So…. starting this month, I will be the Illinois correspondent for the St. Louis Labor Tribune, as Carl Green is handing over the baton to me. I’m looking forward to the challenge of a labor-focused beat.
(And yes, this is my sixth job. The seventh doesn’t start until June!)
i expect I’ll be writing a great deal during the upcoming elections, and I hope that the Illinois union folks will drop me a note when there’s something going on. Never fear, I will continue my work for McClatchy/Highland News-Leader as well as my other clients! Watch for links in the monthly linkspam.
Monday was an anniversary of sorts. On that day, two years ago, I worked my last shift as a full-time newspaper reporter.
Those of you who’ve followed me for a while know what a big decision that was. I had worked for that particular newspaper for 18 years and in newspapers in general for 22 years, which was pretty much my entire adult life. I spent a long time thinking about the choice to go freelance and try to make a living with my words while I went through what I thought would be two years of grad school. Whee.
Last year I wrote that this decision was like jumping off the high dive with my family handcuffed to me, but without knowing if the pool was full of water. I spent the first few weeks of grad school sure I had made an awful mistake: I was too old, I didn’t fit in, I was a bad fit for academic style and the philosophical approach to the field. I didn’t exactly hit the ground running, but I adapted, and as of this writing I have finished all the coursework for the masters degree in media studies.
Several factors have delayed completion of Ye Olde Thesis, not the least of which has been COVID-brain – no, I haven’t had The Plague, but the situation we’ve all been in since March seems to have made my concentration very difficult. Wurdz r hard.
But I have never regretted my choice. It’s not an easy life, being a freelancer. I spend a lot of time hustling work and filing invoices. But I also choose what I write about, and I am my own boss. That has definitely been worth what I gave up in security and a regular paycheck.
And I’m still reporting. I do magazine articles on a fairly regular basis, and I also do some local reporting for a subsidiary of my former employer. I like to keep a foot in the game, since I hope to be teaching newswriting again in the future and I feel you really need to keep up with the profession in order to teach it, beyond reading in the trades about the general state of the news industry.
I truly love teaching. I didn’t know how I would take to it, but it surprised me by being the best part of the last two years. One of my few disappointments this year was that we could not figure out a way for me to keep teaching newswriting while I’m teaching English comp this fall, as I would happily teach both classes as long as they’d let me. All of us got hit with unexpected challenges – a baby-bird new teacher suddenly switching to all-online instruction in mid-semester required multiple adjustments of the syllabus and assignments, but fortunately my poor students were patient with me, and I’m looking forward to continuing my teaching in the English department this fall.
Oddly, my fiction work has flourished even during the grind of grad school, in ways it hasn’t in years. This year in particular, I’ve seen several stories picked up for speculative fiction anthologies and also a literary magazine, an avenue where I haven’t had much success in years past. I am hoping to see far more of that, as I begin my new MFA program next month.
Meanwhile, nothing dulls my passion and advocacy for news reporting, even as it becomes more and more tiresome to wade through the hate spewed toward us online (and sometimes more than hate, as evidenced by the treatment of journalists on the protest lines in so many places this year.)
So while I tend to think of the anniversary of my departure as Freedom Day, it should not be interpreted as freedom from my old job or the news or journalism. It was more an internal freedom, the freedom to remake my life and my work to better suit all the facets of who I am as a writer. It’s freedom from the expectations of others and the restrictions I placed on myself, not freedom from any particular employer.
Below is the speech I gave at my farewell party at the newspaper. I meant every word of it, and still do. (Yes, I wrote it down. If I don’t write down what I’m gonna say, I’ll talk forever and it’ll be full of “um,” as my students can attest.)
I remember the first time I walked in here as an employee. It was June 2000, and we won’t talk about how old some of you were on that day, Josh.
I was 25 years old and less than three years out of school. I filled out my papers and they sent me up to the bureau so I could introduce myself to the crew working up there: Doug Criss, Teri Maddox, Steve Nagy, Marilyn Vise, Jayne Matthews.
I thought I knew what I was doing. I didn’t know shit.
But I learned, because of the people I worked with here. I had editors, and colleagues, and mentors, and friends. We are a strange and often dysfunctional little family, but we are a family nonetheless.
And that doesn’t change when you walk out the door, as I’ve discovered from the number of people I’ve heard from in the last few weeks and even the last few days. They remember, and we are connected. We are a family, because we all came here for one purpose, one calling that rides above an ordinary profession.
We are here because we believe in journalism, and its importance to the community in ways that they will never understand or appreciate. No matter how awful or exhausting or difficult it gets, no matter how jaded we think we’ve become, we still show up and shovel coal into the furnace and do the work and inform people who will never appreciate it.
To me, that makes every one of you heroes.
I am proud to have worked with every one of you. I am proud of being part of the News-Democrat. I always have, and I always will be. I have been here so long that “News-Democrat” is part of my name – when I introduce myself to people out in the world, I have to stop myself from saying, “Elizabeth Donald News-Democrat.”
It’s going to be a hard habit to shake. But that’s okay, because it’s part of me, part of who I am.
I know there’s a lot of uncertainty right now – it’s weird, and there are difficult times ahead, more difficult for some than others. But I know that wherever our various paths go from here, each of us can and will stay the course with our true mission – and I don’t mean the checklist or a spreadsheet or a hit count goal. But the true mission of any newspaper: to serve and inform our community.
Each of you has been a shining example of that mission. And I don’t just mean the mentors who taught me so much of what I needed to know all these years. I mean you young ones who will carry the torch forward for us, and have taught me things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
Your dedication, your skill, your passion and commitment have restored my faith in our profession’s future. I will always be proud to have worked with each of you.
And you’re required to stay in touch. That’s why God invented the internet.
I’m not even going to pretend to summarize May. Anyone with half a working brain cell and an internet connection knows what’s going on, and I’ve been up to my eyeballs just keeping up the butcher’s bill of attacks on journalists while covering the historic protest marches taking place worldwide. If you want to know more, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has a compilation much more comprehensive than mine and the ACLU is filing suit. If anything they’re being conservative in their definition of “attacked,” as I’ve seen far more than 54 journalists beaten, maced or otherwise assaulted in the course of doing their jobs.
Meanwhile, for the effect coronavirus is having on the journalism industry, Poynter is keeping a running tally of layoffs, furloughs, salary cuts and news organization closures as a result of the pandemic and shutdown. Please feel free to use this list against any idiot insisting that the media are overamplifying the threat of the virus because it’s so bloody good for us.
Of course, the State of Journalism is not really what Linkspam is supposed to be about, because if I start on the ranting essays I want to write, I’ll do literally nothing else, and I am ass-deep in alligators these days with freelance work. Here’s what I have to share from May:
• An untitled short-story experiment for the Patreon group, which originated in my fiction workshop this spring. As always, the Patreon gets the behind-the-scenes stuff and the new stuff first, so you might want to consider subscribing. Hint hint.
The bloody pandemic has really damaged my plans for regular photo shoots this summer – I had multiple trips planned, and until the damn bug goes away, I won’t be able to do them.
• “Fireworks,” a photo essay for Patreon detailing my efforts to shoot fireworks into abstract sky-art. My town is going to attempt a socially-distanced fireworks display on July 3, and I will attempt to shoot it if I can do so safely.
CultureGeek is currently on hiatus due to the complete shutdown of the movie industry. If it resumes, it may be in the form of book reviews – or the reviews may find their way to this space. I haven’t made up my mind on that – I love CultureGeek and I’ve been writing it more than a decade, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. But I’m doing a lot more freelance work these days, I’m writing or managing five blogs, and the decidedly non-lucrative CG may have served its purpose. Or perhaps it has enough fans that it should keep rolling – either in its current space or in a dedicated website. I will decide that by the end of the summer, most likely.
I have recently joined the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), which appears to be the standard organization for writers in MFA programs like moi. Their conference looks to be a really nifty opportunity and it’s going to be in Kansas City next spring, which is an easy drive from sunny St. Louis. Best of all, I’m just a member, so I am not in charge of ANYTHING.
SPJ’s Excellence in Journalism is still scheduled for September, but damn near everything else I had scheduled between now and then is canceled, so it’s flip-a-coin whether I’ll be in D.C. this fall or not. I chose not to apply to Dragoncon this year before the COVID mess began – betting pools continue on whether DC will have its big party or not – but I hope to return sometime in the future when life is once again sane. Ish. The local chapter’s work is also on hold due to coronavirus, but I’m hopeful for our annual fundraiser and the monthly Freelancer Coffee Hour to resume soon. (Wear masks!)
Website work continues to be borked, as both the SPJ website and Jim’s website are completely fubar and I have to un-fubar them before I can attack the task of redesigning the rest of the websites. Did I mention I am not a programmer? I never get more than three steps into the recommended processes before I begin weeping and rending my clothing.
In the meantime, I’m working on magazine pieces and editing projects, still banging away at the Goddamn Thesis, and there’s a nifty new fiction project I’m not yet at liberty to discuss. When the contracts are signed, you’ll find out. It involves creepiness… and teeth. Muahahaha.
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?
Happy to report that this month saw my first piece with a new client, Current Magazine. I’ll be following up with the ongoing controversy between NPR Illinois and the University of Illinois, which appears to have repercussions for most of public radio, so stay tuned! (so to speak)
It is ironic that today is #thankyoupatrons day, when I have been so slack the last three weeks in providing content for my loyal patrons.
It has been a trying semester – but so have they all! It is a great privilege to be where I am, to study these complex and difficult subjects, to conduct research into issues relating to journalism and my advocacy on behalf of the profession. It is also a great privilege to be requested for so many conventions and signings and speaking engagements, and while I may get very tired in the annual Fall Deathmarch, I never forget that it is a privilege.
My freelance journalism has stepped up of late, with magazine gigs beginning to supplant the local news. The local work is important, steady work, but magazines pay much better, and gaining more steady work in magazines will help support my family. (Also, I am famous for writing too long in my nonfiction. Magazines like that.)
I find it somewhat ironic that, a year into my graduate studies, I have found reinvigoration of my fiction writing as well. Two of my stories have been accepted into anthologies in the last few months, and I just received word that two more stories have been accepted by a literary magazine.
And thanks to the Medium platform, I’m starting to gain success in creative nonfiction: the personal essay. It’s small money, but it’s money, and that’s lifeblood to the freelance writer. That is another aspect of my work that grad school has opened up to me, one that I truly enjoy.
My patrons support my Patreon through thin months like this one and months where I have new content every week bolster our budget, help pay our bills, and take some of the pressure off me to kill myself chasing low-paying gigs to fill in the budget.
My family is surviving – in fact, thriving, despite our insanity of putting three (3) adults through college at the same time. The Patreon is part of that, and I cannot thank them enough.
And I hope you might consider joining them. The photo essays, travelogues, short stories, personal essays and more comprise some of the best work I’ve done, and I would love to share it with you.
You know how every year I say, “Man, the fall tour is killing me. I’m not doing this to myself next year.” And then I do it anyway? Yeah, that’s what September and October have been like. I have not had a quiet weekend at home since Labor Day, and I won’t for several more weeks. I’m not complaining (much), because it’s an incredible privilege to be in high demand, for conventions and book fairs and other groups to seek me out and ask me to attend.
But holy Hera, am I tired.
In the meantime, I did some stuff. Here’s the collection of links from the last two months. Keep in mind that I post the best of my work on Contently, and I try to keep it at the top 100 pieces of the last five years, so if you want to read the collected works of one Elizabeth Donald, that’s a good place to go. In the meantime, here’s some of the work of the last two months:
Do keep in mind that Medium has a paywall after the first few reads, and Patreon requires a subscription. I would absolutely love it if you subscribed to my Patreon – starting at $1 a month – and I do my best to give my Patrons first crack at my work and plenty of freebies – like this month, when my Patrons got a free copy of the new anthology! (See more below.)
How to survive a horror movie: 2019 edition (Medium, essay)
Jumping off the high dive: Freelancing the first year(Medium, essay)
La Gloria and five hours at the airport (Patreon, essay)
It’s a little too cute – I can’t quite get behind giving myself a speech or a team-bonding activity with just me. But I can definitely get behind the happy hour.
In all seriousness, somehow the one-year anniversary of Donald Media kind of slipped my attention. July 27, 2018 was the day I departed the world of daily news, but this site launched more than a month beforehand: June 11, when I announced my impending departure and launched the Patreon, which was my first freelance endeavor.
It’s funny – a lot of the things they tell you to do when you go freelance were impossible for me. I could not begin freelancing on the side to build up a client base while I was still at the newspaper, because it would have been a violation of my terms of employment to write for competitor papers while I was on staff. Other than my fiction work , I had to wait until I was actually gone before I could query potential clients.
It’s kind of like jumping off the high dive and waiting until you’re in midair before you see if there’s water in the pool.
I didn’t go splat. I didn’t immediately start making six figures, either. I started in what I knew – local news – and that continues to be a major income stream for me. I branched out into magazines and find that they really suit me well. I used to joke at the newspaper that I was built for magazines, because I was famous for writing too long. It turns out that wasn’t a joke.
I did stumble quite a bit that first six months, because I realized why the experienced freelancers shook their heads sadly when I shared my exciting plans to freelance full-time while going to grad school. That first semester nearly killed me and I was only taking two classes and teaching one. This semester is actually easier with three classes as student and one as teacher, because two of them are independent studies. And by “easier” I mean that I’m not staring at myself in the mirror and chanting “you have not made the biggest mistake of your life” and “yes, you are smart enough for this.” They shook their heads because they knew that “full time” for a freelancer is a hell of a lot more than 40 hours a week punching a clock at a desk.
It did get disheartening sometimes, especially in those early months when I only had one or two clients and my Contently portfolio was thin. There’s also the matter of my family: I have a husband and son who are also in college, and sometimes we are up to our eyeballs all at the same time. I have an obligation to my family for my time, support, food and finance, and that requires diligent effort.
Then my work took another side turn when I took a class in creative nonfiction. It was just supposed to be an elective to supplement media studies, but it turns out I absolutely love it. I was always writing creative nonfiction in the form of personal essays and the occasional rant, but I didn’t know there was a form to it or that I’d be really good at it. Or that people would pay me for it.
In many ways, the practice I got in that class has reformed my image of what Donald Media can be – and really, Donald Media is the term for all my freelance work under one umbrella:
Local news reporting (including the student newspaper)
Volunteer work with SPJ and public speaking advocacy for the profession.
Editing and writing coaching in fiction and nonfiction.
All of that is partnered with my fiction work (albeit only short stories until I finish the bloody masters), my teaching, and of course school. I need to pass this semester and two more classes next semester, finish and defend Ye Olde Thesis, and I’m done. I will have the masters, which makes me eligible to teach.
It looks like a lot. It IS a lot. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and with that I include the 65-hour weeks constantly on call at my first full-time reporting job with a baby at home.
And yet. It’s stressful and difficult and the money is what it is and sometimes I have to chase it. But I have the great privilege of doing the work I love and being my own master, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
So, happy year one to the troops, congrats on all we’ve done, and here’s to that happy hour.
First, I’m delighted to report that one of my images will be on permanent display in the Ellisville (Mo.) City Hall. It’s “Pigeon of New York,” found here (second photo from the top). It was in their temporary Behind the Lens photography show, and apparently they really liked it!
The annual ebook for my lovely Patrons was finally completed and emailed to all current Patreon subscribers, and I thank you for your patience. Anyone who subscribes to the Patreon this month is also going to get the ebook as a welcome gift. I remain exceedingly grateful for the Patrons, whose generosity allows me to rely on steady income through the sleighride of these two years in school.
The fall semester kicked off in August, and heaven knows that’s going to swallow my life! One of my classes is on anti-media rhetoric, so that should be an interesting theme to my blogging this fall. I’m doing an independent study on the philosophical aspects of media ethics, and of course, I begin work on Ye Olde Thesis. Thoughts and prayers.
And now, to this month’s work! Or at least that which was published this month…
I’m off to San Antonio later this week for the annual Excellence in Journalism conference, where I am honored to represent St. Louis Pro to the important business of the Society of Professional Journalists. I will be meeting with my colleagues on the national ethics committee, and skulking about the panels on issues ranging from freelance survival to the ethics of covering suicide. I hope to get free long enough to get some nifty photos and possibly develop a travelogue on San Antonio, which is a new city for me.
I’ll be live-tweeting the conference at @edonaldmedia, so if you do the Twitter, feel free to follow me there if you really want to hear all about the things we journalists do when we’re away from adult supervision. It’s going to be 101 in the shade while I’m there, so whatever’s left of me will be reporting back next week!
It’s been a crazy busy month, though one of the weirdnesses of freelance magazine writing in particular is that you’ll do a pile of work in July, but it doesn’t appear until September or November. Still, by my standards, July was a bear of a month.
This month I celebrated my one-year anniversary of full-time freelancing, and we haven’t been evicted yet! I go into greater detail in “One Year Later” as listed below, but suffice to say it’s been an interesting, rewarding and ultimately positive experience, and I have a lot more to learn.
Also, this month I launched on Medium, which allows me to share essays and get paid by the click. I’m still figuring out exactly how it works, but a lot of good writers seem to be making money there, and what I’ve read so far is good quality. Please feel free to check out my page, and if you are so moved to click and “clap” for my work, it is deeply appreciated.
As it discloses, I am personally affiliated with The Alestle at SIUE, having served on its board for years and worked with the students this summer in an editing and advisory capacity; and my SPJ vice president is the Alestle program director. However, I believe this gives our opinions greater weight, not lesser: we know for a fact that this “student journalist” does not exist, and our responsibility to call out unethical behavior per the SPJ Code of Ethics is not lessened by our connections to the student newspaper.
Finally… I didn’t write this one. But the local newsmagazine, Edge of the Weekend, featured my family in an in-depth profile for their back-to-school edition. The weirdness of three family members all going to college together finally made print. The photos used are mine, because my menfolk are my favorite photographic subject. Many thanks to Jill Moon, magazine editor for Hearst Illinois, for thinking of us.
We’ve gotten a lot of attention on this story, and it’s been really sweet to see how many people are cheering us on and supporting us as we enter our second year of family-wide higher education and abject poverty. Six jobs, three tuition bills, two impending graduations and one car. It’s been… interesting.
And in three weeks…. here comes the fall semester!