Story Week ‘dream’ survives, festival arrives

By Lisa Schulz

After traveling homeless with only his dog, Randy Albers, Story Week founder and Fiction Writing chair, was halfway to his doctorate degree at the University of Chicago 34 years ago when he realized his past academic success, fortunate upbringing and future were not in alignment.

With help from others and some luck, he found Columbia, he said.

“Surviving the American Dream” is the theme for the 16th annual Story Week, a festival of 20 fiction writing events taking place March 18–23 at Columbia buildings and various Chicago venues. The event is free, open to the public and features readings from authors ranging from Columbia professors to visiting New York Times bestselling writers.

“We wanted topics that have to do with the tough economy, with division in the nation over religious and political issues and a variety of other social issues that artists and writers are always addressing,” Albers said. “I’m always trying to find a theme that is going to prompt people to think and open up discussion.”

According to Albers, the preparation of Story Week 2012 would not have been affected by his contract, which initially was not renewed, as reported by The Chronicle on March 5.

Albers, who was on sabbatical during the 2011–2012 academic year, had his contract as chair of the Fiction Writing Department reinstated for one year, according to a March 13 email sent to faculty and staff by Louise Love, interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

To work toward the goal of self-sustainability this year, Story Week planned more fundraising and has support from the Illinois Art Council and private donors, Albers said.

The festival is integrated into the Fiction Writing Department’s curriculum. Some classes are required to read book excerpts from featured Story Week authors and report on an event. Students take away first-person learning experiences, such as learning author techniques and discussing the writing process. A critical reading and writing class formed three to four years agoas a result of the festival’s success, Albers added.

“We’re going to try like hell to keep [Story Week],” he said. “Everyone in the Fiction Department feels that it serves a great purpose for the students [and] above all, for recruitment, for retention, for all of those 2016 goals that the college has put forward. And also for the college’s reputation and the wider community.”

New venues this year include Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave.; High Dive, 1938 W. Chicago Ave.; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Events included readings by authors, story workshops, book signings and conversation panels. Featured authors are Bonnie Jo Campbell (“Once Upon a River”), John Sayles (“A Moment in the Sun”) and playwright Young Jean Lee

(“The Shipment”).

Chicago’s literary community is one of the few tucked away in a big city that appreciates literature as art, said Samuel Park, associate professor in the English Department and author of “This Burns My Heart.” Park will read March 20 at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.

“Chicago is a much more literary city than people realize,” Park said. “People come predisposed to enjoy the experience. Chicago is not a TV or movie city like Los Angeles. More people are attuned to writing here. People come to be supportive instead of reluctant [to listen], and that’s one of the pleasures of reading in Chicago.”

Heidi Durrow, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky,” set one of the book’s scenes in Chicago. She will be one of the readers at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., for the Literary Rock & Roll event March 22. A Literary Rock & Roll preview was held March 3 with Chicago blues artist Ronnie Baker Brooks.

As with music, sound also makes a difference in storytelling. Durrow said she makes minor verbal edits to her published story during readings but not specifically for the audience.

“What’s written on the page doesn’t always connect with what’s read out loud,” she said. “So maybe I’ll delete a phrase here and there to make it sound right as a storyteller versus someone who’s reading the book. It could be anything. It really has to do [with] the sound of the language to me.”

According to Albers, collaboration with other departments is one aspect that keeps Story Week continuing, with work from the Art & Design, English, Theatre, Film & Video, Photography and Television departments. Self-immersion in the arts is most educational in the writing process, he said.

“Writers need things to write about,” Albers said. “Writers are also better at [being] thieves, stealing ideas from wherever they can get them. Not stealing other people’s stories, but stealing others’ techniques, trying to learn from them in whatever way and apply them in their own art. ”

Look for Story Week events at