On November 20, 2013, the board of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) announced its immediate closure, rendering defunct the Journal of Ordinary Thought, the quarterly publication of the seventeen-year-old community literary institution. “It was an issue of capacity—a lot of nonprofits were hit by the economic downturn,” recounted Sue Eleuterio, a former board member and interim director of the NWA, as well as a workshop leader of ten years for Ordinary Thought. In spite of the despondency that accompanied the sudden collapse of an institution that shaped literary worlds across the city, the cherished memories—and numerous afterlives—of the Journal of Ordinary Thought still keep it in the hearts and minds of many Chicagoans today.
The Journal of Ordinary Thought was the brainchild of Hal Adams, who founded it with support from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1991. Adams conducted writing workshops for communities on the West Side of Chicago and published their work in the journal, but funding began to run out after a few years. To prevent the journal from folding, Adams worked together with Deborah Epstein and Sunny Fischer in 1995 to found the NWA as a nonprofit organization a year later, giving them access to resources to keep the journal afloat.
“I was completely taken by the writing groups, the journal, and the whole effort. Sunny shared the excitement, the energy, and insight of the writers that they brought to their work, and the reception that it was getting in various communities. So we all wanted to find a way to keep it going,” said Epstein, a consultant for arts and culture nonprofits and executive director of the NWA from 1995 to 2002. Early financial supporters of the NWA included the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, allowing Ordinary Thought to thrive and expand across Chicago.
“The model for the entire organization was weekly ninety-minute workshops that were free and open to anyone over the age of eighteen in the city of Chicago,” said Eleuterio, a professional folklorist. “People were welcome to bring fiction, but our focus for the print publication was personal experience, narratives, and poetry.”
The Journal of Ordinary Thought is rooted in the proposition that every person is a philosopher, a declaration that capped the masthead of every issue. Participants at the workshops were encouraged to share their personal stories, all of which, the organization believed, had their own inherent value.
Hollen Reischer, who was the assistant director of NWA and the editor of the journal from 2010 to 2013, said, “As anyone who’s read the Journal of Ordinary Thought knows, ‘ordinary’ people have extraordinary stories to tell, as well as fantastic ways of telling what might seem at first blush like mundane stories. The goal was to make sure the writer’s words were clear so that his or her unique voice would come forth in all of its power.” Eleuterio added, “The mission of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance was to provide people who were in some way disenfranchised the opportunity to write and publish, whether because of economic situation or gender or race—people who felt like they’ve never been given the opportunity to write.”
With the establishment of the NWA, the Journal of Ordinary Thought’s first move toward expansion was on the South Side—a one-time workshop at DuSable High School during the summer of 1995. Its success spurred the NWA to seek a more permanent location in Bronzeville. They decided on the Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, which became the oldest, largest, and most consistent of NWA’s writing groups. Epstein, who was the first workshop leader at the Hall Branch, noted that the selection of the Hall Branch contributed to the growing attendance of the weekly writing workshops. “One of the interesting things was that many of the people who came didn’t currently live in Bronzeville, but they’d grown up there. The library held a real place in their literary lives, and they came back to it. And that’s how they stumbled on the writing workshops.”
The writers at the Hall Branch, said Epstein, had an unflagging enthusiasm in their literary pursuits. “Hall grew so big— there were too many people. So I started a second group at the Bee Branch Library up across from Stateway Gardens. And the funniest thing was that when I started at Bee, all of the Hall branch members would come to both. They were coming—this same big group—twice a week! No matter how I tried to engineer it, I was not going to be successful!” Eleuterio later took over Epstein’s role as workshop leader of the Hall Branch, where her fondest memories of her time at the NWA were made. “When the Hall Branch had their seventy-fifth anniversary, they asked us if we would participate in their celebrations,” Eleuterio recalled. “So we co-wrote a poem—every single writer in the Hall Branch wrote part of the poem—and we performed it at the anniversary.”
For many budding writers, the workshops conducted by the NWA encouraged them to be confident in their work and receive feedback in a convivial, unintimidating space. Donna Kiser, a writer published in the journal who later became a workshop leader in three branches, noted her growth as a writer through her participation in the weekly workshops. “I never really considered myself a writer, but I’ve always wanted to write. And that’s the first thing that so many of the writers said: I’m not a writer, but I have stories. And after two years with the group, I returned to school at Columbia College Chicago in the creative writing department.”
The caliber of the journal’s writers won recognition not only through the awards they received from the Illinois Arts Council, but also via a play entitled The Journal of Ordinary Thought. Playwrights Luther Goins, Mignon McPherson, David Barr, and Douglas Alan-Mann collected almost a hundred pieces published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought and strung them together without revision. Staged by the Chicago Theatre Company, Alan-Mann’s pioneering black theater in Woodlawn, in September 1999, The Journal of Ordinary Thought received rave reviews in many Chicago daily newspapers.
While this theatrical homage to Ordinary Thought has not been staged since, the journal has left indelible traces for many communities across Chicago and beyond. In many cases, the writing groups that were formally disbanded with the closure of the NWA have continued to meet up. A group in Uptown, at the Bezazian Branch of Chicago Public Library, has been meeting weekly since 2013, as does the group based at the Hall Branch, albeit informally. Many interpersonal connections and friendships that were forged through the NWA have persisted, and some have resulted in literary projects. Along with Charlene Smith, Phillis Humphries, and Barbara Banks, three writers who published in Ordinary Thought, Eleuterio is co-writing a chapter in an upcoming book entitled Comfort Food Meanings and Memories, published by the University Press of Mississippi. The chapter, called “Even Presidents Need Comfort Food,” will focus on Valois Cafeteria in Hyde Park. On this and other related collaborations after the 2013, Eleuterio remarked, “While I’m sad that the organization doesn’t exist formally, there is still community-based gathering that’s going on, and so many good memories.”
Perhaps the most enduring of the journal’s descendants after NWA’s closure is Every Person is a Philosopher, a writing group that Kiser established in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year. After joining a writing workshop in Ravenswood, she attended Columbia College Chicago and later became workshop leader of three writing workshops across Chicago. After working with the NWA for a decade, she left Chicago for Wisconsin. Every Person is a Philosopher has adopted the model of the NWA weekly writing workshop because Kiser ardently believes in its value. “It’s about bringing people together who would never usually sit across the table from each other and converse, and have a dialogue about life. Everyone comes away with a different understanding, an eye-opening experience.”
Despite the unceremonious closure of the NWA, the Journal of Ordinary Thought has touched so many lives and shaped so many literary endeavors that its traces continue to show up across the city of Chicago and beyond. Reischer, among the last editors of the journal, noted, “NWA writers seized the opportunity to reflect on life through the written word, and together with NWA’s support created a beautiful treasury that this city should honor as a documentary of its residents.” Perhaps this is how the Journal of Ordinary Thought is best remembered—an archive of Chicagoan voices that would otherwise have remained unheard, of words that would otherwise have gone unspoken.
Throughout all these years, a particular line in the fall 2011 Journal of Ordinary Thought has stuck with Reischer, a line by Rafael Colón. It is a line that captures the work, the memories, and the afterlives of the journal, and the innumerable, manifold individuals whose experiences have been given voice: “Qué palabra tan grande, VIDA… What a big word, LIFE.”