The Power of Words

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.

Right. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to show you.

The theme of this year’s Story Week Festival is “The Power of Words.” Of course, that has really been the theme for every one of the festival’s 19 years, since Story Week’s mission has been to offer the best and broadest range of voices from a wide spectrum of cultures, backgrounds, genres and artistic disciplines. These wordsmiths have challenged us to generate new visions, experience new ways of seeing and thinking and feeling, find hope for creating a healthy, safe, just and humane life for the generation to come.

Words, of course, may be used for good or ill, for injuring or healing, for rending apart or joining together. As the themes of many Story Weeks over its long history indicate—especially those having to do with crossing borders and pushing boundaries—the festival has repeatedly emphasized the potential residing in story for promoting understanding and unity among people of different cultures and experiences. Words may carry an evocative, even incantatory power to address the miscommunication, misunderstanding and outright hatred that is too pervasive in our world; and writers, whether they take it as a conscious mission or not, realize this potential as they explore the manifold functions of story.

Among those functions, story becomes a repository for memory, expressing a culture’s history; manifests individual and group identity; shapes and offers coherence to our inner life; responds to the personal and public need for creative expression; carries us into the depths of our feelings and prompts a search for meaning; enables us to see and re-see ourselves and our vision of the world; allows us to participate imaginatively in the lives of others, building a humanizing habit of empathy; brings evil into the light of day where it can be revealed, understood and, one would hope, purged; and offers repeated opportunities for reconstituting hope for our lives and our world.

This year, we will once again be entertained, delighted, moved and instructed by a bevy of wonderful storytellers from Chicago, the nation and points beyond. Following last year’s very successful and popular emphasis on Latino and Caribbean writers, among the many different writers appearing this year, we are especially delighted to showcase the incredibly rich and varied contributions of African-American writers coming to us from across the country.

In addition to readings, you will experience craft panels on memoir and fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, young adult fiction and playwriting. You will see the return of signature events such as Literary Rock and Roll, 2nd Story and Rick Kogan’s innovative Chicago Classics, as well as the highly successful writers boot camps, Story Workshop mini-classes (open to all), and readings by students and alums from Columbia College Chicago and by young writers from the Chicago City of Learning Young Author Playlist.

Reflecting the social mission of Columbia College Chicago, Story Week will this year offer important discussions about turning issues into story and about narratives of violence, real and fictional. At the time of this writing, the world is still reeling from the killings of Charlie Hebdo staff and others in Paris. Those terrible events have deepened distrust and unleashed a debate about free speech, a topic that we may want to take up this week. But that debate is not limited to the streets of Paris. In our own country, on the streets of Chicago and other cities, even in the smallest rural hamlets, we see poverty, lack of education, and other forces at work that have resulted in an epidemic of killings, acts of domestic abuse and violence, kidnapping and other crimes against children, and racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes. These, too, are subjects appropriate to Story Week, since this festival has never been about only writing, removed from the world and carried out with academic distance. Story Week reflects the passion and commitment of writers themselves who are deeply engaged in the world.

So while there will be plenty of talk about the writer’s craft, this year’s festival will also provoke talk and new ways of thinking with potential to lead to new visions of our world. Among the many, many questions that could emerge during the week, a few might prime the pump for your own:

When do you most feel the full power of words?

What words or stories have shaped your inner life?

What words have had the greatest impact in setting your course to the future?

What words or stories have been especially influential in sharpening your comprehension and vision of the world?

What words have been important in helping you walk in someone else’s shoes, experiencing the life of an individual or group with which you originally shared very little?

What words have been most hurtful to you? Why? How did you deal with that injury, and how has that affected your experience of the world?

When, finally, are words powerful, not just talk? When do they carry voice and meaning, not just pay lip service? When do they promote change, movement down the road to justice, not just a shunting off into byways of distraction and depletion?

As always, we encourage you to take advantage of the numerous opportunities to ask your questions, make your comments and interact with the terrific array of first-rate presenters. We hope that you do indeed also find a few answers and that your experience at this year’s festival will take you some way toward discovering the power of your own words, releasing your own individual voice and helping you do your part in creating a better world.

We are so glad to have you join with others who express a similar interest in and respect for the power of words.

Word up!

Randall Albers
Founding Producer, Story Week Festival of Writers
Professor, Chair Emeritus
Department of Creative Writing, Columbia College Chicago