WRITING WITH PURPOSE

By Jim Schwab

Once upon a third-grade time, a young boy in a Cleveland suburb tried to write a science fiction novel. I’m glad it disappeared, but equally glad I made the attempt and many more as years went by. In high school, after organizing the Brecksville High School Writers Club, I was very happy when our group effort at a literary journal, The Tenth Muse Recently Discovered in Brecksville, emerged off the mimeograph into people’s hands, and I saw myself in print. It is an intoxicating feeling that has never gone away.

Through college and beyond, I just kept plugging away. In my early thirties, in graduate school at the University of Iowa, I added an MA in Journalism to my MA in Urban and Regional Planning. Both degrees helped me earn a living after I moved to Chicago, but the latter was more important in shaping my career. What I learned from my unique combination of training (my BA was in Political Science) was that it helps not only to want to write but to have something you passionately want to say.

Passion grew as I completed my graduate education. In early 1984, I approached my journalism adviser to discuss my master’s project, which needed to be either scholarly research on journalism or a practical journalism project. I chose the latter but declared forthrightly that I intended to turn my project into a published book. Not in the least fazed by my self-confidence, he suggested I order a couple of books about interviewing techniques and oral history. Three years after I had graduated, acquiring an admiration for Studs Terkel along the way, I published through University of Illinois Press my first full-length book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern Farmers Speak Out, an oral history of the Midwest farm crisis in the 1980s. For someone from Ohio with no background in farming, it was a rollicking adventure in interviewing and traveling that taught me the value of a bold vision and passionate commitment to making my book happen.

Now, the intoxication was for real. My name was not merely in a newspaper or magazine—I had done that already—but on the cover of a 300-page book that sat on library and bookstore shelves and boldly expressed an idea. People could argue about it, praise it, hate it—but it was mine. I also learned about book tours and news media interviews, and that too was intoxicating. So I did it again. Six years later, Sierra Club Books published something much closer to an analysis of my political and activist roots: Deeper Shades of Green: The Rise of Blue Collar and Minority Environmentalism in America.

Numerous other reports, articles, and publications, and even a blog, “Home of the Brave,” have sprung from my keyboard ever since. But the ability to share with readers the ideas I have come to care about—disaster resilience, environmental quality, human dignity—are part of my written record for all to see. And the intoxication never goes away.

Jim Schwab is an urban planner and the author of Raising Less Corn and More Hell, an oral history of the farm protest of the 1980’s.