At Write Club, literary types go toe-to-toe with their best prose
By MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org October 21, 2012 10:54PM
Two writers compete against each other during a seven minute reading of their work at the Hideout at 1354 W. Wabansia. Writers Patrick Carberry and Noelle Krimm play rock, paper, scissors to determine who reads first. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
WRITE CLUB CHICAGO
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Hideout,
1354 W. Wabansia
Info: (773) 227-4433;
Updated: November 23, 2012 6:20AM
The first rule about Write Club is you talk as much as possible about Write Club.
That’s according to the group’s host, curator and self-proclaimed “overlord” Ian Belknap. A droll performance artist and former stand-up comic, he’s the Tyler Durden of what amounts to a literary boxing match. It’s held each month in the dim, basementlike confines of Chicago’s divey hipster haven the Hideout and attracts scores of loyalists.
Now in its third year and thanks entirely to word-of-mouth and social media buzz, Belknap’s prose slam already has outposts in Georgia (Atlanta and Athens), San Francisco and Los Angeles. In late October it will expand to Toronto, with Belknap on hand to launch the franchise. London, too, is a possibility. As in, England.
“One of the things I like as an audience member is just having my socks knocked off by some novelty of phrase or some turn of mind that would just never have occurred to me,” says Belknap, whose practiced participants include performance poets, improvisers and actors. Occasionally, some newbies get a shot to shine as well.
Belknap says he earns no money from the endeavor, which he describes as “ ‘This American Life’ on crystal meth.”
“Part of what’s exciting to me, and I think to the audience, is that it’s fun to be surprised by what somebody can do with a really simple assignment.”
Lately, Belknap says, Write Club “has become the thing that I want to do most in this life.” It’s largely a matter of funding, whether by a benevolent corporate source or a non-profit-friendly foundation.
And Belknap has some ideas for growth — a presence on public radio among them, though he hasn’t yet met with anyone at Chicago’s WBEZ-FM (91.5) or at NPR.
The guy to whom he’d ideally pitch the concept is Torey Malatia, CEO of Chicago Public Media and an early driving force behind the formerly Chicago-based juggernaut “This American Life.” Although Malatia says he isn’t familiar with “Write Club,” he warns that in the past decade or so public radio stations have developed “an amazing resistance” to trying new programming.
In the event that a live-performance-and-storytelling-based show such as “Write Club” might develop, it would compete from the get-go with established hits containing similar elements like “TAL” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” Finding national sponsors to underwrite it would prove daunting as well.
Still, “if it’s very strong and the people are very excited about doing this and they really believe in it,” Malatia adds more assuringly, “then they should follow their heart.”
On a recent Tuesday night, starting shortly after 7 p.m., three pairs of combatants were pitted against each other. Their only weapons were words. A portion of proceeds from the $10 cover charge went to a charity of each winner’s choosing, the rest to Write Club Inc.’s modest “war chest” for Belknap’s gospel-spreading travel expenses and other miscellaneous costs. A new digital time clock, for instance, replaced a beloved if wildly inaccurate analog one.
The pre-chosen topics to which performers hewed in their pre-written essays included Start vs. Finish, Past vs. Future and Comedy vs. Tragedy. Bout titles were printed in large letters on foam-core boards, and contenders had a strictly timed seven minutes to speak their respective pieces before submitting to judgment-by-applause of the small but packed-in crowd. Three volunteer judges — two women and one initially reluctant guy — sat/stood stage-side to gauge audience response and declare victors, which Belknap then announced in bellicose ringmaster fashion.
Chris Schoen (“Finish”) kicked things off with his tale of a memorable childhood Christmas present: the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“Even though I’d already decided by this young age that there was no god or heaven,” he recounted, “I was still obsessed by one particular section very near the end: Jesus is moaning on the cross, his senses bewildered by all sorts of buzzes and cackles and demonic chanting until finally he says, ‘It is finished. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ And there the track abruptly ended, buzzes and cackles and all. In the sudden silence, it felt a little as though the whole world had ended. He said those words and then ceased to be. I would lie awake at night convinced that if I too were to utter those same words, then I too would cease to be.”
Belknap (“Start”) was next, and he not only defended his own theme, but he took comedic pleasure in mocking Schoen’s.
“ ‘Finish’ is intent on making each of you feel like stupid losers with no idea what’s going on (laughter),” Belknap declared sharply. “ ‘Finish’ considers you ignorant swine, undeserving of any kind of sensible progression. ‘Finish’ is all massacre and aftermath and rubble.”
Then, faux-sweetly: “ ‘Start’ is pudgy, sweet-smelling babies.” The audience laughed. “ ‘Finish’ is placenta between blighted rows of corn on a windswept plain, trailing between the emaciated and blood-streaked legs of a dying Okie, tethering her to the scrawny wad of her stillborn son.”
The room collectively groaned, though not unamusedly.
“ ‘Start’ is the bloom of a first kiss, dewy and trembling,” Belknap went on, relishing the response. “ ‘Finish’ is robotic missionary sex with your spouse of many years on sheets gritty with the dander of your failings.”
Fairly and squarely, as per applause analysis, he won.
The linguistic acrobatics continued with Patrick Carberry (“past”) and Noelle Krimm (“future”), and finally Barrie Cole (“comedy”) against Chris Bower (“tragedy”). Of the four, Bower’s absurdist and ultra-dark tale of a turtle named Bill and a rabbit named Michael — read close to the microphone in an almost-monotone — elicited an enthusiastic response.
“The point of this story is that I am dying,” he said near the end as laughter erupted. “So are you. In fact, everyone in this room is going to die. We’re all dying right now. Our hearts are slowing down, speeding up, hitting a perfect rhythmic stride. But it doesn’t matter how strong we are, how in love we are, how loved we are, how vital we are to anyone or anything. We are all going to disintegrate. Many of us, most of us, are going to die slowly. At first there’ll be hope and then more hope, and then we’ll be nothing to the world and soon after the world will be nothing to us.”
“Comedy is how we want things to be,” he said in closing, “and tragedy is how things actually are.”
With that, the handsome new digital stop clock struck zero and a hammer-rung bell sounded. Bower sheepishly backed away from the microphone and awaited his ultimately favorable judgment.
“I like that it’s a really succinct format, because you get to look at how people create ideas and communicate ideas,” regular attendee Sarah Jolie said afterward. “And it’s fun … but it’s smart fun.”
The Forest Park resident and small business owner has no formal literary training, but performing at a Write Club smackdown is “on my bucket list” despite the fact that “it’s terrifying to think about doing.”
Standing off to one side toward the back, Carberry talked about his approach. Tall and bespectacled and sporting a red bow tie, he’d choked up at moments while reading what he claimed was a wholly fictional story of dirty childhood sketches, “Battlestar Galactica” (repeated in a low, incantatory tone) and teary-eyed joy at landing a much-needed job that kept him from moving back in with Mom and Dad. The comedy-conditioned room grew nearly silent at especially soul-bearing moments.
Writing effective fiction is all about emotional honesty, Carberry explained. Measuring the true depth of that emotional honesty is easiest when he reads his work aloud — be it destined for page or stage.
“If something doesn’t affect me, then I know it’s not going to affect anyone else.”