Some think “Wright” is synonymous with Oak Park, while others think “write,” with visions of Berg, Burroughs and Hemingway, among others. At the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, much of what they do is about preserving the history of Hemingway: his birthplace home, family history, his time as a youth in Oak Park. But another important part is nurturing writers and engaging the community.
They do this in a number of ways, some established, some newer to the foundation. One longer running program is the Writer in Residence. Through a national search, one writer is selected to have access to the attic writing space of the Hemingway birthplace home, an 1890 Queen Anne on Oak Park Avenue.
“We look for accomplished writers,” said Mary Jane Neumann, executive committee member on the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Board of Directors. “We also search for someone who will interact with the community.”
The new Writer in Residence, who will “get the keys” at the Hemingway Graduation Party on June 17, is Oak Park resident Cameron Gearen, who published a book of poetry, Some Perfect Year, in 2016. She has also written and published essays and taught writing and English. She plans to work on and complete her memoir during her two-year residency.
“You get distracted at home,” she said. “But like Virginia Woolf, having a ‘Room of Own’s Own’ will help.”
Gearen also said she’s driven to write and “for every success there’s 2,000 rejections.” It took her 15 years to get her poetry book published, for example.
“It’s about who doesn’t quit,” Gearen continued. “You do it for yourself and you can’t live without it.”
To encourage young writers, the Hemingway Foundation began offering a scholarship at Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2016. Juniors submit essays for the chance to be mentored by the Writer in Residence during senior year and to win a $1,000 cash prize upon graduation. The top three essays get published in the annual publication Hemingway Shorts.
This year’s top honor went to Ellie Bourgikos who wrote about her two homes – the one she lives at in River Forest during the school year and the vastly different one she experiences in Greece over the summer, in the village from which her father emigrated. The essay is titled, “Between Two Worlds.”
“My family is big on storytelling,” Bourgikos said. “Over time, this turned into essays. Now, it’s a hobby of mine.”
When she learned her work was chosen and would be published, she felt a rush of excitement.
“My 6-year-old self is losing her mind!” she said.
The other two finalists are Kara Jackson and Zachary Brown. Short stories from 11 adults will also appear in this second annual edition of Hemingway Shorts, available through the foundation.
Other writers getting an opportunity through the Hemingway Foundation are members of the Julian Spoken Word Club, which is sponsored by the Oak Park Education Foundation.
These middle schoolers are performing at the Hemingway Graduation Party. One participant, Maya Souden, who recently completed sixth grade, has used her poetry as a means of personal expression.
“There are so many different angles in one form of art,” Souden said. “The content depends on what I’m thinking. Sometimes it’s easier to say something in a poem than to tell someone something directly.”
For the event, students created their works based on a Hemingway book or quote. Souden says she likes both writing and performing.
“I like to find a creative way to say something,” she said. “But it’s invigorating to perform and that’s creative too – the way you present, how you’re going to move, walk, and use the mic.”
According to Neumann, having a scholarship program for high school essay writers and inviting members of the Spoken Word Club to their event is a way to draw in young writers.
“We want to connect with local writers and youth,” she said. “And bringing in Spoken Word is creative. It’s exciting and modern.”
As Writer in Residence, Gearen said she wants to give writing an image redo, from something elitist to something approachable.
“I don’t want anyone to think they can’t write; we all have something to say,” she said. “There’s room for a lot of voices.”