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How I Became a Writer

In which a journalist gets his own story wrong

Illinois Times

March 24, 1978

I am appalled to be reminded how easily I resorted in this piece to clichés  about boyhood, the more so since the boyhood they described was not mine. I wish to set the record straight.


“Like most students, I produced many works of fiction for the classroom, most of them term papers on subjects I hadn’t the time to properly research [and]reviews of books I’d never read . . . .” The journalist in me is offended by this casual allegation of lying in print, which I never did about anything other than myself.


I wrote “essays about how I spent my summer vacation from which I left out all the good stuff for fear it might get back to my parents.” I only wish I had I spent a summer vacation doing things I feared might get back to my parents; in reality, I never dared.


The bit about Julius Caesar on the dock is true, though.

Now that I am old enough to be considered a model for the younger generation, I occasionally am asked how I came to be a writer. I'm asked the question often enough to have a stock answer—“Because I failed at everything else that required more talent than writing"—which is, like the biographies of most writers, only half true.

I certainly did not intend to become a writer when I was a boy. My parents expressed no firm preferences about how I might make my future living, so long as I didn't try to shoot the President or run for public office or do something else that might shame the family name. Given so wide a range of choices, I suffered an understandable confusion over the career question. The family, only a few years off the farm, did not envision a future for any of their children so grand that it would require more than a bachelor's degree from a state university, so medicine and the law were out. I thought for a while about becoming an astronaut, but I didn’t like crewcuts, The only things I did well as a child were walking fences, riding a bike, and taking orders from adults—a combination I now realize qualified me for a career as a Wehrmacht acrobat and not much else. I got good grades, but only because I kept my mouth shut and didn’t throw things at the teacher, good grades being then as now the agreed-upon reward for passivity in the face of age and a stout wooden paddle.

I did not then wish to be a writer. Well into my adolescence I flirted with the notion of becoming an engineer, but I can't remember why. Everything that one must be good at to be one—math, applied science—I was not good at. The father of a friend of mine heard of the choice, and with a patience I only later appreciated quietly expressed doubt as to the rightness of it. What he really wanted to say. of course, was that engineering w as a stupid choice for someone of my gifts, but he was willing to let me see that for myself, which, in time, I did.

Still, I suffered through a great many upper-level math and science courses in high school before deciding that my future lay elsewhere. The turning point came when we were asked to compute the force with which a rubber ball, dropped from a height of three feet, struck the table beneath it. The exercise struck me distinctly as one of the angels-on-a-pin variety, and with it came the realization that even the most sublime of engineering achievements—a bridge, a moon flight, a set of false teeth—are merely the result, figuratively speaking, of thousands of rubber balls bouncing on thousands of tabletops.

I can't remember when I was first praised for writing. My penmanship got good marks in my early years (it has deteriorated considerably since) and for awhile I thought writing and penmanship were the same thing—a mistake also made by many English teachers. Later, like most students, I produced many works of fiction for the classroom, most of them term papers on subjects I hadn’t the time to properly research. These were in addition to the reviews of books I’d never read and essays about how I spent my summer vacation from which I left out all the good stuff for fear it might get back to my parents. I understood even then why English teachers, more perhaps than any teachers, need the summer off.

The rest of my family regarded books the way some people regard flu shots, being something you did not for pleasure but because it was good for you. I enjoyed reading them, though, but like most kids gave no thought to how or by whom they came to be produced. Later I was escorted through the then-basic repertory—Dickens, Shakespeare. Scott. Twain. Hawthorne, others—by a succession of teachers. They were the best the system had to offer, put in charge of upper-level English courses where for an hour a day they could spend more time on teaching and less on guard duty. Their names were Rappel. Body, Leslie, Lott—future biographers, please note—and I owe them the fact that they didn't kill a blooming affection for the language. [That is ungenerous; I apologize to them all. JKJr]

The question of when I decided to become a writer is easier to answer than why. I think it was during the summer after I graduated, when I lay sprawled on a dock off Forest Park at Lake Springfield trying to read Julius Caesar with sweat dripping into my eyes, dripping even off the end of my nose onto the pages,, on a bright, squinty day that for all its brightness and warmth failed to illuminate the dark ambitions laid out tor me in the play, or to keep cold chills from running down my back.

It was then (or so I recall) that I first looked at works not just as bearers of information or makers of sounds or players of parts but as all three together, as language, as art. I don't mean to say that I sprang to my feet, dizzy with the sun and full of resolve to beat the poet at his own game. Nothing so melodramatic. I mean only that from that day I looked at words a little differently than I had before, and wit measurably more respect for their potential. It still left me a long way from being a writer. But it was as good a start as any kid could hope for. Or deserve. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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