I was born in Evanston, Illinois. That was the town where I should have grown up. As it was, we lived in a basement apartment at 912-1/2 Sherman Avenue for only a year. Then we moved to the cultural wasteland of Des Plaines, where I was fated to spend the next 24 years of my life.
The first settler of Des Plaines–my hometown–was a man named Socrates Rand (he’s the one Rand Road was named after) who arrived in the 1830s or 1840s. When I was a boy, you could still see one of his cabins down by the Des Plaines River. There was no historical fuss made over it. It wasn’t protected in any way, even though it was very small and could easily have been moved. Finally it was bulldozed and now a condo sits on the site. I’m glad when a community values its older residences and appreciates its cultural resources. Today the library I used to love is gone; the old houses on Lee Street are gone; Bremer’s Stationers and Spiegler’s Department Store are gone. But the movie theater and Sugar Bowl and Choo-Choo restaurants doggedly hang on.
The past and present combine to inspire writers such as myself. I’ve had to do lots of different kinds of writing to make a living, including nearly 50 computer and general nonfiction books.
A lot of writers have influenced me over the years, both those I met in person and those I’ve only read about. When I was young, Hemingway was one of my big role models. In my own humble way, I tried to do the things he did because I thought it would help me become a better writer.
Hemingway may have gone up to Northern Michigan or Thatcher Woods to hunt and fish; I built a pond in my backyard and stocked it with goldfish. … Hemingway went off to war, and then lived in Chicago for a while before going off to Spain and Paris. In World War I he was wounded and then dumped by the pretty nurse he was in love with. Metaphorically speaking, going to high school provided me with pretty much the same sorts of experiences.
When I was released from high school, I decided to do something frivolous, something fun, something just for me. I enrolled at Columbia College and spent a year studying writing, art, and literature. I took writing classes with writers like John Schultz and Larry Heinemann. I wrote ponderous stories full of implied violence and menace and a hint of sex–all things about which I knew absolutely nothing.
”She edged up next to me underneath the light and crushed out her cigarette on the floor. There seemed to be smoke or dust wafting in the dim orange glow. The room was a mass of debris, parts of car bodies, cans of blood-red motor oil. Joyce’s eyes were very round and heavily painted violet. She was uneasy because of the dark room and the fact that we were alone in it. The smell was hot and rubbery. As a salesman I was worried about the smell.”
You can tell I was still very much under the spell of my idol, Hemingway. But after a year of this, I decided I had to do the right thing, the responsible thing. I had to get a college degree. I enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago. I studied English. I took a few writing classes with people like the novelist James Park Sloan and the poet Michael Anania, two people I would later profile in Literary Chicago.
Did I write my own stories? Did I write about the Chicago writers I loved–Hemingway, Dreiser, Sandburg, Algren? No. Instead I wrote articles for the school paper, the Illini. Here’s a sample:
”Caught in a money crunch and lacking the status of traditional programs, two units serving women at the University of Illinois at Chicago are facing cuts that could severely reduce women’s offerings here.”
Between summers, I followed in the footsteps of Hemingway by going to Paris and hitchhiking around Europe. I walked by the bookstore where he hung out, Shakespeare and Company; I walked by the Dome and Dingo Bar, though I was too young to actually have a drink there. I went to Pamplona and, although I did not actually run with the bulls, I did see them go by.
When I was released from college I decided to do something for me, something just for fun. I wrote a column for my local weekly newspaper called ”So It Goes.” I had my photo over my column just like another one of my idols, the columnist Mike Royko. See the resemblance? (I should note that the first winner of Mike Royko’s annual Ribfest was an Oak Park resident, Charlie Robinson.)
Anyway, back to my column, shortly after it began appearing in the late 70s, I was surprised when the editor received a letter with the return address of the federal prison in Marion, Illinois. It was from a former elected official who, as I recall, had been convicted of tax evasion or some other financial crime. He wrote:
”It was with great interest that I read Greg Holden’s new column ”So It Goes” in your paper the other day. I, in fact, wrote a column for a local paper in downstate Illinois that was intended for the edification of my constituents. It was also called ”So It Goes.” Upon my release from this institution, I hope to resume writing this column. So I would ask that Mr. Holden stop using this name as it is an obvious attempt to do something literary, when in fact he’s plagiarizing my original inspiration.”
My editor pointed out that this worthy man didn’t actually own the phrase ”So It Goes,” and, to be a little more precise, the original inspiration was that of Kurt Vonnegut. So the title remained atop my explorations of the political intrigues, the societal tensions, and the criminal underworld of this seemingly sleepy suburban town. I liked to think that I had the unwavering, incisive eye of a Nelson Algren.
It was heaven. Each week, I could write about anything I wanted. I wrote a column about my hometown, Des Plaines, and called it Dead Plaines. I wrote a fantasy about one of the many blizzards that hit us in the late 70s:
”It was the End of the World. It had been snowing, on and off, since New Year’s Eve. Even now, in late February, it showed no signs of letting up. Where once had been the thriving town of Des Plaines, there was now a dull white lump. ..However, after a few weeks a strange thing happened. People began to talk in order to avoid insanity. Families began to play Monopoly and cards. An eerie sound broke the stillness of the nights: laughter. A few days later, and even stranger sound: singing. The townspeople all agreed that it was strange how the disaster had brought them together, that human nature was a funny thing but people were basically good. Just then a little girl jumped up. Water had begun to drip. No one knew whether to be happy or sad. It had begun to thaw.”
The columns were fun, but they only paid $5 each. I had to do the responsible thing. Hemingway, after all, had started out as a journalist for the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star. So I gave up my literary aspirations. I got a job as a reporter for the other weekly newspaper in town, the Journal. Hemingway wrote articles about tuna fishing in Spain and hired killers in Ireland.
I covered city hall; I wrote crime stories; I even did the Police Blotter. Note the use of the highly literary word ”dispatch” to describe a shooting death in the following true crime story:
Large Rat Shot By Cop
”A ‘large rat’ that was found on Des Plaines’ northwest side had to be shot by a local police officer last week. An officer was summoned to 460 E. Rand Rd., where the rat was caught in a chain link fence. After efforts to remove the rat using a stick proved unsuccessful, the animal was dispatched with a gunshot and laid to rest in a garbage dumpster.”
Every once in a while, literature would rear its ugly head. I would work Shakespeare into a headline:
Deaf Women to Officials: Lend Us Your Ears!
Even this job got to be too much fun, too creative. They gave me an entire page where I could write and layout my own feature stories. After I got married, the time came to do the responsible thing. I got a job at the University of Chicago as an editor. My job: convince people to spend $30,000 a year to attend this fine institution of higher learning.
Even in the midst of all the promotional rhetoric, I couldn’t help writing stories and setting scenes:
”Picture yourself in a first-year Common Core class: ”Self, Culture, and Society,” taught by Profesor Bertram Cohler. On this morning in Cobb Lecture Hall the room rings with voices and anticipation. A dozen students sit around a large table. The same number sit around the walls of the classroom. There is no ”head of the class,” no lecrurer’s podium. When Mr. Cohler comes in, he sits down at the table with the students. Papers rustle. Books are brought out of brightly colored backpacks. There is no lecture. He simply asks: ”How was Durkheim? What problems did it pose?”
I was at the University of Chicago for 13 years, so I had plenty of time to learn about the many writers who went there or taught there, most notably Saul Bellow, Seymour Hersh, Susan Sontag, and Philip Roth, who, like me, wrote about Cobb Hall in a novel called Letting Go:
”I walked to the University through the crackling weather and the virgin snows, and arrived at Cobb Hall feeling as righteous, as American, as inner-directed as a young Abe Lincoln.”
The students I interviewed and profiled in the university’s brochures were all very clever. Some immersed themselves in literature, just as I had always dreamed of doing.
For example, Campbell McGrath was editor of a student-run literary magazine. He talked a mile a minute in a low voice that was somewhere between a whisper and a mutter.
”Chicago, the city, is a good place for writers because Chicago is just a good place to write about. The Chicago Literary Review, which I edit, gets a lot of submissions from Hyde Park and other South Side people, because there’s an interest and concern here with the arts in general. And there’s a real core of student writers on campus.”
Mr. McGrath has gone on to write books of poetry like American Noise and Spring Comes to Chicago and recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Fellowship.
Freelance Writer/Book Author
In 1995, a computer science teacher at the University of Chicago named Don Crabb led me to my current freelance career in writing by encouraging me to write a book about the World Wide Web, which was new at that time.
Even in this technical writing, literary references couldn’t help sneaking in. In my first book, when I was explaining how to format bold and italic text on Web pages, I used a passage from Alice in Wonderland:
”What difference does it make, really, if you use logical or character styles in your Web page? Let’s take some text and mark it up both ways (with apologies to Lewis Carroll):
But it isn’t old Tweedledum cried, in a greater fury than ever. It’s new, I tell you. I bought it yesterday–my nice new rattle!’ and his voice rose to a perfect scream.”
One of my computer books, Starting an Online Business for Dummies, generated enough income in royalties that I could take a few months off. Finally, I got the chance to do something fun, something just for me–to immerse myself in literature and writing, to join practical advice with historical research, just like I had always wanted to do.
In the year 2000, I was able to write Literary Chicago. I’d been carrying this idea around as long as I could remember. I’ve always been fascinated with where writers lived and how they worked. On my honeymoon, driving to New Orleans, my wife and I made more than a little detour and stopped off at William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi. On another trip I visited Hemingway’s home in Key West.
When I began working on that book I wrote the Oak Park section first and used it as a model for the other parts. Having whetted my appetite by what I found in Oak Park, I drove all around the city, finding literary landmarks where I could; I hung around in libraries for days on end. Now, finally, I was in heaven. I discovered all kinds of stories that I could work into my text. There was a Chicago real estate developer who said he was responsible for the play Cyrano de Bergerac, and who sued the play’s author, and won.
There were the two sisters who owned the city’s most famous house of ill repute and who, in their spare time, scoured the city looking for rare books to add to their collection, which they took to New York City when they were forced by the Chicago police to retire.
The columnist Eugene Field, who died of overwork and anxiety while rehabbing his dream house just outside the city limits; young woman named Margaret Anderson who edited the Little Review, and who pitched a tent on the Lake Michigan shore when she couldn’t pay her rent.
She furnished her tent with carpeting and a piano. She used to be visited there by writers like Sherwood Anderson and Ben Hecht; the mystery writer Eugene Izzi, who was found hanging outside the window of his downtown office wearing a bulletproof vest and with $481 and a pair of brass knuckles in his pocket.
The fact is that, as I’ve discovered through my journeys through various types of literary endeavors, if you are a writer, Chicago is a great place to live and work. You can find plenty of places for inspiration. You can find other writers to give you support. And even if you haven’t won the Pulitzer Prize, you can find venues to read your stuff and get published.
Why hasn’t there ever been a guidebook to Chicago writers both past and present? Because Chicago holds its writers at arm’s length. It embraces sports heroes and politicians. Writers are part of the landscape. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It gives writers a sense of freedom. Listen to what poet Sterling Plumpp says:’
”Chicago did me a favor by not embracing me. The value of Chicago to me is its ruthlessness: … And beyond this ruthlessness is an anonymity which allows one to paraphrase Richard Wright to wring meaning from meaningless suffering. … Chicago is the place where I found the space to begin my lifelong search for self and purpose.”
That’s why I, the author of Starting an Online Business for Dummies and the University of Chicago brochures and police blotter stories and columns, not to mention being a father of two young girls, can write Literary Chicago and still feel like I have a foot in the real world and can go on to write still more kinds of things, like novels, that are just waiting to come out. I feel like I’m finally doing what I really want to do.
Director of Communications
Early in 2009, I was hired by the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I work part-time as Director of Communications. I am finding this to be a rewarding and enjoyable position. And Fontano’s Subs and Mario’s Italian Lemonade are still nearby. Life is good.