Day at the American Writers Museum - Umberto Tosi
|UT ponders process at AWM|
I was ready for another round this July when my eldest daughter, Alicia and her husband Brian paid my inamorata Eleanor and I a visit, as they do from time to time. They were on their way home to Mexico City, where they run American and English literature programs at an international school, having done that sort of thing on four continents. They had just spent fortnight in Ireland visiting Brian's mother.
Right off, Brian, an author and musician as well, announced in his lyrical Irish brogue: "I must see your Writers' Museum."
"Writers' museum?" I hesitated. "I didn't know we had one." In fact I didn't know there was such a thing.
"Oh, yes. Right here." He had heard about it in Ireland. He pointed to a display on his smart-phone: The American Writers' Museum on bustling North Michigan Avenue, blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago, Grant Park and the Chicago Cultural Center.Turns out it's the only museum in the country dedicated to American writers, rather than the many that celebrate individual authors, usually at their respective home towns.
|Alicia and Brian try out the vintage typewriters|
"Let's have a look," I offered. "But what's a writers museum, anyway - a library? How do you display writing - adapting for theatre maybe - but in otherwise...? A Madame Tussuad's of writers?"
I felt like a wax dummy when we toured the AWM the next day. Seems I'd been limiting my imagination. The place turned out to be a delight - crammed with interactive displays rendering insightful surprises that involved us from the moment we stepped from an elevator into its 11,000 square foot second-floor office building space into its own special world.
A multicoloured tree sculpted entirely from books greeted us from overhead as we entered - a clever bit of environmentally flipped irony in an age when not all writing is on paper in the 21st century.
|I time travel with American writers|
Hours whizzed by timelessly as we explored AWM's galleries and wall displays and galleries - a dozen or so, depending on how you count - each a play space (in the best sense) of visitor-engaging content-rich touch screens and physical items. Unlike museums of old, practically none of the hundreds of displays is strictly for looking. Everything there is for touching, experimenting and experiencing.
A long, writers gallery, labelled "American Voices" displayed striking images, interactive blurbs and quotations of a hundred word masters, arranged chronologically from the 16th to the 21st centuries. It's a people's - not a scholar's museum, firmly grounded in sophisticated insightful lore.
|AWM's Children's room|
Fittingly, AWM offers a display on the literary giants of Chicago. A bannered display includes Jane Addams, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros, Lorraine Hansberry - et al, to Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Richard Wright and the late Roger Ebert.
|Dublin Writers Museum|
Next to this was a special display of the original continuous roll of paper Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road. It reminded me of how I used to purloin thick rolls of teletype machine paper from the newspaper where I worked and use them to draft my own books at the time, correcting and rewriting as I went along, the cutting and pasting a final draft (literally) to be finally type cleanly into a submittable manuscript. That was my practice until 1981 when I got my first primitive Radio Shack computer-word-processor. How did we do it? I wondered.
The AWM experience isn't educational in the scholarly sense, nor does it impart techniques to budding writers, but it does raise enthusiasm for writing in an intimate setting that connects writing to our lives in relevant way - writing as organic to life rather than as the usual solitary pursuit it is portrayed to be. A misty installation of potted palms inspired by the poetry of W. S. Merwin seemed to characterize the immersive quality of the entire museum.
"If I taught classes here, I would make this a field trip every semester," my son-in-law remarked as we finished our tour.
My embarrassment at not knowing about this downtown gem was alleviated when I learned that AWM had only opened its doors six weeks earlier, with an invites-only ceremony presided over by Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. I did recall seeing notices in the local paper vaguely, then, but my eyes had glazed over. It took my son-in-law from Ireland and my daughter to get me there, however, and glad of it.
Dublin Writers Museum twelve ago on one of his trips to Ireland where he was born (in Limerick). Unlike AWM, the Dublin museum, which opened in 1991 is more of a scholarly repository of original manuscripts and writing artifacts.
|Lisa Wagner, Dipika Mukherjee,Sonal Shulka, Samantha Hoffman|
The AWM has garnered rave notices in major media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Guardian and high online ratings as well. Fodors ranked AWM No. 1 on its list of the world's ten best new museums. USA Today named it best of its top ten Readers Choice attractions in Illinois. "Where are the books?" A favourable Washington Post review teased, implying that it didn't much matter in this den of interactivity.
Though there are few actual books, the AWM aims to become a center for Chicago's living writers and book lovers from everywhere, from the looks of AWM's lively events program giving Chicago writers, publishers and nonprofits a platform. I attended one lively event a few weeks after my initial visit. It starred one of our own Authors Electric writers, Dipika Mukherjee. She led a discussion about writers, culture and social activism with AWM Assistant Program Director Sonal Shulka, and fellow Chicago authors Lisa Wagner, executive director of Chicago's Guild Literary Complex, and Samantha Hoffman, author of What More Could You Ask For? Both read from Ms. Mukherjee's latest novel, Shambala Junction, a thriller that explores the issues of black market adoptions and human trafficking.
Chicago poet Chuck Kramer, who also attended the event, and I set the wheels in motion to hold one of our regular Chicago Quarterly Review events there in the spring. Stay tuned.
Looks like the American Writers Museum is off to a great start more than a just a museum - rather what an arts center should be - a living part of this storied writers town's dynamic creative life. Time will tell how well this all works, but chapter one has me hooked. Not bad for a modest $12 US admission price.
The American Writers Museum is located at 180 North Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL,60601 Phone: 312.374.8790.
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's Name, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s and aughts. He was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s and 70s, He has been editor of San Francisco and other regional publications. He has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He has four grown children, nine and three great-grandchildren. He resides in Chicago and is partnered with noted Chicago narrative imagist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.