It’s not much of a finish line, but today marks the end of the fall semester. At some point today or tomorrow I will file my students’ grades and turn in one last assignment, and I am DONE for the semester.
I’m not done with the masters thesis still hanging over my head from media studies, and I’m sure as hell not done with the MFA – it’s gonna be a long three years, folks. But I will have four weeks to… um, I’m trying to remember the word… relax? I’ve read about it in books. I thought I might also try sleeping. I hear it’s nice.
The family has postponed our ha-ha graduation trip again to May, so we won’t be traveling during the holiday break. For those playing the home game, that’s the fourth rescheduling of our vacation to celebrate Jim’s and my joint graduation. (Of course, I didn’t graduate, but that wasn’t going to stop me from slapping on the mouse ears, folks.)
In the meantime, I’ve revised and updated my holiday column on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” musing on the ups and downs small-town life, the Capra Corn moment, the essential nature of humans and other lightweight subjects.
I should add that my Medium channel has a new URL: elizabethdonald42.medium.com. ElizabethDonald was taken, so I opted to add “life, the universe and everything” to my name. Please feel free to bookmark and visit as often as you like! I get paid by how much time people spend reading my essays, which means I probably ought to write more of them.
At any rate, I hope this weird, wild holiday season is treating you well. Tip your curbside servers, leave the light on for your postal worker, wear your mask and remember to treat others with kindness. The worst that can happen is that we make the world a little better than it was yesterday.
As I write this, I am beginning my last week of summer “vacation.” That last word has to be in quotation marks, because this summer has hardly felt like a break! Between my freelance work and ducking this bloody virus and managing the circus that is my family, I’ve hardly felt like I was on a break.
However, next week begins an intensive two-week training course in English composition pedagogy, which is academic-speak for “teaching English comp.” This being grad school, the readings actually start this week, and then for most of August I will be training heavily and preparing to start teaching in the last week of the month.
While I’m not (entirely) new to teaching, I am very new to English composition. Little-known Elizabeth fact: I never took English 101 or 102, nor a creative writing class until last year. Back in the ancient days (a.k.a. the 1990s), you could take a test called the CLEP (make your own jokes) and a high enough score let you skip straight to the literature classes. So I CLEPped out of English comp, and thus I have never taken or observed these classes. Whee!
Still, this is an exciting new challenge, compounded by the fact that all my teaching (and learning) this semester will be online, as well as my requiring tutoring for students who are struggling with writing skills. I am very grateful for the privilege to continue working entirely from home, as we all continue to ride out the pandemic and try to keep ourselves and our families safe.
In the meantime, journalism! This month was all about the news, as the folks in Highland kept me hopping. I also had a few essays, although I didn’t put any of them on Medium. I’m still trying to sort out what kind of material is going to be of interest on that site, and what people would like to hear from me.
Of course, the first priority is always to the Patreon, as those good folks fork over perfectly good money every month to read my blatherings. They got a couple of essays this month, as well as a photo travelogue from San Antonio. That’s the second of what will probably be four travelogues on San Antonio, and will eventually be repackaged into a travel piece. You know, in my spare time.
You can always catch my latest work at ElizabethDonaldPhotography.com, and the shop is linked to all images that are available for sale. If you would like a piece customized as a poster or other item, just ask!
We have been informed that Archon has been canceled for 2020, which was disappointing but not a surprise given the mass cancellation of just about every convention, book fair and signing this year. There are a few possibilities left for the holiday season, but odds are strong that every convention and signing will be canceled this year. I hope to see your faces again someday…
Finally, work continues on the novella of doom, which should come out later this fall. I’m delighting in the creep factor of my haunted San Antonio (hey, if I like a city, I’m gonna infest it with monsters) and looking forward to seeing it in “print.” More about that next month, I hope! Many thanks to my awesome editor Rachel Brune, who has displayed uncommon patience with me…
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?
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.
Today begins the fall semester, and I am not ready.
I don’t have the sheer terror of my first semester, with attendant imposter syndrome: how in heaven’s name do I teach what I was doing for 21 years? It’s like trying to help my kid with his math homework: I can do it, but I can’t show him how to do it.
Well, I’m learning. My first two semesters were a crazed melee of trial and error – I learned a lot about what doesn’t work (hour-long lectures) and what does (PowerPoint). Some things the students liked (video examples) and some things they hated (pop quizzes on current events, and I’m not changing that). Some things really didn’t work all that well, and I changed them, and they worked better.
A friend of mine who is a high school teacher said she had fifteen years’ of “things that didn’t work” in her filing cabinets. I’m starting my own file.
As you know if you follow me on social media, Jim received the Degree Completion Award, which means he doesn’t have to work his night shifts at the university for the fall semester and only half-time the spring semester. He gets to focus on being a student, and that’s pretty nifty. Ian is back at SIUE after a brief stint in community college to save some cash, and very excited to be rejoining us on campus.
As for me, this semester means an independent study on the philosophical and moral aspects of journalism ethics. I am very well-versed in the practical applications; through my work with the SPJ Ethics Committee, I have been the soapbox evangelist of establishing ethics codes and applying them in daily news. The philosophy will be an interesting exploration, so buckle in, because I think we’ll be getting deep in the weeds.
I’m also taking a class in the English department about anti-media rhetoric and the “deconstruction of common sense.” No, I don’t know what that means either, but given that much of my research has focused on the anti-media sentiment growing (and in some cases intentionally fanned) on social media, I’m looking forward to the analysis.
And finally, this semester begins Ye Olde Thesis, which I may begin referring to as “The Beast.” It is daunting – terrifying? – to look at how much work must take place in the 36 weeks between now and graduation, but it will be interesting work, and maybe even a little fun.
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!
It’s been a year, and coincidentally I was back in the newsroom for a few minutes.
One year ago today was my last day at the newspaper, capping 18 years in one newsroom and 21 years in daily news. It was chaos, of course: the paper in the middle of another round of layoffs, and the president was in town, which meant a number of our people were out of the office being jeered by the public so they could cover his speech.
It was bittersweet and strange, a bit like that dream when you’re falling slowly down a flight of stairs and you wake up before you land.
It was nostalgic, with a lot of memories from nearly half my life bound up in the place and in the people, enough that I needed to encapsulate those memories in a photo essay and, eventually, in writing.
There’s a better analogy than the falling dream. It’s like jumping off the high dive without being able to tell if the pool below you is full of water, and you’ve got your family handcuffed to you. It might be easier to make that jump when you’re only responsible for yourself and maybe a cat, but when you have other humans depending on you, it’s frankly terrifying.
Could I manage to earn a masters degree in two years while freelancing? Could I gain enough skills and academic credentials to land a full-time teaching position and continue to be of service to my profession? Could I juggle all of these responsibilities while not starving to death or starving my family?
I spent the first few weeks of grad school convinced I had made the second-worst mistake of my life. I didn’t fit in, I was too old, my writing style was entirely contrary to academic expectations, the theoretical and philosophical aspects of research and analysis were… daunting. We’ll go with that.
But somehow I passed, re-learned academic style (still a work in progress), and began research projects that reflect my passions and aspirations.
I am officially halfway through my masters degree in media studies, and no one has yet chased me off the campus shouting, “Heretic!”
And I love teaching.
I’m not good at it yet. I’m capable, and I’m learning. My students seem to appreciate me, though I don’t think they appreciate the unannounced news quizzes that pepper the semester’s fun. (Too bad, kids. That’s what you get for drawing me as a professor.) More importantly, their writing seems to improve from the beginning of the semester to the end.
It’s quite clear to me how much I have to learn in this new profession, but I really love it. I don’t know if I’ve yet converted any students to leap into news reporting as a profession, but they seem to gain a greater appreciation for journalism, at any rate. If I can train them to evaluate good, balanced, smart reporting, to follow the news from multiple outlets and figure out the real from the fake, if I can open their eyes just a bit to the importance of journalism, then I’ve succeeded in my mission, whether or not I get them to become reporters.
The freelancing has been a slower launch, partly because I had no idea what I was doing. If there is a craft to cold-pitching stories to editors, I have yet to master it. But thanks to a number of contacts in the industry, I’ve started to develop some regular recurring gigs, working with local news organizations and some magazines, as well as my fiction editing work.
The photography has mostly been going to the Patreon, which has been an utter delight. It launched shortly before I left Ye Olde Newspaper, and I’ve experimented with a lot of different content. I’ve tried fiction excerpts, nonfiction essays/rants, photo essays, travelogues, even a recipe or two. The Patreon has become an absolutely essential part of my family’s income, but I have also found it wonderfully stimulating in a creative sense. I’m always thinking of new ideas to share with the Patrons, of places I can go and photos to shoot that might interest them.
All through the spring semester, I ran the Door Project: I covered my office door at the campus with Magnetic Poetry words, and photographed the fascinating (and occasionally silly) poems left by anonymous passers-by. All of it was chronicled on the Patreon, with a summary on Donald Media.
The last few weeks have been consumed with compiling a promised ebook for the Patrons, for those who joined the Patreon during my birthday week and my original audience members. We’re minutes away, she said as she took a hammer to the algorithm that keeps deleting her footnotes. Another thing I’d never done before: Self-publishing. I’m not sure if it counts, since it won’t be available to the wider public. But it’s definitely on my horizon.
Today was the anniversary, and it was actually a quiet day. The Boy was off to a ballgame with his father, who is in town for the weekend. The Man had to work. So I decided on a whim to drive down to Eckert’s Farm in southern Illinois, because they had created a maze of giant sunflowers. It’s like a corn maze, but all sunflowers, and those things get crazy tall. I thought it would make for some fun pictures for the Patreon, and I was able to pick up some fresh peaches and other tasty items.
And on my way back, I stopped by Ye Olde Newspaper.
It wasn’t actually out of nostalgia. My former work twin* messaged me earlier in the week that a package had arrived for me. I was not sure who had missed the memo after a year that I was no longer employed there, but after she ascertained that the package wasn’t ticking, I promised I’d drop by the next time I was in town. It so happened that the newspaper is only a few minutes away from the farm.
Fortunately there were folks I knew on duty, and we chatted for a few minutes as I collected my package (a book for review). It was good to see the newsroom again, so familiar it might as well be an old apartment where I once lived. It helps that newsrooms never change; they switch out the posters or the computer screens once in a while, but fundamentally, they never change. I promised not to steal anything on my way out the door.
It felt like full circle. I left a year ago not knowing if there was anything else I could do in this world that would be worth anything to anyone, much less could feed my family. I left in a bittersweet tang that I once described as eerily similar to the emotions of my divorce: regret, sadness, firm resolve that it was the right choice while coated in fear that it might be a terrible mistake.
It’s a frightening thing to imagine that you can have a different life, but it’s also a freeing moment, what my good friend Frank Fradella might call the Possibility Sense. (You should totally check out Frank’s new book.)
There was no way I could have managed this far without my terrific fans who keep buying my work, clicking the links and supporting me, particularly my wonderful Patrons. Special thanks and a round of applause should go to my beloved menfolk. My husband Jim is carrying more than his fair share of keeping the roof on while I go through this crazy balancing act, and has never wavered in his support. My son Ian has been wonderfully supportive, as well as quite sanguine about going to college with BOTH parents. We’re a team, helping each other through one of the hardest times in our family life, and I couldn’t be more blessed with their love and support as I wade into the final rounds.
We’re still waiting to see if the landing is a splash or a thud. Ask me in another year.
* Her name is Elizabeth O’Donnell. When she was hired, I introduced myself as “Elizabeth Donald, and we are so going to be getting each other’s phone calls.” I was not wrong.