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Book Review: A Reason to Be Here

A Reason to Be Here: Tales from the Writers Convention. Jay Rehak (Editor). Chicago: Windy City Publishers, June 15, 2019, Trade Paperback, 200 pages.

Reviewed by Dan Burns.

A Reason to Be Here is a collaborative novel, conceived and edited by Jay Rehak and shaped by the determined writing efforts and crafted stories from twenty-five members of the Off Campus Writers Workshop (OCCW), the oldest continuously running writing workshop in the country.

For years, the stories-as-a-novel writing approach has intrigued me. After reading the books Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, I realized that an author could successfully tie together individual stories into a cohesive, believable, over-arching storyline, but not without significant effort and challenges. I figured trying a similar feat with twenty-five authors would be impossible. Fortunately, with Rehak at the helm and based on his prior experience helping authors create original class-sourced, crowdsourced novels, I learned the OCCW was in good hands.

The first chapter, written by Rehak, establishes the storyline. One-hundred-year-old renowned author, Alice Bainbridge, attends the Midwest Writers Conference to receive a lifetime achievement award. After receiving her award, Alice speaks to the audience: “I’d much prefer to be remembered not as a Master Storyteller, but as a Master Story Listener . . . Because listening to good stories is pretty much what’s keeping me alive. So please, tell me a story.” Exhausted and weary, Alice agrees to stay afterward to listen to anyone who wishes to share a story, opening the door for the subsequent chapter-stories that build and develop the storyline to a satisfying conclusion.

A different author, who provided a unique and interesting approach to storytelling, wrote each of the following twenty-five stories. In many of the stories, the author created a character who shares with Alice a personal story. In others, the author created a character who shares a story about someone else in a more fictional and less-biographical manner, an approach I found more enlightening and engaging. Some chapters were better than others—which I expected—reflecting the different experience levels of the authors. Each chapter had the necessary beginnings and endings, the “glue,” to stitch the storyline together and propel the reader forward, which was no small feat. The authors effectively worked together to build a cohesive tale.

As a reader, I enjoyed the diverse writing approaches and styles. Although I wondered at times how Alice—at her age—could listen to one more story, the stories fueled her and provided a reason to live. The original storyline proved successful in establishing a solid foundational structure for the authors to build upon. With a weaker storyline, the novel’s foundation likely would have crumbled.

A Reason to Be Here is a beneficial resource and learning tool for writers, highlighting—and proving—the statement that there is more than one way to tell a story. Writers interested in different approaches to the short story, the novel, points of view and perspective, plotting, and writing style can find ideas, techniques, and inspiration for future writing projects.

I applaud all the OCCW writers who contributed stories for A Reason to Be Here. The book is a testament to their individual writing efforts and willingness to toil in harmony with others to support and develop the craft of writing.


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