By Martin Northway
Having freelanced for almost two decades, as well as being an editor who had taught or mentored dozens of reporters and writers, in the mid-1990s I figured it was time to take my show on the road with what I styled the Chicago Nonfiction Workshop. I wanted to share with improving writers how to explore markets, craft query letters to obtain assignments from editors and begin to master the various forms of nonfiction.
In small classes, on one evening a week for eight weeks, I sought to impart knowledge I wish I had had when I first began freelancing. There were weekly assignments and critiques. At first, I taught in my Evanston apartment, but after moving to Uptown I took my various groups into venues like the 3rd Coast coffeehouse in the Gold Coast, the former Cafe Gourmand in Printers Row and WorkShirts Writing Center in Andersonville.
In so doing, I felt almost as if I was following in the footsteps of the traveling scholars who carried culture into lecture halls across the Midwest during the early years of the University of Chicago. My basic curriculum remained consistent, but each new class quickly assumed its own unique identity.
To foster the habit of using a journal as flexibly as possible, I urged students to read Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones.” To improve observation and description, they read an excerpt of Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” in which she notes that the best way to glimpse the little silvery “shiners” schooling sinuously in a creek is not directly but obliquely, as the sun catches them. I encouraged writers to engage all the senses: if you write of the sea, the reader must smell the salt.
It is a cliché but also true that when you teach you also learn. My own journals attest that I was simultaneously sharpening my own senses. To Marcia, a rather harried young woman, I emphasized trying to create quiet psychic spaces for ourselves. I related how, standing on an El platform, I had witnessed a little life drama playing out a block away—a small child dropping tissues out of an upper window—that I otherwise might have missed but which instead produced a closely observed essay for Strong Coffee, the monthly arts journal I edited.
Working with diverse students with individual agendas, I learned to be flexible. They were there to satisfy their own goals, after all, and there were no grades. One session had two droll fellows, academic Robert and contractor Dave; each often turned toward humor. Assigned to write a news story, Robert asked if it had to be “true.” I said no, and he produced a hilarious fiction about a feather flying up the nose of a professor snoozing on the quadrangle; the story successfully observed the rules of news writing.
There were inventive variations on “the dog ate my homework.” Paula showed up apologizing that she had written a story contrary to the concept expressed in her query letter. I asked her to tell us the story behind that. She had been ill, and confessing to being a “student and practitioner of shamanic ways,” she said she had consulted a “spirit guide” for a journey resulting in a manuscript that “wrote itself.” She added that she rewrote the piece four times, and her care showed.
The farthest reach of my workshop was Hyde Park. I rented a room in the socially conscious University Church. There I had a fully subscribed eight students. Several were graduate students but all were serious writers of diverse backgrounds, a lively group that was a sheer delight to teach.
I often arrived there as the only white face on the #6 Jackson Park express bus, witnessing a regular ritual of it filling with students, who then did a graceful dance of surrendering seats to older black women departing their jobs in the South Loop. This communal generosity transformed the #6 into a cheery, blessed conveyance spinning through autumn leaves down Lake Shore Drive to the Museum of Science and Industry.
During the workshop, we learned to pause when the University of Chicago’s Mitchell Tower just across the way loudly chimed the hour. The leaded glass in the windows rattled, as we patiently shared an extended grace note—just about long enough for me to ponder the circle of life, having evolved from a student living just next door to returning here as a teacher.