I found this theater during a 2019 photo shoot in East St. Louis, Ill. It looked as though businesses had at least attempted to use the lower level in the recent past, and everything at ground level was covered in graffiti. But the upper level had fascinating scrollwork and artistic design. I know little about architecture, but I know that that building has stories to tell.
There are a number of other images from my East St. Louis shoot, which was a fascinating trip detailed a few months ago on the Patreon.
It’s been a weird month, but then it’s been weird for all of us, hasn’t it? We are only two weeks from the end of the semester here at Donald Media Towers. My husband is about to finish his bachelor’s degree and not-graduate with the rest of the class of 2020; I have taken an extension on Ye Olde Thesis to get it knocked out in the summer before starting my new endeavor (read the last blog post on this list, if you missed that).
I’m under house isolation for the most part, having ventured out only for such thrilling moments as medical treatments or an insurance-funded car repair that required my actual presence for paperwork. The rest of the time I’ve been in the house, sending my essential-worker husband or son out on our errands, and sooner or later I’ll get them trained on how to follow a shopping list.
Teaching is pretty much wrapped up except for student conferences and grading the final projects, and my student work is… well. Let’s just say grad students and instructors are no less prone to procrastination or the mental malaise that has gripped so many of us in this time of plague. I see all these posts saying that it’s perfectly all right not to suddenly take up a new art form or write a novel or otherwise take advantage of all this home time… but then there’s those pesky deadlines.
So two weeks from now begins the summer, and I will not have any steady gigs for this breather between one program and the next. So it’s going to be freelancing, fiction and Ye Olde Thesis. Which probably means more essays and website design, because I can procrastinate like nobody’s business.
Most of my volunteer work is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. The American Cancer Society chili fundraiser/author fair scheduled for May 2 is postponed until further notice, and the Breakfastival of Hope scheduled for May 30 will likely be in August. The Cardinals ticket sale is on hold until we hear if there will be a baseball season, and right now I’m just crossing my fingers that the fall festival will happen so we can hold our annual book sale.
This has been disappointing for me, as I have lost two friends just this month to cancer and I’m more than a little pissed off about it. Rest assured our Relay for Life team will be raising money for cancer research one way or another, virus bedamned. In the meantime, you can donate here.
“Unexpected Gifts” (Medium), featuring a photo by my son, Ian Smith, because it was better than my photo by a long shot, pardon the expression. I better up my game! This one was posted on Patreon first, because Patreon always gets first dibs.
“Peace which the world cannot give, I give to you” (Medium)
(And a sooper-sekrit project I can’t tell you about until the contracts are signed. Ooo, mysterious.)
Patreon subscribers received their annual bonus, which was a copy of the River Bluff Review, a literary magazine only distributed in dead-tree edition that included two of my stories this year. They also received a matted photograph. See what you miss by not subscribing? And there should be a lot more fiction in the coming year… for details, see below!
Since I let it slip on the radio last week, I might as well go public. Shenanigans are afoot.
Recap for those playing along at home: I left daily journalism in 2018 to pursue my masters degree in media studies while launching a freelance career.
This turned out to be quite a few eggs in the baskets I was balancing on both arms, my head and the tip of my nose. I learned quickly why I got sad smiles and headshakes from fellow freelance journalists when I said I’d be launching while doing grad school. The freelance career definitely brings in what I put into it, which I can track on my bookkeeping sheet: when I was crunching hard at school, the balance fell to a minimum; in the summer, it was soaring. Well, soaring to “subsistence living,” at least.
Still, as I’ve said several times, my worst day in Career 2.0 still has not involved calling the family of a dead child and asking for comment. My barometer for stress is scaled differently.
And to be honest, working freelance suits my personality much better than working in a newsroom ever did. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility and the right to choose my own projects, even if it isn’t as lucrative as a steady paycheck. I’m still doing some local reporting as well as magazine work on a more-or-less regular basis, and writing about the things that interest me. One week I might write about balancing motherhood and an MBA program; the next about camping options along the great river road. And let’s not forget how many stories I could write about legalization of pot here in sunny Illinois.
Now as I approach the end of my masters program, I have to figure out what I’m going to do next. Originally I wrote a long and really boring explanation of all the options I considered before settling on my next step, and I have deleted it because if it bores me, I can’t imagine how stultifying it would be for you, Gentle Reader.
But something else has happened while I’ve been trundling my way through cultivation theory and media content analysis and many cans of Starbucks TripleShot: I’ve been able to take some writing classes.
What are you talking about, Elizabeth? You’ve been a professional writer since the mid-nineties!
True, but with the exception of a poetry workshop in high school, I had never taken a creative writing class in my life.
I always meant to do so – I must have signed up for fiction workshops at the University of Memphis three times, and always had to drop it because it conflicted with some other requirement for my major.
I went to untold numbers of author panels at conventions, read writing books and memoirs obsessively… but never took a creative writing class. I have had plenty of training in newswriting: undergrad included classes in story structure and investigative and feature reporting, etc. But never fiction or creative writing.
Last spring, I took a class in creative nonfiction from the English department, figuring it would help with the essays and long-form journalism I was trying to develop for my freelance work. I found it immensely enjoyable, and more importantly, my writing improved significantly.
When this last semester began, I enrolled in a graduate-level fiction workshop as kind of a trial run: could my ghosties and creepies and long-leggedy beasties translate in a literary environment? I’ve always had a taste for things that go chomp in the night, but the key to those critters and their ability to scare lies in characterization: characters with whom we can identify and language that evokes emotion. At its fundamental basis, writing of any genre must meet those needs to be truly impactful. So far, the workshop has been going very well, and I find I am viewing my own work and works of others in a new light.
So after long discussion with Jim, and a lot of personal contemplation, I rolled the dice and filled out the applications over the winter break.
Thus I am pleased to announce that I have been accepted into the MFA program for creative writing at SIUE, and will begin in the fall. This program involves intensive fiction workshopping and classes in literature as well as craft, along with a mid-program project involving writing and literacy in the community.
In academia, the masters of fine arts is considered a terminal degree – which sounds frighteningly fatal – and thus is given equal weight to a doctorate in most situations.
I have also been offered another teaching assistantship, so I will learn how to teach English composition at the freshman level. While I expect this will be the biggest challenge of my immediate future, it will also give me a much wider area of experience as an instructor. After I finish, I will be qualified to teach English comp, creative writing or journalism at the collegiate level, and if I cannot land a full professorship right away, it will at least give me a much wider variety of adjunct opportunities than solely teaching newswriting.
So it’s practical, and practicality always has to come first in my head. As I told Jim, the worst possible outcome of this insanity is that I’ll come out the other side with enough material for 1-2 more story collections, and that works fine for me.
But I am also very excited about this new venture. I’ve been given a warm welcome by my fellows in the MFA program and in the English department, and my short stories have already gained a good bit of success in literary magazines and anthologies after a looong dry spell. It’s odd that although my primary work for the past two years has been research-based rather than creative, I feel more creatively inspired than I have in at least a decade.
And when I look at the array of classes I get to take, it feels like an amazing privilege to be allowed to study there. Buckle in for a lot of discussion on sociopolitical allegory in the writings of African-American women or comparing the works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson or comparing and contrasting dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. Squee.
(Oh, like it’s a shock to you at this point that I’m a book nerd. I mean, have you SEEN my house? We need more walls.)
The funny part of this process has been explaining to my cohort in media studies that yes, I am voluntarily and enthusiastically signing up for three more years of grad school. They think I’ve lost my mind (they might not be wrong). Three more years of stress and term papers, of wrangling being a student and a fledgling teacher at the same time, of wacky hours and too much caffeine and poverty – don’t forget the poverty.
And that’s where I really need to throw the bouquet to Jim, who is not only supportive of my insanity, but strongly encouraged me to apply for the MFA in the first place. This is not going to be easy on him, folks. Teaching two classes and taking three means that my time for freelancing will be even more limited than it is now, and that means he has to keep his second job for the foreseeable future to keep our family in milk and toilet paper (hot commodities, man). He’s about to graduate with his bachelor’s degree, which was supposed to be the time that he gets to relax a bit.
I hear from so many women writers who have husbands or partners far less supportive of their work, who resent the time away, who make them justify the hours and expense of developing a writing career, who dismiss their work because it doesn’t bring in as much money as a “real job.” I have been there before, and it kills the creative spark to such an enormous degree when your partner isn’t committed to supporting your success, however you might define that. It fills me with gratitude to have a partner who so completely stands with me and cheers on my successes (and pours the drinks for my failures).
Perhaps he understands because he is a writer himself, or perhaps he’s just that wonderful. I haven’t dedicated a book to him yet. But really, they’re all dedicated to him. It’s pretty much a given that without Jim’s unwavering support, sounding board, sanity check and P.S. health insurance, I could not do any of the things I’ve done or will do.
So this is what I’m doing for the next three years, and I thank all of you for your continued support, Gentle Readers – with extra-special thanks to my Patreon subscribers, who help make all this craziness possible by funding the water bill each month. Of course, if anyone’s about to reap the benefits of my new venture, it’s going to be them! You can feel free to join them, by the way, and get first looks at the stories I’ll be creating in my journey through the MFA. I might also share more writing craft essays, on Patreon and on Medium, and don’t forget the photos.
It’s going to be a grand new adventure.
As to what I’m going to be when I grow up? Who says I have to?
To say the month of March was a tad unusual would be grossly understating the case. But you’re right there with me, aren’t you?
I’m fine. My family is fine. We have the enormous privilege of working and/or attending a state university. That means when my husband’s job was put on administrative leave, he kept his salary and benefits. His second job is deemed essential, so he’s still working a few days a week. My son’s job has had its hours cut, but he still has some income. And we are all working our way through the semester via the wonders of Zoom.
I have been in the house for coming up on four weeks, with a few brief exceptions: a doctor’s appointment and two brief trips for supplies when the menfolk were unavailable. Immune-compromised means I was sheltering in place before there was a state order. I am teaching my class in a Zoom chatroom, I am working my way through my final semester from home, and if the thesis weren’t a hot mess, I’d actually be just fine.
But I am privileged. We still have money coming in, and we got a nice big tax return just in time to help us through the worst of it. We kept our health insurance – very important for a house with as many prescriptions as I do – and we are in no danger of eviction or starvation.
Not everyone is so privileged. Some of the people I know are in dire straits. There are emergency funds popping up for journalists, for artists and writers, for students, for others in my circle that are devastated by the current mess. I urge you to seek them out – and to buy work from those artists and writers, because we are all going to need a little beauty to survive this.
And give a little extra love to the journalists. They were talking about this before it came here, and people mocked them. Then they were warning of disaster, and people ignored them. Then they were reporting on the disaster we predicted (or rather, the scientists they quoted predicted) and people blamed them. Now the disaster has hit their own organizations, and they’re being furloughed and laid off even as they were risking their own lives to give you the information you desperately need more than ever.
Support journalists, subscribe to a good paper if you can afford it, and maybe hop into the comment section once in a while to say something nice about it. Don’t stay too long – the mire might get on your shoes. But a supportive, intelligent comment on a news story would make a huge difference.
And here’s a podcast of a radio interview with me and Crone Girls Press publisher Rachel Brune about Coppice and Brake, the creative process, the convention life, the changing gender dynamics in horror, and random other subjects that came to mind. Thanks to Adam Messer of WRUU for hosting me!
The River Bluff Review launched its annual edition earlier in March, including two short stories of mine titled “Dear Katrina” and “Sergeant Curious.” It’s a literary magazine and while “Dear Katrina” is part of the Blackfire series, “Sergeant Curious” has no supernatural or horror elements at all. It was an unusual honor to be selected for publication in a literary magazine outside of my usual genres. Unfortunately River Bluff Review is only available through the university.
Well, I can’t think of a better way to pass the apocalypse than new fiction, though I am personally still up to my eyeballs in Ye Olde Thesis and all the fun times of the latter half of the last semester… plus or minus the plague. I am housebound for the duration, since I tick about five boxes on the “this shit’ll kill ya” list for the bug, which is probably the only way this thesis, five other papers and two fiction stories will actually get done.
We’re doing okay here at Donald Smith Gillentine Inc. The menfolk are still employed for now – Jim is on leave from the university but still being paid and keeps the health insurance, which makes me happy since I like being alive. The boy is still flipping burgers at half his usual hours, but he’s hanging in there. School restarts next week online, so watch for plenty of domestic squabbles over the power strip in the dining room.
I am teaching my class by remote, which will be an interesting experiment, and cranking away at the aforementioned research. Graduation has been canceled, but that doesn’t mean the deadlines don’t exist! I’m learning to use Zoom, which unfortunately shows the enormous mess behind my desk in my office, and guess what just moved to the top of the spring cleaning list?
I’ve also acquired the books for my wonderful Patrons, and they’ll be going in the mail on Monday. If you join the Patreon between now and Monday, I’ll make sure you get one? (It’s not Coppice and Brake – it’s a surprise!)
In all seriousness, I recognize the enormous privilege we have at DSG Inc., that we are able to continue doing our jobs (or at least be paid for them), and that we are (so far) healthy and well-stocked with food, toilet paper, bourbon… everything except yeast. I will seriously compensate people for yeast.
In the meantime, there’s this book! I’m really happy to be working with Crone Girls Press for the second time, as they published my story “In Memoriam” in Stories We Tell After Midnight back in October as a reprint. This release, Coppice and Brake, is a little less horror and more dark fantasy, and includes a brand-new short story from me titled “Shiny People.”
“Shiny People” was actually inspired by a panel at Archon 2019, in which we all shared “real-life” ghost stories. I told the stories of Isabel, the woman who was murdered in my house more than 100 years ago, and how we can always blame her when something breaks. Like the living room lamp, the boy’s mattress, the spatula and measuring cup, just in time for the apocalypse. Thanks, Isabel.
But there was a man in the audience who told a story I found so creepy, so fascinating, that I asked him afterward if he would mind if I wrote it as a short story. He said that was fine, as long as I named the little girl after his daughter. I was happy to do so.
In the meantime, we’re doing fine here at Donald Media HQ. The university around which our family life is centered is closed through next week, and then will begin online-only instruction for the foreseeable future. Never before have I been so glad to have my lovely big iMac in my home office… except that now people will see the rest of the office, and Jimmy Hoffa is probably buried under some of that crap. I was going to clean it this summer, I swear!
We’re also catching up on our Netflix – why did no one warn me that Season 3 of Daredevil was hot garbage? – and I think Amazon has just delivered our DVDs of Outbreak and The Stand. Has no one made a movie of Mira Grant’s Feed yet?
In all seriousness, much of the world is shut down. My son’s job at a local restaurant continues for now, though customers are few. My husband’s job as a university janitor also continues, and more vital than ever as they disinfect flat surfaces everywhere.
As for me, I’m going through a crash course in “how to teach online courses” that will honestly be a helpful work skill, though not one I’d ordinarily undertake while finishing the bloody thesis. I’m staying isolated as much as possible, given my compromised immune system, and we are well-stocked for the siege. We have food, coffee and bourbon, and yes, even toilet paper. We’ll be fine.
I hope all of you are safe and well and that you stay that way. For those who must venture out, be as careful as you can.
How can you tell that we are in a fever pitch in ThesisLand? We’re almost a week late with February’s linkspam.
Also: It’s March, which is my birthday month, and thus every March I give a free bonus to my lovely Patrons. The kind folks who subscribe to me at Patreon make it possible for us to cover some of our bills while I’m wending my way through grad school, and that means everything.
The River Bluff Review release event took place March 3 at the Cougar Bookstore on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. This year’s edition includes two original short stories from me: “Sergeant Curious” and “Dear Katrina.” Here’s the post about it.
March and April are going to be thin months, folks, thanks to Ye Olde Thesis and a bunch of late-semester gotta-graduate stuff. Jim and I both graduate in May, and we are going on VACATION right after. But there’s some fun stuff on the horizon, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you as soon as the T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted. Thank you for your patience.
One of the major issues being discussed in my little corner of the world is a horrific sewer problem in Centreville, Illinois: a low-income town largely populated by black residents. It is literally the poorest town in the United States, and it has problems. Flooding isn’t just a wet basement for these folks; it’s open sewage pumping into a front yard, water literally spewing up from manholes.
It’s being investigated by local newspapers – you know, those “dying” institutions that the Facebook commentators love to mock and refuse to pay. Insert rant here.
Reporter Michele Munz with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has taken an interesting approach: she wrote a first-person narrative of her efforts to get information from the Centreville leaders.
A month of phone calls and emails.
Ducked by council members.
A mayor who would only take questions in writing and then never answered them.
Contradictory information given out at town halls.
Munz’s column, “Crickets and unanswered questions from metro-east government,” is an unusual choice in that it is a first-person account of shoe-leather journalism. It is, of course, a common – almost mundane – tale for those of us who have worked in local journalism. Nobody wants to answer the questions when the answers aren’t pretty, so they hide.
But it’s not so uncommon anymore. Munz writes “On the Beat” regularly, detailing what goes into her reporting. More and more local journalism is pulling back the curtain, following up major stories with detailed “how we investigated this” and “why we did that” pieces.
It’s part of the push for transparency in reporting, intended to create a greater trust in news media among the readers. Of course, if you just read the Facebook commentators, it doesn’t matter how many lengthy hours we put in trying to find people and get your public officials to explain why they let sewage flow into people’s homes. They just complain about the paywall.
This new trend goes beyond the traditional role of the ombudsman, to examine and sometimes criticize the newspaper’s decisions, independent of editorial control. This is news literacy, explaining what we do in the hopes that they will understand how very hard it is. This gets even harder as newspaper after newspaper cuts staff and retasks their few remaining employees to run after car crashes and murders because that’s what you click and they’re desperate to pay the bills.
And no one else is doing it, folks. Unless someone has accused the mayor of burning down City Hall, I don’t see television cameras in city council meetings. Nobody is watching your local school board or library trustees… or sewer district. Nobody except newspaper reporters, the ones you’re not paying when you growl at the paywall.
Munz is keeping after the Centreville officials. Who’s keeping after the officials in your town?
I’m delighted to announce that River Bluff Review will premiere on Tuesday, March 3 with a celebration and reading at the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
This year’s edition of River Bluff Review will include two of my short stories: “Dear Katrina” and “Sergeant Curious.” The event is open to the public, and will include authors reading excerpts from the book.
I will be late in the program, because I am teaching at that time, but I will skedaddle across the quad as soon as my class is done. How does an author skedaddle? Come to SIUE and find out!
The event begins at 4 p.m. in the Cougar Bookstore, located in Morris University Center. Please join us!
I’m delighted that an original story will be coming out in March in Coppice and Brake, a new anthology from Crone Girls Press. “Shiny People” was inspired by an incident at a convention, actually, and I had so much fun writing it. Find out more about the anthology and my funky little story here.
I’ve also been crazy busy with some SPJ events. In February, SPJ will host a seminar in Google Tools at St. Louis Public Radio, which is going to be fascinating if you’re a journalist, data reporter, or giant nerd. (Or all three, which is pretty common.) We’re also moving forward with a trivia night in April, and there’s the annual First Amendment Free* Food Festival… and on the fiction side, the Eville Writers are rolling again after the winter break, while Literary Underworld is preparing for the first convention of the year in February and I’ve started planning for our fundraiser author fair in May. Whew!
Meanwhile, the semester has begun at Ye Olde University, where I am once again teaching newswriting and writing for the mass media. I am taking two courses that are delightfully fun, and womanfully attempting to finish The Thesis. I have other words for the thesis, but they’re probably not appropriate for a public post.
A friend said the other day, “I don’t know where you get the energy.”
“What energy?” I replied.
“To do all the things you do,” she said.
I laughed. “It’s an act!”
As of this writing, it is 14 weeks to graduation. Oh hey, there’s today’s Daily Panic Attack! Back to work.
I did photo shoots this month for a couple of private clients, which are not currently permitted for public display. As I write this, I’m in Springfield, Illinois and will be shooting at a couple of sites here while my husband is rabble-rousing with his union.
I’m also delighted that two of my short stories will appear shortly in the River Bluff Review. By next month’s Linkspam, I should be able to share with you the details on its publication and how YOU can snag a copy.