Chicago Writers Conference’13

“There is no such day when I find myself without stories or

ideas swarming around me.”

Rick Kogan, an icon of Chicago journalism and a keynote speaker at CWC’13.


I was blessed to attend Chicago Writers Conference last month with my friend, talented writer Madelaine Standing, who came all the way from Canada.

CWC’13 started with a Kick-Off party at Open Books Bookstore where I volunteer. Besides socializing and making new friends, conference attendees were entertained by special readings of Chicago Stories by performers from This Much Is True.

For the next two days the conference took place in Harold Washington Library Center of the Chicago Public Library.

One of the most interesting presentations for me on the first day was that of Ian Belknap, the founder of “Write Club” – a lineup of Chicago writers/performers who compete in performing for cash going to a charity of their choosing. Ian gave advice on performing writer’s work in front of the audience and capturing listeners’ attention. Here are a few tips from Ian on how to be an excellent reader:

1. Always keep in mind that the goal of reading is to deliver the message, tantalize the audience.

2. It’s always better to choose simplicity when reading an excerpt from your book.  If a sentence can’t be read in one breath, it has to be rewritten. Dialogue would probably be a bad choice, unless it’s a breaking point in a story. But if you do read a dialogue, don’t change the way you talk with a change of the character. Instead, you can change a deepness of your voice or the way you turn your head.

3. When asked to read a 5-minute long piece, make it 4 minutes, and leave  room for questions.

4. Not everyone is brilliant when it comes to public speaking. You may need to take a Live Lit class or public speaking class in your local university before performing your work.

5. Practice is the mother of excellence. Read aloud as if you are performing as much as you can; study your tendencies and improve them.

Shannon Downey from “Pivotal Chicago” shed some new light for me on social media as a tool for selling books. She stressed that once a writer defines social media as a marketing tool, she is screwed. Social media should be seen as a collection of tools that can help a writer curate a boundless community of people in a different way. Trust and authenticity are factors that will drive any social media. Instead of promoting your book on your website, become sort of “go-to” in your field. Less than 10% of your content should be about what you are selling.

Since I am interested in travel journalism and plan to attend Columbia College to get my MA in Journalism next year, I really enjoyed a presentation by Glenn Jeffers, an Editor of Kellogg Magazine, “How to Take “Free” Out Of Freelance”. He gave a step-by-step guidance for beginning freelancers to get their foot in the field:

  1. Get business cards. You never know whom you can run into.
  2. Create your website with your resume and short clips that show your ability to tell what happened in a precise manner.
  3. Do your research on editors of magazines/newspapers that you’re interested in and see what they’re currently looking for. is a great tool for this. It is a website that features news in publishing industry as well as writing jobs.
  4. Define what your area of expertise is and work hard to expand your knowledge.
  5. Improve your video/audio production knowledge.
  6. Try to submit your work to small publications: custom publishing companies where they have a small editorial staff and hire journalists-freelancers (i.e. Hemisphere Magazine by United Airlines or universities alumni magazines); regional publications such as Chicago Sun – Times or Red Eye. If your first work is spotless, you’ll become a sort of go-to for the editors.
  7. Join professional journalist groups such as Chicago Headline Club.

I feel overwhelmed with the gratitude for experiencing Chicago Writers Conference! Besides learning more about writing craft, I feel a part of Chicago creative community now.


Sweet Home, Chicago: Slam Poetry With Middle Graders.

     Hey, everyone! Summer is gone and the season for vacations and time away from my laptop is over. I had a very busy summer though volunteering at Open Books and taking part in almost every literacy program they had:) In the next blog posts I will share this experience with you.

    “Go Big or Go Home!”- these were the encouraging words that started each slam poetry performance at summer field trips on creative writing I was a part of. It means “express yourself to the fullest or leave”. Originated in Chicago as a competitive art of performance, slam poetry helped bring poetry into the masses and stop it from being still. All topics are safe and acceptable in slam; it explores what hurts the most and what is the most important for the author.

Slam is very popular in the Windy City. For instance, Young Chicago Authors(YCA) hosts Louder Than a Bomb Slam competition that gives young talent a chance to show themselves. At the field trips we used this video of Adam Gottlieb (a slam poetry star at YCA) to illustrate what an effective slam was:

A performance by Lamont Carey “I Can’t Read” is also a powerful example:

And so, at slam poetry field trips we taught our middle-graders to focus on WHAT they are saying with their work and most importantly HOW they are saying it, using body language, voice, and face expressions. The topics for their work the students could choose varied from the dreams for their future to their favorite activities. Since we asked them to describe something intangible,  we told them to use five senses to talk about it. To warm up the students, we first created class slam poems about happiness:

Happiness looks like a rainbow.

Happiness tastes like buttery waffles with syrup.

Happiness sounds like pop music on a sunny Saturday while sipping lemonade at the beach.

Happiness smells like cotton candy flavored gum. Yum!

Happiness feels like winning the World Series.

 …and summer:


To my surprise, when asked to write what they want to become, students’ answers ranged from a movie star or a cook to an astronaut. One girl touched my heart and the hearts of others when she wrote that the things she liked to do was not to feel medicine in her blood after she’d recovered from an illness…

Please, enjoy the poem about future dream my student and I created together:

My dream is to be a dancer.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream is bright like the stage lights when people applaud me after the dance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream tastes like a big piece of watermelon that my mother cuts for me on a summer morning.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream smells like a touch of a perfume before the dance performance.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream looks like beautiful costumes made especially for me.

Being a star. Practice makes perfect.

My dream feels like sore muscles after a tough training.

I want to become a dancer. I want to feel elevated.

“Colorful Me” Field Trip


My face.
Milk-tea brown.
I am brown. I am beautiful.
Your face.
Sienna brown
or cocoa brown,
café con leche brown or
radiant ocher brown.
Our hands, our fingers.
Cinnamon brown
or rich coffee brown,
sandalwood brown or rosy adobe brown.
Our ankles, our feet.
Nutmeg brown or mocha brown,
dark chocolate brown or tawny golden brown.
Our eyes.
Luminous topaz brown or sweet cappuccino brown,
shiny sepia brown or twinkling brown.
Our hair.
Spruce brown or bay brown,
russet brown or deep tamarind brown.
We are brown. We are beautiful.

From Tan to Tamarind:Poems About the Color Brown by Malathi Michelle Lyengar

My second field trip with Open Books was based on the book Tan to Tamarind and was dedicated to the idea that no matter what color is your skin, you are BEAUTIFUL! Each poem in the book celebrates different shades of the color brown  and the role it plays in many human experiences and rituals.

At the end of the workshop the 4th graders created their own poems describing the colors they associate themselves with.

Before writing their poems, the kids learnt about simile and metaphor because they had to craft metaphors to write the poems. Here are just a few examples of the beautiful descriptions students came up with:

“My lips are a smooth peach.”

“My hair is a bright morning sun.”

“My nails are a yellow sweet fresh melons which my mother brought from the market.”

“My eyes are two green ripe apples from my garden.”

It is always a great pleasure for me to work with children and inspire them to open up and share beautiful ideas they have!

Back to childhood in search of an immense source of creativity.

My first “books” written when I was 5 and 6 y.o.

Some kids liked to spend their days at the playground, some couldn’t be pulled away from videogames – I was writing stories. I learned to read and write earlier than a majority of my peers which I owe to my grandmother. My favorite part of the day since I was 5 was reading time. I loved to get cozy in my room and immerse myself into the world where characters from Grimm’s fairy-tales or Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” were my best friends. At some point I found myself composing stories of my own. I turned them into small books made of folded paper and created my own “illustrations” as you can see on the photo:) (Mind that they are written in Russian which is my native language). Recently when going through the boxes with my childhood stuff I came upon these precious pieces of memory. Among the “books” were: a fairy-tale about a magician who decides to teach a kid disobeying his parents a lesson; a story about a sailor in love with a beautiful girl and his evil secret twin; a volume with epic adventures(because there were 100 pages total:) of a lost puppy in search for his home. The last one was actually turned into a play at the local children’s theatre and I remember I had to write a screenplay with the help of the director. Besides happiness from my discovery, I also felt gratefulness – I finally was able to finish a middle-grade novel I was working on. I was debating between two endings and couldn’t decide for a long time already. Then, reading the ending of the story about the magician which appeared to have a similar plot with my novel, I realized – that was the ending I had to work on! I grabbed my laptop and in three hours the first draft was finished! In addition, a few weeks ago I visited Margaret Mitchell’s house and was surprised to find out that she began her literary journey when she was seven. As a teenager she was writing stories about Civil War and the South; scenes from many of them were later included in “Gone With The Wind”. Perhaps some of you have similar first “masterpieces” hidden somewhere in the attic of your parent’s house. If you find them, I’m sure you’ll get an incredible wave of energy for your current work and an inspiration to start a new novel, because reading your first scribbles will be like a magical conversation with a childhood YOU who was already a great story-teller:)