Lombard's Leigh Stein thought she was an actress who loved, loved, loved acting. Whether she was onstage in the Glenbard East High School production of "West Side Story" or in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at the College of DuPage, Stein just knew acting was her life.
Without bothering to graduate from high school or get a degree from COD, Stein talked herself into the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
Leigh Stein reads at CODAward-winning poet and novelist Leigh Stein returns to the College of DuPage, where she was a student in 2002 and 2003, to read from her books as part of the Writers Read series.
When: 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 8
Where: Student Resource Center, Room 2000, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn
Sponsor: Liberal Arts Division
More information: Call (630) 942-3291 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
"It was the only college I applied to," says Stein, who got accepted and moved to New York before the school discovered she didn't have a high school diploma. The academy let her earn her GED during her first year of college.
"I was 100 percent sure I wanted to be an actress," Stein remembers. Rehearsing the serious, dramatic scenes of love and heartache she always longed for, Stein found her true calling.
"I was crying all the time in scenes, and then I'd go home and write in my dorm room," Stein recalls, "and I'd go, 'Oh, I want to be a writer.'"
"I always wrote as a kid and made little books," says Stein, who remembers going to the office with her dad one Saturday before she was old enough for grade school, and using his computer to write a book. The older daughter of business manager Brad Stein and psychologist Marilyn Stuckey, Leigh Stein was a bright kid who knew she wasn't going to fulfill the suburban expectations of getting into her dream college and emerging with "a corporate job in a cubicle with benefits."
As a teen, she felt "aloof," "depressed," "and spent a lot of time on the Internet," says Stein, who felt more at home blogging than she did in high school.
"One of the reasons I left high school is I didn't have the social glue to keep me there," she says. "I would always rather stay home and make little books in my room."
When most of her old high school classmates left for college, Stein stayed home and enrolled in the honors program at the College of DuPage in 2002 and 2003.
"I've always just wanted to do things my own way. The fact that I chose it meant everything," says Stein, who took poetry classes from professor Freyda Libman.
"She was unforgettable," recalls Libman, who is retired, living in Naperville and nearly finished with her own book about her other career in the bridal business.
"There are many people who are in classes because they want to learn to write poetry. And there are other people who are in classes because they need to write poetry … She's the real deal."
Poetry was "the first writing I fell in love with," says Stein, who says she writes "poetry for people who hate poetry."
"Poems don't have to be inside jokes among you and everyone in your MFA program. They can be real jokes, or they can be narrative, or they can be dialogue, or they can be dark and moving," she writes in her blog. "Poems can be everything you love about reality TV, Twitter, and road trips, as well as love and heartbreak and loss. I want a real smorgasbord of life in my poems, don't you?"
She's written a series of poems using only lines from the "Bachelorette" TV show. She's written poems about Facebook ("I'm on Facebook more than I am out looking at trees," she explains). She's written poems built around movie plots and fairy tales. She's written funny poems that feature really dark lines about bleeding to death and dying alone.
"I feel the theme of my early 20s was bad boyfriends and drama and 'Who is going to be my boyfriend?'" Stein says. "I can't write a poem like that, so I'm dying in a cave."
"When you're feeling especially heartbroken or confused or vengeful, poetry gives you something to do besides jumping into a river and hoping whoever hurt you finds your body," she once wrote.
"I make jokes in spite of the darkness," she says. "It's very connected in me -- the humor and the darkness."
The first time she read a poem in public, the reaction surprised her.
"People laughed and I said, 'Oh, is this funny?'" Stein remembers.
Her novel, which also is dark and funny, is about a young woman who graduates from Northwestern University and moves back in with her parents. When her summer job ideas (being a dog-walker or a personal assistant to Sofia Coppola) don't pan out, she becomes a baby sitter. Stein actually wrote her poetry collection first, but the novel was the first published.
"I felt I wanted to be a real writer, so I wrote a novel," she says, aware that most writers slave over manuscripts that end up languishing in desk drawers. "I think it was easy because I didn't know I could not do it."
Now living in the desirable Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn with boyfriend Brian Jacks, a producer with IFC cable channel, Stein recently left her job with a children's book publisher. She teaches drama to children part time and has a fondness for puppetry.
The online trailer for her novel was filmed in her parents' backyard in Lombard with her boyfriend manning the camera and Stein controlling a stuffed panda bear. The author portraits for her book jackets were photographed by Stein's younger sister, Hattie, now a student at DePaul University.
Stein returns to the suburbs several times a year, and will be featured in this years's Writers Read series at the College of DuPage, reading her work at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 8, in the student Resource Center Room 2000.
"It's a real inspiration for me -- and I think for our students as well -- to have one of our own authors come back to share their work at College of DuPage," says Tom Montgomery Fate, a COD English professor and author who coordinates the program.
Stein, who plans to graduate from Brooklyn College this December with a degree in comparative literature, says she is grateful for her time at the College of Dupage and her formative years in the suburbs.
"The more I live away from home the more I am interested in the suburbs. I'm just interested in the suburban landscape and why they live here," Stein says. She has put aside her new novel ("It's much harder to write the second one") and is working on a nonfiction book about death and mourning on Facebook.
"Friends see me as funny, outgoing, and light and chipper," Stein says, "and that's the way I am to counter the dark side."