Ian Belknap at Write Club Credit: Evan Hanover

I coined the term “live lit” over lunch with Keith Ecker in 2011. We were at Kopi Café in Andersonville, discussing a fix for the minor problem we shared: that the existing term “storytelling,” emphasizing as it did both “narrative” and “speech,” did not encompass what we were both attempting with the shows we’d founded. My show, Write Club, monthly at the Hideout, and his, Essay Fiesta, monthly at the Book Cellar, both emphasized writing at least as much as delivery, and featured essays, not stories. The coinage was not a huge deal—I’m not trying to engage in mythmaking, here. It was like being present for the dawn of the aglet, maybe: not a lightning-strike eureka! moment, but more like a single-nod “huh, might be helpful” type of thing.

Write Club will turn ten years old in January 2020. Keith went on to cofound a short-lived and (to me, at least) badly missed live show called Guts & Glory with the now world-famous Samantha Irby (New York Times best-selling author of the collections Meaty and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, writer on Hulu’s Shrill, etc.). That show started in the back room of the (also, lamentably, now former) Powell’s Books on Lincoln Avenue in 2012, then moved to Schubas when the bookstore closed in 2014. The final Guts & Glory show was in 2015—the reason I came to call it “the only storytelling show that matters” at the time was its ethos of emotional risk. If you know Irby’s work, then you know there is no topic that is off limits, and Ecker sought always to match this fearlessness in his own writing and curation. The sense that seemed to govern the show was “if you’re not shitting yourself before you get up there, then you haven’t done your goddamn job.” Keith is currently in a master’s program for nursing at Rush University Chicago. To mark this decade or so that so many of us have devoted to this live-lit stuff, I thought I’d do a kind of communal gut check with some of the show producers I admire.

As with any “scene,” a term I loathe, live lit in Chicago has seen its upheavals and rivalries, its shake-ups in leadership and departures from its ranks. The scene’s moment of media attention (in terms of the flurry of articles that were appearing for a couple years with a “feast your eyes on this Hot Young Thing named Storytelling” quality to them) has mostly faded—due in part to the fact that the explosive growth in the shows being launched has leveled off, and also because these shows are now an existing feature of the cultural landscape, so there’s no “trendspotting” energy to expend upon it. Despite a lack of coverage, there remain people passionate enough about making it happen that it’s now possible to attend a live-lit show—in a tavern or a cafe or a bookshop—every night of the week. There are enough folks to say things into microphones, and enough to sit listening to them, that the scene abides.

But, as Carly Oishi, cofounder of Miss Spoken, monthly at Gallery Cabaret, puts it, it’s hard to see what a “next level” looks like: “there’s really no upward mobility. There’s no means to an end.” By which she’s referring to the limitations inherent in any DIY form like this one: there’s no “professionalized” echelon to move on to, in the way that a band can go from playing bars to theaters to stadiums, or a sketch performer can go from iO or Second City to touring to mainstage to TV. There is no such trajectory for the writer-performer in live lit, or, for that matter, for the curator-producers of these shows, since even though there is demand, there is no market. It’s not even a glass ceiling, with gatekeepers blocking access—it’s a ceiling of fog where that “next” thing is not even visible. The stepping stones don’t lead upward, they go in a circle.

There is the persistent “Chicago problem” afflicting all art forms here—the phenomenon of “hone your chops here, then flee to a ‘real’ city to make your money,” which has come to feel like an inevitability, almost. There’s also what I’ve come to call the “gateway drug problem,” where folks do live lit for a while, get really good at it, and then move on to some other form, either because the product of their labors is more enduring, or they can more readily monetize it, or both. Examples of this tendency include Irby, noted above (though she’d regard herself more as having started as a blogger who kind of fell backwards into performing live lit, which is partly just her tendency to underestimate her own vast gifts as a riveting performer); Shannon Cason, an early storytelling breakout who has pivoted into podcasting, primarily; and Christopher Piatt, whose show the Paper Machete (weekly at the Green Mill) has migrated away from its live-lit roots to become much more of a variety show or, as he characterizes it, a “rock and comedy showcase,” which always includes at least a music act, stand-ups, and sketch acts.

In an e-mail, Piatt reflected on the radical shifts in the culture since live lit took off: “In 2010 . . . there was no Medium.com, no Instagram self-promotion, podcasts were mostly made by real media companies and Marc Maron, Netflix [still] mailed DVDs to your house. . . . It would not have occurred to me that it could be acceptable to ask a 25-year-old human person to write a scorching piece of hyper-current satire of a breaking news story at 11 PM on a Friday and expect gold by 3 PM the next afternoon. Because the generation of comedy writers who would make this a standard Machete experience were in high school in 2010.”

So those of us who persist in producing and performing live lit are left to answer for ourselves: Why continue? What is the payoff? A thread that came up repeatedly, even from those acknowledging the thankless grind of booking and promotion and the looming prospect of burnout: community. As wide-eyed as that may sound, in this blighted, rancorous age, there is much to be said for gathering—in shared space, in real time—to listen well to one another, to pay our collective heed, as one of us tries to tell some truth about their own life.

Jeremy Owens, founder of You’re Being Ridiculous (quarterly at various venues) says: “I think what really keeps me in the game is the connection to the Chicago writing community I’ve gained. I love doing the show and the space it gives other artists to create.” Lily Be, who founded the Stoop (monthly at Rosa’s Lounge) is a Chicago producer of Story Collider, a national storytelling show about science, and a coeditor of StoryNews, a site featuring personal narratives that relate to events in the news, who notes: “we’re opening up doors to things. I’m not trying to introduce people to be[come] performers, but to hear people say, like, ‘I eulogized my mother because I took your class,’ or hear someone say ‘I knew my grandma was gonna die, and the importance of asking her some questions before she died, rather than sit in her room at hospice, and just watch them take care of her.’ You know, I’m saying you’re creating these new worlds for people that are just, like, ‘Oh, damn. I had no idea that just putting you onstage once would do that.'” As Keith, who regards his current absence from live lit while in school as a “hiatus,” puts it: “I believe in the power of stories to foster connection. This is particularly true when it comes to stories that deal with trauma, directly or indirectly, because I think many people carry the weight of their own traumatic experiences, and hearing that someone else understands your pain can be therapeutic for performers and audience.”

Janna Sobel, founder of Here, Chicago, a quarterly potluck and storytelling event at Stage 773, framed it this way: “It’s such a generosity from the audience, to give a storyteller our attention, that’s the first gift [of these kinds of shows]: to sit quietly and listen to one individual up on the stage. And so I want people in Chicago who take these stages, if it’s once or if it’s on a regular basis, just to really take that honor. Hold it seriously in their hands, think about their story, practice it ahead of time. Bring something that is going to give people something, an opportunity to learn something, or something hard-won that you’ve learned that you could share, and then other people don’t have to live through the hardship to learn it.”

Where we do need to up our game: inclusion. We all agree—each producer I spoke to or e-mailed cited the need for greater diversity on live-it stages. It’s improved greatly over the past decade or so, for sure, but improvement does not constitute completion, so as a community of producers, we must seek out and invite performers and audiences of color and LGBTQ people (as Jeremy put it: “Queer people shouldn’t have to wait around until Pride Month to tell a story”) and people with disabilities. We need to push beyond the comparative ease of “harvesting” performers and audiences from the north side to reflect the great expressive and cultural richness south of the Loop, and as Lily asked: “Where are the poor people? This country is 30 percent poor people. And I don’t see them [at these shows.] And if they are there, they don’t feel comfortable talking about it.”

If we are to progress, or even simply to endure, our shows must cleave to what live lit remains at its essence, which is after all what makes it exciting: a readily accessible means of direct public self-expression, a forum for truth telling and revelation without adornment or pyrotechnics. One of the great virtues of live lit is its “low prestige factor,” in that the barriers to entering as a practitioner are really, really low: none of us who produce these shows need your CV, there are no conservatory programs where you can earn an MFA in live lit, there is no “dues paying” in the sense of doing a shitload of open mikes before you’re deemed “ready.” If you want in, all you need to do is ask.  v