Constable: Anthology celebrates 75 years of writers' workshop
In 1946, a dozen wives of Northwestern University professors were searching for an outlet for their literary talents.
"They decided to put on a little coffee klatch and improve their writing," says Fred Fitzsimmons, current president of what became the Off Campus Writers' Workshop, which now boasts 450 members. "It's the oldest continuous writers' workshop in the United States."
Meeting most Thursday mornings at the Winnetka Community House, the group has expanded its reach during the pandemic by hosting speakers on Zoom. Instead of a couple dozen members who can make the weekly meetings, the group now regularly draws as many as 150 writers from across the city and suburbs, across Illinois, across the nation, and across the sea, with members from Israel, France, Japan, Australia and elsewhere.
In honor of the group's 75th anniversary, it published an anthology of members' short stories, memoirs and creative nonfiction titled "Turning Points." It features 43 writers, several from the suburbs, including two former Daily Herald employees.
Charles Dickinson, who graduated from Arlington High School and lives in Rolling Meadows, was a copy editor at the Daily Herald, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune and is author of acclaimed short stories and novels such as "Waltz in Marathon," "Crows," "The Widows' Adventures," "Rumor Has It," "A Shortcut in Time," and "A Family in Time." In addition to serving as consulting editor for the anthology, Dickinson contributed "The Lint Artist," a futuristic tale in which most Americans get monthly Universal Basic Income checks and the United States is known as Hackistan.
"I joined OCWW because I had been a writer for as far back as I could remember but had never really examined the process," Dickinson says. "I've learned so much. The people are wonderful, and the anthology is full of outstanding stories."
Janet Souter, a former community news coordinator and columnist for the Daily Herald, has written more than 50 books with her husband, Gerry. Her story, "Slam," is told from the point of view of a girl in a poetry class.
The diversity of the stories makes this anthology special, says Peter Hoppock, 72, who built a successful career as an advertising executive and coached competitive club soccer teams before joining the workshop and becoming an editor for this project.
"My approach was to really focus on what each writer wanted. What did you want the reader to feel?" Hoppock says. His story, "How Grandpa George Got to Heaven," deals with a boy's fears that his grandfather's soul is trapped in the coffin and will be buried with his body.
Fellow editor Renee James, a Wheeling resident, says some writers in the anthology are "polished pros" who have published novels and stories, and some are writers for whom this is their first published piece. James and Hoppock helped them all reach their potential.
"Maintaining respect for their work and passion, that whole thing is an art," says James. A Vietnam War veteran and transgendered author, James has published five crime novels and several short stories. Her piece in the anthology, titled "Hell Week," is about a Vietnam veteran returning to his college fraternity.
"How Long Is a Lifetime?" is a story about an outing with a 96-year-old woman, written by Sarah Ray Schwarcz of Libertyville. A former Chicago Public Schools teacher and principal, Schwarcz began writing in earnest at age 73 after she retired.
"At that age, I finally found the time to do some writing," Schwarcz says. She and her husband, Otto, a concentration camp survivor who had multiple sclerosis and other health issues, moved into a handicap-accessible house in Gurnee, where she'd go to the local library to write.
"Last year, I published my first book," says Schwarcz, who is 82. Her memoir, "Pearls and Knots: Dancing on a String from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan," gives a humorous and touching look at her path from Dubuque, Iowa, to Chicago. Her next book, a magical realism novel written for middle-school kids, will be published this year with the title "The ShrinkWithers." She plans to publish a book of poetry next year.
"OCWW is just a great, wonderful group," says Susan Winstead, 60, an Army veteran who retired as a captain, lives in Des Plaines, and is a past president of the workshop. Her story, "Porch Pirate," is about a package thief who makes a discovery. Even in the military, where she served in Germany as a company commander during the first Gulf War, Winstead managed to write children's stories about nature and crafts. Working in special education and early childhood programs, Winstead says the workshop has helped her writing and is filled with "people who want other people to do well."
Speakers have included the legendary Fred Shafer, longtime teacher of fiction writing for Northwestern University, and a litany of authors such as Stuart Dybek and Rebecca Makkai. Scott Turow wrote the preface to the anthology.
To buy the book or learn more about the organization, visit ocww.info.