American Writers Museum opens in Chicago

In the same room are Julia Child, Alex Haley, Prince, Patrick Henry and Hunter Thompson. What do they have in come, besides being dearly departed?

The power of words helped each forge a legacy through cookbooks, novels, song lyrics, speeches or gonzo journalism. Their impact is longlasting.

Most of us in the world of writing – be it poetry, comedy, linguistics, commentary, screenplays, books, advertisements or newspaper articles – can’t fathom that level of acclaim. Yet we make a living by putting words together to inform, influence, entertain, minister, persuade or document the world as we know it.

For some, even in the most isolated of settings or smallest of publications, what we do with words is more of a calling than a job. The paltry per-hour wage, especially when we deeply care about a topic, might stun you.

The American Writers Museum, which opens May 16 in downtown Chicago, makes room for all of us and aims to demonstrate the writer’s influence “on our history, our identity, our culture and our daily lives.” That’s from the mission statement.

“It’s not a library,” says M. Hill Hammock, co-chair of the museum board. “We are here to engage, not have books on the shelves,” although two or three dozen titles are within reach, to browse at will in reading areas.

What else? Play games with words and learn about writers on coffeetable-sized touchscreens. Use a typewriter to craft the opening lines of an impromptu “story of the day.” Learn the story behind the story of a well-known book.

A “Mind of a Writer” feature explains how writers think: “At the root of it all is a love of words.”

A U.S. history timeline, from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, is matched with little-known facts about significant writers of the day. Learn why one person – Edgar Allen Poe – gets credit for introducing horror, sci fi, gothic, surrealism and detective fiction writing.

Discover that Walter Winchell coined the word “frenemy” in a 1953 newspaper article about the Cold War and Russia, and that poet Emily Dickinson mulled her next stanza while baking; her gingerbread was in high demand. On a wall-sized “word waterfall” is a jumble of thoughts from well-known writers about the meaning of America.

Deciding what to omit, for now, was the hardest part of putting together the museum, and work began seven years ago. “Like putting the ocean in a teacup” is how founder Malcolm O’Hagan described it in an introductory booklet. “We have to enjoy it one cup at a time.”

Featured writers and works will change. “We’re not saying these writers are the best, but they had a big impact in a certain genre or where otherwise significant,” says Carey Cranston, museum president.

He describes the finished product as “more kid-friendly than even I thought it would be” because of interactive areas, in addition to a gallery devoted to children’s literature.

Why Chicago? Why not. Luminaries in the museum’s Chicago room include three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg, “Working” author Studs Terkel, Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko and syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers.

The American Writers Museum is on the second floor at 180 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. Admission is $12 ($8 for seniors, students); free for ages 12 or younger. Closed on Mondays. Upcoming events include author readings, storytimes for children, music and workshops.

Museum membership levels begin at $40 for an individual. americanwritersmuseum.org, 312-374-8790

Almost five dozen author homes and museums in the nation are affiliated with the Chicago museum, which lists this network online. Fun fact: Both Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “In Cold Blood” author Truman Capote were childhood friends and neighbors in Monroeville, Ala., population 6,500 and 90 rural miles north of Mobile.

Middle of nowhere? Hardly, says Rosellen Brown, author of “Tender Mercies,” which became an Academy Award-winning movie in 1984.

“To writers,” she told the crowd during a museum preview, “there is no such thing as a place that is nowhere” because everywhere are good stories waiting to told.

What else makes Chicago a city that loves the written word?

The Second City opened with a comedy show in 1959 and added a school of improvisation that helped launch the careers of many: Dan Aykroyd to George Wendt, John Belushi to Joan Rivers. Shows and classes continue at 1616 N. Wells St., 1608 N. Wells St. and 230 W. North Ave., but comedic troupes also hit the road. Ticket prices vary. secondcity.com, 312-337-3992, 312-662-4562

Long-form improv comedy is the specialty at The iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury St., founded in 1981 and formerly known as ImprovOlympic Theater. Comedic teams learn as they compete at this Wrigleyville location. Ticket prices vary. ioimprov.com, 312-929-2401

Poetry Center of Chicago, 641 W. Lake St., supports poets through free monthly readings and Hands on Stanzas, a poet-in-residence who works with students in Chicago schools. The nonprofit began with readings by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in 1973. poetrycenter.org

Young Chicago Authors is best known for Louder Than a Bomb, founded in 2000 and now the world’s biggest slam poetry festival for youth. About 120 teams of 12- to 19-year-olds compete during five weeks of events staged citywide in February and March. Participants are cheered as wildly as athletes, says one fan. youngchicagoauthors.org, 773-486-4331

Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway Ave., open since 1907 and best known as one of the country’s oldest jazz clubs, in 1986 began hosting the weekly Uptown Poetry Slam, 7-10 p.m. Sunday. The cover is $7. greenmilljazz.com, 773-878-5552

Bughouse Square, in Washington Square Park, 901 N. Clark St., for a century has been the prime place to speak your mind in public. The annual Bughouse Square Debate, July 29, draws the most free-speech enthusiasts today. Look for the painted soapboxes, and if you have something to say, get in line to take a turn. Listeners and civilized hecklers are welcome, too. The event intersects with the annual Newberry Book Fair of used books, July 27-30 at The Newberry, a longtime research library at 60 W. Walton St. newberry.org, 312-943-9090

Near Chicago is the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace and Museum, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, Ill. Get there from the Windy City on the Chicago-Northwestern Metra train or green “el” line. Admission is $15 ($13 for seniors, students); free for ages 10 or younger. Closed Monday and Tuesday. ehfop.org, 708-524-5383

Printers Row Lit Fest, billed as the Midwest’s largest free outdoor literary event, is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 10-11 at Printers Row Park, 600 S. Dearborn St., Chicago. Featured authors include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to U.S. Sen. Al Franken to Pulitzer Prize winner Heather Ann Thompson to Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. printersrowlitfest.org