Writing Out of the Ordinary

Times Staff Writer

Read the Journal of Ordinary Thought and trudge through the reeking dark of a public housing project, panting up 17 flights because the elevator is broken, as always.

Read the journal and sweat as a Kmart clerk accuses you of shoplifting. Read and swing to a velvet voice under the red-fringed ceiling at Lee's Unleaded Blues on 74th.

For more than a decade, editors of the nonprofit literary journal have pushed past labels to pull art from every corner of this city. Their poets are convicts and social workers, janitors and CEOs. Their storytellers are college students and battered women. Some are unemployed, others barely literate.

The writing is not always elegant. Yet there is power in the rough edges.

"Too many people sit down to construct a thought and they edit it to death. The ordinary guy lets it all spill out. He doesn't have anything to lose by telling the truth," said Patricia Guy, the journal's assistant editor.

"We make sure the commas are in the right place. The rest is all his," she said.

The poems and personal narratives printed in the journal all spring from free writing workshops held in libraries, shelters and coffee shops across Chicago. The nonprofit Neighborhood Writing Alliance sponsors 10 workshops a week; each draws from 10 to 20 regulars.

They learn about metaphors and meter. Mostly, though, they learn that they have stories to tell. And readers who care.

Since the journal was founded in 1991, it has published nearly 800 writers. A local theater group staged a play drawn from their words in 1999; reviewers praised it as "strikingly poetic." More recently, journal writers have been invited to read at citywide book fairs, on cable TV and on public radio. This month, they performed at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

"It's a chance for people to say: 'See me! Hear me! This is who I am!' " said Susan House, a workshop leader.

"It's like breaking out of your shell," added Sifredo Torres, a writer.

Torres, 37, works in a factory, sewing military long johns. Until two years ago, he couldn't write or read; he had to take job applications home for a friend to fill out. Ashamed, he started attending an adult literacy class taught by House. She soon nudged him into her journal workshop.

"I wanted to make him see himself as a person worthy of respect," House said.

So she made him read old journals -- poems and stories about lives as ragged as his own. People wrote about aching feet, lonely kitchens, torn cots at the homeless shelter, the dusty air inside divorce court on a cold, sad Wednesday when the stranger who was a husband demands custody.

"You read it, and you see what's really going on in the world. You can see it, and you can feel it," Torres said.

When his first piece was published a few months later, Torres dragged three boxes packed with magazines onto the train and handed the journal to everyone in sight. "No matter how low you were," he told them, pointing to his name in print, "you can accomplish a lot."

Now, Torres can't stop writing. He spends his lunch breaks composing love poetry to his wife, Diana:

No one knows

where the wind comes from

behind the rock

behind the sea

in front of you, behind me

I don't know where our love comes from ...

still, it's here

strong and free

light and laughter

Torres met Diana at the workshop, which she joined to improve her writing. When they married, the other authors in their group threw a party. A workshop baby shower is being planned; Diana, 24, is due in May. She writes now of her hopes for the baby: "I dream about the house we will live in. I want the house to have clean floors and a clean kitchen ... a gate so that nobody could come inside ... I hope we will not live in a bad neighborhood."

"When I was first published," she said, "I felt like crying."

The Journal of Ordinary Thought was founded by Hal Adams, a professor of education at the University of Illinois. After years of teaching writing to homeless children, Adams realized that their parents also had much to express. Writing their experiences seemed to give them confidence, ease their isolation, even help them order their lives.

Financed at first by grant money, Adams began publishing their reflections under the slogan "Every person is a philosopher." In 1996, he and two colleagues founded the Neighborhood Writing Alliance to take over publication -- and to reach out beyond homeless shelters to find writers of all backgrounds.

Some of the weekly workshops are now coordinated with social service agencies and are aimed at specific groups, such as women making the transition from welfare, or recent immigrants from Mexico. Most, though, are open to any adult. They're advertised in fliers posted on community bulletin boards, in libraries and in schools.

Anyone who participates regularly in the workshops is published, regardless of skill.

"I didn't know anything about metaphors. I just remembered something I'd been through and I wrote it down," said Adrienne Kelly, 51, one of Adams' first recruits.

She wrote, for instance, about rats eating at her front door in the projects. She wrote about entering every sweepstakes she could find for the chance to take her four kids on vacation. She even wrote about how years of climbing garbage-clogged stairs wore at her body: "I have a lot of broken veins in my legs. They're quite an ugly sight, so ugly I don't like to look."

To Kelly's astonishment, her reflections were taken seriously as literature. The journal has published dozens of her pieces.

Week after week, Kelly has returned to the workshops, making her way to the worn backroom at the Martin Luther King Jr. Branch Library each Tuesday, even when she doesn't know where she'll be sleeping that night. She has been homeless on and off for nearly a decade.

"I'm not saying I enjoy writing. But instead of going completely insane, I get rid of my thoughts by putting them down on paper," Kelly said.

Though the magazine prints some fiction, most of the writing is personal narrative in the spirit of Chicago author Studs Terkel -- who has called it a "wondrous journal." Running 80 to 100 pages an issue, it's formatted like a glossy paperback book, with black-and-white photographs by local artists as illustrations.

Nearly 400 readers subscribe, paying $25 a year. Several thousand copies of each issue also are distributed free, and much of the work is online at www.jot.org.

Amateur writers in a variety of settings, from prisons to steel mills, in recent years have published similar anthologies as writing workshops have become a popular tool for social service agencies. In addition to the Journal of Ordinary Thought, Adams has published several issues of Real Conditions Magazine, produced by residents of poor and immigrant neighborhoods.

But few of these programs boast the broad reach of the journal, which draws in writers of all backgrounds and offers a regular, quarterly schedule of publication. Its $200,000 annual budget includes small city and state grants, but comes mostly from corporations, foundations and individual donors.

"Some of the writing stuns me," says Ann Collins, a retired teacher and longtime supporter. "You're getting into their heads in a way you never otherwise could."

Outsiders often describe the journal as giving voice to the voiceless. That strikes the staff of four as condescending.

"We assume they already have something to say," editor Annie Knepler said.

"We're just giving them the opportunity to have it heard," said Carrie Spitler, the publisher.

That opportunity starts at the spirited workshops, led by amateur writers with more passion than formal training. Most leaders assign homework: Write about your first tool. Craft a poem about work. But they also invite participants to share their words on any topic.

Often, the seminars turn into support groups, as participants write their way, week by week, through divorce, layoff, illness and trouble with the law.

"I used to think something was wrong with me. I thought I must be crazy because I would sit and write stories to myself instead of watching late-night infomercials," said Edward Hines, 32, who is studying art at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "I feel comfortable here with this group," he said. "Here, you can go all-out."

To get the words flowing at one recent workshop, Patricia Guy gives her group five minutes to riff off the opening line "Crying is easy ... " They come up with poems about combat, alcohol, the death of a sister and the sorry state of education in the inner city.

Lolita Hughes, 35, who works as a bricklayer when she can find a job, writes of her mother's funeral:

Crying is easy

But it sure makes you feel sad ...

And to this day I still cry

For my man

For my kids

For my marriage

Because I don't want it any more

But I stay for the kids

And I cry and cry for the world

There is silence as she reads. And then, applause.

"In school, my punctuation was never right, and my teachers turned me off from writing," Hughes says. "But I believe there's a story for me to tell."

Guy opens the floor to anyone with a piece to share.

Gerald Brickford, 33, an air-conditioner mechanic, takes out his notebook and thumbs through a suspense story he has written. He recently taught himself to use a thesaurus; his tale of horrors in a graveyard, scrawled hurriedly in pencil, is dense with words like necropolis, sepulchral and miasmal.

"Y'all can critique me and say it's crap," he announces.

No one is ever that harsh at a journal workshop. Participants pride themselves on being supportive. But a retired businessman at the end of the table does offer some advice when Brickford finishes.

"You didn't bring me in. You just described it all for me," says Gale Occomy, 69. A chemist by training, Occomy ran his own construction firm for years, and he's not afraid to speak out. With a vocabulary straight out of the Wall Street Journal, he quotes authors from C.S. Lewis to Gabriel Garcia Marquez as he makes suggestions.

"You have to bring the readers in so they can feel the action," Occomy urges.

Brickford frowns, but he's not discouraged. He will work on the piece. Or he will start a fresh one. Since he joined the workshop three months ago, he finds himself reaching for a pencil every moment he can snatch. "Writing becomes addictive after a while," he says.

John Kastholm, 53, described that addiction in a piece he wrote a few weeks ago after picking up the latest issue of the journal, which included one of his poems, a wry ode to coffee. Once a practicing architect, Kastholm lost his career, his savings and his health to cocaine. "The only thing I held onto was my writing. That's the only thing left in my life," he said.

Now HIV-positive and struggling to stay off drugs, Kastholm lives at a YMCA shelter. When he needs a lift, he reads the Journal of Ordinary Thought:

the majority of it written by people like me, people hanging on by a thread,

people trying not to slip through the cracks, people realizing that their last

shred of dignity may be saved by somehow communicating what little strength

and hope and experience they can muster.

"You wonder, 'Why would anyone want to listen to me?' " Kastholm said.

"This journal tells you, 'You're not alone.' "

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