My Volunteer Experience at the American Writers Festival
Written by Christie Maliyackel
I wasn’t sure where to begin when writing this post about my volunteer experience at May 15’s American Writers Festival in Chicago. I mean, I entirely appreciated the seamlessness of the end-to-end experience — everything was super organized and the 37 programs featuring more than 75 writers across five stages at the Chicago Cultural Center and American Writers Museum ran like clockwork.
The volunteers at the American Writers Festival occupied various roles, and I served as an “escort” for two authors — essentially, making sure my assigned authors made it from Point A to Point B in time for their onstage interviews. I was kind of nervous about it, since I kept imagining all the things that could go wrong in such a short period of time. However, the grace, composure and good energy of each author (on and offstage) particularly stood out to me and ultimately is why this volunteer experience was so meaningful and magical to me.
The first author I escorted was Deborah Cohen, a Northwestern University professor who recently wrote Last Call at the Hotel Imperial. She was so kind and warm, taking the time to chat briefly with me amidst all the last-minute activities taking place just before her interview. After she was introduced onstage, she started off by thanking the American Writers Museum, Festival and everyone who had helped to pull this program together. She could have easily just dove right into her book — after all, she had a limited period of time, and a lot of content to talk through — so her thoughtfulness and willingness to take the time to extend her appreciation did not go unnoticed.
Authors, they’re just like us! Who knew? The second author I was responsible for escorting was Will Jawando, a Council member in Montgomery County, Maryland who recently wrote My Seven Black Fathers. His interview took place towards the end of the day, and he was running a bit late. Given his schedule’s tight timing, I was concerned we’d be sprinting from the American Writers Museum to the Chicago Cultural Center for his onstage interview. However, Will and his wife, Michele, could not have been more chill. I appreciated the time they took to make conversation with me as we were walking down Michigan Avenue, their patience as I got *slightly* lost with the elevators at the Chicago Cultural Center and their genuine interest in my role as a volunteer and involvement with the museum.
I had a break in the middle of the day, so I took the opportunity to peek into a few sessions…and boy, am I glad I did! I popped into Ashley C. Ford’s session, who I had not heard about until the Festival. As the interview started, I pulled out my phone to look up her recent book, Somebody’s Daughter. I couldn’t believe how many of my Goodreads friends had read, wanted to read, or were currently reading it…and here, I’d never even heard about it! Ashley’s good energy is absolutely contagious, her stories are inspiring and she is just hilarious. As I was listening to her stories, I felt like I was listening to a gal pal. Naturally, I bought her book on the spot and grabbed a picture with her after her interview — quite simply, I just want to be best friends now! How can we make that happen?!
Being a writer is no joke — it’s the picture of creativity meets hustle meets tenacity meets vulnerability. Every step along the way comes with a whole new set of challenges. From having the creativity to develop an original, compelling idea in the first place; to the discipline it takes to sit down and write tens of thousands of words; to facing countless rejections as agents read your work and determine if it’s worthwhile to move forward. If you’re so lucky to land an agent, the challenges just keep on coming with the countless edits it takes for one book to be published and, finally, the uncertainty of whether an audience will actually read, let alone like — let alone love — your work.
As an aspiring writer myself, I found the American Writers Festival to not only be insightful, but also inspiring. It has renewed my motivation to just keep writing and believing in myself, my work and the process. Ashley C. Ford summed it up best during her interview:
“Trusting other people requires trusting yourself — so try doing both of those at the same time.”
Such wisdom! Now do you see why I want her to be my new best friend?!
I have to give a special shout out to Erin McCann (www.emccannconsulting.com) — the volunteer coordinator for this fabulous event. Her organizational skills, attention to detail and consistent communication resulted in such a high-impact, seamless experience.
For just a quick glimpse into the festivities, check out the short video below.
Christie Maliyackel lives in Chicago and works in Global Corporate Sustainability at PwC. She serves as Vice President of the Chicago Council of the American Writers Museum, a group of local professionals focused on planning and hosting programs and fundraisers to raise awareness and funds for the museum. She is also an aspiring writer, avid reader, enthusiastic baker, ambitious tennis player, trendy fitness class aficionado and Schitt’s Creek fanatic — among other things. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram to learn more!