Today in our Meet the Philosophers Series, we hear from NWA writer Larry Ambrose on his love for Chicago, writing, and mentoring.
What is your name?
If you had to give yourself a title, what would it be?
I don’t like titles, never have; but a struggle to describe myself might include looking for the truth about myself through the writing process. If I’m not doing that as a so-called writer, why do I write?
How long have you lived in Chicago? Where in the city do you live?
I came to Chicago from downstate Illinois in 1961, what’s that? Fifty-one years ago? I came here to pursue a master’s degree in social work and quit after one day. Enough school. My first residence and my first job were in a settlement house on the near Southwest side. Since then my family and I have lived all over the South Side and in the Western suburbs. For the last 21 years we’ve lived on the Near North side.
Tell us something about your neighborhood. Why do you live there?
My neighborhood is Streeterville; pretty much all high-rise buildings and very dense. We moved here from the suburbs because we were ready for a truly urban downtown experience, and because we were bored with suburban life. We have remained here because of the quiet streets, the friendly neighbors, relative safety, intellectual stimulation, amazing cultural diversity and variety of eating, education, and entertainment facilities. The contrast of these surroundings with my beginnings in a town of 3,000 people would seem mind-boggling, but I see it as a final step in the continuing evolution of a life.
Tell us something about Chicago. Why do you live here?
Oh, where do I start? I knew when I was 8 years old that I would live in Chicago. Staying with my aunts in the city, I lived in the back of an aunt’s antique shop, heard the Green Hornets at night, was regaled by the guys in the bar next door, saw professional women’s baseball games, and snuck into the movies with neighborhood kids although scared to death. So Chicago was synonymous with excitement. I live here because of the constant buzz of a world class place, the homeless, the hourly workers, the descendents of immigrants filtering out of their ethnic conclaves, the minorities gradually defeating the efforts of the powerful to hem them in, the drama of the burgeoning theatrical scene, the arts that are all around us, not limited to the elite but by one’s own spirit of inquiry and experimentation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
How are you affiliated with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA)? How long have you been involved with NWA?
I had taken a number of creative writing classes after having written four books on the subject of mentoring, the business I was and still am in. I wanted to get away from strictly subject oriented writing and branch out into more imaginative areas. I was looking for an outlet and someone in one of the classes suggested NWA about five years ago. I have been involved ever since.
Why are you involved with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance?
It is a great opportunity to continue my experience of the diversity of the city. The meetings are very stimulating; everyone has his or her on unique worldview and has the opportunity to express it in writing. I also enjoy the atmosphere of social responsibility that pervades the organization; one realizes he or she is a part of group that cares about social justice, opportunity and equality. That I find extremely comforting dating back to the sixties and my first professional job as staff of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.
What does NWA’s motto, “Every Person Is a Philosopher,” mean to you?
The motto expresses a profound truth about each person alive. We each have our unique philosophy which we want to feel we can express. When we repeat the motto, “Every Person Is a Philosopher” we declare it publicly, reminding ourselves to not only put it into action, but to refine and bring into action our own self-definition.
What is your arts background? How has the Neighborhood Writing Alliance changed the way that you think about the writing process?
Always interested in the arts, but not having had the patience to learn at a deep level, I have taught myself to carve, taken instruction in drawing, playing the fiddle and tap dancing, as well as writing. I have found that I may be a more natural poet than a prose writer and am currently in a poetry class. NWA has been instrumental in allowing me to experiment in many forms of writing and to come ever closer to understanding my own style. The open, nonjudgmental atmosphere that offers sincere review of the writer keeps me coming back for more. In short, NWA gives me a chance to test myself and to mature as a writer.
Tell us about a piece published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought that has spoken to you. Why did this writer’s work speak to you?
The piece is “Technology to Me” by George Cruthird. It is a short piece that transmits in a profound and unpretentious way the experience of confronting technological developments after an extended incarceration. It brings to us what faces the individual as he contemplates taking the next step of readjustment and how long that process may be. And it makes me wonder which is more daunting; life in prison or the life after.
TECHNOLOGY TO ME
I’m very new to this new way of living.
I’ve been gone for 30 years.
May 10 was the first time I used a cell phone.
Is technology good?
I believe so, but from what I hear, it does have its bad points.
I’m sure I’ll be using it soon.
But I am taking my time.
Bear with me. I’m from the past.
“Technology to Me” was published in the Fall 2011 issue of JOT “I Am Here.”
Why do you think the Journal of Ordinary Thought is important?
JOT is a marvelous idea that provides opportunity for anyone, no matter their background or situation, to express themselves fully and to hone their ability to do so in a completely non-judging setting. These are experiences usually available only to those in an advanced learning institution or an expensive seminar. The diversity and informal education that accompanies it is priceless. When you participate in JOT, you participate in American grassroots democracy as it was always intended.
What’s a social justice issue on your mind right now? What is the most pressing issue in your community? Please explain.
Citizens of Chicago still live in a highly segregated community. I should correct myself: the city was at one time a purposely segregated place. It remained so for such a long time that it became the established way of life. So to change that will take concentrated efforts, which are sadly lacking. True, there has been some softening, but it is still too easy for mostly white neighborhoods to feel proud that there is a smattering of different races and nationalities on the street, in the work force, in business and in residence.
What else do you do? Are you involved in other organizations? If yes, what do you do for them? What are your hobbies and interests?
I’m almost retired; I work about a day and a half a week, doing consulting work and handling my company’s writing, designing, and blog. I tend not to be a joiner, with the exception of writing groups. In addition to JOT, a group of us from a writing class at Newberry Library started our own writing group three years ago and it’s going strong. I have lots of hobbies: I sailed on the lake for 20 years, carved figures and drew portraits in pencil and pastels, took tap dancing lessons, play the fiddle, give tours for the Chicago Greeters, produce my personal blog, and take a poetry class. And read my Kindle.
What book has impacted you recently? Why? Who is your favorite author?
Unbroken by my favorite author, Laura Hillenbrand. I love the book because it is true and it is about a profoundly brave, strong, and resourceful man who could not conceive of failing to survive and went on to thrive in his personal life.
What is your favorite Chicago literary venue and why?
Formerly Border’s. Now Kindle.
We invited Larry to write his own question and answer it. He asked, “What advice do you have to give?”
Give up giving advice. Relax. Do the things you love every time you get the chance. Let people figure out their own paths. (Oh, god! Did I just give advice?)
I’d better just go now.
To hear more from Larry, visit his blog, “Chicago Stories.”
In keeping with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s motto, “Every Person Is a Philosopher,” Meet the Philosophers is a column featuring profiles of members of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance community. Here, we survey their role in our organization and pick their brains about writing, social justice, art, and Chicago.