Writers’ Nights, Open Mics, Literary Soirees: The Importance of Community

Writers’ Nights, Open Mics, Literary Soirees: The Importance of Community

A Reading in the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, 1755
A Reading in the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, 1755

I’m here to talk to you about the benefits of writers’ nights, open mics and literary soirees. Um. As you have seen. In the title. Of this blog.

“What brought this on, Claire?” you ask.

Why, thanks for your interest! I’ll tell ya!

Tomorrow night, my buddy Patty Templeton (one of the mighty slushers and bloggers for Black Gate) is hosting a small private “Fiction Fun Time Potluck ” at her place. I’m very excited. I will dress up, maybe even wear lipstick! There will probably be candlelight and a lot of giggling. And WORDS! Glorious words — from the mouths of aspiring novelists and struggling upstart writers: each of us, manuscripts in hand, getting a moment in the spotlight. My favorite thing ever!

Wikipedia (it being Wikipedia, all normal cautions apply) has the definition of a salon (literary, that is, not hirsute) thus:

Patty "La Marquise" Templeton, our beautiful and educated Patroness.
Patty "La Marquise" Templeton, our beautiful and educated Patroness.
Portrait of salonniere Élisabeth, comtesse Greffulhe, by Laszlo
La Salonniere Élisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe, by Laszlo

salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine taste and increase their knowledge of the participants through conversation… Carried on until quite recently, in urban settings, among like-minded people…

…Some scintillating circles formed in the smaller courts which resembled salons, often galvanized by the presence of a beautiful and educated patroness…

I’m not sure how much refinement there’ll be (we all cuss like sailors and flirt like courtesans. But I’ll betcha good working-class wages they didn’t do things all that different in 18th century Paris and Venice), however, I do know we’ll come away with a thorough knowledge of  monsters, robots, murderers, gods and maybe even faeries.

My excitement for tomorrow’s revelries got me thinking about events similar to these I’ve attended or invented over the last few years.

Patty, Nin and Claire at the Tamale Hut Open Mic
Patty, Nin (my co-hostess at many events) and me at the Tamale Hut Open Mic

I’ve been hosting or co-hosting open mics since 2006, pretty much once a month, in one fashion or another. My friend Nin and I used to run a Chicago bookstore called Kate the Great’s Book Emporium, where we had theatre troupes, musicians, comedians, artists and writers through all the time. Our writers’ group “The Chicago Writers’ Coven” met once a month and put on an open mic regularly. I also used to go to (now, alas, like Kate the Great’s, defunct) Twilight Tales, a weekly reading series in Chicago, where I met a mighty horde of horror writers, under the brazen wing of author, teacher and editor Tina Jens.

There’s a neat-o reading series at a place called The Tamale Hut that my friend and fellow writer Jenny Seay runs. Another well-established one is a weekly late-night poetry open mic I used to attend at a cool north-side Chicago restaurant called The Heartland Cafe. My alma mater, Columbia College Chicago, did — and still does — all sorts of story-related festivals.

Maybe that’s where I got my incessant craving for them. I go too long without a gathering of writerly types, I get very cranky. Ask John O’Neill. Ask Patty Templeton. I’m like the Incredible Hulk. You don’t want to know me when I’m cranky.

A reading of Molière, Jean François de Troy, about 1728
A reading of Molière, Jean François de Troy, about 1728

When I started running these open mic/writers night things, I didn’t know a dang thing about how to do it. Organizing social events makes me tense. Being put in charge of a large group of people? NO, THANK YOU!

Happily, I started out with a great co-hostess, Jeanine Marie Vaughn (AKA “Nin” or “Nina Hyena”), who’d gone to school for Directing in the same theatre department at which I studied Acting.

Guess who knew how to organize? Guess who could coordinate unruly groups of people as if they were the American Theatre Orchestra and she, the great Paul Gemignani?

Yup. Nin. Every time.

You can bet I learned a lot from her. Now I’ll share some of what I learned with you.

How to Organize a Writers’ Night. Loosely.

Top Shelf Books on Second Thursdays. We Like Hats!
Top Shelf Books on Second Thursdays. We Like Hats! (Photo By Katie Redding)

Are you a writer yearning for writerly companionship and perhaps cupcakes? Are you tired of reading your uproariously clever and brutally bellicose and recklessly inventive “adventures in fantasy” tales to the walls of your basement?

Consider organizing your own monthly reading series.

It doesn’t take much. Some floor space. A few cushions or folding chairs.

The gathering could be at your house or apartment — I used to do it in my one-bedroom flat! The group doesn’t have to be a writhing mass of humanity, you know. It could be you and two of your writing buddies.

The gathering might take place at your local bookstore (if they are very forbearing and friendly), or an empty room at your school. In the summertime, you might hold it at some sweet green park “melting in the dark,” as the song goes. The possibilities are endless.

Twilight Tales 15th Anniversary (photo by Julie Barnett)
Twilight Tales 15th Anniversary (photo by Julie Barnett)

You will also require like-minded folk.

Now, this last condition may sound like the hardest thing of all. But, I promise you, in the age of the Internet, there are ways to FIND like-minded folks.

Bear in mind, if you’re only hosting an event once a month, it is very likely that your friends who live too far away for regular visits might make an exception for special occasions. Awesome special occasions like WRITERS’ NIGHTS! A wee road-trip could be in order.

One really important and not-to-be-dispensed with item: Food. My father once told me:

“Good things happen around people and food.”

And it stuck with me. That’s some of the best advice I ever got, along with, “Most people respond to a friendly voice.”

Now, don’t get distressed. The Burden of Provisions does not have to fall on your bowed (from so much typing at laptop) shoulders. If you ask them nicely (or tell them nicely in a way that seems like asking, which I personally find works quite satisfactorily) writers will bring food. And how!

Reading/Singing/Mead-Drinking party at ReaderCon 2009 (Photo by Alex Daley McFarlane)
Reading/Singing/Mead-Drinking party at ReaderCon 2009 (Photo by Alex Dally MacFarlane)

In the early days of open mics, Nin and I (with a lot of help from our boss Katie) tried to provide all the food ourselves. When that got costly, we started passing a tip jar for compensation.

Believe me, the Potluck Way is better. Make other people do the work! You delegate, they bake. (Or buy Coke and Cheetos at the nearest gas station.) GENIUS!

From the moment the stalwart writers troop through your door in a rustle of grocery bags, scattering a hodge-podge of veggie plates, cheesy melty stuff with the dippy chips, hummus, pizza and brownies, there will be a sense of warmth and belonging.

You then ask them if they’re planning on reading that night. If they are, you jot down their names on a scrap of paper. If they aren’t, you give them a leeeetle bit of a hard time until they promise to read next time. Why should they get off the hook constantly? Unless they’re just there to listen. If so, don’t knock that! Reliable audience is GREAT!

For small groups of five or six, a 15-20 minute reading slot is great. If the group gets any larger, the readings should be shorter. 5-10 minutes, I’d say. Unless you’re planning on starting early and going very late.

Now this next bit might feel uncomfortable: if someone is going much over their time limit (of course there are exceptions!), this starts to be rude to the other readers! Please do not hesitate to shark in and cut them off — politely. It is for the Greater Good.

Good thing to remember: A night like this ALWAYS takes longer to get underway than you think it will. And people will be late. We’re artists. Cut us some slack. Plan for it.

"Abbé Delille reciting his poem, La Conversation in the salon of Madame Geoffrin" from Jacques Delille, "La Conversation" (Paris, 1812)
"Abbé Delille reciting his poem, La Conversation in the salon of Madame Geoffrin" from Jacques Delille, "La Conversation" (Paris, 1812)

Once everybody’s names are on your little scrap of paper, choose a random order and let the readings begin!

Ahem. I will note that the “random order” gets less random the more you do these things. You learn your fellow writers’ voices, who complements whom, who is funny, who is dire, who is dark, who’s the tear-jerker. Some will read fiction, some poetry, some nonfiction, some scenes from plays. It’s totally fabulous to mix things up!

A great rule of thumb is to start with a strong piece and end with a BANG!

How do you figure this out?


If one reader generally gets a lot of laughs — they’re probably a zingy person to start with next time.

If you notice another reader who constantly gets groans of, “How can I follow THAT?” and “Never mind, I’m just giving up!” after his or her reading, then do both that reader and all the others a favor and put him or her last.

Sometimes a spectacular reading is intimidating to follow. But also remember that it can be awkward for that reader, who is supposed to feel safe and welcome and proud, to be put into a position of having to apologize or self-deprecate for being spectacular just to make the other readers feel better. It’s a weird dynamic but it happens more than you think! Put the scary-good stuff at or near the end — everybody walks away from the night riding high!

If it’s someone’s first time reading, give them lots of support and encouragement! Maybe even give prizes! Uphold them! Even in small groups, reading aloud can be terribly intimidating.

Hint: Make everyone heap their plates full first, or else there will be a lot of wandering and scooping in the middle of someone’s story.

John O'Neill writes once a month: the night before our Top Shelf Books Open Mic
John O'Neill writes once a month: the night before our Top Shelf Books Open Mic

Hint: Take a break after the first 3-5 stories. A breather. Walk-around. Bathroom time. But don’t let it go on for TOO long, or else you’ll never finish your reading, and — after all — some of your friends may have a long ride home. Unless it’s a sleepover. (Rar!)

Hint: Host gets to go first or last and do little introductions of each writer if s/he feels like it.

Every second Thursday at our little used bookstore in Palatine, a small group of writers comes from as far east as Chicago and as far west as Woodstock to share their dream journals, short stories, novel excerpts, poetry, character sketches and songs.

It is so joyous; it takes the words right out of our heads and off our computer screens (where sometimes, let’s be honest, they MOLDER sullenly) and into the fresh and eager ears of a forgiving and interested audience. Such gatherings inspire us to write harder, to consider our audience, and, ultimately, to Get Stuff Done. Some of us work best under pressure, threats of Death by Dunkin‘ Donuts, and flagrant bribes.  (Like John O’Neill, for example.)

If WE can do it, ANYONE can do it! (To paraphrase Miles Vorkosigan.)
If WE can do it, ANYONE can do it! (To paraphrase Miles Vorkosigan.)

I guess what I really wanted to say, long-windedly, is that if the salonnières of 18th Century Paris can have things like the Hôtel de Rambouillet, and if Patty “La Marquise” Templeton can have a Fiction Fun Time Potluck once a month, and if I, of all people, can host an open mic with some mild degree of success, then I say that YOU can do it too.

Why be lonely when you’re just an email (or Facebook invite) away from merriment, literature and gorging? Go for it. Report back. We’ll be curious to hear about your experience.

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Patty Templeton

So, um, hmm. I hear I’m having my first ever Fiction Fun Time Potluck tonight…and I’m definitely taking hints from this article.

And really…it’s true. Knowing you have a reading to go to really whips one into a getting sh** done frenzy.


I’m thinking maybe a Skype writers’ night…

Thanks for the inspiring post, Claire de Flamme.

*kissing my hand to you*

Patty Templeton

@Cooney: Oh, I scrubbed the hell outta the bathroom, but that was more for your upcoming stay than tonight’s batch of hellions.

I got food down. That was a given, but it was a nice reminder on when to do breaks and abt how long people should read. These are things I know from going to many, many readings…but I am never the host of these readings. ANXIETY! Organization! Oi!

Patty Templeton

@Cooney: True! He is an overlord and as such, has plenty of experience.

John ONeill


I am looking forward to your first Fiction Fun Time Potluck. Thanks for inviting me!

Although maybe it was Claire who invited me, and then just told you I was coming. Whatever, thank you anyway!

And I’m still dithering over what brand of Cheetos to bring.

Patty Templeton

@John: I did invite you, really I did. I think you even said yes on Facebook. Also, your Cheetos will be appreciated.

@Claire: I guess another hint to add the article is HOW TO INVITE PEOPLE! Sigh. Because if you do it just by Facebook…folks just don’t choose to use the Yes/No/Maybe options to events in a timely fashion.

Also, age perameters are a good to note at any reading.

Patty Templeton

Note: the awesome spelling of parameters.

Patty Templeton

Last note: I’ve overused the word note today.

I’ll let the fact I’m in Texas excuse the lack of Facebook invite for me to ignore. 😉

John ONeill


Maybe they didn’t invite you, but everyone talked about you.

John ONeill

>Also, age perameters are a good to note at any reading.


I’m glad you invited me, despite my age.


That sounds like a lot of fun.

I almost had a panic attack reading this, ’cause I am ‘highly imaginative’ that is I get strong mental pictures, even ‘fantasy movies’ every time I read. Anything.

I am just a wee bit, too fucked in the head to do something like this…

It sounds like more fun than most Cons, though…

Cooney and Templeton and ONeill, ye sound like such cordial souls…However I tend to make vatican-one-atheists breakout the holy water, IRL.

Sarah Avery

I used to run a monthly poetry series, and I recruited featured readers so famous in the poetry world that, um, nobody outside it has ever heard of them. No, really, like one of them had won the National Book Award. It was a lot of fun, and after a couple of years, a lot of burnout. Maybe when the kids are older, I might try something like that again.

Meanwhile, whenever Broad Universe has a Rapid Fire Reading at any of the cons in my area, I read at it. The audiences are not huge, but it is a lot of fun, and Broad Universe is a wonderful organization. If you’re not already a member, Claire, definitely check them out. They organized a couple of readings at the Library of Congress last year, in partnership with a group of Congressional librarians who read science fiction and fantasy. Now, that reading was an amazing experience.

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