An airy loft in North Ravenswood buzzes with lively discussion about novels, stories, speculative fiction, poetry and all things writerly. Aspiring writers, novice and experienced, gather to learn craft from acclaimed authors at StoryStudio Chicago. Going from strength to strength under the guidance of executive director Barry Benson, artistic director Rebecca Makkai (shortlisted for the National Book Award for “The Great Believers”) and founder Jill Pollack, StoryStudio recently hosted a Writers Festival; a panel discussion about thriving as a Chicago writer in partnership with Columbia College Chicago and also acquired the Chicago Review of Books. The Studio is organizing its inaugural Young Adult Festival, co-hosted with The Book Cellar, as well as a lineup of studio and online classes. I asked Jill Pollack and Barry Benson about StoryStudio’s success.
There are other writing programs in Chicago. What gap do you fill?
Jill: We’re more than a writing program. We’re a whole community. When I started the studio, there was nowhere in Chicago to be with other writers in a literary setting. At StoryStudio, you can start with a class or by just hanging out at an open house or free-writing session. Before you know it, you’re a part of the family and starting a writing group or standing up on stage to read your latest first-person essay. At StoryStudio, you find your way to building a writer’s life in the way that suits you best.
It must be rewarding to see your teachers and participants getting accolades, for example, Rebecca Makkai being shortlisted for the National Book Award. What are your success stories?
Jill: We’ve had so many wonderful successes. Our instructors really are teaching artists—producing work while teaching others. Our students, too, have gotten book deals, agents and acceptance into M.F.A programs. Along with Rebecca Makkai, three of our instructors released second novels. Our biggest successes are those folks who first came to the studio to learn to write and are now on our faculty or board of directors. That’s what makes StoryStudio different: you don’t just come here for a class, you come here to grow as a writer and grow your writer network.
Barry: It is rewarding, but not at all surprising. People who come to us are dedicated, and they’re reasonably disciplined and ready to make things happen by the time they arrive. They get to know classmates and others in the extended StoryStudio community and feel supported—willing to take risks with their work and to push themselves further.
Any weird, wonderful, or awful anecdotes?
Jill: We’ve had many moments of serendipity at the studio. One of my favorite memories is from our first retreat we held at a large home in Michigan where we got to be writers all day, share our meals, and spend the evening outside around a fire pit reading our work. Oh yeah, then we came in and drank like writers.
Barry: I get a little freaked out by the synchronicity of the things we’re doing and the opportunities that come along at just the right time. I can’t tell you how many times, we’ll talk about something we need or would like to see happen. Then, one of us gets an email and it’s a person out of the blue offering exactly what we’re after.
Why did you decide to take on Chicago Review of Books?
Jill: People want to write because they have a story to tell. And once you write that story, you want people to read it. Providing an opportunity to learn how the publishing side of the business helps fill a knowledge gap. And of course, it means we can be cheerleaders in town for Chicago’s amazing writers.
Barry: Mission fulfillment. We are frequently approached by people with great ideas for partnerships—more so now as a nonprofit in the process of spreading its wings and reaching new groups. The [magazine] opportunity was a perfect fit [with] our mission statement. As Jill says, it all comes down to stories and storytelling. The Chicago Review of Books is a marvelous new angle on approaching these things.
You had your first writers’ festival last year. Who attended? What were the highlights?
Barry: There were 160 attendees, filling the Center on Halsted where the two-day conference was held. We covered all ends of the demographic continuum in terms of age range and backgrounds. This first festival was attended mostly by Chicagoans and we anticipate that to change over time as we elevate the event’s reputation. I heard people leaving one of the sessions and gasping “Wow!” For me, the strongest memories were at the human level—seeing people connect their art and passion with the practical opportunities we brought to them. I can’t tell you how many attendees were asked by agents to submit manuscripts. And I will never forget seeing one woman leaving her agent pitch session and pausing outside the door to steady herself. I dashed over to make sure she was okay, and she responded by closing her eyes for a second and saying, “My heart is so full right now. I never believed this could happen.”
What can participants expect in your workshops?
Jill: All of our classes and workshops are a little different, but what’s the same across all of our programs is our teaching philosophy. We want to teach the craft of writing and the rules of storytelling so you use your craft to break those rules and find your own voice. Most of our workshops include craft talks, reading like a writer, lots of facilitated workshopping (giving and getting useful feedback) and, of course, writing.
Who are some of your partners in Chicago and what are you doing?
Barry: We love partnering with institutions like colleges and universities since our programs often complement theirs and the relationships bring to light new opportunities for students and our writers. We like the idea of keeping our classes at the studio where it’s a casual and comfortable environment, but we’re having fun with off-site events in larger spaces like Columbia College where we recently collaborated for a panel presentation called “Don’t Move to Brooklyn,” all about what Chicago offers its writers.
We’re looking at library partnerships, community centers—even social service agencies. These are places we can work closely with as a nonprofit organization. Our 2019 roster of events now includes co-presenting the Chicago YA Book Festival on April 6, with the Book Cellar. We’re having a blast inviting authors and dreaming up creative types of programming for it.
Does your physical location on the north side of Chicago mean that you have a racially skewed base? If so, how do you combat that?
Barry: It certainly can have that effect. This is an important rationale for StoryStudio’s conversion to nonprofit status this past year. It opens doors for us to collaborate throughout the city, taking what we already do to new communities through programs that are curated and relevant. Reaching new audiences and shepherding a broader spectrum of people through the storytelling process will enrich StoryStudio in many ways and on multiple levels.
What are the strengths of the different classes you offer? Do you lean more to fiction? Chicago is making a mark in poetry—are you finding much interest from your participants?
Jill: We do it all. We work hard at providing a range of fiction and nonfiction courses and getting that mix right is a real challenge. The genre you write in matters less than just writing well. A romance or sci fi novel aren’t good or bad because they are part of a genre. They’re good or bad because the storytelling is good or bad. Poetry has always been important, and Chicago has always been important to poetry and visa versa. Our poetry classes often feel like they are “under the wire” and we realize the secret to the success of these programs will lie in creative partnerships with poetry groups.
What was your original vision and how is it changing? What do you see in the future?
Jill: In 2003, I wrote my first business plan for the studio and it does a good job of describing what we’ve become. But I have to say, in the past year since we made the decision to become a nonprofit, I’ve been floored by the reception from other arts institutions, social justice organizations, and others who want to be a part of something bigger. To know that StoryStudio can play a significant role in making that happen is what I consider to be our greatest achievement. In recent years, it’s become clear to me that being able to tell your story is absolutely vital to making your voice heard.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.