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Posts Tagged ‘writer’

He worked himself to death

In behavior, business, Health, journalism, Medicine, men, news, travel, work on April 13, 2014 at 1:25 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The world of journalism is full of competitive, ambitious, driven people. I’m one of them.

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But a recent death — that of 39-year-old New York writer Matthew Power — raises questions for me that remain troubling and unanswered. He died in Uganda while on assignment of heatstroke.

On Facebook I read, and joined, a discussion with other journalists why his decisions seemed normal. Not to me.

From Bloomberg Businessweek:

And yet there was something else, too. Matt may have been a free spirit, but he paid a New York mortgage and worked hard to afford it. Reviewing Matt’s itinerary—red-eye, trans-Atlantic flight followed by a seven-hour drive to the trailhead the day of his arrival, then joining the expedition on his second day in country—I got a shiver of recognition. I’d have made the same mistake. Not just failing to give heat the respect I do altitude. Failing to give it more time. Departing from New York, where there is never a moment to lose, there’s no way I’d think to schedule an extra couple of days—much less the week Casa recommends to top athletes—to let my body adjust. No one has that kind of time….

It took Wood, Beka, Florio, and the rest several hours to get Matt’s body to the village of Arua. They lost most of Tuesday trying unsuccessfully to secure a helicopter to transfer his body to Kampala. By the time of his postmortem exam on Wednesday morning—36 hours since he’d passed away early on Monday afternoon—his body had begun to decompose badly, making it difficult to determine whether a preexisting condition or other factors had contributed to his collapse. To Florio, at least, his death poses no great mystery. Matt, he says, failed to acclimate to Uganda. The temperature as his flight departed New York was roughly 20F—had been, it seemed, for months.

“No one has that kind of time.”

This was not a breaking news story. He was not covering a war or conflict or election, nor competing head to head against dozens of other reporters on deadline.

If you’re working for so little money or on so tight a budget or feel so frenzied that you can’t afford even an extra day or two so take care of your body’s very real needs, what purpose does this faux frenzy actually serve?

To save your editor’s magazine $100 or $200?

I didn’t know Power or his work or the person who wrote this story about him. Power seems to have been universally loved and admired, so my comment is not meant to disrespect him or his skill. Let’s be clear about that.

But his judgment — and the encomiums of others mourning this set of decisions to race ahead at all costs — is not something I wish to emulate.

In the vastly diminished world of journalism, in which pay rates are lower than a decade ago and well-paid assignments rare for many, pushing back to defend your needs is now seen as suspect, grabby and weird; I was recently offered a contract that would only pay me 25 percent of the original $4,000 fee if it didn’t work out as we all hoped.

It didn’t, after two full revisions.

But, knowing this can happen on certain sorts of stories especially, when I asked for a better deal, I was called “difficult.”

I hate this.

Freelancers live in a state of perpetual professional and economic vulnerability. Caving immediately to editors’ “needs” — typically for more profit — is considered normal behavior.

Power died a few days before I left for Nicaragua to work in a five-person team, interviewing locals in 95-degree heat in 12-hour days, sometimes in the remote countryside. We often worked in full sun, drenched in sweat, frantically seeking whatever shade we could find; there was little to be had.

One morning, after walking and climbing in full sun for a few hours, I told our group leader I needed to soak myself at the well to cool down even though we were supposed to leave right then. I refused, politely but firmly, and told him I needed to lower my body temperature. We left 30 minutes later, and didn’t miss anything we had planned to do.

Of course I felt embarrassed being so demanding — no one else asked for this. But I’d almost gotten heatstroke when I was Power’s age, while hiking alone in the Grand Canyon. I’d written about it and knew how serious it is.

It killed Matthew Power, a young, healthy man who had done many tough overseas assignments before.

We are human beings — not machines. We are fragile. We get ill.

We can die from making the wrong choices.

Pretending otherwise, that we are somehow invulnerable — that an extra few hours of rest or an additional night in even the most basic hotel to acclimate — is an undeserved or greedy sort of luxury is madness.

His death appalls me.

But reinforcing the idea that ignoring your own needs is the wisest and most admirable choice is even worse.

 

12 tips for creative success

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

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this, from Slate:

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

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

And this, from writer Myke Cole:

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

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

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

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

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

photo: Caitlin Kelly

photo: Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.

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

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

We all won’t have a career like his.

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

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

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

Start small

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

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

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

Start young/early

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find people whose work inspire you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re human. It happens.

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

Then keep moving.

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

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

Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community

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

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

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

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

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

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Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit

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

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Travel as far and as often as you can afford

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

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

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

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

Study the work of the very best in your field

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

Bonus:

Save a lot of money!

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

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

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

What spurs you to creative success?

The writer’s week: vaccinations, revisions, vacation!

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on February 22, 2014 at 12:31 am

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you new to Broadside — welcome! — this is an occasional look into my work week as a full-time freelance writer, which I’ve been doing since 2007.

Warts and all!

Sunday

Headed to church. We hadn’t been in ages, with mixed feelings. I attend maybe every four to six weeks, enough to feel connected but not claustrophobic. I’ve been attending this small Episcopal church since 1998, so have some friendships of long standing and some powerful emotional connections there.

Jose and I carried the Communion elements — wine and wafers — up the red-carpeted aisle to the altar, the chilled, polished gleaming silver of the ewer and bowl cool in our hands.

A friend has sent me her memoir, which arrived in a box from L.A. I’m eager to read it. One of the things I enjoy about writing is the community it creates, globally. I’ve had “first readers” help me out by reading the final manuscripts of my books and have done it, happily, for others. We all need fresh eyes and honest feedback.

Last week I also founded, (by accident, by mentioning the idea on-line to a listserv I belong to), a new writers’ group that promptly swelled to 34 people, from India to Austin, Texas, to talk about the craft of writing. So many of us work alone, with little to no guidance from our busy editors, and have no place to discuss the skills it takes to create excellent non-fiction work. I’m curious to see where we take it.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Monday

In the U.S., it’s a holiday — Presidents’ Day. Even after 25 years of living here, I always forget American holidays! Embarrassing. For me, it’s work as usual.  Working freelance often means feeling out of step with people whose days off are dictated by their bosses. I take time off when I can and often prefer to keep working on a holiday; Jose is working today, earning overtime pay. (Yay!)

I file a story to The New York Times, with two more cued up for March. As we accumulate our 1099s, (freelance income statements sent to the IRS) for tax time, I see how reliant I’ve become on them as a client — 50 percent of last year’s income. Unwise. I lost an amazing market there when my most appreciative editor got promoted. His replacement hates every pitch I’ve sent. But people there are always moving about, so every few months a new opportunity arises.

I read my friend’s memoir in two huge gulps, all 311 pages of it. I sent her long emails with my feedback, and wrote editing notes on some of the pages.

Tuesday

I saw two job ads last week that made think “Ooooooh.,” one in London and the other in New York City, both for major organizations. After seven years alone at home, endlessly chasing income, it would be pleasant to just have a paycheck, and a large one, for a while.

But I’m spoiled by the variety of skills I use in my work now. The minute you take a job in someone else’s office, it’s their agenda, ethics and principles. Aaaah, the price of independence. The one place that looks appealing is the revived Washington Post, recently bought by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, and on a hiring spree. Can we afford a commuter marriage?

I call my doctor to arrange vaccinations — for Nicaragua! I’ve never been there and am going in mid-March, as part of a team, to do some reporting and writing for a non-profit aid group. I also need to find and order a mosquito net, powerful bug repellent and loose, long trousers.

Plus rehydration salts and additional health insurance that will (!), if needed, re-patriate my “mortal remains.”

The opportunity came about as so many do for me, by taking a chance. I suggested having a panel of freelancers discuss how to pitch us most effectively to a group that works with public relations agencies worldwide; 75 PR people got on the call last summer. One of them was the woman who has hired me for this project.

This sort of sales cycle — six to eight months — isn’t  that unusual for me. It’s one reason I pitch almost every day, either to people I’ve worked with for years, or those I hope to. As long as enough work comes in every year, and I meet my income goals, or exceed them, it works out.

This life requires patience, persistence and faith.

Wednesday

I filed a profile last summer for Cosmopolitan and a new editor sends over her questions to answer. I re-interview the subject, who lives in Arizona, and gather a lot more detail, hoping it will be enough.

I go to the post office where I run into our accountant and, after chatting with him, get a great story idea. I buy a new phone — my first upgrade in about four years — and one of the store associates’ ex-girlfriend’s parents would be a perfect source for my new idea.

I pitch it to Quartz.com, (my third sale to them) and they’re in. Cool. Idea to sale — about 30 minutes.

I beg one of my editors for more time to work on a New York Times piece that came back with a lot of questions; when I get back from our week off, I have three revisions and a story to complete before I leave again 12 days later. Oh, and pitching…

I’m offered a last-minute assignment by a regional publication but the negotiations bog down. Just as well. The magazine pays 30 days after publication. Grotesque terms.

I spend an hour on the phone with my friend, in addition to making notes on her manuscript and sending two long emails with advice and suggestions for it. I think there’s a powerful story there, and writing memoir is damn hard.

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Thursday

I scan my passport for the Nicaragua client and review their revised contract for the work.

Hair appointment in the city — then a new headshot taken by my favorite (free!) portrait photographer, my husband Jose. (Check it out on my welcome and about pages here.)

Dinner out with a couple of married friends, one of whom works with Jose, the other a retired journalist now doing French translation work for the United Nations. The couple met in Tokyo and worked in France and Turkey. We take this sort of globe-trotting for granted among our journo friends, and it gives us a great network. As soon as Nicaragua became a real assignment, I emailed a friend in Colorado who has written several guidebooks to that country for his advice.

This is what we do.

This is what we do.

Friday

Submitted my headshot, bio and class description for next fall’s  blogging class — I’ve been hired to teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’m relieved to have income lined up, excited to be teaching at college again after a 15 year hiatus, nervous about facing freshman.

Vacation!

We’re spending five days on an island two hours’ drive from Tallahassee, the capital of Florida at a house my father has rented there. No plans but sleep, read, take photos, draw, relax.

Jose and I have never, in 14 years, taken a warm mid-winter break. But this interminable winter, which has pounded the Northeastern U.S. with endless snowstorms and bitter cold, is really tedious. It will be wonderful to not wear boots and a down jacket and hat and mitts for even a few days.

Can’t wait to read for pleasure! Two of the books I’m packing are the new biography of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folksinger, and the second volume of African memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.”

This week’s webinars: How Reporters Think, Finding and Developing Ideas

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on February 3, 2014 at 1:43 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

How do reporters think?

It seems mysterious to some, but — whether through training, school or experience — we process the world in specific ways. I enjoy journalism because one of its principles is challenging authority and questioning received wisdom.

We ask “Why? a lot.

It also means breaking many of the accepted rules of polite society: interrupting, demanding answers from the powerful, revealing secrets. That alone can be difficult for some writers to get used to.

Anyone who hopes to sell their journalism, non-fiction or books also needs to know how to quickly and efficiently find sources, decide which ones are worth pursuing and understand the underlying principles by which all reporters, and their editors work.

These include a deep and fundamental understanding of ethics, knowing when to push (and when to back off) and how to frame a story.

Having worked as a staff reporter for The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, and a regular freelance contributor toTHINK LIKE A REPORTER The New York Times, I can help you hit the ground running. To compete effectively with trained veteran reporters, you need to think as they do. We’ll talk about how stories are shaped and edited, and how to balance the need for accuracy, great writing, deep reporting — and hitting your deadlines!

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Saturday February 8.

Details and sign up here.

And anyone who’s blogging, writing and hoping to develop longer narratives for print — or for new digital websites like Longform, the Atavist, TakePart and others — needs to find and develop timely, compelling story ideas.

Ideas surround us every day, sometimes in the same room with us, at work, at the gym, at work, in your community or place of worship, or in conversation with friends, family and neighbors.

How to know which ones are worth pursuing? First you need to recognize them as potential stories, and know when, why and how to develop them into salable material.

Some of the hundreds of ideas I’ve conceived, pitched and sold:

putting my dog to sleep, (The Globe and Mail), the use of carbon fiber in yacht design, a devastating side effect of a popular medication, (Chatelaine magazine),  Google’s meditation classes, women car designers,  (New York Times) and returning to church after decades away. (Chatelaine.)

PERSONAL ESSAY

Finding great stories is like birding — once you know what they look like, you’ll start to see them everywhere!

Here’s a testimonial from Leonard Felson, a career reporter who took this webinar last fall to help him move from selling only to regional or local markets to national ones:

As a coach, Caitlin Kelly is like a doctor sending you on your way with just the right prescription. She read my clips and zeroed in on what I could do to up my game. It was time and money well spent, and well worth the investment in my career.

The webinar is 90 minutes, at 2pm EST Sunday February 9.

Details and sign up here.

Questions or concerns?

Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

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.

Is writing well impossible?

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, work on January 29, 2014 at 3:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I had an interesting conversation recently with another journalist, who writes columns and features. She wondered if some people see what she and I do for a living as impossibly difficult, something you just have a talent for, or you don’t.

Here’s an image that may, or may not, comfort or surprise you:

revision1

It’s what fiction writers love to call their WIP — a work in progress. This is one page of a story, a narrative memoir, I was recently commissioned to produce by a major American women’s magazine.

This is the revision I was asked for by the first, of several, editors. I’ve never met her or spoken to her beyond a brief conversation about this piece. That’s typical, these days. At my level of experience, I’m expected to know exactly what’s expected of a “narrative memoir” and how to produce it to deadline. Which, of course, I did, as I did with this revision.

Which was still deemed “not there yet.”

Magazine journalism — especially some genres — is a team sport. I have to be ready for even more editors’ questions and comments.

What I’ve shown here is my own second or third revision of the second version, before I cleaned it up and sent it in.

You’ll notice a few things:

— I tightened and shortened a few sentences, cutting every possible excess word. I worked for a year as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper here in New York, 2005-2006, and it changed my writing for the better, forever. I try to use as few words as possible to convey my ideas. I also have a tight word limit for this piece, 1,700 words, encompassing my life from age 14 to today, multiple decades. Stuff has to go!

— I joined two sentences into a paragraph. Sometimes they just flow better. Or not.

— At the start of one sentence, I cut a word and inserted one later there.

— That crossed-out sentence at the bottom of the page, an after-thought, clearly, felt like a great metaphor — until I double-checked the meaning of the word I thought I wanted and I was wrong. Then I re-thought the whole idea and discarded it as intrusive and distracting, no matter how lovely a phrase it was. And it was; had I more room, I might have included it. But I don’t. This is called “killing your darlings. ” You get really good at lexical assassination if you stay in this game a while.

The reason I’m sharing this is to show the process, which no one ever sees.

By the time we read anyone’s work — no matter the medium — it’s been polished, revised, edited and re-edited.

So the final product, for most writers, is that of a tremendous amount of prior conceptualizing, framing, thinking, reporting, researching, interviewing, analyzing, re-thinking, writing — (look how far down in the list this is!) — re-writing, editing, re-editing, revising, revising again.

(This post, by the way, went through six revisions before I hit “publish” — the last one, about New York, went through 15.)

Even when I edit myself, I’m always applying three filters, three editing styles, all at once and unconsciously:

Structural. Does this piece flow? Does it have rhythm? Does the beginning pull you in and keep you? How do I feel about the ending? Should some sections (as my editor suggested, and I did) be moved much higher in the story?

Line-editing. How does this sentence sound? Is it too short? Too long? Does one paragraph transition smoothly into the next? When and where am I choosing to use a line space? (Helpful for marking transitions in time or place within a narrative. I learned this on some of my very first paid stories, while in college.) Am I repeating words, phrases or ideas — and to what effect?

Copy-editing. (Should that word have a hyphen?) Looking for spelling and grammatical errors and making sure I have names and numbers correct.

Great writing — (even crappy writing, after it’s finally published) is an iceberg — you’re only seeing the final, visible 10 percent of it!

Why take a webinar with me? A FAQ to soothe your fears!

In behavior, blogging, business, education, journalism, work on January 27, 2014 at 1:43 pm
Feeling lost? I can help!

Feeling lost? I can help!

By Caitlin Kelly

I began offering writing, blogging and freelancing webinars in October 2013. They went really well, with students arriving — via Skype — from places as far-flung as New Zealand and Australia. One webinar included students in Los Angeles and London. So cool!

Feedback was super-positive.

I love teaching and helping other people reach their goals. I really enjoy knowing my skills have been helpful.

THIS WEEK:

FEB 1, 2PM EST, BETTER BLOGGING

FEB 2, 2PM EST, YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

If you’re still wondering if they’re worth it…

Q: Why you? There are plenty of other teachers and classes out there.

With 30 years’ experience writing for the world’s toughest editors, I know what they want and need. I write frequently for The New York Times and am constantly conquering tough new markets, this year adding Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal to my client list.

A former reporter for three major daily newspapers, I’ll make sure you’ve got the fundamentals of traditional journalism tailored to how we all work now — fast-paced, highly competitive and ever-shifting.

My two books of national reporting are well-reviewed; the first called “groundbreaking and invaluable” and the second “clear-eyed” by The New York Times.

A generalist, I’ve written on almost any topic you can name. Whatever your specialty, I can help.

This blog has grown to more than 9,000 followers worldwide, adding new ones every day. I’ve also had six posts chosen for Freshly Pressed.; come learn 30+ tips for yours!.

Q: What happens in these webinars?

I offer an hour of curriculum: practical, specific, time-tested ways to get the job done well and efficiently, whether interviewing, reporting or essay-writing, plus tools and resources you’ll find useful later, from helpful listservs to great conferences.

Q: Is there time for my questions?

Of course! We’ve got 30 minutes for questions. I want every student to leave feeling they’ve received the help they seek.

images-3

Q: Why are they priced so high? Some competitors are a lot cheaper!

Class size is small, a maximum of 10, more likely three or four people, offering the kind of individual attention hard to get from a larger class, panel or conference. Former students say they received tremendous value. Fast-paced and information-rich, these classes offer a lot for your money.

Q: I’m a total beginner. Are these too advanced for me?

No. Take and use what you need right now: the basic principles are the same, whether you’re just starting out or decades into a writing career.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Q: Are you focused only on print or do you also address how to write for digital media?

My own work has appeared on popular sites like Quartz, reuters.com and the Harvard Business Review blog. The essentials remain constant, no matter what medium you’re writing for: accuracy, strong voice, solid sourcing, diverse sourcing and an understanding of your audience.

Q: I can’t make it at the times scheduled. Now what?

We can work individually, at a time of your choosing. It’s more expensive, but you’ll have my undivided attention.

THE FULL LIST OF WEBINARS IS HERE.

I ALSO OFFER INDIVIDUAL COACHING; PLEASE EMAIL ME AT LEARNTOWRITEBETTER@GMAIL.COM

How’s your blog doing?

In blogging, journalism, Media on January 24, 2014 at 12:54 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you are also blogging — whether for fun, for visibility, to improve your writing, to make friends. Maybe to evangelize for issues you care deeply about, like feminism, faith, education reform, fitness or social justice.

Some of you run a business — music, cooking, coaching, photography — which a well-written blog can also help, by conveying your visibility, authority, credibility and personality to potential clients.

Some of you have also had your work chosen by Freshly Pressed, WordPress’ daily pick of nine posts from 400,000+ blogs on the WP platform. If you’re not reading them regularly, I urge you to visit now and again.

I started blogging here in July 2009, and, now with 1,500+ posts, have been Freshly Pressed six times; here’s one of mine they chose, from August 2012, about why it’s so important to say thank you.

I blog three times a week — frequency is one essential key to building and growing an attentive audience.

PERSONAL ESSAY

If you’re eager to gain more readers, boost engagement or have your blog catch the eye of an editor or agent I can help!

I hope you’ll sign up for my next webinar, Better Blogging, on Saturday Feb. 1 at 2pm EST. The webinar is via Skype, costs $125 for 90 minutes and will offer you more than 30 specific and practical tips to improve your blog.

I can also take time, before we begin, to look at your blog and read a few posts to get an idea of your tone, design and content and offer you useful, constructive feedback, if desired.

Here’s a former post with specific tips, a taste of what we talk about in the webinar.

Here’s a testimonial from Jonelle Hilleary, a blogger in D.C. who took this webinar last fall:

I have to say that since that time, after thinking carefully about what we learned and discussed, I have sustained a 644% increase in new readers over the last 3 months- at least many are seeing my work and coming back, according to the data. So for others who may be weighing commenting, this is a great opportunity to make a new acquaintance with some awesome knowledge.

Sign up here!

Questions and concerns? Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

He outed a source. She committed suicide. Then ESPN apologized

In behavior, blogging, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, women, work on January 22, 2014 at 5:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you been following this?grantland.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

A writer named Caleb Hannan profiled the inventor of a “magic putter” named Essay Anne Vanderbilt for an ESPN-owned website called Grantland.

Here is the story he wrote.

As he dug into the story over seven months, it became clear she was hiding something from him. He discovered that she was transgender, and outed her to one of her investors.

She committed suicide.

It has prompted a firestorm — among writers, editors, bloggers and armchair ethicists — over how this story was (mis)handled.

Here’s one analysis of the piece and its aftermath.

And another, from Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress:

one of the best reasons for large journalistic organizations to hire staff with a broad range of life experience and expertise, and to treat those perspectives as if they’re valuable and deserve deference, is so someone’s present to step in when a piece fails, to educate the writer in question, and to save subjects of pieces from journalistic malpractice, and publications from damaging themselves…

It’s hard to consider better evidence of the value of having staff with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives–and of the willingness to go outside your own staff when they reach the limits of their wisdom. Doing this takes humility, and it takes curiosity, an acknowledgement that your own knowledge is not the sum of the world, and a voracious hunger to understand more of it. These are the basic qualities of good journalism. It’s remarkable that so many news organizations fail to apply them to considering the mix of their own staff and contributors.

Here’s a smart post from a friend, colleague and another veteran sportswriter, Vivian Bernstein:

I was once assigned to write a feature story on a high profile, nationally known professional athlete who kept getting into trouble. What was wrong with this guy? I talked to former coaches and anyone in his hometown who knew him back when the athlete was in high school.

Through that reporting, I learned a shocking family secret.

The athlete’s mother had attempted suicide back around the time he was becoming a local star with a big future. Not only that, but it was the athlete who had actually found his mother following the attempt.

The information may have shed some light on why this athlete had been so troubled. It also turned what was going to be a good feature into a great story.

But before I published it I wanted to find out something about this woman who was not a public figure and was about to have her personal agony exposed. That was a problem because I was not able to interview her. The athlete was refusing all media requests at the time, too.

So I tracked down the brother of the athlete and I asked him the one question I needed an answer to before writing this story:

Would revealing his mother’s secret cause so much anguish that she might consider suicide again?

Maybe, he said. And he implored me not to write it.

I thought about what greater public good would come from revealing the truth. Would it help others? Would it prevent a crime? Would it save lives? Was there any redeeming Fourth Estate journalistic purpose at all? We’re not talking Pentagon Papers here.

No. It would only make me look good for scooping the competition and drawing readers. And it would have been a hell of an ego boost.

I never wrote it. I have kept that secret to this day.

Like Viv, I’ve had a long career in journalism. Like Viv, I’ve also heard a few shocking secrets, and had sources plead with me to keep them in the closet. I did. No question about it. I never discussed it with an editor or coworker or colleague or friend. I knew what to do (how would I feel if it were me?) and behaved accordingly.

There’s another element to this story that pissed me off, and, yes, because it’s people like me and Viv — veterans of decades of smart, thoughtful, accurate journalism — have been shoved for good out of beloved newsroom jobs. We’re considered old and expensive; 24,000 journalists were fired in 2008 alone.

Here’s Bill Simmons, the editor of the Hannan story and part of his apology:

Another reason we created Grantland: to find young writers we liked, bring them into the fold, make them better, maybe even see if we could become the place they remembered someday when someone asked them, “So what was your big break?” That matters to us. Just about every writer we have is under 40 years old. Many of them are under 30. I am our third-oldest writer, as crazy as that sounds. For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That’s why it hurts so much that we failed him.

There’s a really smart reason that some journalism organizations still keep and value those with decades in the trenches — who have made mistakes, learned from them and now teach others not to do the same damn thing.

It’s called institutional knowledge.

No matter how whip-smart or ambitious a 31-year-old might be, or a brilliant 23-year-old, they haven’t been around the block a few times. They’ve barely found the block – the place every ambitious writer reaches — where difficult, challenging, complicated stories demand a lot of smart, tough thinking from people who already done a lot of that.

Without smart, tough, wise editors — willing to think broadly, deeply, inclusively and incisively — we’re all screwed.

The writer’s week: PLM, stretch lace and late payments

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Style, Technology, work on January 19, 2014 at 2:33 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Occasionally, I review a week in the life of a full-time writer, me.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Monday

That’s a whole week ago, so I can barely remember. Finished up a fact-checking job for another writer, someone I’ve never met who lives in Florida, whose book is a series of brief biographies. A story I’d written for the Wall Street Journal — whose income, as always, I rely on — was abruptly killed, an overnight loss of $600. Shit.

In an online members-only writers’ forum, I saw the plea for fact-checking help and, for $25/hour, jumped in. I made up $500 of that lost $600 with a week’s phoning, emailing and on-line research, even though I’d never fact-checked before. Much of my work now means jumping, without hesitation or fear, into media and projects I have zero experience with.

But now I have to let all the people I interviewed for the WSJ piece know they’re not going to get the mention they had hoped for. One of the problems of writing for a living that’s rarely discussed publicly is managing your sources, without whom you have nothing to write about. I hate wasting people’s time and now have to share this disappointing news with them. I fear it make me look incompetent, when a killed story happens maybe 1% of the time.

Tuesday

Off to cover a trade show in Manhattan, at the (ugh) Javits Center, the massive conference center at the western edge of the city. I hate Javits! This is the third year in a row I’ve attended the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, an annual event that brings every possible vendor of anything interesting to a retailer — scanners, training programs, scheduling software, PLM (product life management) software. It’s basically an annual arms race, in which one or several Big Box retailers adopts a specific system, the vendor touts their win, and competitors think “Hmmmm, maybe we need this as well.”

The center is so huge that even walking to the bathroom or coat check is a hike; one vendor wearing a pedometer tells me she walked 10 miles there in one day.

malled cover LOW

I run around the place interviewing the eight people I’ve been asked to meet. Some use acronyms I’ve never heard — PLM, RFID — and I’m dancing as fast as I can. RFID turns out to be, (to me anyway), fascinating, radio frequency identification, which embeds every paper clothing tag with a device that can be read from a distance without opening a box to check inventory. (OK, I guess I’m a systems geek.)

Having worked retail for 2.5 years as an associate for The North Face — the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” – and having to slash open huge boxes of clothing with a box cutter, (talk about inefficient and dangerous), I’m really intrigued by this efficient new system. But it’s expensive — 7 to 8 cents per tag — and I realize how much cost our clothing prices include that we never see or know about.

I leave Javits at 4:00 pm, into pouring rain. Of course, there are no cabs at the taxi rank and a long line of miserable people waiting. My feet are killing, me but I hoof it another four long, wet blocks to the bus stop to catch the crosstown bus to Grand Central to catch the train home.

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Wednesday

So excited! Today I’m attending another trade show in the city, for the same editor, someone in a distant state I’ve also never met, (typical of my worklife). This show is a lot smaller, and a lot more fun, a combination of textile manufacturers and designers whose own paintings and digital prints designers buy, then use in their own collections. Glam-looking professionals, all in chic bits of black, cluster on the sidewalk clutching their coffees, waiting for the doors to open at 9:00 a.m.

Two dozen of us watch an hour-long video of spring/summer 2015 trends: pale colors, lots of mesh, netting, lace and transparent fabrics. Neon is out, kids! I run around the show until 5:00 interviewing the people on my list. Many are French, so I speak the most French I have in ages, which I love. I see spectacularly beautiful silk, lace, wool, mesh and satins and recognize the names of some Very Big fashion labels on the buyers selecting their choices. One designer of amazing patterns, which you can buy, own and use exclusively for $625, tells me that one of my favorite women’s activewear companies uses many of his designs.

I’ll never look at a piece of clothing quite the same way again. This is why journalism is so addictive. In one day, I’ve enjoyed: meeting a pile of highly creative people; gotten to use my language skills; learned a great deal about this industry and made some useful new contacts for future stories and projects. What’s not to like?

Thursday

Time to bang out two 1,000-word stories, due this evening to my editor in California. No pressure!

I also call and email editors whose payments to me — as is now typical — have not arrived, even weeks later. While 30 days is normal, the pace of my production is much faster now, and waiting for a month for something I have to bang out within a day or two seems ridiculous. At this point, I have pennies in my bank account, bills are due and I have to start using my line of credit. (I have significant retirement savings and another emergency fund with six months’ expenses, but a short-term cash flow issue is not, in my mind, an emergency. I keep those funds in case, God forbid, I simply can’t work at all for a period of time, to be able to keep contributing the amount my husband relies on every month for our expenses and savings.)

A freelancer who can’t pay their bills on time is someone whose business, health and reputation are at risk. I’ve had a bank line of credit — $16,000 worth — for more than a decade. When I call and email editors, my tone needs to be breezy, relaxed, happy, not someone desperate for any assignment. (Even if it might be true!)

I email and call half a dozen editors, print and on-line, to check on the progress of my pitches to them. A pitch I’ve sent to one Marie Claire editor comes back, suggesting another editor there, and possibly a better fit for a competing magazine. I try the second MC editor and decide to give it a week before trying the competitor.

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

Friday

Exhausted. Between writing, blogging, tweeting and FB, I feel like my eyes are going to melt. I should jump at once into my next story, a long personal essay for Good Housekeeping, but I desperately need a day to myself and off the damn computer. I’m also physically spent from two crazy days of walking and non-stop interviewing.

I have an eye exam and discover — which I knew — I finally need reading glasses. The optometrist is a woman my age who tells me I’ve dodged that bullet a decade longer than most.

I get an email, out of the blue, from a source in California I’d interviewed last year for my (unsold) book proposal, asking me (!) to possibly speak at their annual conference. I give her an idea what that will cost and hope it will come through. I enjoy public speaking and it’s the easiest money I now earn.

I drive to Greenwich, a super-wealthy Connecticut town about 20 minutes east of us, to pick up a gallon of my favorite, spendy, British-made paint, Farrow & Ball. We’re having a new contact over for dinner — someone who might (!) send me on a very cool research trip for her organization — so we want the apartment spotless. I splurge on some gorgeous fresh flowers, white nerines, orange tulips and some greenery, and pick up the food for the dinner. I’d hoped to make filet mignon but at $29/lb. (!!!!) choose pork chops instead.

Saturday

One of the great pleasures of living so close to New York City is being able to hop in for a few hours after a 40-minute train ride. I buy a 10-trip ticket — whose price has just risen again — now $83. I walk from Grand Central to ICP, the International Center of Photography to see a show of photos by Lewis Hine.  Admission is $14. New York City is really expensive!

The show is fairly large, and the images — of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1905, of child labor in 1915, of African Americans in the 1920s — are powerful, some of them very familiar. A former schoolteacher, Hine became the pre-eminent photographer of his era, capturing slices of life that were damning and which prompted social change. Yet he died broke and unknown.

I wonder what impels us to do the work we do, to care as deeply as we do, if this is to be our inglorious end.

Our dinner is a lot of fun; our guests have lived and worked in Europe, the U.S. and Africa, so we have lots of stories to share, from the White House (my husband was a NYT photographer there for 8 years) to Rwanda.

Sunday

Pooped! A day to sleep, recharge, catch up with my husband, himself a busy, tired NYT photo editor, and read four newspapers — the WSJ, two days of the NYT and the weekend Financial Times.

I bang out this blog post, trying not to freak out about the coming week: bills due, no checks (yet) and a 2,000 word piece due on Thursday I haven’t had a minute to start work on.

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