Pilcrow Lit Fest: A Look Back, A Look Ahead

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The purpose of Chicago Subtext is, of course, to cover literary matters in Chicago. Yet, this post, admittedly, is a little strange. The
second annual Pilcrow Lit Fest, a small press and independent media festival, begins in Chicago on Sunday evening, a festival which yours truly founded. Rather that rehash the information on the festival website, and rather than make a list of links of everything and everyone involved this year, I though I'd spare you the sales pitch and talk about why I started Pilcrow in the first place.

2006 when I was touring to promote my first novel, I had the opportunity to speak at several literary festivals and quickly realized really wonderful things happen when people with common interests are brought
together, and readerly and writerly people were no exception. Authors and publishers
and yet-published writers come together in one place and everyone makes merry, and interesting
conversations during panel discussions happen, friendly break-out
conversations between panels happen, readers meet authors, authors meet
publishers, authors meet authors and the whole glorious thing is...
well, it's pretty cool.

sat on three panels at the Decatur Book
in Atlanta that year and met all sorts of wonderful people, many of whom are still
wonderful friends and colleagues to date. While the academic
dialogue was excellent, it was the social aspect of the festival which
really struck me. Shortly after, I participated in several panel discussions at the (Downtown) Omaha Lit
, a festival very social by nature, and had a similar experience. Later, I
went to New Orleans, and did the same at Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Then, I went back to Omaha and did it all again the following year.

At each festival, as people were meeting and becoming acquainted, ideas were going, collaborations were being born and plans were being hatched. And, though each festival was quite different, both in focus and execution, each had a certain community-building spirit which I thought would translate really well with the literary community in Chicago.

But, it was while in New Orleans, on the final day of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, as I stood in the French Quarter with festival director Paul Willis, watching the traditional closing "Stellaaaa!"-shouting contest, that we started to talk about festival logistics. An off-hand comment from yours truly about wanting to bring this lovely festival back to Chicago with me led to a comment from Willis that was at once a vote of confidence. And, so I left New Orleans the following morning thinking, One of these days, I'm going to do something like this in Chicago.

A couple of months later, Timothy Schaffert, founder and director of the (Downtown) Omaha Lit Fest was in Chicago promoting his novel, Devils In the Sugar Shop. I met him for dinner and a cocktail (okay, cocktails, plural) and our conversation turned to this "festival idea" of mine.

Schaffert began to describe the way he created the festival in Omaha, the changes he made each year and why, the things to consider, the approaches he recommended and did not. But, most importantly, his advice was to begin. Suddenly, it seemed quite doable, and even more than that, it suddenly seemed quite necessary.

Almost exactly one year later, as I added my remarks to the inside page of the Pilcrow Lit Fest program, I wrote: "At this point, I guess I should tell you all about the feeling of the festival, the thing that makes Pilcrow, well, Pilcrow. But as I write this, Pilcrow Lit Fest hasn't happened yet, and as you each read this, Pilcrow Lit Fest will be unfolding. We have no idea what lies ahead in the next couple of days. Sure, next year, we'll know what Pilcrow was like and what it looked like and we'll only build from that foundation in years to come. But for this inaugural year, it is entirely up in the air. And, that's the point-- Pilcrow Lit Fest is for us to make into what we want."

Though the part about the uncertainty has come and gone, the rest still holds up, just days before a much-expanded second festival. The relationship-building festival still exists for the members of the Chicago literary community to host, shape and mold each year, for readers to meet authors, for yet-published writers to meet the published, for small press publishers to meet small press authors, and for conversations to happen.

Last year, when I heard visiting authors wish they could stay another
week or two in order to attend all the regular literary events we have
in Chicago, I saw an opportunity to adapt this year's festival. This year, to best bring that spirit front and center, Pilcrow has partnered with as many existing literary events around the city as possible, asking curators to host their usual event, in their usual way, as part of Pilcrow Lit Fest, in order to best showcase in one week the amount of literary events taking place every single month in Chicago. And, among the partnering groups is Young Chicago Authors, an organization for whom Pilcrow will be raising funds throughout the week, most notably at the Literary Death Match-Rebuilt Books event on the final evening of the festival at the Viaduct Theater

I can think of no other better finale, as it will be a bit of a turning point for Pilcrow. After that final event, I will be announcing a regional director and
other new key people who will each continue to shape Pilcrow around the
Chicago literary community in years to come. You see, Pilcrow has done the greatest possible thing: It grew. I wrote in that inaugural festival program that Pilcrow was our festival to create as a community from year to year, and that we did. Its growth is, in my view, a testament to the commitment within Chicago's literary community to continue to build and develop.

Though I say the uncertainty on the eve of the initial festival has vanished, there is a certain unknown in all that lies ahead, though in quite an exciting sense. The question is no longer Will this work? but is now How can Pilcrow continue to adapt to the needs of the community and its changing landscape?

So, just as this year's festival is a bit different than the last, built around addressing the current needs of the literary community in Chicago, so to will next year's event be different from the one about to begin. "And, that's the point-- Pilcrow Lit Fest is for us to make into what we want."  


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  • I want SO bad to make it out to the literary death match on Saturday, but completely forgot I am going out of town.

    Good luck, Amy

  • Thanks, Mick! Next year for sure, then.

  • Argh, I wish I'd read this three weeks ago! Thanks for supporting Young Chicago Authors, I used to work there and I love them so.

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