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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Library Writing Group Fosters Creativity, Community

Since January, the DPPL Writing Group has met at the library to share their work, encourage one another, and stoke their literary ambitions. Their next meeting is March 5th at 7:00 p.m. and they want you to join too! You can also find out more about the writing group on the library's website.

I recently spoke with Anne Andersen, one of the group's members, to find out more about the group and why she joined.
Tell me a little bit about the writing group. What do you do during a typical meeting?

The DPPL Writing Group started after the NaNoWriMo event held at the Des Plaines library last November. We are currently a group of approximately 10 people who meet regularly to discuss our writing skills and review our written work. Our official meeting is the first Tuesday of every month, but most of us meet more frequently.

Our meetings last 2 hours and we usually do a writing prompt, someone sets a simple scenario or, as we did last week, someone brought in a box of old photographs and we each write for approximately 10 minutes then share what we wrote with the group. Often a discussion begins and we all learn a little something. We may work on setting, mood, dialogue, character development, etc.

We also have a website where our work can be posted and shared with others in the group. We usually review a story posted the week before the meeting. This can be a story fragment, a poem, or we can discuss some aspect of writing one of the writers has difficulty with, such as plot development.

We usually have a lively discussion about something at each meeting, often we bring up questions we have about writing, good books we have read etc.

What motivated you to join the group? What do you hope to get out of it?

I had looked for a writers group for well over one year before founding this group. No other group seemed to exist in our part of the world, with the exception of the Romance Writers, who meet at the Des Plaines library. That group is very large and genre specific and was not a good fit for writers who wanted a small more individualized group, and who write any other genre.

At the NaNoWriMo write-ins hosted by our library, I met a number of other writers who had also been searching for camaraderie and other writers who wanted to share and critique and help develop stronger writing skills. So our writing group was born.

We are a very democratic group and our rules are simple and fluid and change to meet the needs of each member. We encourage each other, we learn from each other, and we have developed trust and respect for each other.

What has the feedback been like? Are people helpful, harsh?

At this point we have reviewed work submitted by most of our members. Reviews are kind and respectful, but honest. Last week my short story was reviewed and I felt complemented but also realized my story needed major rewrites in several places. In one place several group members had a disagreement about how something in my story should be presented and that discussion proved valuable to me. I understand much better how my story will be viewed by an average reader.

When we evaluate another writer's work we are pretty honest, and the criticism can be considered harsh on rare occasions, but we know and trust each other and are always kind and always respectful. I enjoy hearing their honest opinions and then value their honest complements even more.

We have an agreement that if anyone should be too hard in their evaluation this will not be accepted by the group. We all have our individual styles that will be respected.

Why should someone join the group?

If you are a writer who needs companionship and someone who will critically read your work, someplace where you can discuss problems and workshop ideas, you may be interested in this small friendly group. You do not need to come to every meeting, but your benefits and skills will increase with your increasing level of participation in the group and time spent writing.

Would you mind sharing something you’re working on (even a fragment)? How has the group helped you with it?

I would be happy to share something. This is from a one-page writing prompt about going to the DMV:
I stumbled forward into the hunched little woman, almost knocking her over and tried to save us from falling by grabbing her shoulders. I came away with a fist full of damp polyester and some silver hair still attached to her head as she tried to slap meaway with her arthritic hands. She finally connected with my sunglasses. They flew across the room and skittered to a sudden stop under the toe of a polished black shoe on the foot of a DMV employee I couldn’t fully see behind the crowd of spectators now staring at me. I hoped he wasn’t here today, of all days.

I finally caught the woman’s hand as she swung at me again then stepped back from her into the protruding belly of the man standing behind me in line. The same man who had stepped on the back of my pink flip-flop and caused me to stumble in the first place. And since he was still standing on my sandal, my foot now stood bare on the dirty gold linoleum floor. He seemed completely oblivious. I turned back to the angry grandma in blue horn rimmed glasses. I pictured the heel of my hand making contact with the bridge of her nose, then my high crane floating spin kick making her fly across the room through the huge window and into the parking lot.

“I’m sorry… really sorry… ma’am, my shoe… I have a wedding…,” was all I could manage under her glare. She made the sign of the cross and turned away with a disgusted look on her pinched face.

Continue reading Anne's story

Anything else you’d like to say or share?

If you are interested in joining the DPPL Writers Group come to one of our meetings as a guest and see if you would enjoy participating as a regular member.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fill Your Ideal Bookshelf with African-American Literature

February is African-American Heritage month, a time to reflect on the historical and cultural impact that African-Americans have had in this country. Explore the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History online to learn more about this history. Find out about famous African-Americans with our biography resources here and here. Be sure to check out our lists of great works of literature, anthologies, and music to celebrate African-American achievements.

For this post, Readers' Services Assistant, Laura Adler, builds an “ideal bookshelf” of African-American literature, including works by Ellison, Baldwin, and a few surprises too.

If you're a book lover, there are few sights as satisfying as your favorite books lined up on their shelves. Editor Thessaly La Force and artist Jane Mount understand this. Together they created a beautiful book called My Ideal Bookshelf. The premise? They asked over one hundred people, authors and non-authors alike, to “select a small shelf of books that represent you--the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites.” Each person's ideal bookshelf is accompanied by his or her thoughts on the books and reading, as well as a beautiful painting of each contributor's ideal bookshelf.

Thumbing through the book, you inevitably wonder what titles belong on your own ideal bookshelf. To celebrate African-American Heritage Month I took a stroll through the virtual shelves of my mind and created an ideal bookshelf of books by African-American writers that mean the most to me.

I'm tempted to include four books by James Baldwin, but for the sake of brevity I'll limit myself to The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's searching exploration of racism that begins with a letter to his nephew. Baldwin was one of the great stylists of the 20th century, as well as a fearless challenger of the status quo, and I continue to be inspired by his writing and bravery.

Ralph Ellison only completed one novel, Invisible Man, but oh, what a book! While I don't believe there is such a thing as The Great American Novel, if I did, Invisible Man just might be it. The narrator, who characterizes himself as an “invisible man,” begins his journey in the South, where he receives a scholarship to attend college, an experience that proves disillusioning. Life in New York City is equally disheartening: his search for identity and a place in the world is repeatedly thwarted by whites and blacks alike, by people who say they want to help him but who use him to achieve their own ends. It's the sort of novel so packed with ideas and insights that you're tempted to underline every other line.

Percival Everett is the sort of author who leads you to question your perceptions of the world, including your perceptions of literature and the anointment of certain authors. This is perhaps most true of his novel Erasure, published in 2001. The hero, Thelonious Ellison, is an African-American professor, intellectual and the author of serious and challenging fiction increasingly overlooked and deemed less “authentic” and “black” than the urban fiction currently in vogue. Appalled and enraged by the success of an exploitative bestseller called “We’s Lives in da Ghetto,” Ellison writes an absurdist satire of urban lit called “My Pafology” under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. To his horror, the book is misunderstood, deemed a masterpiece and an “authentic” depiction of black life, and Hollywood and the literary establishment come calling.

Other books on my ideal bookshelf include Manchild in The Promised Land by Claude Brown, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, and James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe.

What books by African-American authors would you place on your “ideal bookshelf”?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine's Day in Historical Newspapers

This month at the library we declare our love for newspapers, particularly historical newspapers. From advertisements to advice columns, from job listing to obituaries, old newspapers capture a sense of what the past was like. With Valentine's Day approaching, I decided to use our online archive of the Chicago Tribune to see what people in the past thought about the holiday.

A Burden on the Post Office

The USPS isn't in good shape these days, but it seems that Valentine's Day was an undue burden in 1876. A short article titled, "St. Valentine's Day: Post Office Statistics" (2/15/1876) laments that "12,000 brainless individuals" caused "havoc" for the Post Office in Chicago. Processing so many valentines "puts every one out of humor with too much hard work."

Avoiding Vulgarity

Many stories from this period focus on how to avoid "vulgarity" and bad taste on Valentine's Day. One story in particular, "Softests of Saints: How to Celebrate St. Valentine's Day in Proper Style" (2/14/1889) laments the state of paper valentines:

"The evolution of the paper valentine has not been satisfactory. In the time of our great-grandfathers the youth...meant something by their valentines. With infinite labor they cut delicate designs.... From these simple missives the valentine became a color chromo, decorated with lace paper and embellished with gilt."

Making Money on Valentines's Day

Fast forward to 1913 and the column "How to Earn Money at Home" (1/24/1913) suggests ways that women can earn money from home on Valentine's Day. One product that could be successful is "a vanity bag in bright scarlet with the base made in heart shape and a tiny box of talcum covered with the same silk". Another option would be to make "stuffed dates and figs that are so fresh and so good because they are made of good materials and delivered freshly made."

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of stories, columns, and advertisements about Valentine's Day in the Historical Chicago Tribune Archive. If you want to find similar stories, just log in with your library card, and search for "st. valentine's day". You can limit your search by document type, time period, and more.

And so your love affair with historical newspapers begins!

Can I access these resources from home?

Yes, you can!

With a valid Des Plaines Public Library, any of the links above should take you right to the online resource.

Don't have a library card? Stop by sometime and get one. Any Des Plaines resident can apply.