A matter of course
Where to sharpen your writing skills if going back to school isn't for you
Johnny Depp in Secret Window. John Turturro in Barton Fink. One of Nicolas Cage's personas in Adaptation. Hollywood has a habit of portraying writers as agoraphobic hermits who interact with others only to fuel a caffeine addiction or refill their supply of typewriter ribbon.
In real life, writers use laptops, make their own coffee and do, in fact, need to bounce ideas off someone else—even if it is just to see if a joke falls flat.
But for many scribes, the sterile environment of a school classroom is unappealing: Desks in straight rows don't exactly shout Great American Novel. Thankfully, the city offers some options for those looking for a nonacademic writing program.
Jill Pollack, founder of StoryStudio Chicago, a two-year-old writers' center, describes her shop as a literary Old Town School of Folk Music. Classes, workshops and free-form writing cafés (think of a Starbucks with only writers at the tables) are only part of the appeal here. Pollack is adding new programming, including a writers' retreat next year, based on participant requests for continued community-building. She's also expanding to do more work with creative nonfiction and young-adult writing.
"There is a workshop component to all of our classes," Pollack says, "but we also have lectures on topics such as 'How do you develop character,' and almost always we find reading published works helps illuminate those points."
StoryStudio Chicago teaches one-day workshops, five-session screenwriting classes that begin September 6, a five-week creative-writing workshop that begins September 13 and more. Fees range from $35 to $390. 3717 N Ravenswood Ave, suite 115, at Waveland Ave (www.storystudiochicago.com, 773-728-8441).
The Writers' Loft
Hundreds of books have tried to deconstruct the writing process, but Jerry Cleaver, founder of the Writers' Loft, says there's nothing precious or mystical about it. "Writing is different than painting or playing music," says Cleaver, whose Loft is a six-week course he teaches out of his Wrigleyville home. Those other arts, he says, "require inborn skills beyond what you need in the world. But the story form is universal, and anybody can do this if they want to. Motivation is more important than talent."
Cleaver has been teaching writing for some 20 years, and he penned a book, Immediate Fiction, about writing. His program enrolls 150 students annually and includes 30 minutes of in-class writing exercises in every session. While students listen to and discuss each other's work, it is done anonymously and not in the traditional workshop format. Cleaver believes that asking introverted writers to read their own work in public detracts from the evaluation of the words on the page. More important, he says, is to get writers in the habit of writing even when the muse is nowhere to be found.
"It is a mistake to think you have to be in the mood to write," he says. "You write to get in the mood. After that, writing is actually easy."
The Writers' Loft's next class begins Wednesday 24. The six-week program is $575; payment plans are available. 1450 W Waveland Ave between Greenview and Janssen Aves (www.immediatefiction.com, 773-348-9900).
"Our students are somewhere between aspiring professionals and people in it just for the pure enjoyment of the class," says Bill Schraufnagel. "People who have written something, but are intimidated by the business world of publishing books come to us."
For those who believe that a strong reader makes the best writer, the Newberry Library offers a variety of literary seminars and writing workshops in the fall. Lecture topics include the works of Saul Bellow, women's literature of the 19th century and Latin-American lit in the '60s. The Newberry also offers specialized workshops, such as courses on writing historical fiction, turning autobiography into fiction, writing picture books for kids and playwrighting.
Fall seminars at the Newberry begin September 14 and fees range from $70 to $180. 60 W Walton St between Dearborn and Clark Sts (www.newberry.org, 312-255-3700).