Documents
Resources
Learning Center
Upload
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

essay

VIEWS: 21 PAGES: 6

									                                       Apologia pro Curriculo Vitae
                            Application Essay to Goddard College by Alton Miller


As long as I can remember I have wanted to be a writer. I am about to turn 60, well on my way into my third
career; I have written three nonfiction books, many magazine articles, and (currently) a biweekly column of
political commentary, online; through my writing I have supported my family – as a journalist, as a public
relations writer, and as a teacher of writing; my words have been set in stone.

And yet I can still say without a sense of ultimate achievement: I want to be a writer. That's why I am
applying for acceptance into the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Goddard College.

As a member of the full-time faculty at Columbia College Chicago, I've been able to take classes in our
excellent Fiction Writing Department – 28 credit hours so far, in both fiction writing and playwriting. I will
continue to take classes in that department, and, perhaps in connection with my work toward an MFA at
Goddard, will teach there as well. But I am convinced that my long-term interests would be best served by
pursuing my MFA in creative writing at Goddard. Columbia College Provost Steven Kapelke, who has
written a warm letter of recommendation on my behalf and who himself holds an MFA in Creative Writing
(from Iowa) concurs in this choice.

                             ... "educational and experiential background" ...

At the Christmas break in 1960, halfway through my senior year in high school, I nearly became a dropout.
My father had died that summer, leaving my mother with three sons and many debts. I was offered a small
role in "A Christmas Carol," the children's theater production of a small but prestigious professional company
in downtown Washington, D.C. I would also be an assistant to the lighting designer. I moved into D.C. and
attended school sporadically during the final semester. If I hadn't been taking advanced placement classes
through my junior year, I might not have graduated.

Ever since the Era of Sputnik launched those advanced placement classes, I had been an excellent student
in both math and civics courses, and a member of the Latin and math honor societies at Washington-Lee
High School in Arlington, Va. That helped, when I applied for admission to George Washington University in
September, just before classes began. Never having taken (or studied for) my SATs, I found I could take the
tests that week and, as my G.W.U. transcripts show, scored 703 in math and 656 in verbal.

So that fall – I had just turned 18 – I moved into a room near the theater, got a job as copy boy (sic) at the
Washington Post, worked nights at the theater, and attended classes at G.W.U.

The copy boy experience was significant for me in a number of ways. The Washington Post newsroom was
then a relatively compact environment, and important people usually had a minute for an unprepossessing
copy boy. Still in my teens, I was ripping copy from the news wires and running it to some of the world's
most famous by-lines, who were gruff or arch or sometimes even chatty human presences in my early
intellectual development. Events in the civil rights struggle, in particular, I remember as an hourly-developing
drama, in an era when nightly newscasts were just getting started and cable TV would have seemed like
science fiction. I was a runner to the State Department auditorium whenever President Kennedy gave one of
his press conferences, carrying back a wet page one of the official transcript while he was still onstage
generating page two. The Post encouraged us cubs to attend Sunday services and write up short "sermon
reviews" – my first published writings – and above all inspired us with an awareness that momentous events
were proximate and palpable. Like the rest of Kennedy's Children, I was forever politicized by the
experience. In my courses and in my personal reading, political science and economics became priorities.
Even the theater seemed to many of us to be another political venue.

But I spent my most creative hours working in the theater, nights and weekends. On Saturdays, still a
teenager myself, I taught improvisation in our "TeenAge Theater" classes. I wrote a play with music for
children, which I then directed for our summer children's theater. I wrote snatches of political satire, sketches
for our annual revue, "Spread Eagle." But I found that the writing that had the most immediately satisfying
effect was the public relations writing I did to promote our ensemble. I became the "PR man" and created a
reputation for myself in that field, and from that platform moved on to the prestigious Arena Stage in 1968.
                                                  Alton Miller application essay, Goddard College – page 2 of 6


And so I found myself focused on the theater, and to a lesser extent on journalism, and my college work
suffered. I think I never believed it was sustainable – where was I going to get that kind of money? And
anyway, I wanted to be a novelist, or a playwright, or both. The Washington Theater Club was a good place
to get my start. And so, with a few interruptions I worked at and was a part of the community at the
Washington Theater Club from late 1960 to 1968. (The interruptions were attributable to incessant
romanticism: I bought a one-way ticket on a tramp steamer and worked my way through Europe for a year,
which is what writers did. I worked as a furniture mover in New York City, humping sofas on weekends and
writing at the White Horse every Monday through Thursday. And in 1963 I avoided the three-year draft by
fulfilling my service obligation as a six-month Marine Corps reservist.)

In time I created a reputation for myself as a PR professional. When I was offered the job of PR director at
Arena Stage, Washington's world-class resident company, I didn't hesitate. By the time I left I was their
associate producing director, responsible for fundraising as well as PR.

My eight years at Arena Stage (1968-76) were a kind of university. During that experience I personally
corresponded with many playwrights, including two of the greatest living writers for the English stage,
Samuel Beckett and Thornton Wilder. I worked alongside Eugene Ionesco and Max Frisch, who came to
supervise the staging of their works, and when we produced Elie Wiesel's new drama, "The Madness of
God," he and his wife became members of our family for several months. My experiences at Arena Stage –
and on Broadway and in other regional theaters whither we exported a number of premieres ("The Great
White Hope," "Indians," "Raisin," and others) – were my most formative years, and whenever I'm led to
contemplate "home," I always consider the Fichandlers to be my mentors, in loco parentis, and the Arena
Stage community to be my home village.

The job was always centered on writing, but it was all, one way or another, PR writing. It was a lively form of
theater writing, to be sure – as the editor and writer of the program magazines, I read plays, researched,
and then produced a commentary on each work we presented, a total of 70-odd pieces over eight years –
but it was not creative writing in the fullest sense. PR writing is writing that starts with the desired result, the
"message", and works backwards, to craft a verbal vehicle to deliver that message. I missed the experience
of writing as a means of discovering what you have to say.

They presented me with a plaque that the guys in the shop had made, with crossed telephone receivers;
and a short musical roast performed by the resident company after hours; and an electric typewriter, when I
"retired" from Arena Stage at the age of 33, to finally become a writer. I moved to an authentic garret on
Capitol Hill, and supplemented my savings with occasional consulting and steady magazine writing. The
typewriter broke down under reams of unpublishable and insufferably personal novelizings.

But meanwhile I had found in my freelance work some satisfaction in creative non-fiction. From late 1976 to
mid-1980 I wrote a monthly magazine article and 10-15 short reviews or previews each month, of current
theater offerings for a slick monthly, Washington Calendar Magazine. If the novel eluded me, I was
nonetheless making a living as a writer.

Then my consulting work led to an offer from the Washington Ballet. I knew nothing about ballet, but
everything about managing a performing arts company, and when the celebrated Washington School of
Ballet decided to stop sending its young talent to American Ballet Theatre and instead create their own
professional ensemble, I was hired as their first managing director.

My five years with the Washington Ballet (1978-83) were another set of courses at university. I was starting
from ignorance, so my learning curve shot straight up. I learned the business of touring a ballet company
and created a semiannual circuit up and down the East Coast (we came to Burlington in 1980.) I made a
connection with a promoter in Paris, and leveraged our young choreographer's (the late Choo San Goh)
reputation to book our company at the Spoleto Festival, followed by a month's tour in Italy. The next year we
performed at the Diaghilev-era Theatre de Champs Elysee in Paris. The year after that it was a dance
festival in Singapore, and the following year an extended tour of the Orient.
                                                  Alton Miller application essay, Goddard College – page 3 of 6


Through my years at Arena Stage, and then at the Washington Ballet, I was joining with other young
activists to make the arts relevant to the larger world around us. Artists were learning to speak out in the
antiwar movement, and were playing a role in social issues, from education alternatives to criminal justice
(following the lead of even more politically active artists in Europe.) I lent my professional resources to the
efforts of the new home rule administration of Mayor Marion Barry, then a freshly minted leader surrounded
by young idealists, and I worked with his staff to put the arts to work in the life of the city.

It was ballet that brought me to Chicago, where Maria Tallchief was looking for a general director to help her
struggling company erase a half-million-dollar debt. For a year (1983-84) I was general director of the
Chicago City Ballet. That turned out to be a doomed effort, but in the meantime I met, hat in hand, just about
every philanthropist in Chicago, including some with ties to the new Harold Washington administration.

One of those who supported the reform mayor, and who knew of my political orientation, wanted to know if
I'd be interested in serving as his press secretary. The mayor had asked his kitchen cabinet to throw a wide
net, to search beyond the usual suspects – Chicago journalists and political flacks. How my arts career
made what seemed to many an absurd transition from the politics of the arts to the art of politics, I was able
to summarize in the book I wrote in 1989, Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man. Thus began, after a
career in the arts spanning two and a half decades, my second career – in political communications.

My three years (1985-88) in Chicago's City Hall during the tumultuous era of "Council Wars" was the
equivalent of another series of college courses, this time in political communications and public policy. Once
again, my research and writing skills were called upon, but in this case my PR writing, I felt, was being put to
historically important use. I was helping to change the world, or my little piece of it – in part as Mayor
Washington's speech writer, responsible for his "State of the City" speeches, and his 1987 inaugural
address (phrases of which are now incised in marble, in the rotunda of the Harold Washington Library –
once in a blue moon a writer's words really are "set in stone.")

After the mayor's death I worked as a political consultant with a series of clients, including the Chicago
Board of Education, figuring how to manage and communicate its reform efforts; the mayor of Philadelphia
who was facing a budget showdown and was looking for a PR writer with combat experience; the Senate
campaign of Carol Moseley Braun (before she was hyphenated); and United Auto Workers, in a cataclysmic
clash with Caterpillar, Inc., in Peoria and Decatur, Ill. and York, Pa.

I also took advantage of opportunities to work in creative non-fiction. I contracted with concert singer William
Warfield to write his biography, published in 1992. And I assembled into book form the speeches I had
written for the mayor, wrote short introductions setting the context for each, ghost-authored a general
introduction for the signature of Coretta Scott King, and found a publisher for my third book, Climbing a
Great Mountain: Selected Speeches of Harold Washington. I also edited a section of Chicago Times
Magazine called The Front Page; my beat was politics, the media, and the arts.

Of this period of my life, the most educational and significant to me was the UAW experience. I shuttled
between Olympus, located in Detroit, and the plains of Ilium, located in Central Illinois. I sat in the councils of
the mighty where million-dollar media campaigns were contemplated; and in the kitchens of Pekin and
Canton and East Peoria, where husbands had to convince their wives that the principles lately endorsed at
the top of their lungs at the union hall were worth risking the car payments and mortgage payments and
college savings funds. I succeeded somewhat in convincing the union leadership that the most important
confrontations took place not at the bargaining table but at the kitchen table. I innovated in the field of
community relations for old-line labor professionals who had little use for new-fangled PR ideas, and I
created a new monthly publication to explain the strike, not only to the media and other opinion leaders, but
more importantly to the "civilians" who had a stake in the outcome, the families of the striking workers.

Not long after Harold Washington died, the director of public relations studies at Columbia College called to
ask if I were interested in teaching a course in political PR. I jumped at the chance. I had always considered
my work to be educational, even in a narrow sense – as an arts manager, and as a political publicist, my
work frequently involved setting up lecture series and informational meetings that were structured with
syllabi, to convey a body of knowledge that would be a prerequisite if my PR efforts were to be successful.
                                                  Alton Miller application essay, Goddard College – page 4 of 6


Moreover, I felt that teaching was in my blood – my father had started his career as a college professor, and
after a 20-year military career had returned to teaching at the high school level; his father had been a
teacher and the beloved principal at Allentown High School.

I began teaching part time, while my career as a consultant moved on to my most ambitious campaign for
my political client, Chicago City Treasurer Miriam Santos. I was her campaign manager in the statewide
campaign for attorney general, as well as manager and communications director for two city campaigns, a
professional relationship spanning the years from 1992 to 1998, when she went to jail. It was at that
propitious moment that I was offered the opportunity to enter the tenure track as a member of the full-time
faculty. I was ready.

As a tenure-track teacher at Columbia College I am expected to keep my professional credentials current. I
continue to work as a communications consultant, principally for the Illinois Arts Alliance, for whom I have
authored a manual on grassroots lobbying, a CD presentation and brochures on the economic impact of the
arts, and a video on the importance of arts advocacy.

I teach my course in Political and Governmental Public Relations, and I teach both in-class and online
sections of Public Relations Writing as well. As a finalist for the college's annual "Teacher of the Year"
award, I was invited to become a Fellow of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

I have taken advantage of free tuition at Columbia College to study courses of interest to me – bioethics and
cartooning, as well as fiction writing, where I am only four courses away from completing the 44 credits in
that major. I am active on a number of college committees, and am the parliamentarian of the College
Council, and the author of the final draft of our new bylaws.

I have an extensive personal library – over 10,000 books in my home – accumulated over a lifetime of self-
directed learning. They are heavy on history, philosophy, political theory, theology and science, and novels. I
also have access to the good libraries surrounding me at home and work – at Columbia College and
DePaul, and also the Chicago Public Library's downtown central collection.

I believe my life experiences have prepared me for the challenge presented by Goddard's program toward a
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. And I believe that my current personal, intellectual and professional
interests also support that goal.

                              ... theoretical, practicum, and the final product...

I write a regular column of political commentary for TheCommonGood.org, the website of Protestants for the
Common Good, where I am a member of the board. I am also active in the community development work of
the Community Media Workshop (newstips.org), where I also sit on the board. My work with the Illinois Arts
Alliance puts me in contact with civic leaders statewide, when I travel Illinois from Cairo to Galena with my
arts advocacy presentation.

These are deeply satisfying outlets for my writing – this is the content I care about. But this is not the form I
believe to be most effective in conveying that content. And this is not what I have always wanted to do, as
long as I can remember.

What I have wanted to do, as long as I can remember, is to be a writer. And I can now parse that simple
sentiment with some clarity: fiction writing – books and plays – is the only form that will ultimately satisfy my
need to communicate human truths: to show and not simply tell. It is to that end that I have been studying
fiction writing at Columbia College. I have been taking these courses to become better at the writing of
fiction, not toward a formal degree, but for its own sake.

But as I concentrate on the practical realities of my third career – teaching – which I fully anticipate to last at
least as long as my second – that is, well into my seventies – I am aware that I will require an advanced
degree. Our graduate dean, together with the chair of our fiction writing department, has offered me the
                                                  Alton Miller application essay, Goddard College – page 5 of 6


opportunity to "convert" (not a term of art, but my translation of his suggestion) a portion of my Fiction
Writing credits into 12 credit hours toward an MFA in Creative Writing.

In consultation with my provost, however, I have come to believe that my intellectual and spiritual
development will be improved by educational cross-pollination rooted in the experience of another respected
creative writing faculty. And my professional credentials will be much more broadly based if my MFA is from
a college of Goddard's reputation, which will then be overlaid on the credentials of Columbia College's
Fiction Writing Department.

I have no doubt about my ability to plan and carry out a major independent project with success and
satisfaction. I have a lifetime's experience with significant independent projects, including three published
books.

I will also have the professional support of Columbia College – as an institution and as a bundle of separate
resources. My teaching practicums can be accomplished in the context of the Fiction Writing Department –
or perhaps in the form of an online course offered by Goddard College, as I have extensive experience in
this new field of pedagogy (my current online course, offered as part of the Columbia College curriculum, is
at the Web domain I personally own, www.columbiacollege.net). Or if, in consultation with Goddard faculty it
seems more apt, my practicum experience might be with a community organization dedicated to oversight of
public utilities, a field of activism in which Chicago leads the nation. In any case, I plan to complement the
novel with a website focusing on electric power issues, similar to the way my website at
civic.columbiacollege.net focuses on national political issues.

The theoretical work necessary for the realization of my project lies on two axes: First, my professional
development as a writer: I have been growing as a writer, and will continue to improve in part through
classes and in part through independent work. Second, necessary research into the politics of power
generation, i.e. electric power – specifically, the experience of Chicago early in this century, of Cleveland at
mid-century, and California in the last decade. I will develop a research plan to bring the learning from these
public experiences to bear on the plot of the novel that I plan as my MFA final product.

For my final product I plan to write a novel about a fictional Harold Washington, one that develops the theme
of the urgency for small-d democratic leadership in complex times. The America we are living in – along with
the world around us – is reliving the crises of the 1930s. We are going to find it necessary, I believe, once
again to demonstrate that the best response to global nihilism is not the "firm hand" of bossism, but a
broadly-based consensus, under principled leadership.

The novel will incorporate a well-reasoned and clearly articulated discussion of the history and implications
of energy policy in the U.S., as a specific example of a more generally problematic relationship between a
passive public and the manipulators of the private and public sector who are seeking to redefine democracy.
My work in public relations teaches me that PR is the problem but it can also be the solution – in fact, PR
was invented, not by corporations looking for apologists, but by academic supporters of reformers like
LaFollette, following Dewey, in their belief that the truth will set you free – in their case, from the ravages of
the robber barons. This original spirit of PR, shanghaied by corporate flacks threatened by the reform-
minded publicists (who often became journalists), can be revived and brought to bear.

Chicago Power and Light – the novel's title – thus refers both to the (fictional) electric company at the center
of the novel, and also to the liberating spirit of Chicago in the days of Harold Washington.

I plan to integrate technically accurate representations of the financial and technological details of power
companies with the implications and complications that derive from the real world of political change.
Leaders like Mayor Richard M. Daley, or George Bush, on the one hand, and Harold Washington, on the
other, have significantly different approaches to political action. The essential principle of bossism, as I
define it, is the philosophical notion that for every problem there is one "best" response. The leadership's job
is to employ experts to identify that solution, and then wield the political clout to make it happen. The
principle I intend to hold in opposition is that there is no philosophically justifiable, Platonic, "best" solution;
that only through the interaction of all interested parties can a mutually acceptable response be developed,
                                                 Alton Miller application essay, Goddard College – page 6 of 6


to be validated only through that process of interaction. Not a profoundly original philosophic concept, but a
notion that is anathema to political bosses – and to many who want government to "work like a business."

I have the background in city politics to write intelligently about how things really work. I have the
background in theater and the arts to understand the role of personality in politics, and the personal
experience with Harold Washington to draw his portrait in fiction. I have the scholarship to do the necessary
research. I have the discipline to conceive and complete a book-length manuscript as I have demonstrated
three times. I have the technological ability and interest to translate my work to the Internet. As the period
between 2003 and 2007 will provide multiple opportunities to commemorate the 20th anniversary of various
aspects of the Harold Washington mayoralty (1983-1987), the timing is also right.

Finally, I have the humility – despite the clangor of the self-promoting assertions on these pages – to tailor
my plan to fit the requirements of disciplined work toward a formal educational outcome for the MFA degree.
There are many aspects of graduate work that I do not understand and I look forward to gaining an
appreciation of them, through the residencies and other work with advisors and colleagues. I am anticipating
a genuine education along these lines and am eager to work collegially, as my references I hope will attest.

My humility derives, in part, from the fact that I am asking for your acceptance of my candidacy despite the
fact that I do not have an undergraduate degree. I have accomplished only 68 college credit hours (though
by the end of the 2003-2004 academic year I expect them to number at least 90). When my G.W.U.
transcript arrives you will see that I did poorly in my single year at that college, then did well in three
semesters at American University, and of course excellently at Columbia College (an unofficial academic
record print-out is among the attachments to the email bearing this Apologia.) I will be pleased to outline in
more detail a rationale for life experience as a substitute for specific college courses.

I am further hopeful that if you are positively inclined toward my application, you will be able to reach a
decision in time for me to attend the July residency this year. I realize that my transcripts, poor as they are,
are still en route, but I have unofficial copies of each of them.

You should receive a total of four letters of recommendation – from provost Steven Kapelke; from my most
recent teacher in the Columbia College Fiction Writing Department, Eric May; from a political comrade,
Peter McLennon, policy adviser to the Cook County Clerk; and from Bernie Sahlins, founder of The Second
City theater company. These different witnesses shine their lights on different aspects of my career.

To comply with your request that I limit my writing sample to 20 pages, but also to enclose samples of more
than one genre, I am sending short pieces ripped from longer works. I have also attached other items that
may be of help in making your determination.

Thank you for your consideration.

                                          Sincerely,




                                          Alton Miller

								
To top