Fiction Writers at Lunch program thrives

By HermineBloom

Tucked away in the Quincy Wong Gallery in the Wabash Campus Building, 623 S. Wabash Ave., fiction writing majors at Columbia read aloud excerpts of their fiction and nonfiction work for an audience of their peers—both advanced and beginning students—before or after eating a complimentary plate of pasta and salad for lunch.

Prominent, nationally-recognized authors are often invited to read their work as well as participate in a Q-and-A session during Fiction Writers at Lunch, which occurs about eight times per semester. Aleksandar Hemon, author of “The Lazarus Project,” which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, read at the program on Feb. 8. Hemon is currently the visiting teacher at Columbia, serving merely as one example of the Fiction Writing Department’s blossoming reputation.

“Fiction Writers at Lunch specifically becomes a way of helping students understand that writers are all solving the same writerly problems,” said Fiction Writing Department Chair Randall Albers.

What once involved 15 to 20 students sitting around a table talking about the writing process and things going on in their classes has evolved into an attendance of around 80 to 100 students throughout the four-hour sessions, explained Tom Popp, the program’s faculty coordinator and adjunct faculty at Columbia.

The goal of the Fiction Writers at Lunch program is for students to talk to peers, mentors and faculty about the writing process—their challenges and breakthroughs, Popp said.

Open mic readings, in particular, give students the opportunity to hear what’s coming through strongly in their writing and hear their own voice in front of a friendly audience, which is a very important extension of what’s happening in the classroom, Albers said.

The program is neither pretentious nor exclusive and is described as a combination of thinking seriously about your writing in an informal atmosphere.

“I’ve done student surveys for Fiction Writers at Lunch, and when I ask their favorite aspect of the program, it’s amazing how many people wrote the word ‘openness,’” Popp said. “Nobody’s trying to stick their nose up and be all literary, but at the same time, they do take their writing seriously and they do ask astute questions.”

The program acts as a natural springboard to get involved in Chicago’s larger literary community, which is being built by students and faculty members at Columbia with widely popular, nationally recognized events like Windy City Story Slam, Reading Under the Influence and Second Story, to name a few.

Jonathan Gugala, senior fiction writing major at Columbia, has read aloud at Fiction Writers at Lunch since his freshman year and attended Second Story and Windy City Story Slam as well.

“I think it’s one of the ways to connect with the department right from the start,” Gugala said of Fiction Writers at Lunch.

The dedicated faculty and the story workshop method, which involves less individual critiques and more reading aloud and class discussions are among some of the strengths of the department.

“The teachers are very attuned with what you’re doing,” Gugala said. “It’s amazing that teachers I’ve had last summer will still talk to me about what I was working on then.”

In addition, Popp explained that the Fiction Writing Department benefits from having a very diverse student body and allowing undergraduate and graduate students to take the same courses.

“There are all sorts of age, social classes, culture and sexual orientations, and that has a lot to do with writing,” Popp said. “You have a wide array of people around you as your audience, and therefore, I think it really expands your character base. Most importantly, it really opens up your sense of audience.”

Still, those who work in the Fiction Writing Department show no signs of becoming complacent in regard to their accomplishments.

“We sort of feel like right now we’re really a wonderful tide, but we’re not going to rest on our laurels,” Albers said. “We’re going to keep trying to make it even better; it’s a wonderful time to be here.”