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Posts Tagged ‘Arts’

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.

Want to start producing creatively? Lose the safety net

In art, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on November 6, 2013 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach (h/t Small Dog Syndrome)

English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Te...

English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Teri Noel Towe seems to demonstrate that the portrait is probably not of Bach http://www.npj.com/thefaceofbach/09w624.html. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How badly do you really want to be a writer/composer/dancer/artist?

How much are you willing to give up attain that goal?

Sometimes having the choice to not create — i.e. a regular, reliable, steady income — means endlessly postponing the frightening leap into the void, of actually producing work you try to bring to market, to finding an audience, discovering that people are eager for your work – or not.

I started writing for a living when I was at the end of my sophomore year in college, as a full-time undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My parents were off traveling the world, long before the Internet, cellphones or Skype made regular contact easy and affordable. Neither gave me a penny.

I was on my own, living in a small studio apartment in a not-great neighborhood, all I could afford on my monthly income of $350, money inherited from a grandmother.

That was all the money I had available. My rent was $160/month. Then there was food, phone, answering service, clothes…and oh, yeah, tuition and books; $4,200 a year isn’t much money to live on in a major city, even a few decades ago.

So I freelanced, a lot. I missed classes, (and my grades certainly showed it), to chase down paying assignments, both as a photographer and writer. I had a photograph published in Time at the age of 19.  I wrote for the country’s biggest magazines and, surprisingly perhaps, am still in touch with my very first editor who assigned me work when she was editor of Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

I had a weekly shopping column in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, in my junior year, paying me $125 a week, a fortune at the time.

But all this blazing ambition, fueled by real financial need, also carried costs, losses I will never be able to recoup.

I barely remember the people I attended college with as I spent much of my time in phone booths (remember those?) contacting editors to line up work or fight for (more) payment. I didn’t drink or party or pledge to a sorority or disappear on spring break to exotic locations. I was too busy working my ass off.

And so I went to the chair of the English department to suggest that, since I was already selling my writing to national publications, I receive class credit for it — given the choice between writing another paper on 16th century drama or paying my bills for another month or two, there was little choice for me.

The reaction was scathing and dismissive, one reason I’ve yet to darken the door of another university.

A highly effective way to make sure you’re actually producing — and not just talking about it all the time — is to actually rely on the income from your work.

I do realize this is impossible for many people — with children to support, and/or a partner; who, as Americans, simply cannot afford market-rate health insurance or have crushing amounts of student debt as well.

But if you never have to test the market, what will finally impel you?

DON’T FORGET TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEXT WEBINAR, BETTER BLOGGING, ON SUNDAY NOVEMBER 10 AT 4:00 P.M. EST.

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The expectation of attention

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, work on September 4, 2013 at 3:26 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you expect to be listened to?

I’ve been writing for a living since 1978, when I was still an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and started writing for national magazines and Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail.

I spent my teens attending summer camp, where every month we’d put on a musical, some fab creation from the 1950s like Flower Drum Song or Hello Dolly. I almost always won the lead.

Flower Drum Song

Flower Drum Song (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every Sunday evening, we’d put on a Talent Show and I’d get up with my guitar and a song I’d written that day to sing it to 300 people.

It only struck me — reading Sue Healy’s brilliant blog about writing, (and she’s a former journalist) — that, as a default position, I expect to be able to hold and keep people’s attention.

Before you all un-follow, with snorts of dismay and derision, let me explain why this is a huge advantage, especially for ambitious writers and bloggers.

Newer writers seem to fear rejection, or fear that whatever it is you hope to convey just isn’t all that interesting.

Pshaw!

You have to assume someone does want to hear/read you, that you have the talent and guile and charm and story to woo and win them for 20 or 30 or 100 minutes.

OK, maybe five, on the Internet!

Journalism offers phenomenal preparation for other attention-seeking work, whether dance, music or more writing. You have to produce something every day, sometimes every hour. (I once had to write a television news story in the two minutes of a commercial break.)

You have to crank out a ton of stuff, certainly if you work for a daily paper or, worse, a wire service or web site.

Some of it is really shitty. Some of it is amazing, stuff you read decades later with pride. You will also see other writers (grrrrr) win front page and fellowships and awards and make the best-seller list.

You, oh misery, do not.

But you must wake up the next day and re-assume the same confident stance, that your work and your ideas are worth the attention of others. What’s the alternative? Lying in bed weeping in the fetal position?

Not you!

I was lucky, in some ways, to be an only child, never competing for my parents’ attention with a crowd of siblings. I had a sort of brassy self-confidence I’ve never really understood, although I’m damn grateful for it. I rarely worry about putting my stuff out there (even if I should!)

The standard American cliche is “stepping up to the plate” — i.e. home plate, where you stand in order to hit a baseball or softball. As someone who still plays softball (and can hit to the outfield), I know how nervous it can make you.

Everyone’s watching! What if you miss? What if you can’t even make it to first base? What if you hit a fly and someone catches it?

NOTICEME

NOTICEME (Photo credit: Beadzoid)

But what happens when you hit a single/double/triple — or home run? Huzzah!

If you’re still feeling nervous about blogging, or sending your creations into the world for approval/sale/attention, just do it.

(But do not, I beg you, be all foot-shuffling and hand-wringing and ‘I don’t know what to blog about.’ Don’t be boring. Take a risk!)

Yes, some of your work will be ignored and rejected. My third book proposal goes out this week, (shriek), and has already been rejected by the people who published “Malled.” I asked my editor why and received a short, polite and helpful reply.

In the old days, I would never have asked.

My first two books, when their proposals were sent to major publishers, each received 25 rejections before the 26th. said yes. Both have won terrific reviews and been bought by libraries world-wide.

So I anticipate, (albeit pre-cringing at how nasty some of the rejections can be), more of the same. I hope not. But it happens. Rejection is the cost of doing this business.

This essay, about my divorce, won the Canadian National Magazine Award for humor — after being laughingly dismissed by an editor at one of the U.S.’s biggest women’s magazines.

Focused attention has become one of the world’s most precious resources.

But, oh, the joy when you’ve won it!

And again.

And again…

What writers really wish you knew

In behavior, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on August 22, 2013 at 12:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Attention Icon.

English: Attention Icon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fun life being a writer, which is why so many people are lining up, still, to do it.

I just spent a fun/tiring eight hours in Manhattan at a freelancers’ conference. But if you make your living at it, (and or dream of it), some frustrations become routine.

Here are a few things writers really wish you knew:

– It’s not a hobby. We attend conferences and take classes, (or teach them), and network and spend time and money and attention improving our skills. Assuming it’s something cute we do “just for fun” is ignorant and disrespectful.

– Working alone at home can be really lonely and isolating. Come meet us for coffee or a drink!

— We need feedback on our material, especially works-in-progress, aka WIPs. If we get up the nerve to ask you to read or review it, that’s a big gesture of trust on our part. Please say yes, please offer specific feedback and please do it.

– We need blurbs for our books. If you have a connection to A Big Name who might help us, please make the call or send the email. Asking for blurbs can be one of the hardest parts of writing and publishing a book.

— If you ask me for help, do not blow off the phone call I booked time for. Let alone twice.

— If you ask me for help, be classy enough to offer me some as well, if not today, then down the road.

— Don’t ask me to hand over the names and contacts of my editors. If I feel like that’s the right choice, I’ll offer.

– Don’t ask me for an introduction to my agent. I may not think you’re ready for prime time. I may not think you are a good fit for their list or their personality. Don’t put me on the spot. If I think it’s right, I’ll offer.

– Don’t ask to “pick my brain.” It’s annoying and presumptuous.

– Don’t ask me how much my advance was. It’s really annoying. I don’t ask your salary!

– Don’t whine about how hard/lonely/difficult/poorly-paid it can be, especially at the beginning. I know. Go do something else…like retail or fast-food work. That’s misery, kids. Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon; a messy, necessary part of every working day. Get used it or don’t be a writer.

– We’re insecure. Did you really like that story/pitch/book/screenplay? Say so!

– Repeat business is the sweetest. When you find a writer whose work you like and you enjoy working with, throw them as much work as they can handle. You’ll win our loyalty.

– If you’re a client, and we bill by the hour, don’t cheap out and ask us for a 30-minute consultation. It can take that much time to even read your two-page material thoughtfully, let alone formulate helpful ways to improve it.

– If you’re an editor, and like what we’ve done, say so! We’re hungry for praise and enthusiasm, no matter how experienced we are. The check is what we work for. A thank-you or other additional thumbs-up is what we hope for.

– Just like you, we’re all juggling multiple projects every day, some competing for the same time you think you’ve bought exclusively. Don’t demand immediate replies, revisions or turn-arounds on a moment’s notice. If you need our undivided attention, say so, explain when — and pay properly enough that we’re willing to back-burner other things for you. Snapping your fingers at us just means we’ll never work for you again.

– Pay us promptly with no excuses! There is nothing more irritating than meeting every deadline, even beating it, then waiting weeks or months for payment. You got paid. The lights are still on in your office. The office rent got paid. Our turn!

– Make the time to get to know us, even a little bit. We, too, have kids and hobbies and new puppies. The more we know, like and trust one another, the better our working relationship is likely to be. We’re not robots. We don’t want to be treated like one.

– Let us get to know you a bit as well. We don’t need or want to be your BFFs, but people work best with those they like and respect. You can’t like and respect a cipher. I recently found out all the jobs one of my editors is expected to do. Jesus, no wonder she sounds so stressed and tired!

– Follow up. If we’ve pitched you an idea after a meeting or phone chat, or we’ve been introduced to you by your boss or someone you trust, don’t ignore us. It’s rude! These weren’t cold calls. We’ve done our due diligence to get a good referral. You’re dissing them and us.

– Be explicit about what you need, expect and in what order. If your publication normally expects three revisions, say so at the outset and we’ll budget that time, or not work with you. But insatiably grabbing more unpaid time on a set fee is greedy.

– If you’re my agent, and we’ve agreed to work together, please answer my phone calls and emails promptly. I won’t drive you mad, but I expect you to pay attention; you’ll be claiming 15% of every check I earn from our books together, so I expect you to earn it.

– If you wish to sever our working relationship, do so. Don’t be passive aggressive and neglectful. Just get it over with.

Here’s a great post, from Freshly Pressed, (which inspired this post), by a theater veteran about what actors really feel but are often afraid to say out loud about their working conditions.

A writer’s week

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, work on December 1, 2012 at 12:04 am

Here’s my desk, messy as usual…

In the middle of American Thanksgiving, last weekend — at 12:30 on Saturday — I got an email that made me cry.

Having applied for one of the country’s most competitive journalism fellowships, for which hundreds try each year, I was told I’m one of 14 finalists. They will only choose six, so it’s far from a sure thing. If I win, I’ll receive funding for six months. I go to Washington, D.C. Dec. 10, with only 15 minutes in which five judges will question me further, to determine who will win.

Wish me luck!

I worked this week on two very different projects, another 2,500 word feature for The New York Times business section, my fourth for them since April. I also finished up a 20-image slideshow for the DIYnetwork, an on-line branch of HGTV, focused on interior design; writing wasn’t the skill needed here but a strong visual sense as I pored through dozens of images, chose the ones I think best, then contacted architects, designers, photographers and manufacturers to get their permission.

I pitched a few ideas, but didn’t hear back. I’m still “saving string” — accumulating clips and sources — for my next two non-fiction book ideas as I’ve found a new agent to work with. I hope to write both book proposals in December, unpaid work I never like much but the only way to sell books to publishers; a book proposal, for those who have never written one, is essentially an intellectual blueprint, laying out clearly what you hope to say, to whom and in what detail.

I have to hire a new assistant, something I’ve been putting off, a little — a lot — weary of having to train new people every few months. I’m aware that if I paid $20/hr+ I’d keep them longer, but I’ve yet to see any difference in skill or attitude between people I pay $1o to $15 an hour.

I read a thriller for fun, and am halfway through a great new business book (yes, really) about personal finance, trying to find someone to pay me to review it. I speak next week to a local women’s club, hoping to sell copies of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I have a few story ideas I need to pitch to magazine and newspaper editors. This is the part of my writing business I enjoy least, busy enough juggling immediate, short-term and long-term projects as it is.

Our only car was in the shop all week for a viciously costly — four-figure — repair, the second one that size in a month. Double whammy, as living in the ‘burbs without a car is hopeless. The good news? I walked my hilly neighborhood at dusk, savoring the terrific Hudson River views, cutting through people’s backyards and made all sorts of discoveries I’ve never noticed in 24 years driving quickly along the same streets. I was inspired and moved by this terrific blog post, featured on Freshly Pressed, about how much the writer saw during his hour-long neighborhood walk.

The trees still have many of their red, orange and yellow leaves and I could shuffle my feet through huge piles of them on the sidewalk, happily feeling like a five-year-old.

As we head into the final month of 2012, I’m trying to plan ahead for 2013. The business of journalism and publishing is changing so quickly, though, it’s hard to know where to best expend my energy.

Next year, if all works out as I hope, I’ll sell two books to publishers, take a six-month break from this hustle with my fellowship income, do more paid public speaking and find more new markets for my work; this year I found nine, three of which didn’t last long. I always prefer, whenever possible, to create long-term relationships with repeat business.

But people change jobs and sometimes a new working relationship fails to pan out for either side.

How was your week?

Twelve ways to blog better

In behavior, blogging, culture on September 9, 2012 at 12:13 am
compassion hearts

Go ahead — share your heart with us! (Photo credit: journeyscoffee)

Last December I posted fifteen tips on how to make your blog more compelling. A few of you have since emailed me privately to ask how to find more readers, and more quickly.

Since I started blogging here at WordPress, in July 2010, I’ve been chosen for Freshly Pressed five times, which has been a pleasant validation that I’m doing OK in this new medium.

Here are twelve tips I hope will inspire and help you to grow your readership.

None are necessarily simple or quick. Just because it’s “only” a blog doesn’t mean creating quality content is, or should be, painless.

We all have limited time and attention

You know how few seconds we’re willing to offer anything on line. If you’re demanding others’ attention, which you are with a blog, why does yours deserve it? What value are you adding to my day if I take three or five or even ten minutes to read it? Don’t just hit publish because you think a post a day is worth doing. Make every single post something you truly think worth others’ valuable and limited attention.

The very best blogs combine the personal with the universal

We all feel fear, crave humor, hope to avoid embarrassment, experience sadness or anxiety. How often is your blog being emotionally truthful?

Compassion and empathy rule!

Snark isn’t my default mode and the blogosphere is full of stupid photos and political rants. You don’t have to be smarmy, but realizing that 99% of us feel pretty much the same feelings all throughout our lives (yes, really!) will inform the best writing.

Check your spelling, vocabulary and grammar

Messy copy shows a lack of respect for your readers. Spell-check is not your best friend. A dictionary is.

Pretend your blog is a magazine and you’re the editor in chief

By that I mean, make me eager to read it, using great visuals — photos, drawings, video — and a terrific headline to tease me in. Magazine editors are intensely aware of the need to entice readers away from all their competitors. Think a little more like them.

You’re being read worldwide — be inclusive

It’s easy to forget that whatever you’re writing about may be read by someone thousands of miles away. It drives me nuts when people can’t be bothered to tell me where or who they are. It’s extremely common.

Use social media to spread your work, selectively

As I write this, 25 people have wandered over for a look from Facebook, where a guy I’ve never met who lives in California liked one of my posts enough to link to it. Don’t beat people to death with your opinions, but social media is the one sure way to attract new eyeballs and potential readers.

Leave thoughtful, funny and/or helpful comments on others’ blogs. Do it every day.

I did this every single day for more than a year. It took up a ton of time and I’m glad it’s no longer necessary, but it is something you simply have to do if you’re truly hungry for more readers. I read Freshly Pressed every day and often find two or three posts I can leave a useful comment on. “Liking” isn’t enough! Leave a trace of your personality as well, which may well intrigue others back to see who you are.

Fill out your “About” page. Today!

Even if you’re not writing using your real name, readers want to have some idea who you are and why they might want to listen to you. Include a photo, a recent and flattering one. If you’re too scared to write even a paragraph about who you are and why we should be reading you…are you really ready to blog?

Move us!

The very best blogs, like a piece of music, leave us feeling something emotionally, whether outraged, laughing or pensive. Bland = zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Edit, revise, repeat

Do you bang out your posts in an urgent frenzy to share your views with the world, and hit “publish” right away? If this is your automatic habit, time to re-think. Use every revision to make it tighter and stronger.

Use paragraphs

A blog that goes onandonandoandonandon without a single line break, or paragraphs, is just selfish and rude, the written equivalent of a big fat boring monologue.

Does anything you read in the real world lack punctuation and paragraphs?

What are some of your tips?

Ten things writers don’t want to hear — and five that we welcome

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, work on May 30, 2012 at 12:27 am
Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe,...

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century miniature from Robert de Boron’s Merlin en prose (written ca 1200). (Manuscript illustration, c.1300.) Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of Mythology, Lorenz Books/Anness Publishing Limited, 1996-1999, p. 114. ISBN 1-85967-164-0. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone who earns his/her living as a writer hears some mighty stupid shit along the way. Often.

 Like:

I’ve always wanted to write a book. I’m going to do that when I retire. Because, you know, it’s dead easy, right? Maybe you haven’t heard that tired old joke about the neurosurgeon who meets a writer at a party and tells the writer, “I plan to take up writing when I retire.” And the writer says…

Who’s your agent? Will you introduce me to them? I know you’ll tell me because you want to share your contacts with me. My work is exactly like yours and every bit as good. I just know it. (While you’re at it, make a pass at my partner or spouse.)

How are sales going? Oh, really? But I plan to be a successful writer.

Have I read anything you’ve written? And I would know everything you read because….?

Who do you write for? Yes, an innocent question. But, all too often, a tedious demand to prove your credentials. Zzzzzzzzzz.

Are your books best-sellers? Of course. Not.

My last three books were best-sellers. I know, already. And you know that I know.

I loved my MacArthur grant/Pulitzer/Neiman. So much fun! Get the hook.

Will you read my proposal/manuscript and tell me what you think? Sure, for a fee.

Oh, you charge for that? Of course not. Money? Every writer gets a lifetime numbered card from the government. We show it every time we rent a home and buy gas and groceries and clothes and medicine. We get a 50% discount for being, you know, creative! Not.

Here are five winners:

I loved your book(s). My favorite part was when…The whole point of writing is being read. Carefully.

Will you come and speak to our book club? Many of us enjoy meeting enthusiastic readers face to face and answering their questions. (Other authors are too shy or busy.)

Will you come and lecture at my school? For a fee that includes travel time, sure. Every unpaid hour for someone self-employed is lost income. You, the teacher/professor are earning a salary, paid sick and vacation days and, if lucky, a pension. Yes, I get that being invited to share my knowledge is an honor. I do. But my bills don’t care.

Will you speak at our annual conference? Of course we’ll pay you a fee and all travel expenses. You got it!

Are you available to offer coaching or editing — what do you charge? $150 to 200 an hour. When do we start?

For those of you who may still want to write/sell a book or two or three — here’s a very cool blog post with advice from Joyce Carol Oates who suggests the best way to develop a strong sure authorial voice (and readers hungry for more of it) — blog!

“Are you still writing?”

In art, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, family, journalism, life, Media, work on May 15, 2012 at 4:04 am
Homework Session

Homework Session (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They always ask this with a little chirpy voice. Like…really?

They’re usually people with office jobs and big paychecks and paid sick days. People who line up every morning to catch the bus or train or subway and some of whom pray for reprieve from the vocational choice they’ve made.

Writing for a living looks so damn easy. No stress! No boss! No demands or deadlines!

Anyone can do it, right?

I thought I was alone in hearing this annoying question after spending my entire life as a journalist and author.

But Roger Rosenblatt, a much bigger name than I here in the U.S., gets it too, as he writes in The New York Times Book Review:

And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”

Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”

Everyone wants to be a writer — it looks like so much fun! Sit around the house in your pajamas all day waiting for inspiration. Sign me up!

Even the plumber who recently came to my apartment, and socked me with a $225.00 bill for fixing our only toilet, said “Oh, when I retire I want to be a writer.”

“You don’t,” I warned him, wincing as I wrote the check. “Most of us don’t make a lot of money.”

“Oh, I just want to be a successful writer,” he replied. “You know, like John Grisham.” (Who last year raked in a cool $18 million.)

Those of us who’ve been cranking out journalism or book-focused copy for a few decades, even with some nice reviews, (my first book was called [swoon!] “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential publication), know it’s a risky way to make a living. Because your “living” can vary from $4,000 a day to $4,000 a year.

Last year I made more money from public speaking engagements and a TV option from CBS for my memoir, “Malled” than I did from the book itself. It cost me 10 percent of the option income to have an entertainment attorney review the inch-thick contract with CBS negotiated by two agents — now taking 20 percent of the option cash for their input.

I waited 12 months after publication for the final instalment of my advance, which, after my agent took her standard 15 percent cut, came to $8,500. That’s a year’s income, or more, in sub-Saharan Africa. In suburban New York, (with no kids to support), that lasts quite a bit less.

Here’s a great list from Forbes.com, and fellow journo/blogger Jeff Bercovici, why journalism still kicks ass as a way to make a living. Because it just does.

(Here’s a brilliant blog post with a visual of how “success” appears to different people, including writers.)

So, why do so many people long to be writers?

People want to be rich. If writing doesn’t make you rich (and it certainly can for those who hit and stay on the best-seller list and/or sell their work to film or television), then why the hell are you bothering?

People want to be famous. If your book is on a shelf in a store, you’re the bomb! (So is weed-killer and diapers, but hey, retail exposure is cool, right?)

People want to be on TV/radio/blogs. They crave global attention. Because then life will be so different. (Not!)

People want to feel cool and creative. As opposed to cube life with 10 days of vacation.

People want to have other people quote them as wise and witty experts. Not just their Mom.

People want to feel validated as having something compelling to say, with millions eager to listen to them. Not just their Mom.

So, having published two non-fiction books (so far), is any of this true? Does it happen?

Sort of. I’ve met a few people who knew my name before I walked into the room. That can be pleasant.

I write because it’s how I make sense of the world.

I write because it stitches me back into the crazy quilt of other people’s ideas and feelings.

I write because my skill and talent and hard work, even working freelance for most of my life, have still allowed me to earn and save more than the average American with a steady paycheck.

I write because it allows me to indulge my insatiable curiosity about the world and get paid to do so.

I write because it has allowed me to meet everyone from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes to a female admiral to the Inuk man who greeted me on a snowmobile when our tiny plane landed in his village just south of the Arctic circle.

I write because…

I’m a writer.

Why do you write?

Meeting Your Readers Face to Face

In behavior, blogging, books, business, work on August 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Michael Shellenberger

Author Michael Shellenberger at a D.C. bookstore. Image via Wikipedia

When your books start heading out into the wider world — bought (paid for!) by libraries, schools and civilians — it’s hard not to be intensely curious about just who these people are.

Four months ago today, my memoir “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published. To my relief, it is still selling very steadily nationwide.

It’s a thrill to know that some people are appreciating your skill and hard work and ideas — especially when you get “reviews” like the nastiest one (of many) so far at amazon.com that called me “bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”

I recently read to/spoke with a small group — perhaps 15 or so — at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. Fun! A local blogger kind enough to feature me came out with his friends. They had lots of questions and comments, as several people had worked in retail themselves and had much to offer.

It was a lively conversation, and  so satisfying to have a chance to share with people who care as much about this stuff as I do.

When you’re writing, hunched alone in your sweats over your umpteenth revision, it’s these moments I especially look forward to as my reward. Writing books is such a crapshoot. You pray you’ll find readers, and when you find enthusiastic ones and can see their faces and hear their reactions, it closes the loop between your initial private ideas and the act of publication.

I was especially touched there by the woman whose response to “Malled” was “Yayyyyyyyyy!” and told us she keeps telling friends to read it.

For some people, authors are a mysterious breed. Unless you hang out in those circles, you might never meet one, while our products keep pouring out in a hopeless Niagara, each of us trying in every possible way to claim your attention. Booksellers see a ragged parade of us, persistently cheerful in the face of even the tiniest tiny turn-out — sometime one person, sometimes none.

The bookseller at M & Q was relieved to find me relaxed, schmoozing the audience before we began. “Some writers are really high-strung,” he told me.

Why, yes they are. I once interviewed a famous women humorist whose work I had revered for years. Disaster. She was rude, abrupt and distinctly not funny in person.

See: illusions, shattered.

It’s even a real challenge finding venues to read and meet your readers. I’m not sufficiently high profile to read at any of the Manhattan Barnes & Noble stores, and couldn’t find a single store in the city to set up an event for me. I did one event here in the New York suburbs where I live — and one person came, a fellow blogger I know.

“Book tours” paid for by a publisher willing to send you around the country are only for the uber-successful. The rest of us call a few stores in whatever towns we’re about to visit, and hope to piggyback on their local and loyal buyers to come out and meet us. Even if no buyers appear, we sign some books, shake some hands and hope we leave a good-enough impression that the bookstore staff will talk up our book — only word of mouth makes a book truly successful.

Not ads, not reviews.

And we really need enthusiastic and knowledgable retailers to hand-sell our work, recommending it with enthusiasm even while thousands of our competitors line their shelves.

Have you ever gone to a reading to meet an author?

Was s/he what you expected in person?

Define “Successful”

In behavior, books, business, domestic life, family, journalism, life, Money, women, work on June 15, 2011 at 12:39 pm
The New York Times

Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

I found out this week that my new book won’t be getting a review from The New York Times. For ambitious writers, a review — even a crummy one — in the Times is a sure sign of success.

So, I’m disappointed.

But…maybe I dodged a bullet. Some of “Malled’s” reviews have been so vicious they’ve left me gasping.

And yet almost every day since it came out I’ve also been getting private emails from fellow workers in retail, like the one that arrived this morning asking: “Have you spent 23 years sitting on my shoulder?”

To know I’ve been able to tell a complex story well and to connect emotionally with readers is success for me.

I’ve been struggling for a while to write a guest post about “the writer’s life”. There are many!

The reason I can’t figure out what to say is that we all define success so differently.

I received an email this week from a young woman who described me as very successful. In many ways, on paper, that’s true; I’ve punched most of the standard tickets.

But how do I feel internally?

Hah!

Because “Malled” has gotten a ton of press attention, many people consider this success. But for a writer trying to find thousands of paying readers, it’s only one crucial piece of it…success is actually selling books.

Success, for me, is the ability to wake up in the morning and not worry about where the next set of bill payments is going to come from, and freelancing without any steady income means almost constant anxiety.

Getting a job doesn’t feel like it would solve the problem; my last staff job, from 2005-2006 at the New York Daily News, was a terrible fit and an extremely stressful experience. No job can be better than the wrong job. And at my age, in this hard-hit field, getting a staff job feels next to impossible.

Success to me, then, would mean freedom from financial anxiety.

For others, it’s another day simply being alive and/or healthy, or their child’s achievements or finding and keeping a partner or a home…

How about you?

How do you define it?

Have you achieved it?

Or is it…I suspect!…a constantly moving target?


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