A compiler of an archive of Illinois writing needs to explain two things. Why Illinois? And why writing? The answers are, because Illinois is what I knew enough to write about, because my residence and my experience of the place was my only credential, and because I knew no more congenial way to make a living.
I was born in 1948 in Beardstown, Illinois, a mid-Illinois boy from mid-Illinois parents whose families’ roots in the region date to the 1820s and early 1830s. My father is the son of local banker, my mother a daughter of a hard-luck Cass County railroader and farmer. We moved a few weeks later to the state capital, Springfield, where Dad got a patronage job as a page at the state library. We lived in a walk-up flat a block from Lincoln’s home—an augury.
I nurtured no ambition to be a writer of any kind as a boy. As far as I can recall, the only books in our house were book club editions of The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen's Childhood By Her Nanny, Marion Crawford (I didn't read it until I was in my fifties), A Child's Garden of Verse (which I never read, finding it alternately creepy and twee), and the two-volume Bennett Cerf's Bumper Crop of Anecdotes, which I read over and over and which left me with a weakness for jests that undid my future reputation as a Serious Journalist.
My interest in words was piqued less by books than by television and the thinkers, critics, and columnists who, improbably as it seems today, populated late night talk shows and Sunday morning cultural programs from the late 1950s into the '60s. In high school, I discovered magazines. They were my World Wide Web, a world in which I would always feel more at home than anywhere. As a high schooler I subscribed to New Republic, Downbeat, Village Voice, and (briefly) Ramparts, and read where I could the classic Esquire and Time—yes, Time, (parts of) which in those days was a magazine worth reading.
Working on the high school newspaper ("All the news they don't let you print") had no appeal. As a student I was bright but bored in the usual way, and nurtured gripes against the public schools that later fueled several essay-ish diatribes that resemble more than I like to admit my opinion columns for which I later became known in Springfield. My passion was not writing so much as it was preaching. I wrote what amounted to position papers because the world of course wanted to know where I stood on issues of the day, which usually meant schools. I limited my trouble-making to the printed page, however, which meant I caused no trouble at all.
Getting into print
I never had to stoop to graffiti on the walls of underpasses, but my outlets were not much more prepossessing. For a time I was reduced to submitting loony letters to the editors under jokey names—“Ernest Bombastico” was a regular contributor to the hometown daily.
In 1971, when I was a grizzled 22, two local rabble-rousers named Todd Domke and Lew Friedland started a weekly “alternative” newspaper they titled Focus. At Focus I contributed commentaries on local and national politics, did labored parodies, and—anticipating my professional future—one or two pieces of quality. These pieces were the first that reached the general public (or at least part of it) including my first column of opinion published as such. It was titled As the Crow Flies (my surname means crow in German dialect), which is a title I wish I'd reused.
While I learned nothing new about writing at Focus I did learn the rudiments of publishing on newsprint via the offset press. The newish technology made it cheap and easy for the amateur to put out something that looked like a newspaper. Everyone was doing it; they were the precursors to blogs. Focus didn't last the summer, as I recall, but I enjoyed being a blow-hard too much to stop. So, at an age when all my now-degreed age-mates were starting grownup lives, I decided to start a newspaper that was anything but grownup.
Atlantis came first, and when that sank without a trace, The Phoenix. As I would put it in a column, I and my colleagues in these ventures had figured out that what the ailing world needed was a good stiff dose of us. We offered "satire"—that is, sneering jests—and earnest long-winded commentaries. Looking at them again I see they were neither as scabrous or as fun as we thought they were at the time, just dull and stupid.
There was nothing very Illinois about these apprentice papers and while my young colleagues were excellent people and we had great fun the papers were awful, so very little appears here from that phase of my apprenticeship.
Making a living
None of this work made me any money. Beginning in my mid-teens I, still unschooled, worked as gardener, janitor, bus boy, waiter, car-hop, short order cook, dish washer, night watchman, stockboy, crew member on two archeological digs, errand boy, editor, tour guide, mail clerk, commercial artist, consultant to assorted state agencies, photographer, demographic analyst, house painter, baby sitter, and one day as a gas pump jockey.
I made my first money in the trade as an advertising copy writer, book review ghost writer—I helped more kids through college than Pell grants—and an editor of PhD dissertations. As a Springfieldian looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised to realize that the first proper writing I ever did—that is, writing that was published professionally, which bore my name as author, and which earned me a grownup paycheck—was for the State of Illinois.
Always an eager improver of other people, I was a member of state and local committees of 1970 White House Conference on Youth, the Urban Needs Committee of United Way, an Illinois Department of Public Health's drug abuse program planning group, and the Committee on School Organization of the Governor's Commission on Schools.
The contacts thus made led to my being hired to write state agency publications that pertained to kids and schools—drug abuse among kids in the first case, and school district reorganization in Illinois in the second. In addition to giving me professional credentials, such projects broadened my understanding of public issues, which would prove useful. I had taken a few steps down a career path, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.
I signed up for a few courses at the new state university in Springfield, Sangamon State University, which opened in 1971. I lasted a semester, my sole achievement being a friendship with one of my teachers, Cullom Davis. Trained as an historian, he was teaching and assistant dean-ing and starting an oral history project. Cullom’s inability to say no to duty was a boon to me. He had come to learn about the long-ago race riots in Springfield but hadn't the time to write it up. With his encouragement I did it instead.
The Sangamon County Historical Society undertook in 1973 to publish a series of pamphlet essays on local history to be known collectively as Bicentennial Studies in Sangamon History. Three estimable gentlemen, Cullom, Richard E. Hart, and Robert P. Howard, populated the committee that oversaw the series. My brief report on the race riots of 1908 was to be the first title in the series.
Because I had some experience with publication production, I was asked and I agreed to design each booklet and oversee its production. I also tended to the marketing, which consisted of shaming local booksellers into giving us precious shelf space.
The series gave me valuable experience. Better yet, I was recommended by Dick Hart to William Friedman, the founding publisher of Illinois Times, who was trolling for talent for his new paper. Thus I was asked to contribute/advise/cheer on a real weekly newspaper then starting up in Springfield.
Making a name
Illinois Times was an eccentric weekly founded in 1975 with serious intent by veterans of big-city journalism. The paper’s founding editor, Alan Anderson—Columbia journalism school, Time and New York Times magazines—kindly said I was one of only two local contributors whom he didn't have to teach how to write. But knowing how to write is only part of becoming a writer, and I owe the paper for the opportunity to display my skills, for a title ("associate editor," granted in lieu of pay raise, which sounds so much better in a pitch letter than “freelance hack”), for contacts, and, most crucially, for confidence.
A writer needs luck as well as talent, and mine was that Springfield in 1975 saw the birth of not one worthy publication but two with which I was to be associated for decades. (More about these enterprises in Publications.) The second was a monthly magazine titled Illinois Issues, published by the SSU as part of its public affairs mandate and devoted to exactly the sort of wonky explorations of public issues that I savored. Imagine, writing position papers for money.
It turned out that the only credential I needed in the eyes of national editors was my mid-Illinoisan-ness. My big break as a journalist was being asked to do a cover story about farming for a business magazine out of New York City, it being assumed that of course I would know about farming. The final piece was about how three generations of farmers had transformed corn farming in the region into a high-tech, high-stakes enterprise, run by men and women as unlike their ancestors as the bungalow-sized combine harvesters were unlike the horse-drawn reapers they replaced. Like that, I had a national career, or at least a chance for one.
Making a move
I had written many pieces with a statewide focus for Illinois Issues, but one can't really call oneself an Illinois writer, as distinct from a Springfield writer, until he takes on Chicago as a topic. I moved to Oak Park, Illinois, next door to Chicago’s west side, in 1988. If Springfield was where I was brought up, and the West Coast, much later, was where I at last learned how to live, Chicago was where I came of age as a person and a journalist. I met interesting new people, made new friends, and my mind was exercised by new issues. Even better, I discovered in Oak Park a new home, the sort of city Springfield might have turned into had it been full of Oak Parkers.
I rented a one-room office above a drug store with a frosted glass door and a sink in the corner where I would wash up after being worked over by editors. There was a deli across the street, a copy and fax shop around the corner. The post office and library were just blocks away; a walk to either was exactly the right length for clearing the mind or pondering a phrase. I’ve never been so productive or so happy, and would never be again.
The big city cousin to Illinois Times was the Reader, to which I’d been contributing the odd piece for ten years. The paper's larger reader base allowed it to pay its writers more. (A piece that IT could afford to pay only $150 for earned me $750 at the Reader.) Over next ten years I published sixty or so pieces in the Reader.
Chicago then had magazines like it had hot dog joints. In quick order I was asked to become contributing editor at the magazine Inland Architect, the hobby horse of the great architect Harry Weese, and at Chicago Times, a short-lived glossy monthly that I thought of as a thinking person’s Chicago magazine. I also sold pieces to Chicago Enterprise, a thinking businessperson’s magazine about economic issues, very broadly defined. I did a minor business explaining Chicago to Downstate and vice versa, but mainly I wrote about Chicago places and issues for Chicago readers.
Then, within a year or so, a decline in corporate support killed off Chicago Enterprise, the bungling of Chicago Times' businessmen doomed that magazine, and a building bust and the decline of its patron caused Inland Architect to be sold. The Reader remained robust but editor Lenehan handed the editor’s chair to someone I found less congenial. Well, I can take a hint, so when my partner was offered a post in Portland, Oregon, in 1994 I reconciled myself to becoming a non-Illinois writer.
"You can't even stay out of town"
Which I never did. As I was finishing packing up my Oak Park office— literally on the day before the phone was pulled and the keys handed back to the landlord—I got a call from Peggy Boyer Long, an able radio reporter in Springfield and briefly a colleague at Illinois Times. She was pleased to tell me that she had been named the new editor of Illinois Issues magazine, from which I had become estranged. Would I like to contribute again? (I later learned I was the first writer she called with that question, which was very flattering.) I explained that I was halfway out the door on my way to the coast. Peggy said, in effect, so what? I wouldn't forget what I knew about Illinois when I crossed the state line. (I was less certain of that than she was, never having crossed the state line.) Besides, the internet, etc.
Thus was my first gig as a West Coast journalist writing about the place I'd just left. I’d already had practice writing about where I wasn't while living in Oak Park, having continued my Prejudices column for another nearly six years, writing about Springfield from my perch above Zehender’s drug store. (In those days, copy had to be sent to the office in Springfield via fax or FTP.) After I'd been in Oregon a while I applied for and was awarded a contract to write a guide to the history and culture of Illinois. (Thanks to a fine public library and the presence in Portland of one of the nation’s great used book stores—Powell’s—I was able to compile a working library on the subject as good as I would have had in Illinois.)
In short, I my mind was obliged to stay in Illinois no matter where my body happened to be. This not always entirely happy or convenient (although it gave me a helpful distance from my subject) but needs must.
Life having conspired to keep me in Illinois until I was pushing fifty, it further conspired to prevent me from staying away for very long. Twice I thought I'd left for good after trailing my partner out of state but her career opportunities kept drawing us back to Illinois. In 2009, when I resumed writing about Springfield in a new weekly column for Illinois Times, I did it from the North Shore of Chicago. By then it was easy; Google was a crystal ball in which I could spy on every corner of the capital.
In 2010 we relocated to the Bay Area, but another tempting offer brought my partner and me back to the Chicago area in 2014, this time to the western suburbs. Driving a loaded truck back east, I recalled the moment from Sullivan’s Travels, when The Girl offers to help the hapless Hero whose efforts to escape his rich Hollywood life and join the bums on the road keep getting sidetracked. "You don't know anything about anything," she tells him. "You can't even stay out of town."
The freelance life
We freelancers like to think of ourselves as individualists, but we are as alike as chickens in a coop. My experience therefore is typical of uncounted others. I addressed different aspects of my background and apprentice in the following pieces, which might be interesting to readers curious about how one becomes a wordsmith and for what they say about writing for a living.
My last words on the subject: Mothers, don't let your child grow up to be a freelancer.
My book, Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves, wins a 2018 Superior Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society. Illinois State Capitol, May 2018
Joining a not very exclusive club
“Prejudices” Illinois Times December 24, 1981
In which a journalist gets his own story wrong
“Prejudices” Illinois Times March 24, 1978
An education in monthly installments
"Prejudices" Illinois Times December 23, 1987
Going On... and On
One writer struggles with prolixity, and loses
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times March 22, 2012
A mere opinion-monger journeys toward Truth
"Dyspepsiana" Illinois Times October 6, 2011
Please note that The Corn Latitudes
is a work in progress, so check back often.
If you would like to see a specific piece that is not yet in the archive, let me know at the address below.