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Persistence at the 3rd Annual StoryStudio Chicago Writers Festival

Monday, October 12, 2020

By Della Leavitt

StoryStudio Chicago's three-day Writers Festival moved this year to a covid-necessary virtual format. I was pleased to participate Oct. 1-4 as a guest of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. While “In-a-Year” StoryStudio students had the opportunity to meet individually with editors and agents, there were many interesting options for a general attendee like me. 

I must confess I am a person who loves to network with others at writing conferences. Not only to get to know interesting creative folks and learn from their experiences, but to free myself on these select weekends from feeling chained to my writing desk. Unfortunately, attending a virtual conference has aspects of the opposite effect—yes, there are many interesting sessions, but spending three days non-stop on Zoom -- a medium over which I feel like I already meet too many people -- forces me to remain in a front of screen amid a gallery of 100 others without any possibility of personal interactions. At the same time, I become anxious because this format limits my daily writing time for my novel-in-progress. My own daily writing sessions, although sometimes within a Zoom-group write-in format, have sustained me during these isolating times of the 2020 pandemic. Of course, the StoryStudio conference did offer many worthwhile sessions to tempt me away from writing my novel. This piece will share the highlights.

I found Megan Stielstra’s energy to be electrifying amid even the most staid of Zoom galleries. “Stand on a moment that rocked your world!” she calls and I can feel her standing on the stage in front of me on a Saturday afternoon at the Green Mill during Paper Macheté, rousing the beer-drinking crowd. Stielstra offered a quick four-quadrant exercise aimed to spark meaningful essays by positioning us where we are now from the perspective of where we have been. In her fast-paced lunchtime hour, she recalled her experience at a Chicago independent bookstore when personally directed to Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water; reminding us of the importance of independent bookstores in our community, both as readers and writers. Thank you, Megan!

For those of us seeking publication, I found the first session of the three-day conference to be a thoughtful panel representing four distinct small presses. Kathleen Rooney (Rose Metal Press), Kenyatta Rogers (Rhino), Chantz Etolin (Graywolf Press) and Elizabeth DeMeo (Tin House), who shared no-nonsense information through lively conversation. “Follow the guidelines and target where you want to submit,” always wise watchwords to keep in mind. At another conference session two days later, author Eric May (Bedrock Faith) and Columbia College professor, gave an overview of small presses and shared nuts-and-bolts links to specific resources to further our search for the independent press that could be a fit for our work.

For me, it is always a thrill to hear from a current top author. This year, the StoryStudio conference brought us Glasgow-born, Douglas Stuart, whose novel Shuggie Bain, is short-listed for the 2020 National Book Award and the Booker Prize, among others. Vu Tran, University of Chicago professor and author (Dragonfish), deftly interviewed Stuart, who generously shared his vulnerabilities throughout his decade-long effort to write and find the right agent (Anna Stein, ICM) who respected his intent for Shuggie Bain, an autobiographically-based novel. Even over Zoom, I am always star-struck to be in the presence of a hardworking, witty writing talent such as Douglas Stuart.

I found advice from authors Courtney Maum (Before and After the Book Deal; Costalegre: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Peggy Guggenheim and Her Daughter, Pegeen) and James Klise (Love DruggedThe Art of Secrets) to be engaging. Both gave snappy tips – how to write a logline and how to develop fully-formed characters by asking: “What is the key event from your character’s past that made them who they are today?,” “What does the character want or fear most? What will they do about it?” and, “What are the consequences?” 

Another highlight was a late Saturday afternoon conversation between debut novelists Nancy Johnson (The Kindest Lie, February, 2021) and Sahar Mustafa (The Beauty of Your Face, April, 2020) moderated by Rebecca Makkai. The women discussed their routes to publication with mainstream publishers, along with false starts, which Makkai pointed out to be common errors when new authors submit their manuscripts too early. Johnson, a native of Chicago’s South Side, began writing The Kindest Lie at the beginning of Obama’s second term among the spate of claims that Americans were living in a so-called “post-racial” era. She attended various conferences and residencies including one at Tin House under tutelage of author Tayari Jones. Johnson hired author Caroline Leavitt for a full critique, made revisions, submitted to agents and received a round of rejections. Then, Johnson enlisted Beta readers from her writing community, revised again, submitted again and landed her agent, Danielle Bukowski from Sterling Lord. Mustafa earned a Columbia College MFA, and then, attended StoryStudio’s Novel-In-A-Year program to develop her book.

Both Mustafa and Johnson stressed patience and persistence and the necessity to stick to your vision of the book you want to write. Both emphasized how important it is to the find the right fit for representation to combat the dominant white publishing world which may try to force an author’s work into stereotypes and tropes. When Makkai asked these talented women to give advice from current vantage points to the authors they had hoped to become at the beginnings of their journeys, Mustafa said, “Be kind to yourself,” and Johnson spurred us to repeat her mantra, “You can do this. You will publish this book.”


Della Leavitt was recently awarded a 2021 Newberry Library short-term fellowship to support Beyond Maxwell Street (1911-1956), a multi-generational novel-in-progress springing from her family’s history. In August, Della was among the winners of an essay contest sponsored by the filmmakers of GameChangers, a documentary that aims to bring divergent stakeholders into conversations about Chicago’s race and class inequality sparked by footage of 1965-1966 city and suburban state tournament high school basketball games. Della’s proudest literary accomplishment to date is her unpublished novel, The Measure of a Teacher. It is based on her experiences as both a Chicago Public Schools teacher and parent and also, springs from her narrative PhD dissertation: Meek, but Not Weak! A Resilient Black Female Mathematics Teacher Composes a Purposeful Life (2010).  

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