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Tag: real life

Helping books find a home for the cause

As most of you know, I’ve been a Relay for Life team captain for more than 15 years, raising money for the American Cancer Society. For several years, my team has organized a used-book sale at Leclaire Parkfest, a local festival celebrating the history and culture of this little village (which was swallowed up by Edwardsville sometime in the 1930s, I think?) 

It’s not a small undertaking. The books are set aside all year long by the volunteers at the St. Andrew’s Book Sale, which has about 20,000 volumes offered in a quarterly sale. For Parkfest, we have to load all the books into trucks and vans, haul them to the Park, set up at least a dozen tables and set out all the books. Then at the end of the festival, we pack up the remaining books to donate to other nonprofits.

This year books went to the Head Start program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, to SIUE Phi Kappa Phi to distribute to area Little Free Libraries, and to Metro East Literacy Project. The volunteers came from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Phi Kappa Phi and SIUE Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society foolish enough to elect me as president this year.

We had a fabulous time, and our volunteers were awesome. Want to know how awesome? Some of the books left over last year had been stored in a church member’s barn, and when we were unloading, we discovered that several of them had brought unexpected visitors. To be more specific, we opened a bin and a mouse jumped out onto a volunteer’s arm!

We have since dubbed Olivia “The Disney Princess of Sigma Tau Delta,” as clearly she can charm the wildlife.

The mice apartments, as we started calling them, were taken to a nearby wood and set free by the students. The damaged books had to be thrown away, of course, and I supposed I’m going to have to get used to sacrificing books when I take over running the St. Andrew’s sale next year. But my philosophy has always been, every book should find a good home – and we did that this year, with all but two boxes of books sold or given away to literacy causes that will make good use of them in our ongoing efforts to celebrate the written word.

The gross total for the sale was $946 for the American Cancer Society, which was actually higher than I anticipated while not quite meeting the amount last year. It will be reduced a little by expenses, but not many; now that we have Frodo the Bookmobile, we don’t have to rent U-Hauls anymore for hauling large quantities of books.

A million thanks go to our terrific volunteers, who didn’t just endure the mice and keep hauling books. They stayed, they came back to pack up, they hauled tables back to the church, and three of them even followed us all the way to O’Fallon, Ill. to deliver the last of the books to Metro East Literacy.

Here’s a few pics from Leclaire Parkfest, with my thanks to everyone involved. It’s a great start toward our fundraising for 2023, and I’m happy so many books found a home.

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Elizabeth, what are you going to do when you grow up?

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?

Crossposted from DonaldMedia.com.

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