The American Writers Museum was recently voted the top attraction in the state of Illinois by a USA Today 10Best online poll, as well as one of Fodor’s 10 Best New Museums. In honor of that achievement, in no particular order here are the top ten reasons (plus one bonus reason) to visit the American Writers Museum today.
The AWM currently has the original, 120-foot, scroll Jack Kerouac made to type the first draft of his seminal, generation-defining novel On the Road. That’s worth the price of admission alone. To achieve his free-flowing, spontaneous prose, Kerouac taped sheets of tracing paper together so he could write continuously without having to stop and put a new piece of paper in his typewriter. So he manically typed away and banged out his first draft in three weeks. The AWM has that draft! The real thing. You can read straight from the scroll and see how the first draft is different from the final, while also learning more about Kerouac’s travels and what it took to get the book done. For instance, a friend’s dog ate the end of the scroll, making Kerouac one of the few people who can honestly use that excuse.
And for the first time ever, the On the Road scroll has been digitized in its entirety with a touchscreen for you to get even deeper into the story. You can scroll the scroll! How cool is that? The digitized version will remain at the AWM for the foreseeable future but the physical scroll is set to be here through early November so now is the time to get a look at it before any more dogs get their paws on it.
Right next to Kerouac’s scroll are a few working typewriters you can write your own story on at the AWM’s Story of the Day table. I’m talking old school machines, like what your parents and grandparents worked on. Today, typing is done by our thumbs on a tiny screen or by our voices talking into that same screen, so it is eye-opening to see how things used to be done. It’s a much more tactile experience and I’ve found it forces me to slow down and think about what I’m typing. There’s no autocorrect or “Edit-Undo.” So take the time, sit down and appreciate how writing used to get done, whether it’s a new experience for you or an all-too-familiar one.
It’s old school versus new school at the Story of the Day table because in addition to the typewriters (and pencils), there are laptops. Not only does this show the evolution of writing mechanisms, but on the laptops you can contribute to the online “Story of the Day.” The AWM has partnered with Story Street Labs to create daily stories written by AWM visitors and you can add your own flair to these stories right there on the laptops. You’ll provide your email and then later receive the full story. It’s really quite a fun way to collaborate with fellow museum visitors and share inspirations, and who knows, maybe make new writing friends!
As the summer draws to a close despite all our wishful thinking, you can still get a taste of sunshine and happiness in the temporary exhibit celebrating the poetry and conservation work of W.S. Merwin. The Pulitzer-Prize winning former U.S. Poet Laureate converted a wasteland in Hawaii into one of the world’s most important palm gardens. The AWM celebrates that work with an immersive art installation that combines visual, auditory and physical components including live palm trees. You can walk through the exhibit and appreciate these impressive plants in person so if you can’t get to Hawaii, this is the next best thing. At the end of the walk-through, the AWM encourages visitors to write their own poems, or simply their thoughts and feelings, that are then sent to Merwin himself in Hawaii. It’s a powerful way to interact with one of America’s foremost poets in a manner that can’t be found anywhere else. Like the scroll, the palm trees are nearing the end of their stay at the AWM, so make sure you come see them before they move on.
This mesmerizing exhibit will put you in a contemplative state as you think about your place in the world. And that’s a good thing. Combining lights and sounds, this exhibit highlights quotes from authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Emma Lazarus, Langston Hughes, and others that exemplify what American writing means, and in a broader sense what it means to be American. The words seemingly appear and disappear as lights and colors flash across them, captivating the viewer with a sense of awe and wonder. These quotes are accompanied by iconic American images, such as the Statue of Liberty, that are comprised of the words themselves. Take a moment to sit down and let the Word Waterfall wash over you, you won’t want to look away.
For adults, admission to the AWM is only $12. That’s crazy inexpensive for the experience you’ll get. And better yet, for seniors and students the rate is $8. If you’re a child under the age of 12 or you have kids, they get in for free. It’s hard to beat that bargain. There’s no time limit so you can literally spend the entire day learning, getting inspired, writing and inspiring others. It’s so worth it, especially given its prime location in the Loop.
What’s more, if you’ve always wanted to pursue a degree in American Literature, just come to the American Writers Museum! Spend enough time in the museum and you’ll come away with essentially an undergraduate education, without all the weird roommates and dirty house parties. Plus, the base level of annual membership starts at only $40, so you won’t even have to take out a ridiculously expensive loan to get your education.
While there is plenty of reading to be done at the AWM, that’s not the sole focus. It is not a library. Good writing impacts all of our senses, not just the visual, and the exhibits bring this aspect of writing to life. You can listen to excerpts of well-known literary works, feel what it’s like to have a real book in your hand and even smell scents that authors have written about. Touchscreens are prevalent throughout the museum, making it a true hands-on experience and there’s even touch-enabled word games you can play with a friend (or enemy) to prove once and for all who’s the true wordsmith. The interactivity ensures nothing is static in the AWM. It’s a living, breathing entity, much like a good book, and encourages visitors to engage in a variety of ways.
Another way the AWM stays fresh is through its public programming, in which writers visit the museum and engage with their audience in person. There are many fantastic scheduled events for the fall – from readings to panels to workshops – in which you can converse with your favorite authors, experiencing their words in a way that is more than simply reading. It’s a great way to get to know writers on a deeper, personal level. There is even a monthly children’s author storytime, in which authors come in and read their books to kids (and kids at heart). The AWM aims to inspire the next generation of writers, so if your child is a budding wordsmith this is the way to foster and encourage that.
Children’s author storytimes are held in our Children’s Gallery, a space dedicated to those first books we read – or are read to us. There are exhibits designed for children that allow them to experiment and have fun with words, as well as physical copies of many well-known children’s books. As an adult, it’s great for nostalgia as you’ll jump back on the Magic School Bus or go back to Where the Wild Things Are. The centerpiece of the Children’s Gallery is a beautiful mural of a tree painted by award-winning author and illustrator Paul Zelinsky. It’s more than just a tree though because when you take a closer look, you’ll see a bunch of cute squirrels hanging out in the tree reading their favorite children’s books. And when you take an even closer look you’ll see those squirrels are representative of the books they are reading. It’s like a literary squirrel scavenger hunt. Where else can you do that?
Chicago is a fitting city for the American Writers Museum, given its rich literary history and the AWM does well to honor this with a distinct Chicago Gallery. Celebrating literary juggernauts such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and more, the Chicago Gallery properly cements Chicago’s legacy as one of the nation’s premier literary cities. Whether you’re a Chicago native, a transplant or a visitor you’ll get a sense of why so many writers choose to call Chicago home and what makes this city so inspiring and invigorating. The American Writers Museum, the first and only of its kind, strengthens an already strong literary landscape in this impressive city and will continue to inspire future Chicago writers.
As an aside, I have to give a shout out to the fantastic museum staff. The Storytellers, as they are known, are super friendly and welcoming and truly enjoy sharing the museum space with visitors. Many of them are writers themselves and avid readers, so they know what they are talking about and are more than willing to help and converse with museum guests. After talking with them you’ll leave with a smile on your face.