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In Bare-​Knuckled Lit, Write Club's greatest hits pack a wallop

A new book assembles the punchiest essays from the national live-lit event that was founded in Chicago.



Descriptions of Write Club tend to focus on the raucous atmosphere of the live-lit series. The events comprise three bouts, each of which features two writer-performers assigned opposing ideas (native vs. foreign, work vs. play, smooth vs. rough) and given seven minutes apiece to win over the audience.

"It adopts the bellicose tone of pro wrestling," Ian Belknap writes in the introduction to Bare-Knuckled Lit, a collection of Write Club essays from three of its five U.S. outposts, Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco. When Belknap started Write Club back in 2010, the local actor, comedian, and writer was inspired by the sink-or-swim immediacy of stand-up comedy and the authenticity of the Neo-Futurists' Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, in which a performer takes the stage only as himself, not a character.

In her foreword to the book, essayist Samantha Irby, a regular contender, calls Write Club "brain-to-brain combat . . . fought with words forged of brass and wrapped around knuckles made of wit."

The real challenge each participant faces is finding a way to engage passionately with a broad subject—and make that passion contagious to an audience. As Belknap writes, "writer-performers have to grapple with how their topics connect to them directly, which means each combatant needs to unearth her own beliefs about it, and then articulate those beliefs in a cogent and compelling fashion."

So it's fitting that some of the most effective pieces in Bare-Knuckled Lit stem from a complementary pairing of writer and topic: "full," for instance, prompts a deeply personal reflection from Atlanta participant Dani Herd on her troubled relationship with food. But it can be just as exhilarating to recognize someone expressing conviction in less personal terms, as does Herd's opponent, Chris Gray, who devises a fictional dystopia to support "empty."

In a bout from the San Francisco branch, "Top vs. Bottom," Colin Iago McCarthy's elegant meditation on the centripetal force of the universe, spinning like a top, is pitted against Joy Carletti's rallying cry for bottoming out and starting over. The participants don't know in advance what tack their opponent will take—literal or imaginative, funny or dark—but the bouts are always interesting to adjudicate, whether the two sides follow barely compatible courses of logic or the arguments are straightforward, as in the case of "Santa vs. Jesus," in which Belknap and comedian Mike O'Connell have it out.

The carefully crafted, wildly creative work assembled in Bare-Knuckled Lit is ultimately an advertisement of the highest order for Write Club, a taste that makes you want to go out and grab a front-row seat for the real live literary prizefight. It's a compliment to say this is one book you'll want to put down.

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