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But what if you hate the characters — a la “Gone Girl”?

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, entertainment, film, journalism, life, movies, television on October 7, 2014 at 12:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Ben Affleck as Nick in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Have any of you seen the new film “Gone Girl”?

Or read that best-selling book by Gillian Flynn?

Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.

But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!

Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.

I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.

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So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.

I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!

Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.

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I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.

Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?

Should the media transmit gory/grisly images? (None here!)

In art, behavior, blogging, business, Crime, culture, design, film, journalism, Media, news, photography, politics, television, war, work on August 4, 2014 at 12:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.

Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.

I agree.

Something soothing and lovely instead!

Something soothing and lovely instead!

But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.

After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.

I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.

As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.

On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?

On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.

I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.

They “humanize” the victims, she said.

Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!

And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?

I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.

Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.

I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.

I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.

Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.

Reality was quite enough, thanks!

The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.

We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.

Her husband, writer Nathan Deuel, wrote a book about what it was like to watch her go off and report, leaving him and their infant daughter to do so.

She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:

I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.

By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.

We’ve sifted out the worst.

We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.

What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?

When and why?

What do you think?

 

 

Why “I hated it” doesn’t count as cultural criticism

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, design, film, photography on July 19, 2014 at 12:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Early this week, a Broadside reader — thank you!! — generously gave me a ticket to see Elena’s Aria, a work from 1984 by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at the Lincoln Center Festival, an annual event.

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The auditorium was packed and I saw many dancers sitting around me, some leaning forward in their seats. The piece was an hour and 45 minutes in length, with no intermission and if you left, you would not be re-admitted.

Commit or else!

I didn’t hate it, but it was a challenging piece in a number of ways:

— It was really long

— It was very repetitive

— Much of it was performed in silence

— Much of it seemed to focus more on movement than pure dance

– It included black and white vintage film footage of buildings being dynamited to shards

I was very curious to read the New York Times’ review:

Made in 1984, it was her first dance to use spoken text and film. The program note describes it as a result of self-questioning, a search for a way forward. And on Sunday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, when it was performed in New York for the first time since 1987, that’s what it looked like: the work of a young artist who has hit an aesthetic wall and hasn’t yet discovered how to get past it…the overall impression of the work is less of emotional implosion than of expanding boredom. At the end, the women, seated in chairs, cross their legs and run their hands through their hair as part of a Mozart piano sonata plays…As drama, the dance cuts off empathy, but as these women fidget, you know exactly how they feel.

I’m glad I saw it, even if I didn’t love it. I was around the same as the choreographer in 1984 and, like her, had had some terrific early professional success. I remembered what that felt like.

I remember 1984.

I’ve only walked out of one play, as its themes were simply too painful for me personally. And I walked out of the terrifying film The Exorcist as I couldn’t take it.

Generally, I stick around. (Not a boring or poorly-done book. That takes up too much time!)

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One reason is that I know what it takes to create a work of art or literature or dance or theater — usually years of training and rehearsal and guts and time and money and ideas and financial backing. Even if the result is atrocious, and it can be, it’s also the result, in many cases, of tremendous effort.

I don’t need to love everything I read, hear, see or listen to as long as there are some useful or intriguing ideas within it. Nor does it have to be quick or short.

It just has to make me think.

How about you?

How do you respond to art or cultural works that make you uneasy, uncomfortable or bored?

It may be creative, but, hell yes, it’s still work!

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, design, film, journalism, Money, music, photography, US, work on May 13, 2014 at 12:58 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Time to let go, at last

Did any of you catch this recent interesting piece in The New York Times?

The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.

On the other hand, money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment. Box office grosses have long since become part of the everyday language of cinephilia, as moviegoers absorb the conventional wisdom, once confined mainly to accountants and trade papers, about which movies are breaking out, breaking even or falling short. Multimillion-dollar sales of paintings by hot new or revered old artists are front-page news. To be a mainstream rapper is to have sold a lot of recordings on which you boast about how much money you have made selling your recordings…

This is something I think about a lot.

My father, still alive at 85, was a respected maker of films and network television, as was my stepmother. My mother worked as a journalist.

It never occurred to me that “artist” and “starving” belonged in the same sentence. Nor should they!

This notion that being creative means penury or 1%-land is absurd. We don’t expect or require this of others — the middling executive, the stalled lawyer, the so-so administrator. The world is filled with people doing their best and never hitting the heights, nor surviving on ramen in a group squat.

More, from the Times’ piece:

Inexpensive goods carry hidden costs, and those costs are frequently borne by exploited, underpaid workers. This is true of our clothes and our food, and it is no less true of those products we turn to for meaning, pleasure and diversion. We will no doubt continue to indulge all kinds of romantic conceits about artists: myths about the singularity of genius or the equal distribution of talent; clichés about flaky, privileged weirdos; inspiring tales of dreamers who persevered. But we also need to remember, with all the political consequences that this understanding entails, that they are just doing their jobs.

I’ve been writing for a living — sometimes for a nice wage, sometimes for a much-less-amusing one — since I left university. But I’ve never cracked that sexy glass ceiling of the six-figure income.

malled cover LOW

Talent and hard work, prizes and fellowships — got ‘em. There are few direct correlations between the standard metrics and creative success, let alone buckets ‘o cash. Your ability to schmooze, to accept and perform work you find creatively grotesque, to suck up abusive client behaviors — these, too, factor considerably into who will (quickest) ascend the greasy pole of fame and fortune.

The creative life is one that many mythologize or fantasize about: waking up at noon to daub a canvas or noodle about with your screenplay. How lovely, how freeing to flee the grim confines of cube-world and the predations of The Man.

Snort!

Every time I put on a pair of shoes, or eat a meal, I touch the direct reflection of talent and hard work — it produced the income that keeps me housed, fed, clothed and will fund my retirement.

Making art — of any kind — in no way excuses the artist from the costly necessities of life, no matter how cool or offbeat our lives and work may appear to others choosing a different vocational path.

One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit, by American choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has made her career by — as she eloquently puts it — walking into an empty studio and making a dance.

In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.”
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Creative work absolutely is work, even if/when it doesn’t earn enough to buy you a house or a shiny new car — or any car, ever — or the plaudits of The Right People.

And holding fast to principle — creating something you imagine to be of lasting cultural worth, not merely sating contemporary appetites or shoveling cash at your expenses — remains a difficult challenge for many artists faced with the same costs of heat, fuel, clothing, food and housing as the rest of the workforce.

Jose and I recently saw this terrific 1987 play, The Substance of Fire, about a New York City family-run publishing house and its internal battle over this issue.

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Here’s a post I wrote about this in 2011, which was chosen for Freshly Pressed.

I ask whether we should focus on being productive (look what I made!) or creative (which might be publicly inaudible and invisible for months or years, producing no income):

I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.

We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

Do you work full-time in a creative field?

How’s it going?

How do you measure your success?

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On (really) seeing

In art, beauty, behavior, film, life, nature, photography on May 9, 2014 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

magnolia

Some of you are photographers and film-makers, professional observers.

Some of you are writers and visual artists.

We look for a living — noticing and making or recording the beauty of what we find.

shadow

I enjoyed this recent post by frequent commenter Cynthia Guenther Richardson about the value of really seeing where you are:

I have become more of a human being since taking photographs daily. More satisfied, centered in the moment, less opinionated of what and whom I experience. Photography offers an intense personal experience while also requiring objectivity, a distancing. It asks me to abandon restrictive thinking and give myself over to a finer sense of things, the gravitational pull of life around me. Order can be created even if there seems to be little–or exposed and highlighted. And it takes discipline, which is something I enjoy…

Walking into the world with camera in hand unlocks secrets to which I would not otherwise be so privy. I closely observe the way shadow changes rhododendron blossoms. I watch how a couple leans toward one another in the spring light, then the man turns sharply away. I see a child poke a muddy puddle and talk to himself about frogs and other beings unnamed. Over there is a house with an extravagance of foliage and two empty chairs. Who steps out in the dusk to sit there with the quieting birds? Photography uses a different part of the brain than language; it enlarges my reservoir of skills and ideas, stimulates possibilities.

And these images, from SearchingtoSee, are lovely. Emily Hughes is a British primary school teacher who’s also passionate about photography. Here is some of her “about” page:’

It is easy to become consumed by a kind of fervour for capturing images, and I wonder if for him [her father] it was as much about escaping from the chaos of everyday family life as it was about recording it. I know for me it certainly is. I carry a camera with me often, and when I am off taking pictures I feel so liberated and so focussed at the same time,  that I often find it hard to be ‘present’ in my other roles: mum, sister, daughter, wife, friend… but there are times when I feel like I need to record, and there are times also when I realise that I need to put down the camera and just be, enjoy, experience, think. But I understand and share the collective need we have as humans to use photography as a tool of memory, to seize and hold forever those moments of magic because they are so fleeting and because if we didn’t then we might forget that they existed at all.

But so many of us now live — if you can call it that! — in a rushed, tech-tethered world.

As I walk through Manhattan or Grand Central Station, I often have to side-step people , yelling “Don’t bump into me!”, people  striding head-down while reading or texting.

It’s rude and aggressive — and sad.

photo: Jose R. Lopez

photo: Jose R. Lopez

They’re missing a lot.

I’ve lived in the same apartment for 25 years, which is odd and unsettling for me, someone who lives for adventure and new experiences. But it also means I’ve grown to know and love the rhythms of my town, and the trees and woods and water nearby.

I know when the magnolia is about to bloom and mourn the day the red Japanese maple sheds its final bright mementos for the season. I look for the fragrant shoots of wild onion and the changing position of the sun as it hits our balcony, proof that the earth really does move through the seasons.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

The other day I went for my reservoir walk, not as usual, at the end of the day at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., but at 10:00 a.m; the same old familiar place felt very different, as brilliant sunlight backlit the tiny, brilliant green buds of the trees. The woods became a pointilist painting!

My father, still healthy and curious at 85, was a documentary film-maker and a visual artist working in a variety of media: silver, etching, engraving, oils, lithography. I began drawing and painting and taking photographs as a child.

(It’s interesting that Cynthia, Emily and I were all inspired by our fathers.)

My husband Jose is an award-winning New York Times photo editor and former photographer, (now also shooting weddings), so I’ve spent my life around people who see, notice, observe — and act on their art-making impulses.

Jose recently did a 30-day series of daily blog posts with images from his 30 years at the Times, many of them from his days in the White House Press Corps; check it out here.

You might also enjoy The New York Times Lens blog, which interviews photographers and offers interesting backstories to the images you see in their pages and on-line.

(All photos here are mine.)

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Are you making time to really see your world?

 

Stepping — or being dragged — beyond your comfort zone

In art, behavior, blogging, books, culture, film, journalism on April 9, 2014 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:

(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.

Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…

So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…

Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.

Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.

The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.

It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.

We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.

Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.

There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.

I walked up a short, steep hill to attend school and sat at a desk with two tall narrow windows facing south. One contained Popocatapetl, an extinct volcano and the other Iztaccihuatl, another. One of my school pals had a brother named Willie, who was suffering from intestinal worms. That, too, was new to me.

I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.

But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.

I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.

I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.

What a gift!

I wish I’d been there when Nijinksy first danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, when Paris’ bourgeoisie were well and truly epatee. From The Telegraph:

the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or the music? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?

There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.

It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.

The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.

Here’s a blog post from Rewireme.com, a website I’ll be writing an essay for soon about my experiences in Nicaragua, about making a major life change.

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.

Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.

When did you last leave your comfort zone?

What happened — and what happened after that?

 

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

In art, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Money, work on March 8, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.

12 tips for creative success

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, photography, work on February 28, 2014 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this, from Slate:

Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.

And this, from writer Myke Cole:

My sub­con­scious con­jured an image of a fab­u­lous party, filled with other writers and pub­lishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down com­pletely, where there was only shared vocab­u­lary and a fluid ease that would make the jit­ters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejec­tion and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”

All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a back­stage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before…

There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or pub­lishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the acco­lades for a few min­utes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.

And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.

My husband Jose recently passed a major professional milestone: 30 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times. On 9/11, the day he was to have moved into my apartment in suburban New York from his home in Brooklyn, he instead unpacked his scanner, printer and computer — and helped his colleagues transmit their horrific images from his apartment. His grace under fire helped the paper win that year’s team Pulitzer Prize for photo editing.

photo: Caitlin Kelly

photo: Caitlin Kelly

He grew up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher in Santa Fe, NM, far from the centers of media power and influence. He attended state school on scholarship. He’s slight, quiet, modest. Everyone else in his family became teachers.

One day, shooting for the Associated Press, the White House press corps — accompanying then First Lady Rosalynn Carter, landed in El Paso.

“Someday that’s going to be me,” said Jose, as he saw its four or five wire service photographers emerge from the plane.

Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.

And then he was, during his eight-year career in the White House Press Corps, photographing Presidents Bush, Reagan and Clinton.

Here’s his brand-new blog, Frame36a, (which refers to the extra frame we used to be able to squeeze from a 36-image roll of film), which will offer advice, insights and fantastic back-stories to some of his best photos.

We all won’t have a career like his.

But anyone with creative ambition — musical, artistic, photographic, literary, choreographic — will face obstacles, whether you’re 17, 27 or 57: lack of funds, no representation, a lost prize or fellowship or scholarship.

After a decade or so, they’ll probably morph into different challenges, but it’s rarely easy.

If you think it should be, this isn’t the world for you.

Start small

You don’t have to start out by winning a major prize or selling your work for a lot of money. You just have to get started. I began my career as a photographer, and one of my first sales was to my own high school, an image they bought for the school library. Was I scared to pitch our principal? Hell, yes! But it worked. I also had a show of my images in a Toronto library, again, because I dared to ask. The smaller the ask, the less scary it should be. Those initial triumphs are essential baby steps to your self-confidence as a creative person able to find, and sell into, the marketplace of ideas.

My high school award. Anything to boost your confidence helps!

My high school award. Anything to boost your confidence helps!

Start young/early

Don’t wait for permission to create! You don’t need a certificate or degree from anyone, anywhere, to create interesting, challenging and worthwhile work. Don’t be terrified if your competitor graduated from RISD or has a Phd from Harvard or was a star at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you have the passion and drive to find the toughest teachers out there — and they might be someone you meet at a conference or class — you’ll be on your way. I sold my first photos, three magazine covers, when I was still in high school. Jose was selling his photos while a freshman in college to the Associated Press; by the time we both graduated, we had large and impressive portfolios of nationally-published work. We were far, far ahead of our 22-year-old peers competing for work and jobs.

She didn't win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

She didn’t win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

Don’t give up if you fail the first (second, third) time

I’m amazed how quickly some people give up. I interviewed three times at Newsweek and was never hired there. No harm, no foul. I’ve had an awesome life and career without them. I’ve applied two (three?) times for the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and was one of 14 finalists (of 347 applicants) last time. I’ll probably apply a few more times until I get it. In the meantime, I just keep improving my skills and strategies.

If you’re really aiming high, you’re always competing against highly-educated, smart, talented and well-prepared competitors. Expect it and arm yourself accordingly. If you want it badly enough — whatever it is — you’ll keep coming back to get it. Or you’ll find something more interesting instead.

Both of my non-fiction books, both of which were published by major New York houses to excellent reviews, were each rejected by 25 publishers first. Fun!

It’s too easy to watch others win awards and prizes and fellowships and hate them. Bandage your ego and get back in the game.

Find people whose work inspire you

This is essential. People who have succeeded in your field have likely hit (and surmounted) many of the same obstacles along the way that you’re facing. Read, listen to and watch them: at conferences, in TED talks, their websites or blogs or books. Follow them on social media like Instagram and Twitter.

If you’re feeling bold, reply to them or re-tweet their words. A relationship with someone who’s already carved their path is helpful. Don’t expect them to mentor you, though. Successful creatives are really busy!

Understand your industry or field: who has power and why?

The best way to get ahead creatively is not to shut yourself away in your studio or a hut in the woods, no matter how romantic that sounds. If you don’t keep up with the movements, controversies and players in your field, you’re too isolated and have no real idea how to access the powers-that-be, the ones whose choices are going to affect your ability to succeed as well.

Make sure to attend at least one conference a year in your industry so you can hear the latest and network with your peers. Showing up in person helps to prove your commitment; people see that and respond accordingly.

Self-doubt and self-confidence will perpetually war within you

It’s the ultimate paradox: to create means taking a risk, putting your skills and ideas into public view for possible rejection or criticism, but it also requires and demands enough confidence in your work to put it out there in the first place.

No creative person I know, or know of, hasn’t suffered — sometimes mightily — from this internal war.

Writers, even the most visibly accomplished, the ones we envy and admire, (who now have a reputation they might squander), lose their nerve or voice. Performers vomit and tremble before setting foot on stage. Artists burn work they’ve spent months or years to produce.

We’re human. It happens.

Make peace with your fears. Name and number them — “Oh, yeah, self-doubt 34a, how the hell are you these days?”

Then keep moving.

You will have to hustle, self-promote and shout louder than you might ever prefer

If you are a modest, gentle soul — like my lovely Jose — you may find the creative path more difficult, surrounded by arrogant, shouty chest-beaters. If you truly crave Big Success, however you choose define it, you may have to toot your own horn loud and long, no matter how declasse your family or friends or native culture consider that.

Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community

I think this is overlooked as a key to long-term success.

You don’t have time? Make it. People most respect, value and reach out to help those they respect personally — not just someone whose work they read about or saw in a show or in concert. I was only 19, still in college, when I volunteered to interview lions of Canada’s journalism industry for a book. How else could I ever have met or spoken to them, let alone learned their wisdom? Then they also knew who I was. Win-win.

I’ve served for years on volunteer boards for writers’ groups. It helped to hone my people skills, (still a work in progress!), taught me about fund-raising and how to defend and explain my ideas to a skeptical group.

It also shows clients and colleagues my pride in, and commitment to, my larger creative community.

Find, or create, a group that meets weekly, or monthly. Create an on-line listserv or Facebook group. Mentoring others comes back in waves of generosity, for years.

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Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit

No matter what you hope to create or produce, make time to recharge. Sit still in silence every day. Stare at the sky, no matter what the weather. Make notes whenever you get an idea. Keep them!

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Travel as far and as often as you can afford

There’s no better way to sharpen your senses than to step out of habitual behaviors and routines: taking the same subway line or bus route;  eating the same cereal at breakfast; seeing the same faces at work. Even a two-hour road trip to a nearby town or city or nature preserve can offer you new ideas and insights.

Have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, today and/or in a decade

You can’t get there, wherever there is, without a clear idea what it is. Only by naming it can you start to lay the necessary groundwork — whether admission to the best program of study, a fellowship, a job, access to a busy mentor, publication of your novel or a gallery show. It’s too daunting to stare only at the cloud-shrouded Everest of your final goal. Focus on the foothills!

I recently started a writers’ group and called it Story Sherpas — no one gets there alone, without the help and support of a team along the way.

Study the work of the very best in your field

Don’t assume the best are working today. They might have powerful lessons to offer from their endeavors — possibly centuries ago.

Bonus:

Save a lot of money!

Creative “success” can, and often does, evaporate overnight — and with it your ability to dick around and await your muse.

Read this cautionary tale, from a New York writer whose book advance was a stunning $200,000, way more than any writer I know has ever received. She blew it.

Don’t ever rest on your laurels. They can wither mighty fast.

What spurs you to creative success?

Dancing at Lincoln Center with Rudolf Nureyev — my true story

In art, beauty, culture, entertainment, History, journalism on February 8, 2014 at 1:29 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

A new museum has opened — 20 years after the death, in 1993 of AIDS, of 20th-century ballet’s most famed male dancer since Nijinksy, fellow Russian Rudolf Nureyev. The museum is not in Paris, where he’d wanted it to be, but in Moulins, a three-hour train ride from the capital.

English: Nurevey in his dressing room

English: Nurevey in his dressing room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A report from The New York Times:

Centre National du Costume de Scène is in the Quartier Villars, an elegantly proportioned 18th-century barracks, renovated and extended after a near-brush with demolition in 1984. After the French government approved the idea of creating an archive for costumes belonging to the Paris Opera, the Comédie Française and the Bibliothèque Nationale, it took almost another decade to renovate the premises and add a section to contain and conserve the vast holdings. The government contributed around 80 percent of the renovation budget needed to install the collection (about $787,000), with the remainder coming from the museum and the foundation.

“It’s an international and important name that clearly draws people here,” Ms. Pinasa said. “The first few weeks have been very good.”

The collection is shown in three large rooms set apart from the museum’s main exhibition space; they were designed by Ezio Frigerio, who created sets for several of Nureyev’s productions. The first room is decorated with painted stage flats and offers spotlighted costumes in glass booths. Some were Nureyev’s own, most touchingly a simple pale blue doublet worn soon after his 1961 defection to the West, in “The Nutcracker.” There are also costumes from the ballets he staged, notably Hanae Mori’s 1920s-style outfit for Sylvie Guillem in “Cinderella,” an enchantment of pale-pink pleated silk, feathers and sequins, and the gold-embroidered blue-green silk tunic that is the warrior-hero Solor’s costume in the Nureyev production of “La Bayadère.”

I had the unlikely — and extraordinary — opportunity to share a stage with Nureyev for eight performances by the National Ballet of Canada in “Sleeping Beauty”, a classic, lush production.

I was then a young, ambitious Toronto-based journalist who knew the publicity director for the National Ballet after writing a magazine profile of one of their dancers. I’d studied ballet for many years, so I understood and loved that world. One day Marcia, (still a dear friend  decades later), called up and said: “How’d you like to come and be an extra with us in New York City at Lincoln Center with Nureyev?”

Who could possibly say no?

I was maybe 23 or 24 years old and had only performed, as an actress, in summer camp musicals. I had taken ballet classes for years and had auditioned (unsuccessfully) for Canada’s National Ballet School. I had never done pointe work, (not required as an extra), nor had I ever performed dance for anyone.

But what a story! I was game.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, wanted the piece, and paid my travel expenses and we stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, (featured in a great song by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell.)

As an extra — a “super”, (short for supernumerary, the civilians who are hired locally by ballet and opera companies to fill stages with bodies in costume) — I’d be needed for every performance.

I was chosen as one of four Ladies in Black, who presage the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who is not invited to Aurora’s 16th. party and who, furious, then casts a spell on everyone — creating the Sleeping Beauty who is Princess Aurora.

We had a few very basic rehearsals, like the artistic director impatiently humming the score, (which I barely knew!) while waving his arms at us distractedly in one of the Center’s rehearsal halls. Supers aren’t worth much attention when you’ve got principals to direct, and a corps de ballet and, oh yeah, Nureyev.

So I didn’t get a dress rehearsal, nor did I see or try on my costume or shoes until half an hour before opening night curtain. The shoes were so tight I could barely walk. My wig, with enormous buns over both ears, resembled a head of garlic. The dress weighed a ton, and I knew was worth a lot of money and I must not, on any account, damage it.

Since I barely knew the music, I wrote my stage directions on a piece of paper and taped it to the underside of my left wrist, hoping to sneak a glance at it while onstage.

On opening night, so nervous I could barely move, I managed to sweep down the wide staircase on stage, followed dutifully by the other three Ladies in Black — about 10 bars of music too early.

Holy shit.

“You came down too soon,” hissed a dancer pirouetting beside me.

The next night, while I tried to climb back up the same wide staircase at the rear of the stage after all the courtiers had fallen asleep under Carabosse’s spell a supine soldier’s sword got stuck in the thick folds of my gown.

I couldn’t move.

I couldn’t get his sword out of that valuable fabric.

And the orchestra played on, as the principal dancers hissed at me from behind “Hurry up!

Holy shit again.

Another night, as Nureyev, in his role as the Prince, dashed through the sleeping figures trying to see if anyone was awake, he stopped, took my chin in his hands and held my face to the spotlight, to see if I really was asleep.

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit!

My chin in Nureyev’s hand.

And I couldn’t, if I was to remain, as I must, in character, open my eyes.

On another night he grew so furious he kicked a garbage can in the wings so hard his foot bled into his slipper. I swear a lot, but have never heard curses like his.

Off-stage, in the wings, he stood regally apart, sliding leather clogs over his slipper-shod feet.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, decades later, it still all feels like a dream — exiting the stage door and being asked for my autograph (“Margot Fonteyn.” Kidding!), putting on my stage make-up every night, sharing space with one of the world’s legendary dancers.

I live in New York now, and every time I walk up those wide steps toward Lincoln Center, to sit in the audience for a ballet or concert, I think…hmmm, let’s do that again!

Fleeing the cage of words

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, culture, education, journalism, life, work on February 2, 2014 at 4:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever just stopped talking?

Not the usual way — pausing for a minute to draw breath or sip your drink or check your texts.

But decided, for a while, not to speak at all.

I did so in the summer of 2011, a few months before I married Jose, a man who is devoutly Buddhist and who decided, as a birthday gift, to whisk me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat. (Yes, really.)

The only time speech was allowed was in our teaching sessions, or private meetings with the staff, to ask questions.

Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion

Golden Buddha Statue of Gold Buddhism Religion (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Here’s my Marie Claire story about how it changed my life, and our relationship, and here’s one of my five blog posts, all from July 2011, about how great it felt to be quiet for a while.

We communicated mostly through Post-It notes and gestures, occasionally whispering in our room.

For the first few days, it felt like an impossible burden and every morning’s meditation revealed another empty chair or cushion left by those who had decided to flee.

Then it felt massively liberating.

To not be social.

To not make chit-chat.

To not fill the air with chatter so as to sound witty and smart and cool and employable and likeable.

To just…be silent.

To just…be.

When we returned to the noise and clamor of “normal”life — the blaring TVs in every bar, the ping of someone’s phone or an elevator or a doorbell, the honking of cars, the yammer of people shouting into their cellphones — we were shell-shocked by it all.

I miss that silence, and I really miss the powerful experience of community we had there, with 75 people of all ages from all over the world who had chosen to eschew words for a week.

In December, I started a weekly class in choreography, modern dance, a new adventure for me. There’s only one other student, a woman 13 years my junior. In a small studio, we spend 90 minutes moving, writing about movement and creating “insta-dances” which we perform and listen to feedback about.

It’s all a bit terrifying for someone whose audience — here and in my paid writing work — typically remains safely distant, invisible and mostly ignores what I produce. To look someone in the eye, and to see yourself in the mirror, and to express oneself without words, using only corporeal language are all deeply disorienting.

Not a bad thing. But a very new thing.

Deutsch: Modern Dance Company "Flatback a...

Deutsch: Modern Dance Company “Flatback and cry e.V.” Produktion: “patchwork on stage”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your fingers, wrists, toes, elbows…all have something to say, I’ve discovered. The subtlety of a flick, a wiggle, a pause, a hop. It’s a wholly new way to express ideas and emotions without the tedium of diction.

It’s another way to tell a story, wordlessly. I’ve been surprised and grateful that the other dancer — who is thin, lithe and performs a lot — calls me graceful and expressive. I didn’t expect that at all. As someone whose body is aging and needs to shed 30+ pounds, I usually just see it as a tiresome battleground, not a source of pride and pleasure, sorry to say.

It’s also a little terrifying to have all that freedom, as writing journalism always means writing to a specific length, style and audience, like a tailor making a gray wool pinstriped suit in a 42tall. It’s always something made-to-order, rarely a pure expression of my own ideas and creativity.

It’s interesting indeed to open the cage of words and flutter into the air beyond.

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