20 Stories: (#20) Jill Pollack

To celebrate our 20th Anniversary in 2023, we’re highlighting 20 stories that have helped shape StoryStudio over the years. Each month of 2023, we’ll be featuring one or two members of our community as they share their story. Whether they came from the very first class that Jill started in 2003 when StoryStudio was just a few folding chairs and a dream, or they’re from the most recent cohort of Novel in a Year students, on their way to publishing a book; these members make StoryStudio what it is.

Below is Jill’s story.

Can we use the power of story to change the world?

There was never a blueprint to follow. No big parades or public announcements. It was more than, “let’s put a play on in the barn,” but less like Google driving directions telling you when to turn, when to stop, and when you have arrived.

No, the past 20 years of StoryStudio Chicago have been a wild, and often surprising ride, with each year bringing a new set of ideas and challenges.

I did have a vision for what StoryStudio could become, but in those early days I was really only thinking a couple months ahead. I didn’t quite know what would happen when I convened four students into that wretched (but filled with character?) room in Wicker Park. My only thought was, I’ll start these creative writing classes and see what happens.

Fast forward to today and we are bigger, better, and full of travel plans as the Stories Matter Foundation. The Foundation is the parent organization for StoryStudio Chicago, the Chicago Review of Books, the Chicago Writers Podcast, and the Chicago Stories Project.

Twenty years may seem like a long time but they have passed in an instant and it still feels to me like we are in the early stages of our tenure as an educational literary arts center. We are excited to try new programs knowing the risks and we still are thrilled to see new faces at an open house. It never stops feeling like the best kind of home when we walk into the studio and see people in class or working intrepidly on their novels.

This feeling of home doesn’t just happen. It is a philosophy, one which we have never written down yet one that is prevalent in all we do. StoryStudio is a home for writers of any stripe, and while we don’t have a handbook on how to create this type of space, we have something better. 

Let’s raise a toast to our staff, volunteers, and board. They are a small but mighty army of creative, energetic, gutsy artists and literary lovers who make their own art while making it possible for you to create your art. They are just damn nice people and care deeply about the work they do.

Over the years we have had many wonderful people greet you at the door. Today we have a great staff: Jessica, Jen, Sara, Greg, Czaerra, Angie, Sarah, and of course, Rebecca: Hats off to you all!

Twenty years may seem like a long time but they have passed in an instant and it still feels to me like we are in the early stages of our tenure as an educational literary arts center… It never stops feeling like the best kind of home when we walk into the studio and see people in class or working intrepidly on their novels.

While we all remember the challenge of lockdown days, many of us also remember some good that came from The Year of Covid: Online Everything.

When we pivoted to offer all of our programming online something special happened: the conversation widened. While we have always had interest from writers in far away places, in 2020 we were able to throw open the doors of the studio to them (metaphorically, of course). Now we have students and faculty from everywhere, each bringing their voice, unique perspective and experience, new ideas, and fantastic energy. It has expanded the conversation and widened the possiblities.

Still, we have the word Chicago in our name and in many respects, Chicago is where we focus much of our efforts, including the Chicago Stories Project.

When I made the decision to become a nonprofit in 2017 (it would take us two years to complete the transition), I was thinking about some of the programs I had the good fortune to participate in as a small business owner. They were typically cohort-based programs designed around learning certain business skills. One was focused on financial management, while another tried to teach us how to grow our businesses, covering every aspect of people, profit, programs, and services. 

I got so much so from these programs–knowledge, skills, friendships, and business relationships–and began pondering how we could use a similar model to bring the magic of StoryStudio writing classes to communities of people who may never have thought of themselves as writers or artists, let alone someone with a valid story to tell. 

I envisioned teenagers tied to their phones who didn’t have an outlet for their incredible imaginations because schools have moved so far from literary study and story writing.

I pictured older lesbians and gay men who lived through the fight for equality in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s sitting with a younger writer eager to hear and capture their stories and experiences. 

I pictured people trying to learn new job skills or those out of work who felt like no one was listening.

And I pictured those go-getters–the folks in every community who have ideas and whether or not they know what they are doing, they forge ahead and organize.

I am also a natural organizer so I know the work that goes into convening people around a specific purpose and in this case, it felt overwhelming. Then after many Board discussions during which we imagined how to make this work, we realized that there was no one-size-fits-all approach and it wasn’t necessary to go it alone. Instead, we began partnering with other nonprofit organizations and working with them to create writing programs for their constituents–something specific to their needs, designed for purpose, not simply a catch-all curriculum.

If You Can Shape Your Own Narrative, You Can Shape Your World

The challenge we took on was this: can we teach individuals how to find, value, and tell their own story, and then use that power to somehow change their worlds?

That change could be anything, from working to get a playground in the empty lot down the street, to writing an oped article and getting it placed, to feeling confident talking about yourself during a job interview.

Thinking even bigger, what if those new writers and cohort members became so adept at telling their own stories that they now wanted to teach others. Could StoryStudio become the beginning of a chain where individuals learn to write, stay with us to learn to teach, then go back to their communities to keep the chain growing longer and longer, weaving itself back and forth until our stories and voices overlap in ways we never thought possible?

I know the power of believing in your own creativity is not to be undervalued. It is everything. Creativity is required in writing a story as much as it is in organizing a closet or creating a neighborhood block club.

Can we credit writing and storytelling for excelling in other areas of life? Of course we can! I know that as StoryStudio reaches out to more communities and partners with more organizations, we are making it possible for more people to speak for themselves and make the change they want to see in the world, and perhaps most importantly–articulate that change and why it matters. 

As I write this, our country (indeed, the world) has become so divided, thinking in only binary limitations: my side is right, your side is wrong. I think about how to open the conversation to see the shades of gray, how we can use stories to learn to listen to each other with an open mind, at least for a few minutes or a few pages.

Because a good story can’t be binary. A story needs to show its shades of gray for the reader to make up their own mind, to put their own thoughts into this “conversation.” When, as writers, teachers, and storytellers, we learn to open up and involve more people in the conversation, that’s when change will start to happen. That’s when the clouds burst open and it rains while the sun is shining.

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