Breaking News: “The Book is The Highest Delight,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson

Story Week A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face.  It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.  ~Edward P. Morgan

Unbelievable. The Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago is about to launch into its 15th Anniversary Story Week Festival of Writers. 15 years! Celebrating all things writing, publishing, reading, and literary. A remarkable accomplishment, if you ask me, in a time when certain factions of funding bodies and political affiliations are facing tough economical times and leaning toward de-funding the arts and programs such as Story Week. As though the public doesn’t need to read, doesn’t need to have its ideas, aesthetics, and values challenged and stimulated by arts education and cultural pursuits. As though it isn’t important for communities to enter into a common discourse about what it means to be an artist today, a writer, and a consumer of arts and books. As though these things, this understanding of the world through great literature and art, through risky content and commentary, through entertainment and delight—as though the questions these things raise, the answers they provide, the escape they can afford, the call to active (and sometimes civic) engagement they make are all unnecessary to the well-being of society.

We know differently, don’t we? Who reading this now has not been changed, saved, awakened by reading a book? Hearing a song? Staring at a painting or statue? And it is this, this salvation, this awakening, that Story Week Festival of Writers continues to celebrate, year after year. This year the festival brings us new and different authors, editors, publishers, agents, (Regina Taylor, Jennifer Egan, Tanya Saracho, Scott Miller, Katie Dublinski to name just a few,) and old friends like Irvine Welsh, Johnny Temple, Donna Seaman, Sam Weller, Gina Frangello, Audrey Niffenegger, and John McNally. Over six days, dozens of writers (from new writing students to decades-published authors) and storytellers (including performing artists, curators, visual artists, filmmakers) will cross the various stages around the city, sharing their art, their words, their ideas, their questions. You, too, can be part of this dialogue. Each event is free and open to the public (some age restrictions apply at Martyrs’ and Metro) and most provide the opportunity for audience to enter into the conversation. Reading and writing, the organizers of this event recognize, were interactive long before interactive was a buzzword that has come to mean something technological. So come along and interact!

Randy Albers, Chair of the Fiction Writing Department, is the founding producer of this literary extravaganza, and this year’s Artistic Director is the Ray Bradbury expert and fine writing teacher Sam Weller. The festival is a spin-off of a visiting writers’ series started in the Fiction Writing Department by Betty Shiflett. I—like Sam Weller and Ann Hemenway and Joe Meno and Eric May, my colleagues from Columbia—had the opportunity to serve as Artistic Director for the festival. My first year in that role, my first husband and I divorced (he moved out the night before the first event.)  My second year, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My third year (this was the best) I was preparing for my second wedding. My fourth year, the festival was opening on the eve of the Iraq War. These are the memories of Story Week I have, the ones that intermingle with others from the events themselves. The standing ovation received by Hubert Selby, Jr., at our first Literary Rock and Roll night at the Metro; the standing ovation for John SchultzJohn Schultz when he read a moving anti-war essay told from his Korean War Veteran perspective. An entertaining reading of Bradbury short story excerpts by professors from Columbia’s Theatre Department (including Paul Amande and Tom Mula, also Fiction Writing students.) The pride I felt when my colleagues, Don De Grazia, Shawn Shiflett, Alexis Pride, and Joe Meno got to read from their new novels on-stage at the Metro, while hundreds of people in the audiences turned their faces upwards to receive the words. Betty ShifflettBetty Shiflett and her bubbles, allowing the department’s full-time faculty to play and show off a little before they read to an audience primarily of their own students. Driving Richard Price to O’Hare after the festival, trying to keep the conversation going with a man who could be remarkably shy in the company of a stranger, my feeling grateful when he asked if I’d mind if he just took a nap instead of talking. Enjoying the work of my own past students Aaron Golding, James Vickery, Geoff Hyatt, Megan Stielstra, Lott Hill, Viki Julian Gonia, Lisa Redmond, John Lowry, Chris De Guire (the part-time faculty director of this year’s event) and oh too many to remember.

Have I forgotten to mention that Story Week Festival is fun? Damn fun. If for no other reason, you should come so you can have fun. We need a little fun, don’t we? It is the fun part of this that made it easier for me to face the challenges in my own life (divorce, illness, international war) and perhaps, as the world seems to get a little harder each day, Story Week can offer a bit of respite to you, as well.  “We read to know we are not alone,” C. S. Lewis said. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight. He who has once known its satisfactions is provided with a resource against calamity.”

The 15th Anniversary Story Week starts Sunday, March 13, 2011. Writing workshops lead the whole thing off, followed in the evening by a 2nd Story reading at Martyrs’ on Lincoln in Chicago. (Full disclosure, I will be reading, as will my friends, Eric May, Lott Hill, and April Newman.) Why don’t you join us is this gathering of resources against calamity, in this pursuit of the highest delight? You’re gonna dig it. I promise.

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