by Mike O’Mary
Last week, I attended a discussion of Chicago literature at the historic Cliff Dwellers Club in downtown Chicago. Given the spectacular view of Michigan Avenue, Grant Park and the Museum Campus, it seemed an appropriate venue for a discussion of Chicago writers. But I’m not sure many of the authors discussed would recognize the Chicago of today – which is interesting because one of the criteria for being a “Chicago” writer (or a writer of any “place”) is writing that reflects a sense of place. (What if you are a writer of place and that place changes? Does your writing become homeless? Maybe that’s why we need a museum for it.)
The panelists were authors Bayo Ojikutu and James Finn Garner, plus book critic Donna Seaman. The discussion was moderated by Donald Evans, and proceeds went to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, which has its inaugural induction ceremony on November 20. By the way, if you are in the Chicago area, you can still get tickets to the November 20 event by clicking HERE. Six Chicago writers are being inducted into the Hall of Fame: Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright. Attendees will include family members of the inductees, plus emcee Rick Kogan and authors Stuart Dybek, Audrey Niffenegger, and Sara Paretsky.
I find the discussion of “place” in writing fascinating. What makes someone a writer of a particular place…being from that place, writing about that place, using the place as a backdrop, writing about people and characters that evoke the place? There are no clear criteria, but the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame seems to be going for more than just being from a place (hence no Ernest Hemingway), and I can’t argue with that.
I regard my friend John Rember as a Writer of Place of the highest order. He has shown that writing “place” (in his case, the place is the Sawtooth Valley of Idaho) doesn’t mean simply writing about or of a place, but from a place. The place gives you perspective, and from there you can write not only about that place, but about the entire world.
John devotes a whole chapter to “Writing Place” in his book MFA in a Box. Here are two gems of rules for writers when it comes to “Writing Place”:
1. Recognize that if you lived in Eden, you wouldn’t write a word. That guy with the flaming sword is your friend.
2. Over time, your writing will become the place you live. Take good care of the furniture. Especially your chair.
Mike O’Mary is founding dreamer at Dream of Things, a book publisher and online retailer.