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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Want to study writing/blogging with me? Please take my brief survey!

In blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, work on July 28, 2013 at 12:26 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This has been an idea of mine for a while — offering my services to you as a teacher or one-on-one coach.

As some of you know, I’ve taught feature writing at New York University’s School of Continuing Education, where I created a class still being taught there, legal and ethical issues in journalism, and to undergraduates studying journalism at Concordia University in Montreal and Pace University in New York.

With more than 30 years’ reporting, writing and editing experience, my credentials and awards are on my website.  

My magazine work includes More, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Ms., Marie Claire, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, Art & Antiques, Town & Country and many more.

Thanks to my staff work as a reporter for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily newspaper; the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, the 6th-largest newspaper in the United States, I can help you quickly gather useful sources and produce lively, accurate copy, whether 500 or 5,000 words.

New York Daily News front page on August 9

New York Daily News front page on August 9 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve written two well-reviewed non-fiction books on complex national issues, both of which required many original interviews — 104 for my first book, about women and guns. Where do non-fiction book ideas come from and how do you develop one? Let me tell you how to “save string.”

I’ve interviewed everyone from Olympic athletes to Prime Ministers to convicted felons — and can teach you how to talk to anyone within minutes, put them at ease and gather great information and quotes. How do you structure an interview? When do you lob the hardball questions? People think interviews are easy. They’re not! But they are essential to every non-fiction project.

I’ve sold my personal essays to The New York Times, USA Today, Marie Claire and others; one of which won a Canadian National Magazine Award. Let me help you shape yours!

This blog grows daily, now with more than 6,000 followers worldwide. I’ve been Freshly Pressed six times, a goal for many of you. Let me help with that.malled cover LOW

Feel free to email me at caitlinvancouver@yahoo.com.

I’d like to start teaching this fall, but would like to get a sense how many of you — if any! — have interest in this, and in which topics.

If so, please take this survey! The results are for my use only.

Thanks!

Why we write what we write

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, culture, domestic life, Health, journalism, life, Media on December 4, 2012 at 3:52 am
Sibling!

Sibling! (Photo credit: Gus Dahlberg)

Great post from Romanian writer/blogger Christian Mihai:

A lot of writers out there, if asked, will say that writing isn’t easy. But it’s not because of the rules you have to obey, or the conventions, or the need of a vivid imagination. Writing isn’t easy because you have to relieve the most painful moments of your life, over and over again, and then you have to write them down, hoping that they’ll matter to someone else other than yourself.

I plan to write a second memoir, some day, about my family, as people have urged me to do and as I want to do. But it won’t be easy or simple or fun. I have three half-siblings, one of whom refuses to speak to me and one of whom I’ve never met; the only time we spoke, on the phone from London to Quebec in June 2003, she said “See you at the funeral.”

Like that.

Readers of this blog know I occasionally touch the third rail of true honesty about some of the darker, tougher stuff in my life, like this post about how my mother and I have no relationship anymore, and have not spoken since May 2011. That post has 66 comments, and prompted some of the most honest and compassionate conversation we’ve ever had here.

My mother and I probably won’t ever speak again. I’m her only child. It hurts every single day.

But I don’t write about it, here or elsewhere for a few reasons:

– There’s no solution. She has dementia and is attended to by a woman I loathe who has made sure to paint me as a demon and she as the avenging angel. That script is deeply seductive to my mother.

– She lives a six-hour flight away from me and my limited time and funds for leisure travel don’t make me eager to step back into that minefield. I spent too many miserable years watching her gulp alcohol while I waited for the inevitable shit to hit a very large fan. It did.

– I loathe confessional writing that’s supposed to tug at my heartstrings. I don’t write it and I don’t read it. If I even have heartstrings, they are wrapped in five layers of Kevlar by now.

There is much I will never write about here. One female reader, from Kenya, asked me to write more about my struggles. I wrote her back to ask what she meant, but she never replied to my email.

Frankly, I’m not persuaded that focusing on struggle by writing about it to an audience of strangers accomplishes much. Writing about it can feel whiny and self-indulgent.

Although this writer, (a journalist and Hollywood veteran), who has produced only a few blog posts — each of astonishing emotional clarity — makes me feel differently about this subject:

I don’t know what my boss saw in me but I was relieved some good quality shined through. It was clear on the first day that we had a connection. She had lost her mother recently, and when she asked why I was jobless I said I’d moved home to take care of my mom while she was sick with cancer.

The day my boss hired me, she asked about the type of cancer and my mom’s age, and I told her the story. She was so sympathetic, I had a hard time not crying. Finally a workplace that was sensitive and nurturing, capable of seeing my pain and not finding it a turn off or unattractive.

Suddenly, all the things I didn’t enjoy about working in media and in Hollywood became obvious — the unspoken competitiveness between writers, the constant insecurity that you’re not young enough to be employable, the expectation that you will always be or act happy, the arbitrary way with which your work can be cast aside by a studio exec or an editor after months of toiling. Not knowing why they said no to publishing or producing your writing. It all creates this paranoia and lack of trust that permeates every action.

If you never read Freshly Pressed, you must start! I read it every day and almost always find something astonishingly good there; they’ve really upped their game from a few months ago when all they featured were photo, food and travel blogs.

I know someone, only peripherally, on Facebook, a male writer my age who is suffering — and that is truly the word — from Parkinson’s disease. I have very mixed feelings about the endless medical and emotional detail he spills there. I feel compassion but I also, I admit, feel irritation at so much uninvited intimacy.

That may be my problem, of course.

Here’s a lucid and lovely blog post by novelist Dani Shapiro on the disconnect — and it’s a very real one — between how private many writers really are and how public we must be in order to grow audiences for our work:

What I’m getting at here is the complexity of being a person at once deeply private and shockingly public.  A person who spends days — weeks — speaking as little as possible, a person for whom the word “hermitage” is appealing, and a person who sits in front of an audience, speaking into a microphone, telling stories (jokes, even!) and looking — in fact, being – comfortable.  It’s a split-screen, this writer’s life…It requires a kind of armor…

The absolute vulnerability necessary to write something real, honest, and universal is at odds with the public self.  Yesterday, during my event, there was a woman in the back row (there’s always one) who, every time I looked her way, rolled her eyes.  I mean, really rolled her eyes.  A full eye-roll, heavenward.  Her body language said: I’m not buying it.  It said, I’m bored to tears, when will this be over?  Now, the rest of the audience seemed very engaged, even rapt.  But because I’m a writer––because I am a sensitive creature with less armor than most––and, because in order to give a good talk, I in fact need to be vulnerable, I directed my talk to the eye-roller.  I couldn’t stop thinking about her.  How was I failing?  Where was I going wrong?  Why, oh why, didn’t she like me?  It’s the next day, and I’m thinking about her still.  This is no different from writers who can quote you chapter and verse from their negative reviews, but not a word from the glowing ones.  Or writers who troll their Amazon pages, only stopping to take in the one star reviews.

So what is the armor, then, that allows us to take part in the world around us, a world that will sometimes feel like just too much, a world that might insult us, or hurt us?  For the writer, I think there’s only one answer, and I’m doing it right now.  It’s to return to the solitude

What are you not writing about — and why?

What do you choose to focus your writing or blogging on — and why?

How much detail is simply too much?

In behavior, blogging, books, domestic life, Media on August 14, 2012 at 12:51 am
Writer's Block 1

Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate). How much — REALLY? — do we need to know?

Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

– I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

– I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

– My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

– My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

– My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?

Our private lives, when written for mass consumption, offer readers the powerful opportunity to feel empathy, horror, sadness, disgust, delight, amusement.

They can high-five us across six time zones — or trash us with vicious comments. It’s the deliberate risk we take in exposing our soft underbelly to the cool gaze of strangers.

Sharing personal detail can offer the writer a chance to reflect and make (better) sense of their own milestones, and help their readers do the same: divorce, death, marriage, the bewildering rejection by a friend or lover. In reading others’ stories, we can feel less alone, better understood.

Less weird.

I found great comfort, when I wrote about my tortured relationship with my mother, from some of your comments. As the painfully unhealed wound of my life from the age of 14, this issue offers a lot of great material.

But without a wise and protective editor saying “Um, you know, this might be a little too much”, bloggers run the very real risk of over-exposure. And the only editor most bloggers have is themself.

When I wrote “Malled”, I initially included some unhappy details about my family relationships, I thought important because they would offer context. I had five first readers, one my sister-in-law and another a dear friend.

All five said, “Nope, take it out. It’s too much information. You shouldn’t share that much.”

When I handed in “Malled’s” final revisions, I sent them to a friend who works in publishing for another major house, who offered some new and unexpectedly tart criticisms about the book’s tone. As my friend, as someone who knows what makes books sell well, she was being helpful and kind, even if it was hard for me to read.

My editor and her assistant, when I asked them, agreed — and we made even more changes.

My point?

Thank God for editors! Thank God for protective friends.

Those posts, however raw, remain available for lovers and employers and friends and family to forever find on-line. I’ve found far too many blogs that are merely verbal vomits, as though simply spewing one’s misery into the ether offers readers something of value. It doesn’t.

A blog post asks attention from someone who does not know you.

And naively assuming their goodwill, understanding, empathy and/or agreement is unwise. Some of the comments on amazon.com about “Malled” have left me shaking, as, in the guise of a “review”, people who have no idea who I am, beyond the narrator’s voice there, have shredded my character and impugned my motives.

That’s the risk you take.

Here’s a thoughtful piece from The New York Times Magazine about the perils of over-sharing:

Every personal-essay writer struggles with this line, and I don’t know one of us who hasn’t bungled it big time. I tried to protect the writers I worked with. On other first-person sites — sites where I flattered myself that the editors weren’t as careful as I was — I saw too much exposure. I would find myself excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate.

“This feels a little unprocessed,” I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege…

People often complain about the narcissism of our moment, how everyone is posting and writing and talking about themselves…My experience with alcohol and private pain has given me a near-religious fervor for how first-person storytelling can illuminate the human experience: through your story, I come to see my own.

Yet sometimes, I feel as if we’ve tipped the scales too far. Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void.

How much do you share in your blog posts?

Have you ever regretted it?

Some of the books I love

In books, culture on May 11, 2012 at 12:10 am
Cover of "Are You Somebody?: The Accident...

Cover via Amazon

To older followers of Broadside, a thank you — I loved hearing all your book recommendations!

Here are just a few of the many books I’ve read and loved, with the nationality of the author.

Most are memoir and non-fiction, with fiction listed at the bottom:

Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller. A memoir of growing up white in rural Zimbabwe with a mad mother. (British.)

When A Crocodile Eats The Sun, Peter Godwin. Another memoir of Zimbabwe, after its terrible wars, by a journalist now living in the U.S. (British.)

Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol. If you want to understand American apartheid — the stunning lack of social mobility that starts with often appallingly weak public education for the poor — read this powerful book. A classic. (American)

Random Family, Adrian Nicole Leblanc. The best book likely written in the past 30 years about the daily life of the American poor. The writer spent the better part of a decade getting to know the women she writes about here, low-income women living in New York City. (American.)

The Creative Habit, Twlya Tharp. This legendary choreographer has tremendous drive and ambition, and her book offers many ways to tap and harness your own creativity. Life-changing book. (American.)

My War Gone By, I Loved It So, Anthony Loyd. A very dark work, this will make immediately clear the psychic costs of covering war. Not an easy read, but powerful and unforgettable. (British.)


Are You Somebody?“, Nuala O’Faolain. An midlife female journalist talks about her life in no uncertain terms. She died of lung cancer in 2008, costing us a terrific voice. (Ireland.)

Brown“, Richard Rodriguez. Cranky, smart, provocative, elegant. Must we view everything through the filters of race? Rodriguez told an audience at a writers’ conference he felt he was crying in the wilderness when writing this excellent book. (American.)

No Logo“, Naomi Klein. This young writer has made the globe her niche. This fascinating book addresses the many political, economic and psychological effects of corporate control and globalization. (Canadian)

“Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, Caitlin Kelly. My first book, which examines how women and guns intersect — whether a woman is a police officer, FBI or military using it for her work or has been the victim of violence or a loved one’s suicide or a hunter. The book has 104 interviews from 29 states with women of all ages, races and income levels. Booklist called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.”

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, Caitlin Kelly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012, this book has been compared to the best-seller “Nickeled and Dimed” about what it’s really like to work at a low-wage job in the United States. I worked part-time for 27 months in a suburban New York mall selling clothing and accessories for The North Face. It is being published in China in September 2012 and was nominated for the Hillman Prize, given annually to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”

Fiction:

Lost Illusions“, Honoré de Balzac. This classic novel, written between 1837 and 1843, works just as well today as a guide to the symbiosis of ambition and greed binding would-be authors and their publishers. Follow the trials of Lucien, a naïve and ambitious poet. “You bite the hand that feeds you – and you can toss off an article as easily as I can smoke a cigar”, says a newspaper employee when Lucien struggles for decent pay. Plus ça change. (French)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. I love this book so much. Barbery is a professor of philosophy and a keen observer of human nature. Her story about the inhabitants of a French apartment building, and its concierge, is a wondrous work. (French)

Come, Thou Tortoise. Jessica Grant. The author is not a big name and this is her only book. I found it charming and touching, quirky without being cute or twee. (Canadian.)

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. She has written many, many books, but this one is my favorite, deeply evocative of my hometown (and hers), Toronto, and what it’s like to be a little girl. (Canadian.)

In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje. Life in Toronto in the 1920s. His writing has a distinctly poetic, dreamlike quality. (Author of “The English Patient”, much better known.) (Canadian.)

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. A fellow journalist and University of Toronto alum, he’s written a charming and touching fictional portrait of life at an overseas newspaper. This is one of my absolute favorites of recent years. (Canadian)

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. Loved this book! I literally could not put it down. (Russian.)

The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell. If you, as I do, love Japan, the 18th. century and deliciously descriptive writing, this is a book you’ll hate to put down. It’s a slow, gentle, lyrical book, like entering a dream. (New Zealand)

Falconer, John Cheever. One of the great American writers of the late 2th century. (American)

Triomf, Marlene van Niekerk. An astonishing book and thick as a doorstop. It’s graphic and shocking, but unforgettable portrait of a poor Afrikaaner family in the post-apartheid world of Johannesburg. (South African)

Anything written by Ray Bradbury, (American)

Anything written by Nadine Gordimer (South African)

Anything written by Thomas Hardy (British)

Anything written by Virginia Woolf (British)

Why Books Resemble Dandelion Seeds

In behavior, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 9, 2011 at 12:12 pm
Satellite image showing Christchurch and surro...

Christchurch, NZ. My book is down there somewhere! Image via Wikipedia

Tiny, white fragile — they float on the breeze, landing and sprouting in the least likely of places.

The great joy of writing and publishing a book, for me, is watching in wonder as it settles down worldwide — libraries have so far bought Malled in Kamloops, (a medium sized city in the interior of British Columbia, where my college best friend lives) to Christchurch, New Zealand to Denton, Texas, where it’s filed under “vocational guidance.”

A young friend, a fellow journalist, shot me a message on Facebook — “I overheard buzz about your book!” She lives in Hong Kong. Cool!

Like seeds, thoughtful books carry with them the germ of new growth — the spread of ideas, sometimes raising questions, even occasionally changing readers’ minds about an issue they once felt sure about, or maybe never even considered.

I’ve been honored to hear readers tell me “your book bolstered me at work” (from a retail associate in Phoenix) to “I’ll never shop the same way again” (readers in California and Toronto.)

I’m thrilled knowing my babies are finding readers all over the world. A friend then living in Las Vegas once sent me a cellphone photo of my first book, of two copies on his local library shelf.

I was so excited I wanted to wave.

Working Retail? A Shopper? This Book’s For You

In blogging, books, business, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, news, women, work on March 24, 2011 at 1:37 am
Mall in Jakarta

Mall life....some of us survive it! Image via Wikipedia

Three weeks from today my new memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” appears from Portfolio, the imprint of Penguin Press focused on business.

It tells the story of my two years and three months as a sales associate at a suburban New York mall for The North Face, an internationally known brand of outdoor clothing. In it, you’ll also hear from many other associates nationwide, and from consultants, analysts and senior executives — like Richard Galanti, the CFO of Costco — working in the nation’s third largest industry and largest source of new jobs.

If you’ve ever worked in a retail job — or any job with the public (God help you!) — you’ll find something in it to identify with, especially customers from hell, whether entitled finger-snappers or the perpetually dissatisfied.

I started out, as many retail workers do, psyched. New job, new industry, new skills, new co-workers. It was all good!

A few years later, shaking with rage, I actually ran and hid in the stockroom one afternoon after the umpteenth whiny shopper hit my last strained nerve.

“You’re being hostile,” she sniffed.

Truthfully I replied: “You have no idea what hostile looks like!”

Please check out the introduction and chapter one here.

The book — yay! — is getting all sorts of media interest. I’ve already been interviewed, so far, by the Associated Press, Washington Post, WWD, Marie-Claire (May issue) and USA Today. I’m booked on NRP’s Diane Rehm show April 18, and will travel from my home in NY to DC to do it in-studio.

Entertainment Weekly just named it “an excellent memoir.”

Please cross your fingers for its success, come check out our FB page and, if you like it, please spread the word!

Broke and Pregnant In The Recession: Another Caitlin’s New Memoir

In behavior, blogging, books, children, domestic life, family, journalism, life, love, Media, Money, parenting, travel, women on March 22, 2011 at 9:52 am
Bar Harbor Maine, located on Mount Desert Island

Bar Harbor, Maine, the author's birthplace. Image via Wikipedia

Caitlin Shetterly, in her mid-30s, was a freelance writer and NPR contributor who decided — just before the recession bit so hard — it was a good time to realize a lifelong dream and move from her native Maine to California with her new husband, Dan, a freelance photographer.

Within weeks of moving to L.A., though, she found herself unexpectedly pregnant and so violently ill with morning sickness she could barely stand up, let alone earn a living.

Desperate and scared, she and Dan and baby Matthew finally called her Mom, living in a cabin in rural Maine, to ask for refuge. They then drove all the way back across the country and moved in with her for a few months while they got back on their feet.

“Made for You and Me” is the result, a recession memoir.

Caitlin’s story was broadcast in a series of audio diaries on NPR, prompting offers of money, jobs and a place to stay from some listeners — and opprobrium from others who felt her choices quixotic at best, misguided at worst.

Here’s an excerpt from the book.

I went into Manhattan a few weeks ago to hear her read and meet her for the first time; we agreed to blog about one another’s new books, both of which offer a personal window into this recession.

Q: Tell us a bit about your husband.

His name is Daniel E. Davis. He’s in graduate school getting an MFA in Photography. He hopes to teach.

Q: What made you want to write this book (beyond economic need?)
Writing this book was a natural outgrowth of my blog, Passage West, which I began when Dan and I first went west to California. Then, when my series of audio diaries aired on NPR it was every evident that there was a hunger for an honest story about how the recession was really affecting regular Americans.

Q: Give us a bit of your education and background
I was born in Bar Harbor, Maine. I was raised in Gouldsboro, Maine on sixty acres in the woods–my parents were part of the back-to-the-land movement. We moved to a small town down the coast from Gouldsboro when I was 7. I went to high school in Blue Hill, Maine and to Brown, where I majored in English and American Literature.

Q: Did you always plan/hope to be an author/actress/journalist?
I came from a creative family, so I don’t know that I really knew how to do anything else other than create. I published my first essay when I was twelve — writing for me was always an outlet, one that I needed. And, while at Brown, I fulfilled a second major (undeclared) in painting. In a way, I just followed what fed me emotionally and artistically, and I went with those.

Q: As you headed west to California, what did you expect to find or create there? Individually and as a couple?
Well, I had already been told by NPR that they needed me out there reporting on theatre. I’d already filed one theatre piece from L.A. and they had loved it. I had been filing on theatre for a while and they needed someone like me out west. Dan had already set up some work in L.A.
But I think in many ways we went west with all the bravado of the Pioneers; this is an iconic journey, one that one makes not only to work, but also to find themselves and, even more, to find themselves as Americans. And we fulfilled that.

Q: When you became pregnant (at what age?) did you never consider an abortion? Not even once discuss it? You do not mention this in the book. It was, as everyone knows, a very tough time to add another mouth to feed.
No, I would never have considered such a thing. First of all, when I became pregnant in the late winter/ spring of 2008, the U.S. had not yet entered the depths of the recession. We were just beginning something we did not yet know was going to really rock our foundations. But no matter what, I would have kept my child. Becoming a mother is the most important, most deep, most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life. The timing may not have been convenient, but I was always thrilled at the prospect of having my son.

Q: As you began your NPR audio diaries, how did that feel for you and your husband?
It was hard. Putting our lives out there was hard. But there were gifts because Americans all across the country reached out to us and that made us know, in our bodies, the goodness of people, the goodness of Americans.

Q: What surprised you most about the public reaction to your diaries and plight?
I was surprised by the men who wrote to me suggesting that my husband was a wimp or I never should have married him. I believe this recession has been called a “Mancession” by some people, and it really has been. More men have lost their jobs than women. So, to suggest that my husband was less of a man, was bizarre. I think it gets to something mean that can happen when people are down, there’s always someone who wants to kick them.

Q: What was the toughest single moment (if you can pick one) of this experience?
The days before we left California to drive back across America to move in with my mother in Maine, were the hardest.

Q: The best?
The whole experience was also the best thing in my life. I got a beautiful son out of it. I have a husband I love, and we went through this really important, hard time together, I came home to my family. There was so much beauty in hard times.

Q: How has this changed you?
I’m a nicer person. I smile at strangers –this is something I decided to do when our lives were going to hell in a hand basket. I started smiling at gardeners and people in cars next to me, at people on the street. I still do this. Our marriage is stronger and more honest. We really know each other now and we got through a hard time by talking to each other.

My New Book Is In Galleys!

In art, business, Media, Money, women, work on December 10, 2010 at 4:16 pm

A package landed on our doorstep two days ago. Galleys!

These are the first real proof that all those pages and pages and pages you cranked out of your printer — and your weary head — are actually going to make it into bookstores. They are softcover versions of the book-to-be, the ones that go out now to reviewers and magazines so they can start deciding if/when to feature or review them, months before the book is actually available for sale.

Here it is on amazon.

They’re expensive to produce and so you don’t get a lot of them, forcing strategic decisions about who is your best target to receive one. A dear friend last night, eager to read the book and knowing this, said “I read fast! I’ll send it right back.”

My publisher, Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin, splurged on color covers (my last book, as many galleys do, had only plain paper) and it looks so beautiful. For those of us without children, this is one of those champagne moments.

It’s an odd fact of publishing a book that, just as you are sooooooo tired and all you really want to do is sleep for a month, you must immediately start on planning and creating your marketing campaign, deciding who (you pray) might write or talk about your book, review it, blog it, feature it, tell all the right people about it.

Which is where utter serendipity comes in handy.

A writer I know a little is married to a man with amazing connections in retail and she suddenly asked for three galleys to distribute. The phone rang yesterday afternoon from the PR person for a major Canadian retailer — and it turned out to be a man whose work I knew 30 years ago when we were both in Paris and  both won the same journalism fellowship two years apart. He wants to see one as well.

Like sending your tiny loved one(s) off to kindergarden or nursery school, this is the point at which my baby toddles out into the wider world.

Fingers crossed!

How I Sold And Wrote My Memoir

In art, behavior, business, work on October 13, 2010 at 2:07 pm

 

Forever Books

Image via Wikipedia

 

I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.

I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.

You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.

What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.

I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.

Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.

For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.

Here’s how my new book took shape:

September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall.  I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.

I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.

March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.

June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.

Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.

July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!

She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.

September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25  of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.

And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)

We have a deal. Cool!

December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.

February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.

I can’t rush this.

January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.

Not what I need right now!

March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences.  I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.

I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.

My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.

May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.

July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.

August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.

September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!

(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)

An American Journo's Journey Through Le Cordon Bleu — C'Est Super!

In food, Media on June 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm
Cover of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Les...

Cover via Amazon

As readers of this blog know, I am crazy for Paris, food and cooking.

I just read a lovely memoir, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry” by American writer Kathleen Flinn. It tells the story of her getting fired from a Fancy Job in London and then, instead of being sensible, spending all her savings to move to Paris and study at the legendary French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, a dream of hers for decades.

I read it in one big gulp, loving the descriptions of ferocious French teachers whose criticisms — which she initially barely even understood — sometimes left her, at 36, in tears. I studied in Paris at 25, so I loved reminiscing about the odd mix of formality and warmth you find there. Not to mention that she ends each chapter with a delicious recipe to try.

Some of the scenes are hilarious, like the lobster who escapes in class one day and the Japanese student who chases it around the room (shades of Annie Hall!) Flinn manages to survive a kidney infection, horrible houseguests and many minor kitchen dramas.

You’ll never chop an onion or look at a bechamel the same way again,

Here’s her blog, (which contains a very cool link to a portion-control website.)

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