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English Alumma Finds Success Being True to Story, Self

Professor Lowanne Jones remembers Jill Elaine Hughes as an "absolutely showstopping person — a natural.

Date: 10/17/2006
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Professor Lowanne Jones remembers Jill Elaine Hughes as an "absolutely showstopping person — a natural."

Add playwright, journalist, fiction author, solo performer, actor/comedian, astounding typist and bookworm to that list of credentials. Only then do you start to get a true picture of the scope of Hughes' work and dreams since she graduated with an English degree in 1996.

Her plays have been produced around the country and she founded the woman-centered Stockyards Theatre Project in Chicago. She has been a published writer for years.

And yet, Hughes still seeks ways to stretch her skill set and her creative boundaries.

"I would like to add 'published novelist' to my list of credentials," said the Chicago resident, who has five manuscripts but no contract – yet.

Jill Elaine Hughes

Jill Elaine Hughes received her English degree at UC in 1996.

"I also recently finished writing a memoir, and I'd like to see that published, too so I can be a 'published memoirist.' I'd like my plays to get produced at major regional theatres and on Broadway, as well as more international productions (I've had small productions in Canada and the UK.)

"I'd like to make a full-time living from my creative writing. I'd also love to write the book and lyrics for a Broadway musical someday, if I could find a composer willing to work with me.

"I have an idea for a rock 'n' roll musical about the impact of the 1991 Gulf War on a small Ohio town, but as yet I haven't found a composer willing to work on it with me, so it's just kind of sitting on the back burner. Maybe once I've had some high-profile play productions I'll be able to pursue that. Mostly, I just want to get my book manuscripts published right now."

Born and raised around southwest Ohio, Hughes moved around a lot as the child of divorced parents with financial and health issues. Reading, however, was a constant.

"I taught myself to read before I was 3 – nobody really knows how; neither do I, in fact I don't remember a time when I didn't know how to read," she said.

"I was reading chapter books by kindergarten (Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judy Blume were early favorites) and adult novels by third grade (I was a John Jakes fan by age 10; I enjoyed his historical epics, along with those of Colleen McCullough and Ohio writer Allan W. Eckert from an early age.) I also loved reading horror and sci-fi; I became an avid Stephen King fan by my preteen years.

"I excelled in my literature classes in high school, and read a lot on my own, too—Hemingway, Jane Austen, Fitzgerald, Pearl S. Buck, lots and lots of authors. I've always been a bookworm."

As with many writers, there was that "defining moment" which, in hindsight, foreshadowed Hughes' career path. She was 8 years old and a playwright with her first comedy, about a group of girls who ran a bakery together.

"I used neighborhood playmates as my cast, and we 'toured' the show around the neighborhood and at several classes at school. It was a lot of fun," Hughes said.

"We didn't have a typewriter or computer in the house, so my mother helped me hand-copy enough scripts for the cast. I gave a copy to my third-grade teacher for extra credit. I got cupcakes from my teacher as a reward for doing the play, which I consider my first royalty payment."

Valedictorian of her high-school class, Hughes originally applied to UC as an architecture major, and was offered "generous scholarships" when admitted to DAAP.

After just one quarter, she followed her heart instead of her family's advice. "They thought I'd never be able to make a living with an English degree," she said. "But that's simply not true – if anything, I've had a more interesting career as a result of getting the English degree. I have never once regretted that decision."

Several English professors inspired Hughes to seriously pursue a literary career or perhaps a career in literary academia, she said.

"There are far too many of them to name here, but particular inspirations were Jonathan Kamholtz, who taught me Shakespeare; Lowanne Jones, who taught me comparative medieval literature and also led a student trip to France which was my first trip overseas (and overseas travel has been a love of mine ever since); and Michael Atkinson, who introduced me to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy's profound influence on 20th century American literature.

"I enjoyed Terry Stokes' and Don Bogen's writing classes a great deal, and learned so much about creativity and the craft of writing in those classes."

Lowanne Jones remembers Hughes, who also earned a certificate in creative writing, as a passionate student, someone whose mind matched her appearance. The two got to know each other through Jones' work as director of undergraduate studies and also, on the Paris study tour.

"Jill's tall, with big blue eyes and back then, a long mane of gold-blond hair," Jones said. "She's almost larger than life, but to go with that she has a larger-than-life intellectual curiosity ... she's not only striking looking, but her curiosity is just monumental. It's the same kind of bright, shining curiosity that matches her face.

"I'm really proud of what she's done, and I'll certainly get her novel when it comes out."

Jonathan Kamholtz called Hughes an "interesting mix of intensity and enthusiasm."

"She was an intense student – a teacher's love," he said. "I liked the way she thought about things – she always liked to explore and wasn't straining for the right answer."

Kamholtz, who kept in touch with Hughes while she was at University of Chicago earning a master's degree, recently checked out Hughes' Web site.

"She seems to have become much more committed to humor, and that's not a bad thing," he said. "I love to imagine what she's like, that seriousness she was bringing to her work along with a broadly comic view of life … It looks to me like she's an important part of the burgeoning Chicago theater scene, which is just terrific. Chicago's really the capital of the Midwest, and it's wonderful to watch theater go and grow. I'm proud of Jill's success."

Going and growing aptly describes what Hughes did after leaving UC. After deciding she wasn't cut out to be a poet, while holding down full-time jobs, she began doing professional freelance journalism.

"I wrote for Chicago-area periodicals, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, New Art Examiner, Barfly Newspaper and others. My beat was mostly the local visual arts scene, along with nightlife and bar reviews."

Now, as a health policy analyst, her job is to "read and critically analyze lots of highly technical and abstract information (government health policy legislation, insurance reimbursement rules, medical literature, etc), and then boil it down/interpret it into 'chewable chunks' so the physicians and healthcare executives I work for can act on it to make snap decisions."

"I just try to stay focused on whatever task I am working on at the moment, and I also do a lot of listmaking and self-scheduling," she said. "I have always had a lot of self-discipline, which is essential as a writer when it comes to setting your own deadlines and goals and then sticking to them."

That helps in her day job: "They don't have time to wade through all the information and interpret it, so they pay me to do that for them. It requires a lot of critical thinking skills, writing skills – not to mention being able to read a lot of stuff and 'regurgitate' it very quickly!

"Most of my colleagues have law degrees or public health degrees, but yet my superiors all tell me I am a lot more nimble than they are when it comes to spoken and written communication, and I credit that to my English background."

And on top of that, there's the nimble-finger benefit: "I've developed some creepy skills as a result of doing double-duty as a full-time worker and full-time creative writer," Hughes said. "I type like 150 words a minute."

She has learned, over time, not to motivate herself with the carrot of big paychecks, remembering professor Terry Stokes' words: "If you want to make money, don't become a writer. Sell real estate instead."

Instead, she writes for herself, and it's important, Hughes said, "to be true to the story."

"I set achievable writing goals for myself (e.g., write 2000 words a day, every day, for a month; send out plays to at least 30 theatres in a month) and I draw satisfaction when I meet those goals," she said.

"I don't set unrealistic expectations, like 'write the next million-selling novel,' but I set expectations that ensure I am always productive and working on something. And that has helped me accomplish a lot, a little at a time."

Her biggest support system remains her husband, who, she said, gives her "tremendous amounts of private time (at his own sacrifice) to pursue my writing."

"He still expects me to generate a full-time income, but doesn't complain that I spend almost all my free time in front of the computer," she said.

"He does most of the household chores to help give me more time and is really wonderful that way. Of course, he's always bugging me about when all of this writing is going to 'pay off.' He's in finance, so sometimes he doesn't appreciate that writing can 'pay off' in non-financial ways, but he's very supportive nonetheless."

Read more about Jill Elaine Hughes here.

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