Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Falling In

Last night I took one of my now-rare forays into the city of Chicago (where I spent the better part of my 20s and early 30s living) for a theater benefit performance gala that also included a rare Chicago performance of my most-frequently produced stage play, "The Devil Is In The Details." (Because of some of the odd peculiarities of the Chicago theater world, which I won't discuss here but I've blogged about in the past, I long ago stopped pursuing productions in Chicago in favor of more high-profile---and paying---play productions in New York City, Los Angeles, and nationally). I don't do this often for a whole host of reasons, let alone on a weeknight, but I did it not only to see my play on its feet, but also because I'm a longtime member of the producing organization, Chicago Writers Bloc, a playwrights' collective.

One of the great things about Chicago Writers Bloc versus some of the other playwrights' organizations in town (who shall remain nameless, ahem), is that most of the members actually make their living solely by writing (me included). We have several current and former (retired) Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times reporters/editors, people who've written/published upwards of 30 books, people who make/write successful documentary films and TV shows, people who've had their plays produced all over the country. The one thing we all seem to have in common is the Chicago theater "establishment," which tends to be very actor-driven, wants nothing to do with us. (Which doesn't seem to hurt our careers as writers, but whatever.) There were several very respected Chicago-area journalists and columnists there last night, and I got to shoot the breeze with them and "talk shop" about what it means to make a living as a writer in this town.

One of the cool things that happened was, I got to talk to one of my fellow Chicago Writers Bloc playwrights, Kenan Heise, at length about his life as a reporter, then editor, at the Tribune during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as well as his time in the trenches of the 1960s civil rights movement. I knew of course that he'd done all of those things (he's retired from journalism now, though he still writes/publishes books and is now moving into playwriting), but I had never really talked to him about it. He shared some wonderful anecdotes of his old days at the Trib, but he also shared this interesting tidbit----he had absolutely no formal training or education as a journalist. As a matter of fact, he'd spent the better part of his 20s and early 30s as a Franciscan monk under solemn vows, living in a monastery not far from where I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio!

Wow! You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me that. He said that due to his epilepsy and a disagreement with his father superior, he'd been made to leave his order. He got involved in the civil rights movement in the 60s, then eventually "fell into" news reporting at the Tribune. I told him about how I'd also just sort of "fallen in" to being a freelancer lifestyle reporter in the 90s for the Tribune's then-new online Metromix section, also with no formal journalism training, only a useless graduate degree in media studies/critical theory from University of Chicago and an undergraduate degree in literature. And yet, I make a full-time living as a journalist now, something that has become next-to-impossible to achieve, if all the out-of-work reporters I know are any example.

Kenan replied, "Of course you did. All the best reporters out there 'fall into' journalism. Journalism school is a waste of time." He went on to tell me that he has frequently been called in to address students at Northwestern's prestigious Medill School of Journalism, and he always told them, "If you want to make it in this business, break the rules."

Well, from a guy who got kicked out of the Franciscan Order, rode freedom buses and got beat up in the 60s, then went on to have a rich journalism career after doing graduate studies in Latin, I think he knows there's a lot of truth to that. So do I.


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