Night of literary charity

By Brianna Wellen

In a Lincoln Square bookstore, between towering bookcases and a noisy espresso machine, people elbowed through a crowd to find an empty seat while others were resigned to standing against the back wall. Some sipped wine, some chatted with strangers, but once Alyson Lyon, the co-producer of Essay Fiesta, approached the lone microphone at the front of the store, the room hushed. All eyes were on her as she began the show with her story of the “Intuitive Treasure Hunter.”

Born over dinner party conversation, Essay Fiesta is a literary series that provides an opportunity for local authors, comedians and bloggers to share personal nonfiction essays with the community. Each show works toward raising money to support the Howard Brown Health Center, 4025 N. Sheridan Road, a health care center for the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community, through raffles and audience donations.

On the third Monday of every month, readings are held at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave., where Lyon, Keith Ecker—the show’s other co-producer—and five others share their essays. At the end of the night, donated items are raffled off with all proceeds going directly to the Howard Brown Health Center. In a bookstore that typically holds 50 people, 60 or more squeeze in on a monthly basis to hear the readings.

Lyon and Ecker met in the stand-up comedy community, but after talking they realized they wanted an outlet that allowed them to write more. Both had a background in essay writing and connected with Chicago’s literary and artistic community to find interest from local writers to get involved.

“We wanted to bring artists from different disciplines together for the sake of personal essays,” Ecker said. “We wanted to be able to showcase our own writing, and we also wanted to do collective action and give back to the community.”

Writers submit their work through the Essay Fiesta website, and Lyon and Ecker select stories to fit their show’s style and tone but also represent a variety of points of view. Whether they plan it or not, Ecker said themes emerge out of the night’s readings.

“Every show is like that, it’s just so serendipitous,” Ecker said. “We feel that themes will naturally arise out of the show no matter what because we all have these unique experiences, but these unique experiences that we have transcend ourselves and translate into life in general. People can relate and these themes naturally overlap each other.”

Bryant Dunbar, Howard Brown Health Center’s director of development, is present at every show as a constant reminder of the evening’s true purpose. As an audience member he scribbles down little notes on everyone’s readings and at the end of the night he addresses the crowd, making connections from the stories to his own cause.

“I love it because I try to listen to their stories and find the connections to our mission and the services and programs that we provide,” Dunbar said. “While this may not be the same audience that we serve, there’s so much crossover with the themes they share and the personal stories, so they as writers and

artists sort of illuminate things that play out in the lives of our clients.”

Dunbar said the event has served its mission well. The contributions made from the raffle in less than a year have matched that of a major gift donor. On top of that, audience members often approach Dunbar after the show and hand him money or later make personal donations on the website.

As Essay Fiesta approaches its one-year anniversary in November, Lyon said charity will always be the show’s core. It hopes to expand its program to offer readings for other non-profits and is working toward starting an essay writing workshop called, “I’ve Got Something To Say,” which will incorporate Lyon and Ecker’s writing and comedy backgrounds. Through their projects, according to Lyon, it’s key for people to be able to share their stories.

“I think it’s really captivating to h

ear so

mebody be honest and straight forward about their experience,” Lyon said. “Part of the reason this has been so successful is that I think that there’s a need for people to relate to each other on a much more pared down, human level, like ‘This is my experience and I’m going to tell you about it.’”

Essay Fiesta’s next show will be Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. For more information, visit