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Time to step up your writing game?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism on July 8, 2014 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua this year for WaterAid

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua this year for WaterAid

Many of you — welcome! – are new to Broadside, (now at 10,759 followers).

And many of you are writers, would-be writers or fellow bloggers.

This is a reminder that I offer writing and blogging webinars that have helped students worldwide — from Australia, New Zealand, England and Germany to many in the U.S. — write more effectively, launch or boost their freelance careers, better engage their blog readers and/or develop their ideas into posts, articles or books.

The six webinars are narrowly focused and each one is 90 minutes, allowing 30 minutes for your questions and comments; details here.

My goal is to get you to the level you want to reach — whether more readers for your blog, running a profitable freelance business or even just understanding how reporters think about ideas and how to develop them into stories editors are eager to buy.

I’m happy to work with you individually; for the moment I’m not scheduling them on fixed dates but one-on-one, working via Skype or telephone.

I also offer individual coaching — reading your work-in-progress and offering my comments and insights, helping with your thesis or just brain-storming whatever you want to focus on! I charge $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum; clients tell me they find tremendous value from it, usually with a two-hour session, the first spent reading your work, then analyzing it and discussing it in detail by phone or Skype.

“Thank you for sharing valuable insights, irreverent stories and revealing travel tips with us…Your enthusiasm for your work is infectious.  And you are… fun!”

That’s an email I received a few weeks ago after teaching eight interior designers in Manhattan how to catch an editor’s eye.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

I really enjoy teaching, and will be doing so this fall in Brooklyn at Pratt Institute; with decades of experience as a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, two-time non-fiction author, magazine editor, reporter for three major daily newspapers and now a full-time freelance writer for publications like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and many others, I can help you raise your game.

“As a journalist with only a few years experience, I appreciated her willingness to share her expertise and experiential wisdom. If you have a chance to take a class with her, don’t hesitate. Great value.”
– Lisa Hall-Wilson

Hope to work with you soon!

Can you describe your job in five words?

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, life, work on July 6, 2014 at 12:12 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This is what we do!

This is what we do!

One of my favorite radio shows is Marketplace, a 30-minute program on American Public Media, focused on business, in the broadest sense. (Sidenote: I’ve been interviewed several times on the show, an experience both terrifying and thrilling! Both of my non-fiction books were about business, in some measure: my last one was about working a low-wage retail job and my first about women and gun use in the U.S.)

The show’s host, the dishy Kai Ryssdal, recently interviewed President Barack Obama — known to the in-crowd as POTUS (President of the United States) — and asked him to describe his job in five words.

He took nineteen:

“My job is to keep the American people safe and to create a platform for hardworking people to succeed.”

I decided to play along and, maybe not surprising, was easily able to do it in five words without hesitation:

Finding and telling powerful stories

 

PERSONAL ESSAY

 

I keep trying to leave journalism behind — an industry writhing in “disruption”, with appalling pay rates and rapacious behavior — but I am, it appears, addicted to my vocation.

I was very fortunate and deeply grateful, in March this year, to be hired by WaterAid, a global aid group, to travel to rural Nicaragua to report on their work there and produce three stories for them. It felt wonderful to have the chance to tell their stories, not just the usual journalistic fodder, transferring my skills into another realm for a welcome change.

How about you?

Can you describe your job or work in five words?

 

Ethics, schmethics! (But, seriously…)

In behavior, blogging, business, culture, journalism, Media, travel, work on June 27, 2014 at 12:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust what you read, hear or see in the mass media?

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

Even blogs?

A Gallup poll of 1,000 Americans a few months back says no:

Their findings: just 21 percent of the people surveyed ranked newspaper reporters with high or very high honesty and ethical standards. Next came lawyers, tying with 21 percent, followed by TV reporters at 20 percent, then advertisers at a miserable 14 percent.

Just so we’re clear, here. I work as a journalist and often write for The New York Times, which sends out a long and detailed ethics code it expects all freelance contributors to adhere to. Interestingly, though, every freelancer — whether an artist, writer or photographer — is completely vulnerable to the whims of their individual editor, some of whom have been abusive indeed: abruptly killing stories, (which cuts our fees dramatically), or sitting on unpaid invoices for months.

One of the paper’s more challenging demands, for example, is that no freelance writer can ever accept a paid trip to write a travel story, (even for another publication or outlet)  — which leaves its travel section open only to people with deep-enough pockets to jet off to exotic destinations and pay all their food and lodging as well.

One writer, Mike Albo, lost a nice weekly column in the Times after he took a paid trip to Jamaica; he turned it into a very funny, and very accurate one-man show, The Junket, which I saw and admired.

Welcome to the economic costs of ethics!

Another issue the Times is fussy about, and which seems fair to me, is not interviewing friends, relatives or groups in which you have a financial interest — i.e. your brother-in-law’s fab new company.

On this blog, I occasionally mention companies, products and experiences I’ve enjoyed — none of whom pay me to do so. If and when I’m able to get sponsored posts, I’ll be very clear who’s paying me to say what.

So when I read or listen to “news” of any sort, I expect to be told of any potential conflict of interest, even though that’s unlikely.

If someone takes a freebie, then raves about said item or experience, they need to come clean to their audience.

I once attended BlogHer, an annual conference that attracts 5,000 bloggers. I didn’t much care for it, although it’s obviously hugely popular.

The reason I would not go back was the exhibition hall, where women thronged the booths to collect as much free loot as they could carry. That’s not why I write or blog.

It’s also not what journalists do.

trust-torn

Have you followed the excruciating behavior — and criminal trial it led to –  by UK editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson?

Here’s Ken Auletta in The New Yorker:

A British jury has declared Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World and executive at News Corp., not guilty of criminal charges. She had been charged with participating in the paper’s phone-hacking practices, for covering up evidence, and for involvement in payoffs to silence the police or solicit their help in fetching fresh news stories. At the same time, they found Andrew Coulson, Brooks’s successor—who went on to serve as communications director for the Prime Minister—guilty on charges of conspiracy to intercept phone messages. Stuart Kuttner, the paper’s former managing editor, was also found not guilty; charges against some of the editors’ other colleagues have yet to be resolved. But a criminal case is not the final word on whether either editor, or News Corp., nor much of the British tabloid press, has betrayed the principles of journalism.

Ethical failures may not merit a jail term; they do merit a spotlight. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Sir Brian Leveson, a prominent judge, to call witnesses to inquire into the culture and ethics of the British press. A year later, Leveson issued a report than ran more than two thousand pages.

Other recent ethics scandals have depressed and dismayed many, like the discovery that Cambodian human rights advocate Somaly Mam had been less than truthful.

From TheAtlantic.com:

Now Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, is calling on Kristof to “give readers a full explanation” of his reporting on Somaly Mam, the celebrated Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist who, according to a recent Newsweek expose, fabricated parts of her story and those of some of the alleged victims she advocated for. The revelations have disillusioned many of Mam’s loyal supporters and left the press looking gullible. Just as importantly, they’ve highlighted the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for heroic narratives—and the willingness of many in the media to provide them.

Kristof was hardly alone in promoting Mam and her initiatives. Several respected outlets, including Newsweek, have played handmaiden to her celebrity. Consider just a partial list of media-bestowed accolades: Mam was named a CNN Hero and Glamour’s Woman of the Year. She was included in the Time 100, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women—the list goes on. When stories like hers crumble, however, few in the media pause to examine how they could have been so thoroughly duped. Fewer still acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating stories that were too good to check out.

And this, from Salon, about non-profits who are also not revealing their own ethical bonsai:

Partnerships between NGOs and big-brand companies are developing even faster than those with energy and pharmaceutical corporations. Environmentalists have led the way, collaborating with, and accepting money from, big-box retailers and brand manufacturers. The Environmental Defense Fund blazed a trail in 1990 by partnering with McDonald’s to phase out the restaurant chain’s Styrofoam packaging. Today such partnerships are ubiquitous. IKEA works with WWF as a “marketing partner,” providing funding through the Global Forest and Trade Network to “create a new market for environmentally responsible forest products.” Conservation International works with Starbucks on sourcing coffee beans and with Walmart on tracking the sources of the company’s jewelry products. Monsanto and The Walt Disney Company are two other “featured” corporate partners of Conservation International (as of June 2013).

Executives from these companies also sit on the boards of environmental NGOs. As of June 2013, the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s includes Robert J. Fisher, past Chairman of the Gap board of directors, and Alan F. Horn, current chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. Neville Isdell, former CEO of Coca-Cola, is chairman of the board of the U.S. branch of WWF (known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund) (as of June 2013). Rob Walton, chair of Walmart, also chairs the executive committee of Conservation International’s board of directors, which, as of June 2013, includes Paul Polman of Unilever (current chief executive), Heidi Miller of JPMorgan Chase (retired former president), and Orin Smith of Starbucks (retired former CEO).

Social and human rights organizations have generally been less receptive to partnering with big-brand companies. But this is changing, too.

I tend to be a fairly trusting person — until I get burned — as I recently was by a fellow blogger who really should have known better than to try to screw me.

I’ve sent her several un-answered emails asking her to do the right thing.

Many of you already read her blog, filled with cute personal stories and a you-go-girl! flavor. She blogs about writing and how to become a better writer and is very popular; last time I looked, she had almost 30,000 followers.

I used to read her blog and enjoyed it.

Then she reached out to me, after months of my comments, and asked me to teach for one of her on-line conferences. I did, offering my time and talent to nine of her students — unpaid. In return, she said, I could  guest post and promote or link to my own classes.

I fulfilled my part of the deal.

She never did.

What ethical breaches have you recently faced?

Do you care if people behave ethically toward you or others?

 

 

Buy my books! (The gentle art of self-promotion)

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, US, work on June 16, 2014 at 12:43 am

By Caitlin Kelly

malled cover HIGH

Here’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.

Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:

She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.

Having written two non-fiction books, one before the age of social media – “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, published in 2004 — and Malled, in 2011, I’ve been around that block.

He’s right.

People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.

If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.

If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.

And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.

Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching  your next attempt shrivel very quickly.

So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.

Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:

Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…

And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?

Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:

How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!

I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”

Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.

I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!

If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.

In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.

I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.

A brief meditation on the Restoration Hardware catalog

In aging, beauty, business, children, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style, US on June 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

And so it arrived — all 4.5 inches of it — and all seven editions:

Have you seen it?

IMG_20140613_160742930

For those of you living beyond the U.S., RH offers one-stop shopping for all manner of weathered, patinated objects, from enormous replicas of German lighting and railway clocks to a wall-hung glowing ampersand. (Do I really want to sleep beside a piece of punctuation?)

The tone is regal, imperial, seigneurial — and the scale of many of the objects and furniture designed for people who inhabit extremely large homes and estates. Their catalog named “small spaces” offers tableaux named for a Chelsea penthouse and Tribeca loft, each of whose entry point is about $2 million, in cash.

It’s exhaustingly aspirational, and references abound to “landed gentry” and “boarding school”, clearly meant to appeal to people who have experience of neither. (As Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary said, witheringly, to her self-made suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle: “Your lot buys things. Mine inherits them.”)

What to make of it all?

1) Fly into shopping frenzy, wanting allofitrightnow!

2) Read the descriptions in wonder and dismay:

“Crafted with Italian Berkshire leather…” — it’s an ice bucket, people. And it’s $199.

3) Sneer at the hopeless addiction to more stuff it inculcates and rewards

4) Dog-ear a few of the pages, however guiltily, because some of it — yes — is really gorgeous, like this bed, oddly featured in the baby and child catalog.

5) Wonder why our possessions are deemed “treasured” and whether or not they even should be; (see: Buddhist teachings and the ideal of non-attachment)

6) Consider attending an auction to watch the detritus of a hundred other lives, wondering when this stuff will end up there, too

7) Might children raised in these formal and fully-designed rooms, amid thousands of dollars worth of wood and linen and velvet, emerge into the real world of independence and employment with overly hopeful notions of pay and working conditions? Let alone college dorm facilities?

8) If a baby projectile vomits or poops or pees onto the immaculate washed linen and velvet beds, chairs and cribs shown here, how elegant will they really look (or smell)? Much as I love the idea of refined aesthetics (not pink or plastic everything), this seems a little…excessive.

9) I love their restrained neutral palette — pale gray, cream, brown, white, black — and their industrial designs for lighting. But if I were six or eight or 14? Maybe not so much. Your kids have decades ahead of them to stare at wire baskets and faux-Dickensian light fixtures.

10) Have you ever noticed the echt-WASP names included in these catalogs, as would-be monograms or examples of personalization? You won’t ever find a Graciela or Jose or Ahmed or Dasani here, my dears. Instead: Addison, Brady, Lucas, Mason, Ethan, Grace, Charlotte, Chloe, Sarah. Such a 19th-century white-bread version of “reality” ! Am I the only one who finds this pretentious, silly — and very outdated marketing? Many people of color have money to spend on these items as well. My husband’s name is Jose and he’s got great taste and good credit. Include him, dammit!

11) OK, OK. I admit it. I love this chair. After a long crappy day, even a putative adult might enjoy the soft and furry embrace of a stuffed elephant.

12) “Understated grandeur” and “Directoire-style daybed” — in a nursery?!

13) People put taxidermied animal heads on your walls to prove that: a) you  know how to shoot accurately; b) you own guns; c) you can afford to spend time in some foreign land on safari; d) you enjoy killing things; e) you have no shame showing this to others. Putting up faux images of wood, paper and metal like these ones seems a little beside the point.

14) Do you really want to eat your food with a replica of the cutlery used aboard the Titanic, and named for it? What’s next — the Hindenberg armchair?

15) As someone addicted to great fabric, I do think these linen tablecloths are both well-priced and hard to find. And their glass and metal bath accessories — dishes, canisters and jars — are handsome enough to use on your desk or in a kitchen.

16) Dimensions? It’s a total time-suck to have to go on-line to determine furniture sizes.

17) For $25, this is the chic-est beach towel you’ll see this season. (I bought one of theirs a few years ago and the quality is excellent.)

18) Did the designer or copywriter even snicker when including a $139 “industrial style” basket marked “Stuff”?

Five reasons to freelance — and five reasons not to!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, photography, work on June 7, 2014 at 5:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I went freelance, for the third time, in 2006 after losing a staff job at the New York Daily News — but I also freelanced, by choice, full-time for four years right out of college, so it wasn’t a terrible shock to lose an office, colleagues and a paycheck.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, people who wrote for print and television and my father was a film director. No one had a steady paycheck or pension to look forward to and rely on. So it all felt normal to me.

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

Five reasons to go, or stay, freelance:

You’re very intrinsically motivated (i.e. you don’t need a whip over your head to get it done)

Autonomy ‘r us! Some people are just a whole lot happier not having a boss. And any organization, no matter how small, is going to impose policies and procedures, some of which are usually inane and some of which you might deeply disagree with.

All of which come with someone else’s paycheck.

You want more control of your work/life scheduling

Maybe you have children and/or pets and/or an ailing loved one who needs your attention as well. Maybe you prefer to work from 4pm to midnight or 2am to 8am…or whenever it suits you. Freelancing allows you tremendous freedom, within limits, to set your own hours and schedule.

I take a jazz dance class on Monday and/or Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 10:30 or 11:00 a.m — and no staff job I know of would allow for that. It’s fun and social and gives me tremendous pleasure and keeps me healthy. And I like knowing this is a bonus no job would offer.

I also take as much vacation, whenever possible; my husband, even after 30 years at the Times, must request his vacation time in early January and defer to those (!) with more seniority than he.

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

You can choose a wide variety of clients and projects

Staff jobs, de facto, have set roles and responsibilities they have hired you to perform. Freelancers can freely pick and choose our clients and types of work, from quick 300-word stories to 3,500 word features to 100,000 word books. We can fly to another country to do some reporting or spend a week at a conference meeting cool people who can help our careers.

If you’re getting bored or have a difficult client, switch it up!

Intellectual challenge is up to you

If your personal life is crazy and all you have energy for is lighter projects, that’s your call. That’s a huge benefit when our personal lives go haywire and we need to lighten our loads for a while. When you work for someone else, it’s all up to them. Plus, your professional opportunities for advancement and growth (and pay) are largely within their budget, schedule and control.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Your income is your choice

Key! If you want to double or triple your income — or even just boost it by 22.3% — that’s also within your control, not something at the pleasure of your boss or company CEO.

Freelancers see a very direct and satisfying correlation between our energy, stamina, skill and experience, and the zeros on our tax returns — with no office politics and no bullshit excuses why you still, somehow, don’t deserve — or just won’t get — a raise, commission or bonus.

Five reasons to stay on someone’s payroll

You’ve got huge overhead you can’t quickly and easily reduce

If you’ve got multiple children expecting you to pay for their educations, freelancing is going to be tough. If you’re crushed by student debt yourself already and/or credit card debt (especially with a high APR), freelancing — i.e. not having a reliable income each month — can be really stressful, certainly as you are just getting started and cannot command the highest fees.

And many clients pay late (45 to 60 days after invoice) while some try to screw us out of our fees.

I know some people earning $100,000 to 130,000 a year freelancing, but they are not, certainly as writers in journalism today, in the majority.

You need someone telling you what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it right

If you’re the sort of person who craves routine and a structure and people making sure you have done the work correctly, freelancing may feel too loosey-goosey. Every single day’s productivity is completely your own responsibility, so if you’re someone who likes to watch daytime TV or Candy Crush, good luck with that.

Your ability to make enough income to gas the car, feed your family and take your dog to the vet are often the primary or exclusive measure of your success. Your primary goal is to find, nurture and keep ongoing and profitable relationships — not please your superiors and colleagues.

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

You really need the company (and input) of other people

Working alone at home is lonely and isolating. If you treasure your office pals and going out for margaritas with them, freelancing all day by yourself may drive you nuts. Yes, you can rent a co-working space, but you’re still there to work and paying for additional space, and not necessarily surrounded by like-minded folk.

Hustling scares you (to death)

Freelancers eat only what we kill. No, not literally! But we start many weeks, or years, with no clear, definite idea what our income is actually going to be. Sure, we set income goals — but clients die, turn into insatiable monsters we have to fire, publications suddenly close or trim their budgets and mayhem just happens sometimes.

Yet those monthly bills keep coming! If the idea of constantly seeking out, and nurturing, new client relationships fills you with dread, keep the day job.

You crave the validation of “I work at…”

A phrase that drives me crazy is “Who’re you with?” I’m with myself, actually.

The constant status-check of ascribing your value and prestige to your Big Name Employer seems, to me, sadly antiquated now that 30 percent of Americans work for themselves, or as temps or contract workers only.

But if you really like saying “I work for BNE”, then get and keep a job there.

The downside? If or when you’re laid off from a staff job, your identity — and your income, of course — may take a serious and unexpected whack.

How about you?

Which lifestyle suits you best?

Do you hate your work?

In behavior, business, life, Money, US, world on June 5, 2014 at 12:16 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

Here’s a truly depressing look at the American workplace:

 Curious to understand what most influences people’s engagement and productivity at work, we partnered with the Harvard Business Review last fall to conduct a survey of more than 12,000 mostly white-collar employees across a broad range of companies and industries. We also gave the survey to employees at two of The Energy Project’s clients — one a manufacturing company with 6,000 employees, the other a financial services company with 2,500 employees. The results were remarkably similar across all three populations.

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

My recent trip with WaterAid America to the poorest part of Nicaragua– all these photos– was an amazing re-set for me. Our multi-national, five-person team, only two of whom had met previously, worked 12-hour days in 95-degree heat, and even had to push the van every time to get it started.

IMG_0331

We also faced extraordinary poverty, interviewing people living on $1/day in the second-poorest nation in the Americas after Haiti. It could, I suppose, have felt depressing and enervating, but we were meeting amazing people doing valuable work.

It was by far my happiest paid week in a very, very long time.

What I saw and felt there also radically altered the way I now think about my career and how I hope, at least some of the time, to earn my living.

Because our work during that week — driving four hours a day into the bush to interview local women in Miskitu — hit all four of the core needs at once.

We were treated with kindness and respect, laughed loudly and often, and knew the work we were focused on was life-changing. How much better could it get?

A typical working lunch in Nicaragua

A typical working lunch in Nicaragua

People fantasize wildly about the life of a writer, how creative it must be, how satisfying.

I discussed this recently with a female friend, recently retired after a 30-year career as a writer at the Toronto Star.

“Do you think our work is creative?” I asked her.

“Not so much,” she said.

We’re expected to be highly productive. We get to meet and interview a wide variety of people, but creative? That’s not what journalists (sad to say) are paid for.

I stay freelance for many reasons, and the key one is autonomy and the chance to re-make my work into something that, whenever possible, hits all four core needs.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

My field, journalism and publishing, has changed a great deal in recent years — pay rates have been reduced to 1970s-era levels,  which requires that I and many others now work much, much faster on many more projects at once to make a decent living.

I dislike having to race through most of my assignments to earn a profit — but quality costs time and money to produce and very few people are willing, now, to pay for that.

I never used to hate my work, and I find it very stressful when I do. But journalism is a field in which workers are rarely thanked or praised, in which sources can be elusive or demanding and in which we rarely seem to find time or money to focus on serious issues.

As they are for too many frustrated workers, the four core needs are often damn difficult to attain.

(Or is it “just work”? It’s not meant to be enjoyable)?

How about you?

Do you hate your work?

12 things you should never say to a writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on May 29, 2014 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I know that many Broadside readers work in education — have you seen The 12 Things You Should Never Say to Teachers?

Here are 12 things you should never say to a writer:

images-3

How much money do you make?

I get it — you want to be a published writer, too — and are naturally curious about the rewards. But  most book advances are now paid out over as long as four years — minus 15 percent to our agent — and the average book advance is pitifully small to start with, far less than $50,000. Do the math, and weep.

And because journalism pays so badly you just can’t believe anyone would actually work for those wages. But we do.

There is also so little direct correlation between work we may value intellectually — and what the market rewards most handsomely. (See: the best-seller list.)

Wow, that’s not very much, is it?

See above. While a few fortunates are pulling in mega-bucks, the highest-paid print journalists usually earn less than a fresh graduate working for a major corporate law firm. Sad but true.

malled cover HIGH

Are your books best-sellers?

Long bitter laugh. Only a minute percentage of books, on any subject, will ever hit the best-seller list.

Can you introduce me to your agent?

No. Maybe. Probably not. The agent-author relationship is intimate and fraught with multiple perils. It’s also a question of chemistry — the person who’s a great fit for me may be a lousy choice for you.

I’ve never heard of you

Here’s a sad little essay by Roger Rosenblatt on how un-famous he feels, even after publishing a few books. (You’re thinking: Who’s that guy?) The only way to survive the publishing world is to assume that your book(s), even after all your years of hard work and promotion, will largely be ignored by the public and bookstore buyers. Anything beyond that is gravy.

Will you read my manuscript?

What’s your budget? Assuming we want to read your work, unpaid, is naive.

This is what we do.

This is what we do.

Can I see the article you’re writing before it’s published?

Nope. Journalists get asked this all the time and the only correct answer is “No.” If you’re in doubt about the accuracy of a quote or some data, call your source(s) back. But allowing someone to review your copy opens the door to their desire to rewrite it to their tastes.

If I don’t like what you’ve written, I can ask you to remove my quotes, right?

See: on the record.

When I stop (doing whatever you do professionally), I’m going to take up writing

Awesome. Now go away! No, further.

Nothing is more irritating (OK, deadbeat publishers are more irritating) than having people treat our profession as an amusing hobby, something you can pick up and put down at leisure, like macrame or scrapbooking. It looks soooooooooo easy, right?

Wrong.

Writing well is bloody hard work. It’s not something you just “pick up.”

Journalism is a dying industry.

Indeed. Imagine how I feel after 30 years in it…

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I hate journalists! They never get anything right

Same with doctors, lawyers, teachers…fill in the blank.  It’s a big industry with some bad apples and some good ones. Don’t assume I’m unethical or inaccurate just because you’ve been burned by someone else.

You can’t make a living as a writer!

Define “living.” Your assumptions or prejudices may be inaccurate. Or your idea of “a living” means $300,000 a year before bonus. In which case, you’re right!

10 ways to rock your first job/internship

In behavior, business, education, journalism, life, US, women, work on May 21, 2014 at 1:25 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s graduation season, and time — for the fortunate — to step into their first full-time staff jobs, whether a permanent position or a summer internship.

If you’ve snagged a paid spot (or, likely, an unpaid one), congrats! Time to rock it!

As someone who has hired and managed less-experienced researchers and assistants, and has watched some newsroom interns succeed — or fail — a few hints:

 

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Listen carefully

No, really.

Put down your phone, look people in the eye and give them your undivided attention. Old folks — anyone over 30 — expect you to look at them while they’re speaking to you, not IM or text. Especially if you’re working in any sort of customer-facing work like PR, retail, hospitality or food service — where high quality customer service is expected — this is crucial.

Your ability to soak up information quickly and accurately will make or break you. You may also have to convey key information to other people and need to be sure you’ve got everything right. You may well need to remind your boss of meetings, travel appointments or other tasks. They’re offloading onto you and counting on you to be helpful.

Take notes

Use whatever method is easiest and most reliable, whether a pen and paper, Ipad or verbal dictation. Double-check the spelling of even the simplest names and figures: Jon Smythe, for example. Never assume you automatically know the right answer; even if you do, check to be sure.

Ask lots of questions

Don’t be annoying and sleeve-tugging, but learn what is expected of you, whether hourly, daily, or weekly. If you’ve been asked to prepare a conference room for a meeting, go there ahead of time and make sure everything your boss(es) and co-workers will need is in there, and if not, get it!

Get to know all support and administrative staff and be kind and respectful to them. They hold a lot of power.

Also, find out how your boss and coworkers prefer to communicate — whether face to face, texts, email, phone or Skype. Just because you and your friends prefer texting does not mean those paying you do as well.

Memorize the phrase: “No problem!”

And mean it. After you’ve gotten your responsibilities clear, and you know who to ask or call for help in an emergency, it’s up to you to figure stuff out for yourself. It’s called being resourceful. Your value to your organization is not simply doing the job they hired you into, but to notice and anticipate other issues you might be able to help solve.

Are you including pleasure in your daily life?

Are you including pleasure in your daily life?

Take care of yourself: eat right, sleep 8 hours a night, limit alcohol intake

Don’t underestimate the stress — (and excitement!) — of a full-time job pleasing many new and demanding strangers. They’re not your Mom or coach or professors and (sorry!) many just don’t really care if you’re happy or having fun or even if you succeed. So it’s up to you to take the best care of your body and soul as possible, especially in an economy with few great jobs and little to no room for error, sloppiness, oversights or slip-ups.

Being well-rested and properly nourished will help you stay on top of your game; (i.e. do not arrive at work, ever, hungover. Nor share those details if you do.)

And no draaaaaaaama. Ever. No public tears or tantrums. (That includes stairwells, elevators and bathrooms. The walls have ears and you never know who’s listening.)

Check in with your boss(es)

If something they have asked you to do is heading south, let them know as soon as possible so there are no ugly last-minute surprises they can’t fix.

Don’t constantly ask co-workers or bosses for “feedback” or praise

Seriously! No matter how badly you crave approval or are used to being told — “Thanks! Great job!” — don’t hold your breath waiting for this at work. And don’t freak out if you never hear it there, no matter how much extra effort you put in. We’re all running 100,000 miles per hour these days and anyone who even has a job, let alone a senior position of any authority, is already plenty stressed and tired.

They are in no mood to coddle you as well.

Don’t take shit personally — unless it’s aimed at you specifically

If someone rips your head off, don’t take it personally. They might be a bitch to everyone all the time, or their dog just died or their husband is having an affair or they just got a lousy diagnosis. Get a feel for office politics and culture so you know when someone is really just like that, or when you really are screwing up and deserved to get your head sliced off, GOT-style.

It's not personal! Armor up, kids!

It’s not personal! Armor up, kids!

Do everything to 187 percent of your ability. Everything!

That means getting coffee, running to Staples, booking your boss’s flight, whatever your boss needs. People who run their own business, especially, rely on helpful, cheerful team players — no one is “too important” to do the smallest of tasks, no matter how silly or tedious or un-sexy they appear to be. People really value workers who consistently offer them good cheer, high energy and empathy.

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Your primary job is to make everyone else’s job easier

Don’t focus on your job title or description, if you even have one. Never say out loud, or post anywhere on social media: “That’s not my job!” If your boss says it’s your job, guess what…

Your most valuable skill, certainly as someone new to the workforce building your skills and your networks for the future, is being sensitive to others’ needs and making their lives easier, while accomplishing your own tasks on or ahead of schedule. No one, even at the opera, wants to work with a diva.

Good luck!

 

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?

LAST CHANCE FOR WEBINARS!

SATURDAY MAY 17:

Conducting a Kick-Ass Interview (what’s the one question you must ask?)

Crafting the Personal Essay

Finding and Developing Story Ideas

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