Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Unveiling: The Chicago List Essay Project



I published a book with my students! Our Chicago is a collection of list essays about Chicago. After coming across Aleksandar Hemon's essay “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List,” it occurred to me that writing list essays about Chicago might be a fine group project to undertake with the Advanced Memoir Workshop I’ve been facilitating at StoryStudio Chicago since 2006. While workshop members sometimes leave, sometimes return, or new writers join, for the most part we all know each other well. We all write literary nonfiction, and we have one thing in common: We live in Chicago. Surely we’d have something to say about this city we call home?

Thankfully, workshop members jumped at the idea. The result is this book. Attempting the list essay form posed a welcome challenge and change of pace from writing memoir. While a list essay looks easy to write, how do you actually stuff years of living experience into a list? A list essay does not have to feature numbered items, but it does constitute an accumulation of items that form a cohesive whole. Within a list essay, you cannot tell a story, nor share an anecdote, nor recreate a scene, and yet you have to find focus and engage the reader.

Our Chicago is not a tourist guide, nor is it meant to be a comprehensive portrait of Chicago. Rather, it captures each writer’s individual take on this city. As with Aleksandar Hemon's essay, it was fun to read each others' work and to see what everyone came up with. There are some similarities, of course, proscribed by the sheer physicality of the streets’ grid system, the lakefront’s wide open horizon, or the architecture’s stunning beauty. However, even when writing in the same form, and about the same place, the eleven writers featured in this book created eleven different essays. The essays are complemented by photos that are not typical tourist shots, but rather capture glimpses of the city as seen by those who live there.


At our celebratory dinner (clockwise from top left): David Thoele, Carolyn
Jillson, Julia San Fratello, Susan Wigoda, Annette Gendler,
Shakuntala Rajogopal, Diane Hurles, Jennifer Rueff, Stephanie Springsteen

This book is one of the big projects I've been up to over these past few months: going back and forth with the writers until I felt the essays fit the form and were as good as they were going to be. This meant chasing up writers for revisions, finding time to read their work again, then minutely editing the text until we both felt each word was right; selecting photos, some are ours, some I found on flickr where I contacted the photographers for permission; then finally putting the actual book together, figuring out the order of the essays and the layout; and then editing again, arranging for proof reading, wrestling with the software to make the formatting work. (It's almost perfect, thankfully!) Now, finally, the book is here, it's done, and I am proud of it. As expected, it was a wonderful group project, and it was inspiring to see what everyone did with this topic and this challenge.

Our Chicago is available on blurb for $15.95 for the softcover version. Obviously it features an essay by yours truly, and I have to say, I agonized a long time over what to put into my 20-item list titled "I Love Chicago Because..."


11 comments:

  1. That's a great idea, Annette! Good for you and the others!

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  2. I'm so excited about this project. Congratulations to all...

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  3. Thanks for all of you hard work on this, Annette. I too am so proud of the final product.

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    1. Steph, I am really glad it worked out so well.

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  4. Thanks, Annette, for proposing the idea for this book and for all your hard work in bringing it to fruition. You are editor extraordinaire!

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    1. Thanks, Jennifer. It really was a joyful project.

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  5. Congrats! Just downloaded and am so excited to read it.

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  6. That's a great idea. I'm certain that this project will unite many hearts. I was just looking for an idea to write an essay for me. Now I think that a list essay can be good enough.

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