Lit

South Side Sisterhood of Writers

Going against the flow for the love of writing

Turtel Onli

On a slightly gray Saturday, I walk up to the Beverly home of Tina Jenkins Bell, the president of For Love of Writing (FLOW), to sit in on an impromptu meeting of the group’s core members. Chirskira Caillouet, FLOW’s vice president, invites me in and offers me food—she tells me that whenever the group meets, there’s food.

The ladies of FLOW trickle in over the next half hour. When they’re all together, watching the group is like watching your mother and her friends chatting around the kitchen table: they laugh, bounce writing ideas off each other, reminisce about the old days, talk about how white people don’t get it sometimes, and offer each other bits of advice and knowledge about writing and life in general.

FLOW is a group of seven professional African-American women writers who host regular seminars on the craft and business of writing for a multicultural, multigenerational audience. It began in the 1990s as a small group of women who came together to share their work and enjoy the company of other writers. That original group faded out, but the spirit of FLOW was rekindled in 2012 when Bell and Lucille Usher Freeman put out a call that assembled the group’s current members: Bell, Caillouet, Freeman, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Janice Lively, L.D. Barnes, and their newest member, Felica Madlock.

The new group originally gathered for workshops, retreats, and readings, at which the members would critique each other’s work. “That part was to help each writer build a bridge to whatever their next step was professionally,” said Bell.

The authors in FLOW write across genres. Caillouet and Madlock primarily focus on poetry (the Weekly’s most recent Lit Issue featured two of Caillouet’s poems); Barnes writes both poetry and murder mysteries; Jackson-Opoku, Freeman, Bell, and Lively work with prose. One of FLOW’s former members, Pauline Lampkin, who recently passed away, occasionally wrote erotica. “It really depends on the story,” said Bell, adding that sometimes she will begin a piece as a novel or short story and end with a dramatic script.

Since all of the ladies of FLOW are Chicago natives, the city is featured heavily in their work. “Everything I write about is Chicago, because it’s just so rich here,” said Barnes. “There’s so many stories.”

FLOW writers featured work in Revise the Psalm, an anthology of poetry and essays honoring another Chicago writer, former poet laurete Gwendolyn Brooks. Jackson-Opoku edited the anthology.

In 2014, the group hosted its first seminar, which covered how writers can use digital marketing and social media to advance their careers. The goal was to provide resources for both professional and amateur South Side writers.

The group has since offered seminars on subjects as practical as how to pitch to publishers and as personal as how to get over writer’s block and how to use the framework of National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo” in November) as a tool. The seminars, said Caillouet, focus on teaching both hard skills and how to be a respectful literary citizen.

“When you come to something from us, you gonna learn something,” said Caillouet.

FLOW has also offered “write-ins,” or day-long retreats where writers can get work done and share with others. Its members frequently do readings around the city, and Bell and several other FLOW authors read at AMFM’s Old Black Magic exhibition to promote Revise the Psalm.

Going forward, the group plans to do more: more workshops, more readings, more write-ins, and more members. The group is planning to offer an associate membership for those who want the support of FLOW but can’t make the time commitment that full membership requires. They have two seminars planned for this year—one in May on intellectual property and another later this year on how to outline a novel.

FLOW has also partnered with the Soulful Chicago Book Fair, which will take place for the second year in a row in July, to offer a publishing workshop. They have also partnered with Chicago Public Library’s Beverly and Walker locations to do free workshops. The group emphasizes that their workshops are for everyone. “There’s no age limit,” said Bell. “If they are interested, they can come.” Bell added that their goal is to provide resources for their community regardless of experience or skill level.

For its core members, the group is more than a forum to sharpen their skills and meet other writers—it’s a family. In Bell’s living room Barnes said, “We’re a sisterhood of writers. We’re not just a writer’s group. We’re a sisterhood.”  Grateful for the support the group offers, its members challenge each other to be their best and rely on the diversity of the group.

It’s no secret that the literary world is overwhelmingly white, even in Chicago, and each member of FLOW attests to the fact that being the only black person in a writing workshop is a difficult place to be. “When we’ve been in workshops with individuals outside the community, there is a pre-conception of what it is to be us,” said Lively. “They [white people in writers’ groups] want to correct your work and either deny [your] experience or reshape the experience according to what their perception of who we are is.”

“They know,” Lively said, gesturing around Bell’s living room to the other members of the group. “To be able to have that community is what makes FLOW vital to us.”

As the meeting approached its third hour, talk dwindled down and switched to husbands, children, and newborn grandchildren. As the meeting ended, the authors of FLOW left me and other young writers with a valuable piece of advice: write every day, just for the love of writing.

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