Tuesday of every month at The Hideout, prides itself on high-intensity, no-holds-barred matches. How does “Bare-Knuckled Lit” compare? Write Club founder and “overlord” Ian Belknap says, “It’s the difference between hunting on a game preserve, and hunting in the wild; between a fencing match, and a fistfight in a gas station parking lot.”
Like the show, the book is organized into bouts (Native vs. Foreign, Roots vs. Branches, Work vs. Play, etc) and there’s a ballot at the end of each battle for the reader to cast their vote. According to Write Club co-producer and editor Lindsay Muscato, “These essays were designed for a seven-minute time limit and a semi-drunk crowd. Which is to say, they are perfect for how a busy adult might move through his or her day.” I can’t help but agree—we debate all day long, on social media, at work, on the bus, and these essays mimic the brevity with which modern life dips in and out of hot button issues.
In the best pieces, the author’s voice steps right into your living room and the energy of the live performance comes alive. In Smooth vs. Rough, Samantha Irby argues for Rough in rhyming quatrains:
“at the salon I filled out a form
allergies, medical history, shit was extensive
then skimmed a brochure of services and fees
getting a smooth vagina is hella expensive.”
Weren’t expecting that, were you? So much of this work comes at its subject gloriously sideways.
In Reality vs. Fantasy, Gwynedd Stuart argues for Fantasy by telling the story of the fantasy author Robert Stanek. Stanek has a lot of Internet haters, people who think he’s not a real fantasy author, and when Stuart defends Stanek in an email to bestfantasybooks.com, it’s a rhetorical masterpiece:
“I’m surprised you don’t see the post-modern complexity of Robert Stanek’s life and work. Don’t you see? By writing his own glowing book reviews, calling himself a best-selling author, and electronically pasting his visage into photos with other authors, Stanek is, with a stroke of his mighty pen, WRITING HIS OWN FANTASY.”
In Poetry vs. Prose, reigning Write Club Undefeated Champion Diana Slickman battles Chicago Slam Poetry superstar J.W. Basilo.
“Watch me say
stargaze birdsong reckless, marching crosshairs fixed on further
to a classroom full of students from the parts of the city
called: roll up your windows and hope no one saw,
with too few desks and no air conditioning,
their brains splintering as to what the hell that means.
Watch their collective jaw drop when I say,
You’re all correct and I’m not sure either, but don’t you feel something?”
“Prose is a hot, hard, wet kiss on the mouth. It can mean any number of things but there’s no question you’ve been kissed. Poetry is a veiled look from behind a lace fan across a darkened room. You’re not sure what the message is or if it’s even directed at you. It might be lust or it might be contempt. Maybe it’s near-sightedness. Could be anything. And while you’re trying to figure out what poetry is getting at, prose and I have come to an understanding, gone home, had great, deeply meaningful sex, followed by beer and a sandwich, and have fallen asleep, satisfied.”
I love how in conversation this bout is. Hegel said, “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights,” and that’s the essence of what makes “Bare-Knuckled Lit” exciting–the passionate exchange over two rights.
What does it take to be a Write Club Champion? I asked Slickman for her advice for the next generation of Write Club contenders:
1. Economy: “Don’t put it in if it doesn’t need to be there. Be economical both with the language and with the ideas.”
2. Practice: “How do you become a good performer? Years of practice.”
3. Be Prepared: “If someone tells you that you have five minutes, aim for four and a half. It takes longer than you think it does.”
4. Reveal Yourself: “The story has to have a point. It needs to be revelatory, it needs to show something about the person telling the story.”
Write Club takes place monthly in Chicago at the Hideout, plus Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Bare-Knuckled Lit: The Best of Write Club
Edited by Ian Belknap and Lindsay Muscato
Hope and Nonthings, 152 pages, $15