How to Be Larry Doyle
by Peter Zelchenko July 10, 2009

This is a pep talk to all you aspiring writers out there.

We spend a lot of time comparing our progress to others. Now and then, I find myself looking nervously to Larry Doyle, who grew up in Buffalo Grove. Larry's written for everything from the Simpsons to the New Yorker. His Thurber-Award-winning book, I Love You, Beth Cooper, is now in theaters everywhere (Rolling Stone gives the movie only one star; Peter Travers says it sucks but that the book is "double much better.")

Larry and I worked together at the Daily Illini, and he has been very successful. Me, not nearly so much. Which explains why I am comparing myself to him more than he is comparing himself to me. He even snubbed me at a recent alumni event where we read excerpts from our books.

In his autobiographical essay for Harper Collins, Larry shares with us his inspiration to become a writer:

"I decided I wanted to write when I was about twelve years old, after rummaging through my father's closet for the Playboys he slipped between copies of Golf magazine. I came across two yellowing clips from an Irish newspaper. They were short stories. The byline read, 'by Larry Doyle.'"

What a coincidence that the spark of inspiration for both of us should be seeing our name in print. My grandfather, a newspaper writer, wrote essays for the likes of Reader's Digest and American Mercury, and my mom was an editor at Popular Mechanics. And I was proudest of my father when I saw his byline in the newspapers.

Unfortunately, my dad left journalism when I was young, to drive a Chicago taxi. I spent the rest of my childhood constantly looking for my last name in print, anywhere. I often had to settle for putting my thumb over the first few letters of Ukrainian names like "Yevtushenko." Or astound myself with the odd fact that the German word for charcoal is "Zeichenkohle." Just get a box of charcoal at the art supply store, cut off the last three letters and fill in the i, and I'm happy for the rest of the afternoon. I feel "published."

Now, clearly, I'm someone a bit desperate for this kind of fulfillment. But everyone is trying to get somewhere and needs inspiration to get there. Perhaps you have a related story. I'd like to hear it.

The Daily Illini during those years produced an especially large number of immensely talented people. Dave Eggers and Larry Doyle both come from that era. The always delightful Nina Paley ("The Sitayana") and Crain's Roger Schillerstrom were cartoonists there, along with animator Neal Sternecky, who worked with Doyle on the resurrected Pogo comic. Photographers included the Tribune's John Konstantaras and Chicago's dynamic duo Anne Ryan and John Zich. Steve Timble, formerly of TimeOut and about to become the new publisher of the Reader, was there. And that's just the beginning.

People everywhere feel that pressure to succeed, to be able to tell the world their story, or at least a story on their terms, through their particular art. Larry and Dave Eggers both have written bestselling memoirs of their youth for our generation (Larry's Beth Cooper is matched in every way by Dave's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). Being obsessed with one's own story and the dream of its successful debut is a huge motivator, one most of us emulate only halfheartedly.

Probably the best advice would be to stop comparing and start doing. To keep on trying. That's really Larry's underlying message in his essay. In that spirit, we have renewed our contract with Gapers Block editors and are committing to another year of weekly reports on all things Chicago -- including personal rants as a bonus -- straight from the Gapers Block boiler room. This is a message to all you doubters out there: Never give up! Never, ever!

Er, that obvious message has an equally obvious corollary. It's possible one simply isn't nearly as talented as the Larry Doyles of the world. In such a case, one probably should consider giving up. Knowing exactly when to know that is one of the great secrets of life. Hmm -- famous writer, or oppressed taxicab driver? So hard to choose!

Now, go get 'em! Or, well, stop, as the case may be.

~ = ~

P.S. See the AFSC/United Taxidrivers Community Council's 2008 report, "Driven Into Poverty," on the abysmal situation of Chicago Taxicab drivers. Stick to your writing!

P.P.S. Visit Dave Eggers' brilliant Wicker Park youth writing workshop, 826CHI, cleverly disguised as a spy store. Now, why didn't we think of that?

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