Reasons to speak to strangers, or: Chicago smells like chocolate and literature

At the stoplight, the young woman on the bike turned back to me, also on a bike, also waiting for the light to flick green so we could continue our gut-push through the current of bikes and cars; our commute.

Chocolate, the thick scent of it, hung in the air, literally mouth-watering, so tempting as to be cruel.

Breathing hard, she said, “It smells SO GOOD.”

“I KNOW,” I said. And that was all, and then the light turned, and we were off on our separate rides again.

It did smell so good. This is what happens when you bike downwind of a chocolate factory, which is to say — this is what happens in Chicago. You are overcome with the lusty goodness of something, and it is impossible to keep quiet. You must, in fact, announce your in-love-ness to whoever will listen, even if it’s the stranger behind you in the bike lane. Even if it’s weird to exclaim outloud.

I just had that kind of week, last week. Amongst Chicago’s community of writers. It started on Sunday, with That’s All She Wrote, a show in the back of a cafe that pulled some of the best stories I’d ever heard all into one bundle. Reading there felt like reading with, and to, a cadre of smart and funny best friends. It was also capped off my birthday week, and a handful of my very favorite people came out in support.

Then on Monday, bad news via email. Ian, the founder and host of WRITE CLUB was laid up with a bad, random back injury, and we weren’t sure if the show could happen. I wrote back right away: “We can do this.” Now, I am the absolute opposite of a host of anything. I can’t even host a brunch. But I did know that by pulling some talented folks together, we could at least keep the show on the rails, thereby not disappointing our audience or the performers who’d already prepped to be there. I stayed an extra two hours at work, writing out a game plan for how we’d pull this off. I sent it to Whit and Thea, who were already planning to be performing in the show in smaller roles, and conscripted them to also share hosting duties with me.

They responded right away with “Yes.” “Love it.” “I’m in.”


Thea said she’d wear her Halloween socks.

And our show the next day, Tuesday, was so, so good. It was good because Whit and Thea are some of the funniest, warmest, most quick-thinking people I know. They were game for anything, including a get-well phone call to Ian mid-show, and so was I. And it was good because it was shot through with the extra tang of last-minute, underdog achievement. We (mostly) remembered our plan. We (totally) enjoyed the hell out of each other. It was the only time I haven’t been at least a little nervous before or during a show. Because no matter what, being there was better than not being there. Not canceling was better than canceling. Keeping Ian’s hard work rolling was better than shutting it down because of life’s shit luck. I loved that first moment when the Ramones started playing our intro music, Thea and I took last slugs of our drinks, and ran up the aisle.

Wednesday, then, was a different kind of good — a quiet, deep good, the kind of communion that comes from writers sharing their most close-to-the-bone pieces. I can’t remember who once likened a show to “story church”, but that’s how this felt. In the back of Powell’s book store, Guts and Glory — without mics, with barely a stage, tucked into a back room with mismatched chairs — overflowed with stories. They do this every month. And the writers were so good, I was furious at myself for not coming to previous months’ shows.

Then on Friday, Josh and I recorded the WRITE CLUB podcast. It’s not ready for people to hear it yet. It’s in the works. But I can’t shut up about it.

Or any of it, really; it’s just a really, really good time to be a writer in Chicago.






The map is not the territory

Chicago has this thing, the “live lit” scene. Live, literature; stories and essays and poems performed for an audience.  There was a long time when this genre didn’t have a name. I don’t know how this name came around, but here we are. Live. Lit.

I’m mostly a writer for the page. I once thought that if only I practiced enough, I’d get really good at performing. This is not true. I can’t get better at whistling, either. I always sound like a teapot. But I like it. From the stage or the audience, I like it. Not being alone with words feels healthy.

The venerable Mike Doughty says it well in the NY Times this week.

The most challenging Borgesian map-versus-territory aspect in playing these songs isn’t technical, but — if you’ll allow me to be a hippie here — spiritual. A live performance’s intensity of focus — both mine and the audience’s — can’t be replicated in rehearsal. There’s a communal mind to be navigated. What’s gratifying to me about playing to an audience isn’t the applause; it’s the oceanic feeling of fused consciousness. You can’t rehearse that — it’d be like rehearsing the Himalayas.

In other news of literature and metaphorical geography, this poem of Scoddy’s is perfect with a Saturday morning cup of coffee:


contemporary Mexican poetry

an unexpected gift:

someone found a book in the street

and passed it to me.

I guess I am known as a reader of

thick books.


so contemporary Mexican poetry

falls into my lap

and makes me consider

the nature of such events


if it’s your book,

please give me a little time to digest it,

before you whistle it back home