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Posts Tagged ‘Blown Away: American Women and Guns’

Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on April 11, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

malled cover HIGH

But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?

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Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

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.

Why editors still matter

In books, business, culture, journalism, work on December 16, 2013 at 12:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Publishers Weekly, (a must-read publication for any truly ambitious author), by a career editor:

A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, “We don’t pay you to edit.” The real message was: “Editing is not
crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.” After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, “Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.” In other words, “If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.” One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time. But that has been true since I went into the business 28 years ago.

As a freelance editor, these models no longer apply to my work. I no longer have to jump on every promising submission overnight. I no longer need to be looking over my shoulder, hoping for the approval of the marketing, publicity, and sales departments. I no longer have to determine the worth of any particular project a year before publication (and we know how often publishers get that right!). The burden on the freelance editor consists solely of helping the author write his or her best possible book.

The dirty secret of contemporary publishing — any author quickly learns — is that the verb “to edit” may not mean what you thought or hoped it would.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” was acquired by a very young and hungry editor who handed me back barely a page and half of notes on my final manuscript. I rocked! (Or did I?)

It quickly became clear to me that any editor was very short on time. There would be no long lunches (or even short ones) to discuss the world of letters. We maybe spoke to one another four or five times from acquisition to publication date — a span of more than two years.

The one time we did hang out — bizarre but true — was when I took her shooting in New Jersey and we spent the afternoon firing handguns at a local gun range. She wanted (which I really appreciated) to better understand the subject of my book. Our book.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” came back to me with a suggestion that Chapters 1-10 more closely resemble the final two. Holy shit!I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it.

That editor, whose strong ideas about structure and tone were invaluable (if daunting) had previously worked for NASA — maybe great editing was rocket science!

I’m working on yet another book proposal right now and, if this one sells, (no guarantee, as ever), I sure hope I find a terrific editor. I owe Courtney, my editor for “Malled”, a deep debt of thanks for her willingness to push me as hard as she did, even making final edits as the book went into production in September 2010.

A great editor will save you. We all need them!

Yet it’s very odd when you find a publisher for a non-fiction book — essentially an intellectual blind date.

Whoever chooses to publish you assigns an editor you have likely never met and know nothing of. Yet you’re bound, (maybe more an arranged marriage?) for the next few years to one another’s taste, personality and schedules. It requires a great deal of mutual trust between strangers whose careers can be enhanced or seriously damaged if the book soars or tanks.

I’m dying to read this new book, “My Mistake”, by editor Daniel Menaker whose career included The New Yorker and Random House  — if only for its spectacular conflagration [ba-boom!] of an editorial bridge most New Yorkers still genuflect to — legendary power couple Tina Brown [ex-editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the Daily Beast, among others] and her husband Harold Evans.

The review in the Times is by Meryl Gordon (who kindly blurbed my last book) and whose own next biography comes out next spring.

Journalism and publishing — certainly in New York City — is still a hothouse of interlocking egos, power and (artfully disguised) terror.

Nigella’s “tiff”? 30 percent of women suffer DV, says WHO report

In behavior, Crime, culture, domestic life, family, life, men, news, women on June 20, 2013 at 2:26 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Nigella Lawson at a Borders book-signing

Nigella Lawson at a Borders book-signing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, of course, more depressing news about how many women are sexually and/or physically abused by their male partners, from a new report from the World Health Organization:

A new international study released today has come up with a global
number, and it’s a big one: around the world, 30 per cent of women are
victims of physical and sexual abuse by their partners. The paper,
published in the major scientific journal Science, is based on a
meta-analysis of 141 studies from 81 countries conducted by a team of
European and North American researchers – the lead author is Canadian
Karen Devries, a social epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine.

The research, done in collaboration with
the World Health Organization, found wide variations between regions of
the world, with the highest rates in Central sub-Saharan Africa, where
the rate of sexual and physical violence from a partner is 66 per cent.
In South Asia, the rate was 41 per cent. But, even in Western Europe and
North America, countries that celebrate the advancement of women in
society, the rate was disturbingly high. About one in five women in
those regions experience physical and sexual abuse from a husband or
boyfriend.

For those of you who missed the story, which was recent front page news in Britain, cookbook author and television star Nigella Lawson was photographed in a restaurant — with her husband’s hand on her throat.

That would be the uber-wealthy 70-year-old adman Charles Saatchi, who dismissed his odious and unlawful behavior as “a playful tiff.”

To which I say, with the greatest respect, fuck off.

Here’s a description of the event, from the Daily Mail:

The couple, who are thought to be
worth £128million, had just finished eating outdoors at their favourite
seafood restaurant Scott’s last Sunday when Mr Saatchi is reported to
have started a heated and angry exchange with his wife.

Miss Lawson, 53, looked tearful as he
grabbed her neck four times, first with his left hand and then both. As
he held her neck, they clutched hands across the table before Mr Saatchi
tweaked her nose and used both wrists to push her face.

Afterwards, Miss Lawson dabbed her tearful eyes in a napkin as he tapped his cigarettes impatiently upon the table.

She then gulped a whole glass of wine
before appearing to attempt to pacify him with a trembling voice. During
the attempted reconciliation, she leaned over the table and kissed his
right cheek.

Kissing your abuser?

Sounds about right, sadly.

And when a woman with the insane, gob-smacking wealth and social capital of a Nigella Lawson puts up with this bullshit, imagine all the women — broke, pregnant, breastfeeding, financially dependent on their husbands or partners — who can’t just move into Claridge’s while they find a terrific divorce attorney.

When I interviewed 104 men, women and teens for my 2004 book about American women and gun use, several told me how they had been beaten, threatened and stalked by their husbands or boyfriends, their children and pets threatened with harm. One woman told how her husband kept a loaded shotgun beneath his side of the bed, nor would her father allow her to return to her family home to recover and figure out what to do next.

One woman, so terrified of her husband she moved into a friend’s home and hid her car in her garage, was so fed up she went with her father to confront the SOB who was terrorizing her. Her father brought a handgun, which slipped from his pocket. She stepped on it as her husband lunged for her.

She shot and killed him, point-blank.

Domestic violence is no joke. It is common, widespread, destroying thousands of lives.

Three women die every day at the hands of someone who coos “I love you” when they aren’t beating the shit out of them.

How can you learn to write better when all you do is write?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, work on January 20, 2013 at 8:48 pm

I ask all of you this question — since the vast majority of you are bloggers and some are very serious and determined producers of journalism, non-fiction and fiction.

Next week I am not writing. Next week, to borrow my favorite of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective People, I’m shutting down the intellectual production line to “sharpen my saw”.

Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop wh...

It’s time to NOT make the doughnuts for a while! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I plan to do everything but write: sleep, watch the sky, talk to my Dad, hang out with Jose, see my high school friend Sally and pat her dog Lucy and watch the fire glow in fireplaces and attend my favorite small-town auction. We’ll eat some good food, sleep late, go for long walks through Toronto streets and along Lake Ontario.

I will also read a number of books by career writers and editors and teachers of non-fiction that I hope will help to improve my writing. I’ve been cranking copy for a living since 1978, decades before some of you were born. It is a rare and essential luxury to withdraw and really think deeply and broadly about process. About how to do it even better.

I recently finished On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, who is still teaching in Manhattan, at the age of 88. It is a truly stellar book. I cannot recommend it too highly! Don’t simply trust me — it’s sold 1.5 million copies since he wrote it in 1974 (revised many times since.)

I’m going to read this book, by New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose brief pieces are lovely, clean and graceful.

And this one, by Roy Peter Clark, whose session last September in Decatur, at the Decatur Book Festival, was sold out, a huge auditorium where they wouldn’t let me, a fellow speaker, even sit on the floor to hear him.

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...

New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

I’m eager to read this new book, Good Prose, another guide to writing well, reviewed recently in The Wall Street Journal:

Messrs. Kidder and Todd claim that one reason their relationship remained productive for so many years was that “we shared a code common to men of our era, which meant that we didn’t expect much, or feel like offering much, in the way of intimacy or ‘sharing.’ ” Maybe so, but in a sense they were exceptionally intimate: One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)

One of the things I very rarely talk about here at Broadside, when I talk about writing for a living, is my relationships with my editors, without whom I would starve in a month. Unlike blogging, my writing for print and books always goes through multiple layers of editing by others, often people I will never meet and may not even speak to.

These relationships have tremendous power and weight:

– I have to retain my voice

– I have to insure my material remains factually accurate

– My stories need to retain their rhythm and tone; like a piece of musical composition, none of my word choices or sentence lengths or paragraph lengths are arbitrary

– I need to be sure the many underlying themes are carried through and clear to my readers

But, I also need

– to retain long-term relationships in a small industry where people move around a lot, but stay in the biz for decades

– be well-paid

– keep, as much as I can, a reputation as someone that agents, editors, assistants and publicists really want to work with again

This is the single greatest inherent weakness of blogging. Other than your followers, who is editing you and forcing you, on every single story, to up your game?

I recently read the post of blogger who said — and I could not tell if she was serious — that she expected an agent to find her and publishing success would follow.

Well, maybe.

Journalism and commercial book publishing is a team sport! I cannot emphasize this enough. For someone who may have zero writing training or work-shopping experience, who has never been heavily edited — which means answering a lot of questions from a lot of people who now control some or all of your career and income and reputation — it will be one hell of a shock.

When fellow blogger Mrs. Fringe and I met for coffee a while back, I learned how serious and determined she is to publish fiction. But she’s also shown it to some of the nation’s toughest editors and they were encouraging.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” got some terrific reviews; Booklist (which librarians read to decide what to buy) called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.” But it was very lightly edited so I had no true feeling for a hands-on editing job until I got my editors’ notes back on “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I was alone, in a motel room in Victoria, B.C., visiting my mother. I read them and panicked. Totally panicked.

Basically, my editor — who was, of course, half my age — said “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.”

What about Chapters One through 10?

Suffice to say that 30 years, three big newspaper staff reporting jobs and thousands of freelance articles had still not prepared me, emotionally or intellectually, for this intense level of trust, revision and sheer hard work.

What are you doing these days to sharpen  and grow your writing skills?

Talking tomorrow on “BBC World Have Your Say” About Newtown

In behavior, blogging, books, cities, Crime, culture, journalism, Media, news, politics, television, US on December 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm
Official seal of Newtown, Connecticut

Official seal of Newtown, Connecticut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have any interest in this subject, I’m speaking at 15:00 GMT (10:00 a.m. ET) on BBC television tomorrow, Friday Dec. 21, about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and the reaction to them.

The call-in show is an hour, and will have five guests, three of them from the U.S., me and two men, one a colleague who has lived in Newtown for 19 years and a gun-owner from Arkansas.

In the past few days, I’ve done a BBC interview, written an op-ed for a Canadian newspaper and given an interview that ran in two German newspapers, Berliner Zeitung and Frankfurter Rundschau; here is the brief interview that ran in Frankfurter Rundschau.

The world is horrified by the massacre and many people — like many Americans — simply cannot understand why so many Americans insist on owning a gun.

As many of you know by now, the President has tasked Vice President Joe Biden with a committee who must come up with policy suggestions within one month — the same idea I floated in my New York Times op-ed two days earlier.

My book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” discusses this issue; here’s a link to it.

Here’s the link to the show’s information.

A few thoughts on Newtown

In behavior, blogging, books, Crime, culture, journalism, Media, news, politics, women on December 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm
English: Photo of Harvard University professor...

English: Photo of Harvard University professor David Hemenway, PhD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been a busy few days!

I did an interview with BBC’s Newsday, one with a German freelancer, and wrote two op-eds on this story, both requested.

For anyone who wonders how I get to speak out publicly like this, it’s a matter of relationships. All four opportunities came to me through long-held relationships with editors or these institutions.

I also, which I really value, am essentially asked to explain this specific example of American exceptionalism to other nations who find Americans’ attachment to gun ownership truly bizarre. If you have never visited the National Rifle Association’s website, you must do so, no matter how repugnant you may find their views. Their appeal is emotional and clearly, to its members, very powerful.

If you have no idea what they are saying to their members — and do not understand how organized and well-funded they are –  it’s more difficult to fashion any useful counter-arguments or marshal useful and effective opposition.

This section of it, the ILA, is well worth following, as it is their legislative action component.

It was challenging indeed to produce two op-eds within hours, knowing the subject is wildly inflammatory.

I want to read and hear more women’s voices on this issue!

While Rep. Dianne Feinstein plans to re-introduce the ban on assault rifles -- that expired eight years ago — I see very few women speaking out right now.

Not just grieving — but arguing loudly and publicly in every possible venue for change, offering their own ideas as well.

Here are my two op-eds, one written for a Canadian audience, one for Americans.

This ran in the Ottawa, (Ontario) Citizen:

The guns used in this attack belonged to a woman, 52-year-old Nancy Lanza, a middle-aged small-town divorcee, probably the last person many would expect to own five guns, including a Sig Sauer 9-millimetre pistol, a Glock 10-millimetre pistol and a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

Why, asked one of my Facebook friends, an artist in California, did she even choose to collect guns? “Why not bicycles or butterflies?”

Because, for millions of American gun owners, owning a gun is as key to their identity and core beliefs as their support for, or opposition to, abortion. For some women, knowing how to shoot accurately and having a firearm in their home and/or vehicle, maybe even in their purse, also reflects the American ethos of individual rights and self-reliance.

And I added my voice to those of The New York Times’ on-line Room for Debate:

President Obama has vowed to take action, but to do so he needs to involve women. He should create, this week, a multidisciplinary committee — composed not of politicians whose alliances and funding have impeded federal gun legislation for decades — but of those most directly involved in gun use and violence.

Perhaps most important, the committee should include its fair share of women — both those who have been affected by gun violence and those who own firearms. Many women with useful insights into this issue are afraid to speak out publicly for fear of being vilified and shunned in ways that male gun-owners are not.

It might include: emergency room doctors and nurses; hospital administrators bearing the significant costs of treating gun shot wounds; law enforcement and criminologists; public health advocates like Harvard’s David Hemenway; moderate, concerned individual gun-owners; experts in diagnosing and treating mental illness; domestic violence experts; and primary care physicians and pediatricians wary of — even legally forbidden from — discussing how their patients may store their guns and ammunition.

Until all sides are negotiating at the table together — gun owners and victims of gun crimes, public health workers and private gun shop owners, men and women — a viable solution will continue to evade this society.

What do you think of this idea of a Presidential committee?

I think we desperately need new and fresh ideas, no matter how odd or challenging they appear to put into action.

Road trip!

In behavior, cities, life, travel, women, world on May 22, 2012 at 12:04 am
Open road, B6355 Big sky country, the road ove...

Open road, B6355 Big sky country, the road over the Lammermuir Hills. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I looooooove road trips!

I took the first one when I was too little to even remember it — from my birthplace in Vancouver, Canada all the way to Mexico, in the back seat of my parents’ car. No wonder I’m always eager to get behind the wheel, crank up the radio and flee the jurisdiction.

The New York Times recently ran a great selection of their writers’ favorites, several of which I’ve also done and enjoyed, like Route 100 in Vermont.

Here’s a fantastic recent blog post about driving Highway 1 in California, a classic trip I’ve longed to take.

Some of my favorite road trips include:

— When my Dad and I took a month to drive from Toronto to Vancouver, dipping south of the Canadian border into North and South Dakota along the way to visit some Indian pow-wows. We camped, and woke up to find a large steak and a bag of sugar at our tent door. In one farmer’s field, we camped and were awakened looking up at the owner on his tractor. I think every 15-year-old girl should spend a month with her Dad on the road. You learn a lot about one another.

Like….I am not a morning person. So my Dad would set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and tell me it was 7:00 a.m. It worked, for a while.

— Our road trip from Mexico City to Taxco to Acapulco, in the mid-1980s. I speak good Spanish so, as the gas gauge fell alarmingly low, he said “There’s a house. Go ask where the nearest gas station is.” When we arrived in Acapulco, he remembered a cheap hotel from a decade or so earlier and there it was.

— My mom and I lived in Mexico when I was 14 and drove all over the place, which was vaguely insane for two women alone, one of whom was 14, with waist-length blond hair.

— Montreal to Savannah, Georgia, crossing — yes, this is its real name — the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, with my Dad. We dipped into tiny coastal towns like Oriental.

— My first husband I drove south from Montreal to Charleston, S.C. where he tried to teach me to drive — why? — on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We visited one of my favorite places ever, Kitty Hawk, N.C. where the Wright Brothers got the very first airplane to fly in 1903. I adore aviation and travel, so these guys are real heroes in my book.

— In Ireland, my Dad and I drove the outer edge of the whole country in a week; as Europeans well know, you can cross several countries in the time it takes to get out of Ontario or Texas. Ireland, side to side, three hours. I’ve spent that in NYC traffic just trying to get home! We visited Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, where my great-grandfather was the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse.

— In 2002 while researching my book about American women and guns, I went to visit a cowboy who lived in the middle of nowhere, between Silver City and Colorado City, Texas. For hundreds of miles, all one could see were oil drills pumping up and down.

Out there, on a long bare and empty stretch of road, my cellphone didn’t work, my gas was getting low and I was a long way from help. Then a white pick-up truck pulled up beside me, with a weathered man at the wheel. “You the writer from New York?”

Um, yes. That lost-tenderfoot thing probably gave me away.

“Follow me!” And when I arrived, his wife Doris showed me a long, narrow, low wooden box. “You’ve probably never seen or heard these and I want you to be safe when you’re here.” Then she opened the box, using a long metal stick. It was full of….live rattlesnakes. 

— Jose, now my husband, took me from his native Santa Fe, New Mexico along the High Road to Taos, through the town of Truchas. Spectacular.

— Alone, in June 1994, I drove in a circle from Phoenix, Arizona north to Flagstaff, saw the Grand Canyon and the  Canyon de Chelly, (inhabited for the past 5,000 years), and arrived back in Phoenix against a sunset sky so yellow and purple and orange — cacti backlit — I felt like a character in a 1940s Disney cartoon.

— I had a great solo road trip, in my beloved red Honda del Sol convertible, (since stolen, from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia. I stayed in B & Bs. I visited Monticello, home to polymath, and its designer, the U.S.’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. I drove through lush hills and valleys in West Virginia that made me feel like someone in a Thomas Hart Benson painting.

I didn’t learn to drive until I was 30, so I had a lot of driving to make up!

Go alone, or with your BFF or your sister or your nephew or Dad or Mom or husband or sweetie.

Pack a cooler with yogurt and green grapes. Bring binoculars and a sense of wonder.

Stop often. Eat well! Get up for dawn.

Drive in the cool of the night, as we did in North Carolina, the scent of dew-covered jasmine filling our nostrils.

But go!

What’s the best (or worst) road trip you’ve ever taken?

Guns + Mental Illness + Public Apathy = Violence

In behavior, cities, Crime, culture, Health, news, politics, US on April 4, 2012 at 12:17 am
Venn diagram ABC RGB

Venn diagram ABC RGB (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another day in the U.S. — another mass shooting on a college campus, this time (you can’t make it up) at a Oikos, a Christian university in Oakland, California. It happened Monday in Oakland, a city right next to San Francisco, whose airport I flew back to New York from this morning.

This time, seven were killed and three injured when a former student, One Goh, opened fire.

As usual, the cliches spill forth: “senseless tragedy”, “just like a movie”, “I thought I was going to die.”

etc.

I don’t write this so cynically out of any disrespect for the dead, injured or their families.

But it’s going to happen again, and again and again and again.

It’s never if, but when.

It’s estimated that 30 percent of American homes contain at least one firearm, some with a virtual arsenal. It’s also estimated that 25 percent of the population, during their lifetime, will suffer a mental illness.

If you know Venn diagrams, you quickly realize this is a lethal combination, one I described in my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”. In it, I include the stories of women whose sons and husbands and fathers committed suicide or homicide using a firearm.

There are many reasons that such mass murders simply never budge the needle in American public policy, from an economy still in tatters for millions — placing gun control at the bottom of a very long to-do list — to a nation deeply divided, sometimes even within the same state, on the need for an armed populace with the right to carry or to shoot to kill, even if someone is trying to steal your vehicle.

The case of Trayvon Martin is currently testing the limits of the public appetite for private self-defense — a young man shot dead while walking through a gated Florida community. His shooter was Hispanic, the victim — unarmed — black.

I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1988. I understand why gun violence is so much a part of this society.

I don’t understand, viscerally, why it’s still considered acceptable.

Katrina, Child Abuse, War — The Dart Center Honors The Best Journalism Covering Trauma

In Media on April 16, 2010 at 8:16 am
“Katrina is comparable in intensity to Hurrica...

Katrina. Image via Wikipedia

Here are the winners of the Dart Center Award for 2010.

The Dart Center is a unique and important resource, helping reporters, editors, photographers — anyone who chooses to cover dark, powerful, draining stories and who needs help, as many of us do afterward, in processing the secondary trauma we experience as a result.

My friend Maryn McKenna, whose new book, “Superbug”, I’ve blogged about here, on the flesh-eating bacteria MRSA, was a Dart fellow, and Sheri Fink, one of this year’s two Dart winners — who also picked up a Pulitzer Prize for her 13,o0o-word New York Times Magazine story about a New Orleans hospital and the decisions it made in the aftermath of Katrina — appeared on an American Society of Journalists and Authors panel I held on writing about tough subjects. Her award-winning first book, War Hospital, recreated the daily life of a hospital in Bosnia.

Secondary trauma is often inevitable, as those who record others’ experiences of pain, fear and violence absorb it into our own psyches, like indelible ink seeping into cloth. It becomes a part of us, forever, no matter how much we wish it did not. Caring carries a price.

For my 2004 book on women and guns, I read and heard about, and interviewed women who had shot and killed, who had been shot point-blank, whose husbands and sons had died by gunfire, at their own hands or those of others. As a result of thinking and reading and talking about violence for months, meeting women face to face who had suffered truly terrible experiences, I had nightmares and insomnia, classic symptoms of secondary trauma, which I never knew existed or had a name until a friend who works with prisoners told me about it.

Hard stories demand a blend of skills — a mental toughness allowing us to listen and watch, and tell the story, somewhat at odds with the empathy and emotional sensitivity that attracts us to these stories.  You have to learn to calibrate your compassion, as I wrote in an essay for the Center.

The aftereffects, let alone what we hear and see while reporting and editing them,  can scare good, brave, ambitious journalists away from tackling some of the work that most needs to be done, the stories that scare the hell out of most of us and need to be brought into the light.

I applaud Sheri and her colleagues, and am grateful the Center exists.

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