Ravenswood’s StoryStudio: A Community For Writers

By Jason Kreke | Friday, November 18, 2011

With a pot of coffee always on and a environment that emphasizes collaboration, it's not unusual to find StoryStudio staff and writers swapping tips. Credit: Jason Kreke

When Jill Pollack started StoryStudio in 2003, she was planning for a part-time job. Eight years and 1,200 students later, StoryStudio has moved into a bigger space at 4043 N. Ravenswood Ave., opened a satellite location in Winnetka and become a place for writers to find their voice.

On a recent Monday night, several writers were scattered around the space as part of a write-in for National Novel Writing Month, where writers aim to complete a 50,000-word novel in thirty days by November 30. Writers could be found at long tables in the classroom pounding away at laptops, on a couch or chair with a pen and paper, or engaging in the great art of most writers: procrastination.

Situated like a college English department with coffee always brewing, couches and chairs scattered, bright colors, magnetic poetry and a selection of rotate art, the space creates an atmosphere to at once foster creativity but also comfort: physical comfort and comfort with other writers. Pollack envisions a collaborative atmosphere for StoryStudio, a place suitable for writers at any level and any age.

When Pollack started StoryStudio in 2003, she found few places in Chicago that were offering a space dedicated solely to providing an atmosphere for learning and practicing writing outside of a college or strict academic setting. There few readings and few local writing groups. “There was not much going on at all,” she said.

After a stint teaching at Columbia College, Pollack realized she wanted to create a place for writers to practice and work with other writes. “The Old Town School of Folk Music was in my thoughts,” she explained. “I wanted something similar that catered to beginners and advanced writers.”

The original StoryStudio space opened with four students at a small place on Ravenswood near Grace. The program expanded quickly, and in 2007, StoryStudio opened in a bigger space on Ravenswood.

StoryStudio provides unprogrammed, open space for writers to just sit and do their thing all day long. Credit: Jason Kreke

At first, Pollack started part-time. With a fledgling literary scene in Chicago, some questioned her judgment. “I told people that I was going to open a writing studio, and people said, ‘Who wants to go to a writing school?’” Now when Pollack tells people what she does and the Studio’s mission, nobody bats an eye.

The draw of the StoryStudio can be found in the place itself. The goal of the StoryStudio is to provide a collaborative environment where writers can learn from each other. “It’s important to be surrounded by people,” Pollack said. “It’s fruitful to have a physical space to go to.”

Pollack’s day typically starts at 8:00 am returning e-mails. By five, everything starts to change. A pot of coffee is put on. Students start to slowly trickle in around 5:30 pm to talk, work and relax. Class start at 6:30 and run until 9:00. There are usually two but sometimes up to four classes going on any given night. On Saturday, there are more classes and events.

StoryStudio has a healthy selection of classes, with offerings ranging from youth programming to classes for established writers. There are classes on fiction, creative nonfiction, freelance, memoir and business writing. Pollack tries to keep things lively with the “write-in”, yearly writing retreats and parties. Writers of every type stroll through the doors, from grandparents to high school students to business professionals looking for an outlet. The importance is to create a community where writers can tell their own story.

“StoryStudio pushes artists to explore art and ideas that they might not have been exposed to on their own,” Pollack said. “You’re with like-minded writers who speak your language. There’s an energy here. When you are in a creative space, there’s a mojo in the air.”

StoryStudio provides regular classes and uses the space for group writing sessions in the off-times for writers participating in the National Novel Writing Month. Credit: Jason Kreke

The philosophy of StoryStudio is to look for opportunities to become a better writer, to improve the craft. “There is no point in being brutal,” Pollack said. “We are not competitive. We try to make everything a teachable moment.” She said there were only two rules when it came to StoryStudio: not to teach to write a particular way and to provide a positive attitude and atmosphere. All students are pushed toward finishing a project, regardless of what it is or the level.

For busy professionals, StoryStudio offers a brief respite for writers to focus solely on their work. It can be a respite for being online at work all day or to provide a much needed structure to completing a work on time. “We use a lot of creative writing projects to teach business writers,” said Pollack. “I really get a kick seeing them come in with the corporate tension and then leave laughing and relaxed.” As the writers change over the years, Pollack said she has seen writers that want to be published to those looking for an outlet.

In many ways, the success of StoryStudio parallels Chicago’s emergence as a center for writers and literature enthusiasts. Since StoryStudio opened, Pollack said that Chicago has become a major literary center. There are more than 50 reading services across the city and the partnerships are endless. “The reason that Chicago has boomed is that there has been an influx of younger writers,” Pollack said. “It is an affordable city, and there is an entrepreneurial spirit to the city that allows people to do what they want to do.”

The local literary explosion led Pollack to start the Chicago Literary Alliance, to connect literary organizations so they can collaborate on events and initiatives. Founded in 2009, the Alliance includes literary organizations, book stores, writing centers, universities, publishers and spoken word performance series. “The organization came about as these different literary scenes have popped up,” she said. “I started the Chicago Literary Alliance to get these different groups networking.”

Pollack envisions more expansion for StoryStudio. In 2011, StoryStudio expanded to the North Shore in Winnetka, with a renters’ space called the Writers Room. In 2012, StoryStudio will expand its business writing program, create a large event space for readings, and maybe expand to other cities outside of Illinois. For what was supposed to be a part-time job, Pollack has grown the space and continuously looks for new opportunities.

“I have an entrepreneur gene,” she said. “If you have this as a job, it’s a pretty good job.”

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