A Month in a Writer’s Life Spent in Chicago
By Alan Gelb
When I was asked to write a guest post for the Windy City Writers Blog, I accepted—and then immediately froze, telling myself that I had too much on my plate. That was not the real reason I procrastinated, however. The real reason was because Chicago was the site of one of the greatest traumas in my writing career (like most writers, I’ve had many). The month I spent on the 16th floor of 200 Michigan Avenue was, without doubt, the nadir of my professional life.
It all began with a fairly innocent email to a creative director at Lipman Hearne, a swank agency that specializes in branding, strategy, and communications for the nonprofit sector. I had been working as a freelance writer for some years in the world of higher education marketing communications and was well-entrenched and busy. Knowing better than to rest on my laurels, however, I engaged in conscientious outreach, doing my best to connect with new firms that might be interested in my skills. After a mere three emails to the Lipman Hearne person, it was clear that I was the Great White Hope they had been searching for and I was asked to meet with their CEO in New York City to talk about a job.
It had been a very long time since I had been in an office job—and I had never done well in them. Nevertheless, I figured I’d take the meeting. I took the train down to the city—I live in a rural location two and a half hours north of Manhattan—and met the CEO in a Starbucks for all of ten minutes. He offered me the job and, before I knew it, they were asking to send people to my home to measure my furniture for the moving trucks. I decided it would be best to slow things down, however. I would come to Chicago, move into an executive apartment on upper Michigan, and we would get to know each other that way.
Within a few weeks, the transition had been accomplished. I left my home and family to become a 53-year-old guy on my own in the Windy City. The separation—and the commute home—was stressful, but far more stressful was my reception at 200 Michigan Avenue.
Almost instantaneously, from the moment of my arrival, I had metamorphosed from Great White Hope to pariah. I was shunted to some back room, at a significant remove from anyone else creative, and whenever I was handed an assignment, it came back to me with querulous notes. They didn’t like anything I did—and I wasn’t crazy about the cookie-cutter work that came out of their shop. It was a complete disaster and I was gone within a month, to return to the country whipped and wondering where my next gig was going to come from. All I could think was how grateful I was that we had not moved any furniture.
I tell you this story not to wreak revenge on Lipman Hearne, which has truly faded from my now 65-year-old brain, as have many other things, but, rather, to focus on the resolution of the experience, which I think is a constructive thing for any writer to know about. After the dust and the tears settled, I pulled myself out of the slough of despair and launched into a invigorated rethinking of my career that has led me to many interesting places. In fact, the last 13 years of my career have been, by far, the most lucrative and personally gratifying ones. More importantly, the Chicago experience convinced me that people in general, but perhaps writers more than most, should not try to be who they are not.
My wife, also a writer but now a psychotherapist, tells a story of a time she was griping, back in her writing days, to her therapist about all of our money woes and career insecurity and the therapist simply said, “But you chose to be a writer.” That story stuck in my mind and I thought of it in the aftermath of the Chicago debacle. It was a solid nugget of truth: I chose to be a writer. And choosing to be a writer means examining life in ways that are deeper than most and, by and large, not doing very well on the 16th floor of an office building on Michigan Avenue. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that writers, by and large, do not have an easy time being slotted into conventional situations.
In a sense then, the Chicago experience was deeply clarifying to me. So thank you, Chicago. During that dreadful summer, I got to walk along your shores, rummage in the wonderful Dusty Groove record store on North Ashland, see the Monets at the Art Institute, and, best of all, I got to watch Millenium Park go up from my office window. It opened the day I left town, but I have been back to the city on a number of occasions, visiting dear friends, and I love to watch the children frolicking in the wading pool at the Crown Fountain.
You are a fine place, Windy City. Please know that I don’t hold the summer of 2003 against you. In fact, I am in your debt.
is a writing coach and widely published author of fiction and nonfiction, including his latest Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story (Tarcher) and Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CBS Money Watch among others. Learn more at www.havingthelastsay.com