Our Chicago: there’s more than one way to tell a story

From the desk of Carolyn Jillson.  We all have stories to tell. And it can be surprising how many different ways there are to describe an experience. We see this all the time in qualitative market research. Everyone has a unique perspective and so each individual interview is an exercise in storytelling and allows us to gain a better understanding of the big picture.

This also became evident in a recent writing project in which I was involved. Inspired by Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List,” the Advanced Memoir Workshop at The Story Studio in Chicago, led by Annette Gendler, decided to write a collection of list essays about Chicago. The criteria was straightforward – the story needed to be about Chicago and be in a list essay format. Each of ten students wrote about what Chicago means to them. It was fun to discover what each memoir writer chose as their focus and to see Chicago from their perspectives.

Our writing project resulted in a diverse collection of essays written in varied styles that highlighted different perspectives of our shared city. While the essays are packed with personal connections, themes emerge and the reader is left with a deeper understanding of Chicago.

One essay reveals the city through the EL stops nearest to the places where the writer has lived over the years; another first imagined the Chicago Loop like a loop on a roller coaster ride; another describes a lifetime in Chicago as a decoupage. My essay is titled “15 Reasons I find Chicago an exceptionally livable place” and my list includes things such as…

1. Chicago appeals to my sense of direction and my Midwestern sensibility for order and helpfulness. The grid system of street numbering is like an open code to navigate the city, superimposed upon the easy geography of traveling east to the lake and north and south along the shore.

2. Chicago is a city of alleys. The alleyways run like arteries, past our back doors, behind the scenes, just under the skin, carrying away our trash and recycling. They are the city’s veins lined with cables tying each building to another in a physical tangle the Internet attempts to deny. The web of communication cables keeps us connected and keeps our front streets clear of wires. In the summer, weeds push through cracks in the pavement like busted seams.

3. Chicago has transportation options. It has the public transportation system of a great metropolis without leaving out the automobile.

10. Pizza is a food group in Chicago.

11. Chicago has imposing weather conditions that remind me to respect mother nature.

If you’re curious, you can find the book here and you can check out other offerings at The Story Studio here.

As with essay writing,  qualitative research is a form of storytelling — soliciting consumers’ stories, and weaving them into an “essay” that provides direction and insights for our clients.