broadsideblog

Toughen up, buttercup!

In behavior, books, education, journalism, life, parenting, photography, work on May 23, 2015 at 1:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible.

A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible.

Have you seen this interesting list of the seven habits of the mentally tough? From Inc. magazine, it includes no whining, acting as if you’re in control (even when you’re not) and refraining from the bad habit of freaking out endlessly over…everything.

It seemed quite a contrast from this post, from a blog about what it felt like for this writer when her agent wasn’t wild about her finished manuscript, from Women Writers, Women’s Books:

The sounds you just heard were my dreams and confidence being blown to bits.

Super Agent’s opinion – and she was right – was that I needed to do a major rewrite. The story concept was strong, but the story structure didn’t work at all. She said that she knew the audiences the editors who are interested in me are selling to, and the manuscript as I wrote it wouldn’t be a good fit. In publishing, not being “a good fit” is a death sentence.

You, shakily: But what about the betas, they liked it a lot. [My note: a “beta” is a “first reader”, someone you’ve asked to read your book before your agent and/or editor do.]

Super Agent, calmly: Betas know writing. Agents know the market.

I’m going to be honest with you. This was a very dark day. My lips and hands trembled. For weeks, my breathing would be shallow and intermittent…

It was a Thursday. By Monday, I had pulled myself together. This is not because I’m some kind of hero. I’m not. But what choice did I have? There are only two: leaving it wrong or making it right.* I love my story and my characters. I have big dreams for my career. Super Agent was right on every count. There was only one thing I could do. Write it again. I wrote her an email thanking her.

Then I dedicated myself to taking my magnum opus apart, scene by scene, word by word. It was excruciating, but that wasn’t the only problem. Firstly, I had no idea how to put it back together any better than before. Cue the panic. Secondly, my heart was still in pieces…

I found myself talking to a writer-friend who happens to be an award-winning, bestselling author..when I abruptly spilled to her what had happened and how I felt…

That is when I heard the words that put me back together. She said to me, “This is how it goes.”

I had a similar moment when I received the notes on my second book. “I really liked Chapters 11 and 12,” said my editor. Um…what about the first 10?

I felt the same panic, that I wouldn’t be able to make it good enough. Like the author above, I called a calm friend who said six fateful words: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

So I did.

My husband began his career as a news photographer working for a small town newspaper. He had a mentor, a highly accomplished older professional with national experience to whom Jose would proudly mail copies of his published photos.

A manila envelope would return — filled with confetti. Jose’s work. (He went on to a 31-year career at The New York Times as a photographer and photo editor, and helped them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of 9/11. Here’s his blog.)

But what if he had given up?

Sugar helps!

Sugar helps!

Maybe journalism self-selects people who can withstand pretty harsh criticism, even if it’s painful.

It certainly comes with the territory — our editors, highly-competitive colleagues, determined competitors from other outlets and readers are all quite delighted to tell us when we’ve screwed up. Our ass-whipping is also relentlessly public, whether in comments on a blog or website, nasty Amazon reviews or letters to the editor.

And newsrooms are rarely warm, nurturing places where someone will hand you a tissue if, ego battered, you start crying. No crying!

One super-talented award-winning friend of mine in his mid-40s recently won a prestigious and well-paid year studying, thanks to a fellowship. It was his third attempt.

My first book -- 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

My first book — 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

He did not give up.

I’ll probably re-apply for a similarly difficult-to-win fellowship this year, for the third or fourth time. It’s annoying to keep putting my hand up and never winning, but them’s the breaks.

As someone who’s competed at a national level as an athlete, I know what mental stamina it takes to just keep going in the face of frustration, exhaustion or disappointment.

So I really find it sad and surprising to see how fragile some young women are in the face of fairly standard forms of bullshit — sexism, chauvinism, rejection.

Criticism.

They freak out when people don’t admire their work or quickly promote them or don’t answer their emails quickly or don’t “like” their posts on social media.

Toughen up, buttercup!

I was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, surrounded night and day by strangers, a place where comfort was elusive, at best. So maybe this is just a habit learned early.

I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been mercilessly bullied, in high school and in several workplaces. I’ve survived divorce, four orthopedic surgeries within a decade, criminal attack.

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

Both my books, both well-reviewed, were rejected by 25 publishers apiece before they finally found a home.

Whatev.

To some people, I appear mean and impermeable. I’m neither.

But I do know how to armor up.

How many things can you do well at once?

How many things can you do well at once?

It’s an essential skill for anyone who hopes to thrive professionally, and, often, personally. It’s essential to anyone doing creative work, whose income relies on the subjective opinion of others.

Oh, yeah…like…everything.

Here, from the brilliant blog Brain Pickings, is a post about Henri Rousseau, the French painter who worked as a toll collector, taught himself to paint and was nastily dismissed for decades. Without his persistence, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy his gorgeous, complex and mysterious paintings.

Are you mentally tough?

You’ve graduated college! Now what? Ten tips…

In aging, behavior, education, life, work on May 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

First — congratulations!

Maybe you’re one of those whose cap read Game of Loans.

Maybe you had a full ride and are graduating debt-free.

Maybe you’ve already found your first job.

A few thoughts as you head into off-campus life:

Stay in touch with any professors with whom you had a great relationship

Many students leave college without ever having spoken to a professor outside of class. They might have stuck to email or texts or simply focused only on their grade. Mistake! Every bright, ambitious student who has forged a more personal relationship with a professor, or several, has already significantly smoothed their path to internships, jobs, freelance work, fellowships and graduate school recommendations.

Time to up your wardrobe!

Even if you’re only working part-time or job-hunting, know that almost every opportunity to connect with an adult in your life can open useful doors. But only if you leave a favorable impression. While baggy jeans, sloppy PJs, purple hair and 12-hole Doc Martens might have been your school’s unofficial uniform, you now need to impress a different set of people. Employers!

Same with grooming

Details matter, even if not to you or your friends: raggedy cuticles, chipped nail polish, hair that’s weeks past needing a trim or cut, shoes that need new heels or a coat of polish. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

It's not personal! Armor up, kids!

It’s not personal! Armor up, kids!

Look people in the eye, smile and offer a firm handshake

Many of the people you’ll now be interacting with — whether work colleagues or supervisors — are people of a different generation, and they expect you to arrive with polished social skills. No matter how shy or scared you really might feel, people respond best to someone who looks them in the eye when they speak and who is clearly paying careful attention to what they say.

Scrub your existing social media and keep it clean

No one, I assure you, wants to see photos or videos of your drunken or stoned exploits. Nor angry/obsessive comments about your love life or lack of same. Make sure you have a LinkedIn profile with a terrific recent head-shot and fill it out completely; it’s many employers’ first stop when deciding who to interview for a position.

A blog can be a great sales tool

If you don’t have one — and you have an area of expertise, especially — get started! WordPress themes are free and dead easy to set up. Think of your blog as a 24/7 marketing tool. If it is well-written, free of spelling and grammatical errors and well-illustrated, it can show off a wide range of your skills and some of your personality in a way that no resume can match.

Get a great-looking business card and hand them out wherever possible

Moo.com makes great-looking ones. Al you need is your name, email address, phone number and Twitter handle.

Use a stamp!

Use a stamp!

Attend every conference, event and panel in your desired field or industry that you can afford

Now that you’ve finished with classes and grades as your measures of success and learning, it’s time to start connecting with some of the people you might like to work for. Seek out a few Twitterchats in your field or desired industry. Lurk long enough to see who’s who, but adding smart, insightful comments will make people curious about you and what you have to offer.

Almost every conference offers some opportunity to save costs by volunteering there. And be sure to introduce yourself politely, (see: business cards.) A bright, well-mannered, friendly fresh grad — with a business card and some wit and charm — can make powerful impressions in only one day. (Follow up quickly with the people you’ve met and want to stay in touch with before they forget who you are.)

Informational interviews are a terrific way to gather intel on where to go next

I’m surprised how little-known this technique is as an excellent way to learn a lot about possible careers or graduate programs.

When I considered leaving journalism for interior design — quite a leap! — I interviewed three women working in the field and asked them some basic questions: What do you like best about this work? What do you like least? What are the three most essential skills needed to succeed in this industry?

You can learn a great deal from conducting a focused 20-minute informational interview, including that you really don’t want to do that dream job after all. Arrive at each face-to-face or Skype meeting with a prepared list of 8-10 focused questions, take careful notes, do not ask them to hire you — and send a hand-written thank-you note on good plain stationery, (yes, with a stamp), within two days.

If you can afford to travel for a while, go!

If you can afford to travel for a while, go!

Breathe!

You’ve worked really hard for four or more years. You’ve made great friends, enjoyed a wide range of new experiences (see: scrub social media!), gained intellectual confidence and skills. While “everyone else” might have a job or a plan for grad school or a sexy internship already, take your time to decompress a bit.

Go!

Go!

I think the very best choice any fresh grad can make — if you can afford it financially — is to travel as far and for as long as possible; post-graduation I spent four months alone in Europe, traveling Portugal, Italy, France and Spain and it taught me a lot more about how to be independent. It also helped me win the best experience of my life, an eight-month journalism fellowship based in Paris, whose criteria included language skills and a demonstrated interest in European affairs.

Done!

The rest of your life awaits.

Stretching your comfort zone…to the breaking point

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, life, love, parenting, women on May 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker -- an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new adventure for both of us!

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker — an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new and fun adventure for both of us!

If there’s a phrase I hate, it’s “comfort zone”.

How big is it?

Why is it so small?

Or so large?

Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.

And, really, what’s “safe”?

Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.

To never show a moment’s vulnerability.

To do it all, all alone.

As if.

I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.

They'll just keep going...

They’ll just keep going…

That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.

That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.

That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.

Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.

He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.

Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”

A comfort zone -- enjoyed far too long -- becomes a soul-cage

A comfort zone — enjoyed far too long — becomes a soul-cage

It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately  — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.

Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.

You become a reluctant witness.

They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.

It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.

Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.

It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.

It is real.

You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.

No whining. No complaining.

We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.

But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.

And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.

I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.

As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.

We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.

We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)

Feelings?

Surely you jest.

Frailty? Pain?

Not so much.

And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.

We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.

(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)

New horizons!

New horizons!

Have you been stretched recently?

How did it turn out?

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