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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Writing Out of the Ordinary

Everyday people find a much-needed outlet in free Chicago workshops, and an unlikely journal discovers extraordinary literature in their tales.

November 24, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Read the Journal of Ordinary Thought and trudge through the reeking dark of a public housing project, panting up 17 flights because the elevator is broken, as always.

Read the journal and sweat as a Kmart clerk accuses you of shoplifting. Read and swing to a velvet voice under the red-fringed ceiling at Lee's Unleaded Blues on 74th.

For more than a decade, editors of the nonprofit literary journal have pushed past labels to pull art from every corner of this city. Their poets are convicts and social workers, janitors and CEOs. Their storytellers are college students and battered women. Some are unemployed, others barely literate.

The writing is not always elegant. Yet there is power in the rough edges.

"Too many people sit down to construct a thought and they edit it to death. The ordinary guy lets it all spill out. He doesn't have anything to lose by telling the truth," said Patricia Guy, the journal's assistant editor.

"We make sure the commas are in the right place. The rest is all his," she said.

The poems and personal narratives printed in the journal all spring from free writing workshops held in libraries, shelters and coffee shops across Chicago. The nonprofit Neighborhood Writing Alliance sponsors 10 workshops a week; each draws from 10 to 20 regulars.

They learn about metaphors and meter. Mostly, though, they learn that they have stories to tell. And readers who care.

Since the journal was founded in 1991, it has published nearly 800 writers. A local theater group staged a play drawn from their words in 1999; reviewers praised it as "strikingly poetic." More recently, journal writers have been invited to read at citywide book fairs, on cable TV and on public radio. This month, they performed at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

"It's a chance for people to say: 'See me! Hear me! This is who I am!' " said Susan House, a workshop leader.

"It's like breaking out of your shell," added Sifredo Torres, a writer.

Torres, 37, works in a factory, sewing military long johns. Until two years ago, he couldn't write or read; he had to take job applications home for a friend to fill out. Ashamed, he started attending an adult literacy class taught by House. She soon nudged him into her journal workshop.

"I wanted to make him see himself as a person worthy of respect," House said.

So she made him read old journals -- poems and stories about lives as ragged as his own. People wrote about aching feet, lonely kitchens, torn cots at the homeless shelter, the dusty air inside divorce court on a cold, sad Wednesday when the stranger who was a husband demands custody.

"You read it, and you see what's really going on in the world. You can see it, and you can feel it," Torres said.

When his first piece was published a few months later, Torres dragged three boxes packed with magazines onto the train and handed the journal to everyone in sight. "No matter how low you were," he told them, pointing to his name in print, "you can accomplish a lot."

Now, Torres can't stop writing. He spends his lunch breaks composing love poetry to his wife, Diana:

No one knows

where the wind comes from

behind the rock

behind the sea

in front of you, behind me

I don't know where our love comes from ...

still, it's here

strong and free

light and laughter

Torres met Diana at the workshop, which she joined to improve her writing. When they married, the other authors in their group threw a party. A workshop baby shower is being planned; Diana, 24, is due in May. She writes now of her hopes for the baby: "I dream about the house we will live in. I want the house to have clean floors and a clean kitchen ... a gate so that nobody could come inside ... I hope we will not live in a bad neighborhood."

"When I was first published," she said, "I felt like crying."

The Journal of Ordinary Thought was founded by Hal Adams, a professor of education at the University of Illinois. After years of teaching writing to homeless children, Adams realized that their parents also had much to express. Writing their experiences seemed to give them confidence, ease their isolation, even help them order their lives.

Financed at first by grant money, Adams began publishing their reflections under the slogan "Every person is a philosopher." In 1996, he and two colleagues founded the Neighborhood Writing Alliance to take over publication -- and to reach out beyond homeless shelters to find writers of all backgrounds.

Some of the weekly workshops are now coordinated with social service agencies and are aimed at specific groups, such as women making the transition from welfare, or recent immigrants from Mexico. Most, though, are open to any adult. They're advertised in fliers posted on community bulletin boards, in libraries and in schools.

Anyone who participates regularly in the workshops is published, regardless of skill.

"I didn't know anything about metaphors. I just remembered something I'd been through and I wrote it down," said Adrienne Kelly, 51, one of Adams' first recruits.

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