Writing Samples

SAMPLES: Exerpt from YA novel, Interview with Jane Hamilton, Features article on public television



            I didn’t have to even think about the command: my feet took control and I was off, slamming out of the Kmart and taking off across the parking lot. I heard Gage’s feet behind me, matching me step for step, and I knew that a little farther back, Luke was pumping along, his pudgy body struggling to keep up. My mind was working as fast as my feet, and I silently swore at them both. They must have stolen something, I thought, cursing myself for getting into this position again. It was probably Luke. He was always doing something stupid like that.

            We cut through the lot, dodged cars as we ran across the street, and reached the sidewalk, where we turned and headed for the park.  Somewhere along the way we lost Luke, but Gage and I kept slapping our feet hard. At the park we headed for the little lake made by a dam in the river. A short, wide waterfall surged over the dam, creating a shallow stream that tumbled around large, smooth rocks. My goal was a small island in the middle of the stream where we could hid in the brush. I sloshed into the ankle-deep water on the dam, balancing carefully so the rush of water wouldn’t knock me into the shallow river below, balancing to keep from falling into the deeper water on the other side. Halfway across, I turned back to see Gage standing on the shore. His face looked funny, like he had a stomachache.

            “Come on!” I yelled. I turned and splashed across, then leaped onto the island. Gage hesitated, then gingerly tiptoed slowly across the dam. The sight of his large body balancing precariously would have been amusing if there hadn’t been something weird about it. The water was maybe a few inches deep atop the dam, the drop to the river only a few feet, yet he seemed terrified. Finally, he reached the island and flopped down next to me, breathing heavily.

            For a few minutes we didn’t speak as we gasped the unseasonably warm air. My legs were shaking, weak from both the run and the fear of getting caught. I did not want to face Dad if I got into trouble for shoplifting, even if I hadn’t done the actual stealing. A few minutes later, Luke broke across the park and came splashing across the dam, a big grin on his fleshy face and a small box under his arm.

            “We got ‘em!” he puffed, and held up a box that contained an assortment of fireworks.

            “Let’s see.” Gage jumped up and snatched the box out of Luke’s thick, sweaty hand. He slid open the top and dumped the contents into the grass. An assortment of nasty-looking fireworks spilled out: small round cherry bombs, miniature Roman candles, a roll of small caps and several strings of tiny firecrackers. Gage examined each one separately, grinning. “Yeah, these’ll be great. Perfect for Founder’s Day!

             “Did you have to steal them?” I asked. I didn’t like fireworks as it was; they were dangerous. Besides, I didn’t like stealing. “They’re cheap. Why didn’t you just buy them?” Luke sneered at me through half-slit eyes.

            “Why spend when you can get a five-finger discount? Hey, you going chicken on us?”

            I started to squirm under the bigger boy’s simmering gaze. Well, I had gotten myself into this situation. I forced myself to look directly into Luke’s eyes.

            “Nah, I just hate running in this heat,” I made myself growl. “Couldn’t you use your ‘discount’ on cooler days?”

             Luke’s laugh was a grunt that added to his pig-like image. Gage grinned at me and began putting the little explosives back into the box.  I breathed easier, feeling that I had received a reprieve. Still, I couldn’t quite eliminate the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I looked at the fireworks.

                Well, now I was an accomplice to robbery. My stomach turned over at the thought of what Mom and Dad would say if they found out. I’d been doing a lot of things I shouldn’t these past weeks, thanks to my alliance with Gage and Luke. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. Besides, Mom and Dad had their own problems right now, and I didn’t want to add to them.  A guy needed to be tough, I reflected, especially if he’s smaller and younger than everyone else.


Unedited, originally published in Living on the Lake, July, 2005 as “Jane Hamilton: Luck, Talent, and More”

            Relaxing in a cozy coffee shop near her Rochester, Wisconsin home, Jane Hamilton is taking a break from working on her fifth novel to discuss her work and ponder the elements that lead to a writer’s success.  Asked what advice she would offer new writers, the award-winning novelist mulls over the question, and then suggests that to be a successful writer, a person needs three things: talent, luck, and the ability to work hard—and not always in that order. 

While her writing has been critically acclaimed and has achieved best-seller status, Hamilton eschews the idea that it was mainly talent that brought her success. She’s the first to admit her early success was based a lot on luck. “I happened to get the right breaks at just the right points,” she says. She says it was lucky that an early short story was read and liked by an editor at Harper’s, and claims further luck in receiving a Wisconsin Arts Board grant when she was just starting out.

“I have so many friends who want to be writers or actors, but they have to make a living while they work at their art. To have something like [the grant] when I was just 25 was really lucky.” While she always had strong support from husband Bob, still her most valued critic, she saw the grant as a public validation of her work. “It showed that my writing was serious and worthy of spending time on it.” Plus, the money allowed her the freedom to work on her writing full-time.

While giving a not to talent and luck, Hamilton feels that perhaps the most important element in a writer is simply the ability to simply sit down and work.

“I knew students in college who had raw and vital talent,” she recalls. “A lot of those people were insanely creative, but they were just a flare. They haven’t done much because of the work aspect of it.”

The work aspect is where Hamilton believes she excels. She warns that writing is not always creative, and not always interesting, “It’s all struggling in the garret,” she says. “I think I have my personal talent, but I also know how to work, and kind of dog it, and I’m very methodical.”

 Part of the work of writing includes examining an idea from all angles, something at which Hamilton is particularly adept. That philosophy has led her to write novels from unusual perspectives. While her first two novels, The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, were about rural women who were wives and mothers, her next novel, A Short History of a Prince, takes the point of view of a young gay male in the 1960’s. When questioned about that choice, Hamilton says it’s a matter of looking through the character’s eyes, whatever the gender.

“I think one thing I do, that I’m conscious of doing, is that I look at an idea, and then I turn it 180 degrees, and I’ll look at it from the other side. If you take something of the truth and then you understand that it’s not a truth for everybody, [you wonder] what’s the other side of it? I’m sure lawyers have to do that. If you do that, you can often go deeper into the situation, or scene, or character, or idea. Just crack it open. That’s my credo to myself: ‘Crack it open.’”

“I enjoy the privilege of living numerous lives,” she continues. “To me, the challenge is [that of] really understanding who that specific character is. Especially when you go to the other gender, there’s the temptation to think that you have to sum up all of what it means to be male, you have to write for the generalized male. And then you realize, hey, it’s just a person, and he’s going to have feminine aspects of his personality . . . so the challenge is getting at the person inside.”

Still, just trying to see through a character’s eyes doesn’t always work. A writer will occasionally have to endure the frustration of a character who will not live or a plot that won’t gel. Hamilton recently had to trash four years’ work because the project was just not working.

“I just couldn’t get really, truly interested in [the character] and I kept thinking, if I could just make the sentences better, it’ll be fine. If I just a little harder—I think it was totally like what it is to be stuck in a bad marriage where you just think, if I empty the dishwasher a little more regularly, everything will be fine. But I couldn’t make it work. That was horrible. I hated it every day.”

She regrets the project’s demise, but is philosophical as she begins a new one.

“I should have known to jump ship after two years, but I didn’t know what else to do, and it wasn’t until another book came to me that I could leave.” She laughs. “I had to have a man in the wings before I could leave that bad marriage.”

Hamilton is quick to remark that a writer must write for personal pleasure. While she admits that a possible reader—or reviewer—should be considered, the real proof of good writing is if it works for the writer.

“I think if you are amused yourself, then you’re going to amuse other people. I was bored to tears [by the discarded project]. If I’m bored, no one else is going to be interested. So that’s the real test:  if I can read something 500 times and it still makes me laugh. If it’s working, then it’s just a joy to go in to work every day and be amused.”

 Hamilton suggests that even when they are not writing, writers are constantly thinking about their work—turning over ideas, changing, expanding, revising, even while living their lives. “That’s the beauty of it—and also the burden,” she says. “You can never let it go, and you always have two tracks going. I can’t imagine not having that.”

Hamilton protects her writing time, but is careful to carve out time for her family and community. “You have to have real life, too,” she says, quickly adding, “Besides, real life feeds your writing.”

Her final advice to would-be writers is to read. “Read everything you can, hope for luck and work hard.”

 “You just have to be there, slogging through, day after day.” She thinks about what she has said and smiles. “And I’m a good slogger.”



More than 80 years ago, in 1927, Philo Farnsworth transmitted the first television image. Perhaps prophetically, it was a dollar sign. Since that time, television has become basically a money-making media, controlled by commercial interests with the main concern being income generated.

That is why Public Television is so refreshing and important. Public television has traditionally focused on education and enlightenment, producing shows that provoke thought, that entertain, and that teach. Chicago is fortunate to be able to claim a public television pioneer: WTTW. Broadcast on Channel 11. The call letters stand for “Window To The World,” indicating the hopes of the early developers that the station would strive to introduce viewers to a larger, global experience not controlled by the bottom line.

WTTW began as the idea of Inland Steel executive Edward L. Ryerson. Encouraged by his friend Ralph Lowell who had begun such a venture in Boston, Ryerson applied to the Federal Communications Commission for a broadcasting license for an educational station. Ryerson’s foresight was further proven by his pursuit of a young attorney named Newton Minow to chair the WTTW board. Minow would later become Chairman of the FCC under President Kennedy, labeling general television as a “vast wasteland.” In his position with WTTW, Minow pushed for the medium to pursue educational and enlightening broadcasting.

The first WTTW broadcast occurred on September 6, 1955 from its original home in the Bankers Building, covering a 60-mile radius of the Loop. As with other educational stations, public support was needed, and Chicagoans responded, allowing the station to move to larger quarters in the Museum of Science and Industry, where it was set up as a working exhibit. The station began as a college of the air, the first of its kind, offering credit courses during 43 hours of broadcast time per week. At its ten-year mark, more than 80,000 people had enrolled in courses.

Children’s programming has always been a major focus of Public Television, and WTTW was no exception, offering such fare as the revolutionary Totem Club, which presented a different focus each day. The groundbreaking show also encouraged children to only watch those programs that interested them and to find other stimulating, non-television activities as well—an unusual idea for a TV station! As a member of the PBS system, the station pays dues and receives access to PBS broadcasts, but the scheduling of such shows is at the discretion of the local station.

From those humble beginnings and a staff of 54, the station grew to become a national presence. Public support was tremendous, and in the mid-1960’s, the station was able to build its current home, a five-acre studio campus at 5400 North St. Louis Avenue. According to Julia Maish, Manager of Media Relations, WTTW produces more local programming than any other public station in America—about a third of the total shows presented. National shows are fed from PBS. Maish says the most popular local show seem to be the local restaurant review show, Check, Please!, while Antiques Roadshow is the most-watched national program. Other locally-produced programs include documentaries, political forums, and various series that examine Chicago neighborhoods, sights, and lore.

The station, together with its sister radio station, WFMT (see sidebar), now employs around 215 full-time employees and 100 occasional and part-time employees. In addition, hundreds of volunteers help with quarterly pledge drives and special events—critical fund-raisers that keep the station afloat. According to Maish, 48% of the station’s support comes either directly from members or from pledge drives, direct mail campaigns, and special events. Support also comes from large corporations and foundations that underwrite specific programs. The station also receives help from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as American Public Television (APT).

Says Maish, ”I don’t think our funding sources have changed significantly over the past several years, although obviously in the current economic climate, it’s become more challenging and we’ve had to become more creative.” She lauds the WTTW mission, saying, “In this increasingly crowded media environment, WTTW viewers seem to have a greater respect for what public broadcasting provides–substantive programming that inspires lifelong learning, from a point of view that is unbiased, credible and trusted.” 

Along those lines, WTTW has joined with other area stations and organizations to create Chicago Matters, a public affairs series that connects the groups through the exploration of a single theme. In 2008, the theme was Growing Forward, an examination of the environment and renewable resources, sponsored in part by the Chicago Community Trust Foundation.

With a keen eye to the future, WTTW has seen the shift away from stagnant viewing, toward the Internet and other interactive media. Its Web site allows viewers to explore its local and national programming even after shows have passed, with companion sites and extra information that allows the viewer unprecedented access. According to President and CEO Daniel J. Schmidt, “With today’s technology, we truly are the masters of our own media domain. We can get content when, where, and how we want it.”

It’s a trend that can only enhance the impact of public television. The station includes a national productions arm, WTTWN, that provides shows for other PBS stations, and in 2008 WTTW launched its first national PBS children’s series, WorldWorld. In addition, the corporation was the first public station in America to add V-me, the Spanish-language channel. In fact, V-me is just one of three digical channels, including WTTWD and Create.

“The future is making extraordinary content portable and accessible,” says Maish. “WTTW and public stations nationwide are proactive and on board.” And, always the pioneer, WTTW is growing with the trends, furthering its goal to blend education, enlightenment, and entertainment.

Philo Farnsworth would be amazed.

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