20 Stories: (#2) Scott Onak

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 Scott Onak’s story.


Scott’s 20 Year Reflections

Student, teacher, Program Curator (thanks for that title, Jill!). Fragments and memories. The ones that make sense, and the ones that make none but appear anyway, happy to be remembered. And so:

A first walk through the doors of the studio — the old studio on Ravenswood — for a party: music, chatter, drinks in plastic cups, and Jill, enthusiastic, welcoming. Not long after, my first workshop in the back room, windowless, just a large garage door on one wall and a space heater, but really: what else did it take?

Jill Pollack arrives at the doggy day care on the other Ravenswood side of the tracks to find it locked. I happen to be out for a walk, being terrifically underemployed, having recently arrived back in Chicago after my MFA. She proposes, if I wish, to work a handful of hours at the studio. Something casual. What chance for that door to be locked. It may have happened anyway, but what chance!

A hotel room on Michigan Avenue where I stopped by to see Jill before we began making the rounds at round tables at AWP, and you were tired, Jill: not in an ordinary way. You confided that you weren’t sure that the studio could continue, that maybe it was time to fold it up. This was 2012.

A Mariachi band takes up residence just outside the studio shortly before classes begin, an office party thrown by some other office in the building, tables and taco buffet and a long red carpet along the landing that stops, conveniently, at our door, allowing our students to make the grandest of entrances.

The local bar feel of class night, the joy of being behind that big zinc table at the entrance and greeting the ever-changing mix of students and teachers who arrived in the half hour before class, a reunion of friends, catching a few minutes of news and gossip, coffee and tea, before the whole ensemble found their rooms and all grew quiet again.

No one chooses a project like this — in writing, work, life — knowing exactly what it will demand. And even if we did, for the ones worth doing, we’d do it anyway.

I have seen some of what it has taken to follow this vision: to make mistakes, to find success, to minimize and cut back, maximize and expand, make money, lose money, bounce up and down and up again, large pads filled with scribbles and class ideas and all of it crossed out again, replaced anew, all those shifting winds, winds within winds, that determine what might push this boat forward. Which it has gone, and will continue.

No one chooses a project like this — in writing, work, life — knowing exactly what it will demand. And even if we did, for the ones worth doing, we’d do it anyway.

Glad to have been there with everyone, on all sides of the studio table, for my part in it.

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