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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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.

 

Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

malled cover HIGH

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

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

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

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

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

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

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

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

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

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

I make no money selling books

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

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

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

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

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

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Your audience is too small

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

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

Your audience isn’t my audience

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

It costs me time and money to do this for you

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

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

Your competitors pay!

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

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

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

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

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

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

Stepping — or being dragged — beyond your comfort zone

In art, behavior, blogging, books, culture, film, journalism on April 9, 2014 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:

(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.

Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…

So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…

Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.

Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.

The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.

It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.

We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.

Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.

There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.

I walked up a short, steep hill to attend school and sat at a desk with two tall narrow windows facing south. One contained Popocatapetl, an extinct volcano and the other Iztaccihuatl, another. One of my school pals had a brother named Willie, who was suffering from intestinal worms. That, too, was new to me.

I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.

But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.

I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.

I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.

What a gift!

I wish I’d been there when Nijinksy first danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, when Paris’ bourgeoisie were well and truly epatee. From The Telegraph:

the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or the music? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?

There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.

It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.

The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.

Here’s a blog post from Rewireme.com, a website I’ll be writing an essay for soon about my experiences in Nicaragua, about making a major life change.

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.

Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.

When did you last leave your comfort zone?

What happened — and what happened after that?

 

Mourning two journalism greats: Anja Niedringhaus and Heather Robertson

In beauty, business, culture, journalism, news, photography, travel, war, women, work on April 7, 2014 at 3:01 am

By Caitlin Kelly

We recently lost — we being the global community of journalists — two women who made profound differences in the lives of their many grateful editors, colleagues and readers.

Too often, journalism appears to be a business dominated by men: publishers, editors-in-chief, front-page bylines.

Talented, brave women also shape much of what we see, hear and feel.

One, shot dead while sitting in a car in Afghanistan, was Anja Niedringhaus, 48, a news photographer from Germany; in the car with her, also shot (but recovering) is Associated Press veteran correspondent, and Canadian, Kathy Gannon.

Heather Robertson

Heather Robertson

The other, Heather Robertson, is a Canadian journalist who led a life-changing lawsuit against Canadian publishers who, in a land grab, decided to “re-purpose” thousands of articles and earn handsome profits from them — without bothering to share those profits with the writers who had actually created them and their economic value.

Two lawsuits took decades to move through the Canadian courts, but they gave many writers fantastic windfalls; I got two five-figure payouts thanks to her work, which allowed me to breathe more easily in lean times, which every freelancer faces at some point.

Here’s Heather’s obituary from The Globe and Mail,written by my friend, Toronto writer David Hayes:

“Heather was a Canadian nationalist and a feminist,” says her friend and fellow writer, Elaine Dewar. “Her voice was clear, honest and rigorous in a way that was uncommon at the time.”

She embodied her grandfather’s crusading convictions outside of her writing life, too. Aware that writers were underpaid and often treated churlishly by publishers, she co-founded both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Her biggest coup, though, came in the 1990s when she became the lead plaintiff in two lawsuits against the country’s largest media corporations, including The Globe and Mail, over the electronic rights of freelance journalists. (Ms. Dewar remembers that Ms. Robertson was smart enough to be afraid of the responsibility and brave enough to ignore her doubts.) The eventual settlement of more than $11-million remunerated many freelancers for lost income and established that publishers could not simply re-purpose a writer’s work on databases or the Internet without credit or payment.

Here’s a long, thoughtful appreciation of Anja — with many of her photos — from The New York Times’ Lens blog:

She was long accustomed to the field, and to the dangers getting to it, and back to it. She wrote an essay, ‘Emotions Speak Through Images,’ for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, in which she wrote of her compassion for civilians she met in Bosnia, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere. She said she wanted to ‘understand the situation through their eyes’ during an American raid on a house in Baghdad in 2004. But she was also struck by the youth of the American Marines, ‘just out of school, young boys.’

In a passage, she described how after the 2003 invasion of Iraq she slipped across the border from Kuwait into Basra by hiding inside a Kuwaiti fire brigade truck, then joined up with her A.P. colleagues.

“I remember watching a fierce battle around the city’s university. Shells started to land nearby, and most journalists left the scene,” she wrote. “I had just put on my bulletproof vest when another shell landed so close to me that it injured three of my colleagues. I escaped with bruises and was able to drive them to safety in our Jeep, even though it was also hit, and two of its four tires were flat. One of my colleagues, a Lebanese cameraman, had shrapnel close to his heart and was immediately operated on by a British Army doctor in a makeshift tent. We were flown out to Kuwait for further treatment. Three days later I returned to Iraq in a rented Jeep from Kuwait.”

And, another, from AP colleague David Guttenflelder:

I honestly don’t think that the AP could have covered that war without her influence. Our entire staff was raised in her image. I’m sure that even now, when they go out the door with their cameras they ask themselves “What would Anja do?” I think maybe every AP photographer has asked themselves that at one point…

“She was one of the best people I’ve ever known. I was so lucky to have known and worked with her. I’m just one of countless people all over the world to have loved Anja. We are all totally devastated,” Guttenfelder said.

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

In art, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Money, work on March 8, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.

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 is how it feels to be edited — and why it’s still essential

In blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, work on February 5, 2014 at 3:14 am

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, let’ s stipulate that it’s not always fun.revision1

OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.

Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.

But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.

Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.

Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than having every word challenged.

Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.

Nor should it.

This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:

A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)

Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)

The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)

There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)

What do editors do?

At best:

– Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book

– Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it

– Offer some helpful sources

– Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject

– Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers

– Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic

– Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions

– Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership

– Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print

– Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct

– Question your logic and story structure

– Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish

It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.

But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”

At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.

A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.

If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.

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.

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