The American Writers Museum

AWM_PrimaryLogo_195x195As a writer, I was skeptical. The American Writers Museum, which opened in May 2017 here in Chicago, says it’s all about “Celebrating American Writers Past & Present. The first museum of its kind in the nation!” Well, there’s only one exclamation point. They might know punctuation, at least.

This museum is housed on the second floor of the Crain Communications Building downtown, 180 N. Michigan Ave., in an area frequented by tourists. Adult admission is $12; by comparison, the Field Museum costs $36 (but you can see Sue the T. Rex [not named after me]). What would you see at a writer museum? An animatronic guy typing?

Because that’s what we writers do, we sit around and write.

It turns out you can actually do that – write – at the American Writers Museum. There are cushy sofas and chairs, and pencils, pens, paper, and even old typewriters in working order sitting out to be used. And there are shelves of books if you’d rather read. The advertising says that “through dynamic state-of-the-art exhibitions” the museum “educates, provokes, and inspires visitors of all ages.” What it might actually do is encourage dedicated readers and writers to read and write even more.

You enter through glass doors and pay at a desk in the midst of a small gift shop, turn right, and start your visit. When I visited, a special exhibit called “Palm” celebrated poet W.S. Merwin and his palm garden in Hawaii. It tries to recreate the garden with real potted plants giving off the scent of wet earth and live greenery. Loudspeakers play outdoor sound effects and, if you push a button, you can hear poetry read aloud. Or you can read texts displayed on the walls.

At one end of the long room, a desk with paper invites you to write your own poem, and Mr. Merwin will compost the paper and feed it to the palms: your poetry will have a guaranteed consumer. The museum gives you the sights, smells, and sounds of a garden. And a prompt: if it were the last day of your life, why would you plant a tree? So I wrote a poem.

Another area, the Children’s Literature Gallery, contains playful exhibits about famous books such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It also has comfy sofas and shelves of books. Sit down, read a book – or have your dad read to you if you’re still learning the alphabet. (Kids 12 and younger get in to the museum free.)

American Voices, a 60-foot long presentation, is a “multilayered exhibit wall [that] takes visitors on a journey through the literary history of the United States. Trace the development of the American voice with the 100 emblematic and influential authors.” That exhibit faces a wall with 100 boxes showcasing selected works. Context saves this from superficiality: the exhibit details how writers and their works fit into US history, how authors’ inspirations and aspirations changed, and how a truly American approach to writing developed over time.

I spent a while watching short videos about how Edgar Allan Poe’s “urban shock” stories led to a new kind of detective story and a new way to write about city life. I could have spent a lot more time investigating other writing topics with touch screens and moving exhibits. The museum seems small, but it has a lot of depth to share.

A temporary exhibit when I was there displayed the brittle, yellowed scroll Jack Kerouac used 60 years ago to type the novel On the Road. You could study his corrections and edits – and margin changes, since apparently the roll shifted sideways a bit as he continuously typed.

The Readers Hall is just that: displays about books, shelves of books, and sofas and chairs. I grabbed a book of 2016’s best essays, sat down, and read for a while.

The Mind of a Writer area contains the aforementioned typewriters, pencils, and paper. You can write, post work on a story wall, and add to an online story of the day.

In other parts of the museum, you can watch and listen to the hypnotic Word Waterfall, study writing techniques, and play writing games, such as an electronic form of poetry magnets. The museum ends with a display showing where writers and readers connected and still connect in Chicago, and information about the city’s iconic writers.

Finally, there’s a small, writing-oriented gift shop. One thing that would make the museum better would be a coffee bar, but a sign warns: “No food and drink in the museum.” However, you can buy an American Writers Museum mug to take home.

My visit held none of the boredom of watching a writer at work. I even learned a thing or two. I bought a little book of writing prompts on my way out, and chose a free bookmark.

The museum holds regular events: a children’s author story time, workshops, and author readings and signings. On February 15, will host a Read Dating, which is like Speed Dating, but you can look for potential partners who love the same books as you.

Though small, the museum has a niche it aims to fill. I think it can do that.

When 1 equals 2

Elevator_panel_2012_straightenedShrunkA few years back, when I was still living in Spain but visiting my sister in Texas, we got on an elevator to go up to an office for an appointment. The elevator buttons offered a choice of B 1 2 so I asked, “Which one?

She laughed at me, and after a moment I understood why. In the United States (and most of Canada), B 1 2 means “Basement, 1st Floor (Ground Floor), 2nd Floor.” In Spain (and most of Europe) B 1 2 means “Bajo (Lower or Ground or 0 Floor), 1st Floor, 2nd Floor.”

In other words, what is called the 2nd Floor in the United States is the 1st Floor in Spain. I had only one choice going up, and that was 2, because we were already at 1, the ground floor.

This is a detail to bear in mind when translating. For example, in 2014, a huge storm hit Spain’s north Atlantic coast, delivering 7-storey-high waves – or at least that’s how they were described in Spain. But if I were going to tell someone in the United States about it, I would have to say they were 8 storeys high, especially in Texas where everything is bigger. (You can see spectacular photos here.)

There are other details of language and culture to bear in mind, for example:

Billion means 1,000,000,000 or a thousand million in the United States (and some other countries) and 1,000,000,000,000 or a million million in Spain (and some other countries). This often causes problems.

• Some countries, including Spain, use a comma to indicate decimals, so 1,234 might equal 1.234, or about 1¼. Reciprocally, 1.234 in Spain (and some other countries) equals 1,234 or one thousand two hundred thirty-four. There’s a big difference.

• In Spain, morning is the time period that lasts from getting up until the main meal is eaten at about 2 p.m., so it is still “morning” after noon. Also, television prime time (horario central) in Spain starts at 10 p.m.

• The expression fifteen days in Spanish means two weeks, or “fortnight” if you’re British.

• Payment for work, such as minimum wage, is expressed by a monthly rate in Spain (and some other countries), not hourly.

So if you ever compare a translation to the original and numbers look different, they may still be the same. The translator may have had to do a little math. It’s part of the job.

Spanish word of the year: “aporofobia,” fear of poor people

The English language has its share of words of 2017:

youthquake according to the Oxford Dictionaries, due to the voting patterns in the UK’s June general election;
complicit, according to, due to three spikes of interest in the word related to US politics; and
feminism, according to Merriam-Webster, again due to spikes of interest related to US politics, as well as to the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale and the movie Wonder Woman, and to the #MeToo revelations of widespread sexual harassment in the workplace, which have come as a shock to absolutely everyone except women and girls.

In Spain, the Fundéu BBVA provides recommendations for grammar and usage for “urgent Spanish,” that is, words and expressions related to the news. Its 2017 word of the year is aporofobia, a newly coined word for fear, rejection, and aversion to poor people.

The word was introduced by Adela Cortina, a philosopher in Valencia, Spain, in several articles in the press calling attention to the idea that the apparent rejection of people due to their race or status as immigrants or refugees, is really due to their poverty. “It’s necessary to give a name to a phenomena that exists and is corrosive,” she said.

“Sadly,” said the director of the Fundéu BBVA, Joaquín Muller, “aporofobia has been in the news throughout 2017 due to the drama of immigration in different parts of the world, the impoverishment of large parts of society in many countries … and the attitude of some leaders and citizens. These attitudes clearly show rejection and aversion to poor people and to poverty.”

Fundéu BBVA’s runners-up for 2017 are: aprendibilidad (learnability), bitcóin (bitcoin), destripe (spoiler, as in a movie review), machoexplicación (mansplaining), noticias falsas (fake news), odiador (hater), soñadores (dreamers), superbacteria (superbacteria), trans (trans, as in “transgender”), turismofobia (fear of tourism: Spain gets a lot of tourists, perhaps too many), and uberización (Uberization).

Last year, the word of the year for Fundéu was populismo (populism), and in 2015, refugiado (refugee). Some issues capture world-wide attention and some are local, and they all mark our languages as they develop and change. This year’s words have had a decidedly political focus.

Your father’s first Christmas

I wrote this piece as a Christmas present for my nephew in 2004.


Sean Patrick Burke

This is your first Christmas, Sean, and since you’re only eight months old, I know this story might not impress you much, but it seems like the right time to tell it.

Your father was not quite three months old on his first Christmas, and I was ten years old. I knew enough about babies to know they don’t really do much at first, but eventually they grow into real people. That was the exciting puzzle. What was this new baby brother going to be like? We didn’t have many clues, but we watched for them all the time. Who was Louis Peter Burke?

Your Grandmother Burke died well before you were born, so you don’t know much about her. Here is her Christmas tree decorating theory: More is better. In architectural terms, it was rococo baroque.

During Christmas Eve day, we decorated the tree. First the lights went on — big lights, small lights, steady lights, twinkle lights, colored lights, white lights, all the lights we had, and there were plenty. Second, we hung every single ornament we had on the tree, and, again, there were plenty. If one was ugly or beat up, it went way on the inside where it could add color or sparkle without really being visible. The only rule was smaller stuff on top, bigger stuff on the bottom. Finally, we added tinsel and garlands of various types and colors to be sure there was maximum sparkle.

Then we waited for nightfall, since only a darkened house could do justice to the masterpiece that we had created.

Meanwhile, we dressed your father in a red-and-white-striped elf-costume pajama set that an aunt had given him, complete with a pointy cap. He didn’t care for the cap but we made him wear it anyway, at least long enough for a photo, which may still be around somewhere. He looked more silly than elfish. He certainly had no idea about what was going on. He was too little to understand much of anything.

The moment to light the tree arrived. We turned out all the lamps and closed the front curtains to block the streetlight. With a flip of a switch, and the tree flashed on, providing enough sparkling light to read by.

Your father’s eyes got big and he couldn’t take them off the tree. He liked it! He liked it a lot! Even when we turned the regular room lights back on, he continued to stare at the tree, fascinated.

It was a clue, the first clue I remember, about your father’s personality. He liked colorful, beautiful things — at least, we thought the tree was beautiful, and in a rococo way, it certainly was. We lit the tree for him throughout the holidays for the sheer fun of watching him enjoy it.

I don’t remember much else about that Christmas, like what I got as presents, what anyone else got, whether there was snow, or what we had for Christmas dinner. All I remember is the intense look of surprise and delight on your father’s little face, and how merry a Christmas he made it for all of us because we could make him happy, and because we had learned a little bit about him.

Finding out who someone is takes a long time. I’m still learning things about my brother Louis. Fatherhood, for example, has revealed new aspects of his personality and interests. In the same delighted way that I first saw so many years ago, he could not be more curious and excited to learn about you. Who is Sean Patrick Burke?

This is your father’s first Christmas with you. I hope it is merry.

Copyright © 2004 by Sue Burke, all rights assigned to Sean Patrick Burke.