Editor’s note: Because Oak Park and River Forest have such a large percentage of authors in its population, we invite the newly published to submit their reflections on writing their latest book.
“Professor Weldon, I had no idea you had a past!”
An undergraduate student in journalism stopped me in the hallway at Northwestern University’s Medill School where I taught on the graduate and undergraduate levels for 18 years. It was October 2002 and I had been featured in a segment on the Oprah Winfrey Show the day before, talking about my first memoir.
“Everyone has a past,” I reassured her.
But not all of us write about our lives, sharing openly our challenges on such a large scale. Personal essays, op-eds and books just happen to take up a good percentage of what I have written about for the past 36 years.
And it started long before then, back to when I was 10 years old as editor of the Juvenile Journal, a monthly mimeographed newsletter filled with the news of my family and neighborhood. It was an enterprise I inherited from my sister, Madeleine. To read my typed musings cost subscribers 50 cents a year. My father told me that I lost money, though, as I never paid him for postage or paper.
While at Oak Park and River Forest High School, 1971-75, I wrote feature stories for the other local newspaper, was an editor on the high school literary magazine, and even sold a few pieces to national magazines, making far more for the effort than what my friends were earning babysitting.
After undergraduate and graduate school in journalism at Medill, I worked at newspapers and magazines, writing features, profiles and columns. In the late-’80s, I wrote more opinion and personal essays because I enjoyed the craft of creative nonfiction. When my sons were young, I was teaching and freelancing for major newspapers because it was easier to write an op-ed in the middle of the night than interview sources during the day. My first book came out in 1999, and I have published four books and hundreds of essays and columns since for local, national and international outlets from the New York Times to CNN, the Guardian, Chicago Tribune and many more.
It is not that I believe my life is utterly fascinating. I do not feel I am Bill Clinton or Maya Angelou, Barack Obama or even Tina Fey. I feel that my life as a journalist, author, storyteller and educator is about telling the truth. And writing is how I process the truth.
This book, Escape Points, came about in a different way from my other books. I originally intended to write about my sons’ experiences in youth and high school wrestling simply because I found the sport so intriguing.
Unlike team sports, wrestling is an individual endeavor, more like swimming or golf, but with an explosive, brute energy and direct, one-on-one contact. The sport felt like a metaphor for so many things, including the separateness I felt as a mother raising three sons alone. I took notes at my sons’ tournaments, then wrote excerpts and chapters — wanting to see how the work developed.
In 2006 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I began taking notes and writing about that experience. I am fine, but I thought a lot about my own mortality and what it means to be an ambitious single parent. All the while I was cheering during high school matches, observing how this one coach, Mike Powell, had more influence on my sons than I did. I was profoundly grateful.
While at Northwestern, I also worked with The OpEd Project, leading seminars and fellowships, giving keynotes and contributing to many media outlets. In my spare time, I wrote, rewrote, added and subtracted chapters.
All through this process — that took close to 10 years from the time I started reporting it until I sold it to a publisher — I was sharing chapters with my Oak Park writing group. Each writer helped me enormously with pace, tone, style, clarity and organization. The original group was with authors Elizabeth Berg, Nancy Horan, Veronica Chapa, Pamela Todd and myself. Since then we have added Arlene Malinowski, Ina Pinkney and Marja Mills.
Elizabeth helped me with the title; “escape points” are literally what you earn as a wrestler when you get out of a hold. But more figuratively, the notion of escape is both positive and negative. Escape can be delivery from something nefarious and in that way a triumph. I escaped cancer. It can also be an act of deliberate disappearance, a dereliction of duty. Escaping responsibility.
As a writer, it is rewarding to have a creative endeavor finally be out in the world. My intention is for readers to discover hope and resilience in their own lives while sharing in the truth of this story.
Michele Weldon, a River Forest resident, is assistant professor emerita at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the director of the Public Voices Fellowship, The OpEd Project, at Northwestern. Visit her website at www.micheleweldon.com and http://twitter.com/micheleweldon.