I’ve really enjoyed a blessed two-week respite, even while still working at the computer almost every day for a few hours.
These things helped:
— Long evenings with dear old friends, people who have known me at 15 or 25 or 40, who remember and pay attention. I love having a long history with people, watching them grow (up) as well. A deeply shared history is comforting to me.
— Being outdoors in warm fall sunshine. Went for a really long hike this afternoon at Warsaw Caves, (thanks to Ontario reader Susan F. for her blog’s inspiration!) and loved seeing all the mushrooms, sniffing the pine needles and coming home worn out.
— Physical activity. I took my first golf lesson, biked, walked, went to the gym.
— A vigorous 90-minute massage. If I were rich, I’d have a massage every week.
— Silence. The only sound at my Dad’s house is the haunting and lovely echo of passing trains.
— Taking photos.
— Buying a new mini sketchbook and pocket-size watercolor kit. Remembering to make art.
— Being able to walk into town and to the local cafe. Not driving all the time!
— Making a roaring fire and listening to it crackle, then watching the embers glow. We don’t have a fireplace at home.
— Reading for pure pleasure, not work or for staying up to date on all my projects.
— Unplugging. Staying off the computer (somewhat!), no TV and severely limiting my consumption of radio, newspapers, magazines and the web.
— But…also listening to the radio in French, Radio-Canada. I really miss hearing and speaking French.
— Sleeping up to 11 a night hours as needed. Plus naps!
— Bathing in a deep cast-iron tub by candlelight.
I’ve loved making a thermos of tea and heading back to bed just to read a good novel; (I never read fiction.) I read “All the Pretty Horses”, Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning 1992 book. It’s amazing.
I’ve also treasured the luxury of a lot of space, a house with two floors, two staircases and four bathrooms, as I live and work in 1,000 square feet at home.
But I’ve really valued silence — deep, thick, uninterrupted silence.
I did an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat with my husband in July 2011, (which I blogged about here, if you’re interested in the details), and it changed me for good. I would never have chosen it — he did! — and the enforced silence was instructive indeed. We communicated by Post-Its, hand signals and a few whispers in our room.
That time away taught me how much energy it takes just to be social. From the minute we wake up to the minute we fall asleep, most of us are also on a timeline, or many — responding to the needs and schedules of our kids’, our pets’, our partner’s, let alone our own, socially, spiritually, physically and professionally.
So these two weeks, most of it spent quietly alone, have been something of a retreat. (My October is insanely busy, with 10 of 30 nights already booked with social or professional engagements.)
We all need to retreat, rest, relax. Yet it’s radically counter-cultural to just unplug and be alone in silence.
We all spend our days, and our nights, talking/reading/listening/watching/interacting/emailing/tweeting — and wonder why we end up so worn out.
This is the view from what might be my truest home, one to which I’ve been returning — lovingly welcomed in good times and bad, whether I was lonely-and-single, freshly-divorced or happily-remarried — for more than 20 years.
It’s in Toronto, the home of a friend I met when I was just starting out in journalism, a woman 11 years my senior, a witty, fun, worldly publicist.
Through our work, and with her, I had some of my best adventures, both personal and professional, like one of my first-ever visits to New York where I (yes) performed eight shows of The Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet of Canada (as an extra.) She took me to see “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway and loaned me money when mine was stolen.
As I spent my 20s in Toronto, forever single but professionally doing well, she saw me through some mighty tempestuous affairs, one with a local legend, an eccentric/talented guy we still talk about and recall with some fondness. My own parents never met or even heard of some of my ex-es, even the Big Deals, but she remembers them all.
Like me, she’s had plenty of dishy beaux and never had kids. Living alone suits her.
What she so generously offers, to me and many others, is a place of refuge.
I once stayed with her for three weeks as I recovered from being victimized by a con artist in New York in 1998, an experience that left me so terrified and traumatized I seriously considered — for the first time since leaving Canada in 1988 — returning to Toronto for good. I needed time and a safe place to heal far, far away from the fear and, even worse, my local police and DA who dismissed his six felonies, and my experience, with a laugh.
In all my subsequent visits over the years, M and I rarely hang out or have long heart-to-hearts. She’s always super-busy, but gives me a key and we bump into one another in the kitchen for a few minutes or chat as she’s getting ready to go out to another meeting or event. But the full-to-bursting fridge is mine to raid, the teetering stacks of newspapers and magazines everywhere there for the pillaging.
Most important of all, though, her home is a place I feel safe and loved. Here, she helped me throw a birthday party for my 50th, inviting 10 of my oldest friends. Here, she helped me throw a birthday party for my husband’s 50th as well, only a few months later.
She is, it has taken me a long time to fully understand, true family.
I left my father’s house for good when I was 19. He sold it weeks later and went to Europe to live on a boat for a few years. My mother was traveling the world alone. My home, then, was a tiny studio apartment. I had no aunts or uncles or cousins nearby, no siblings and no family support.
My parents never told me it was OK to come home again, not after my divorce, not after losing a few jobs and trying to weather the recession. My troubled mother lived a six-hour flight away and my father had a new family with little tolerance for me hanging around.
M’s house — I finally, gratefully realized after all these years as I sat alone one morning this week with a cup of tea in the darkened kitchen — really is home, if home is the place you are always greeted with love and kindness.
I finally told her that this week, even though both of us are uncomfortable expressing so much emotion. (We WASPs just don’t do feelings!)
We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game — Joni Mitchell
Do you ever circle back to the places of your past?
Sometimes I do it on purpose. Sometimes it happens by accident.
The first major magazine story I sold, to a Buffalo newspaper when I was a college sophomore, was about radon gas leaks in a town near Toronto, from the decayed radium left over from watchmaking and its luminous dials.
Now my Dad lives there and it’s where I come to visit for a respite from writing for a living; that first story, insanely complicated and one for which I missed a lot of classes, created a career still sustaining me, one now allows me — thanks to laptop and wi-fi — to work from anywhere.
Like, back where I started.
I go back to my old Toronto high school sometimes to lecture about journalism and book-writing. I arrived there halfway through Grade 10, pimply and completely ill at ease around boys after years of all-girl schools and summer camps. It was a very rough few years of being daily bullied by a small group of boys before, finally, I was accepted and welcome — and even chosen as prom queen at our senior prom.
So when I go back now, as a published writer, it’s with relief and pride. I spoke there on Monday. The list in the photo is of Ontario Scholars the year I graduated; you needed an 80 average.
As I was climbing the stairs to give my lecture, I passed a man I couldn’t believe still roamed those halls. “Nick! You cannot still be alive!” I said. (He’s British, devilish and always let us call him Nick.) “I’m 68,” he said proudly. (He was then an English teacher, now a part-time athletic coach.) What a hoot to run into him!
On the weekend I went for drinks to the rooftop bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking the University of Toronto campus, still one of the city’s most elegant and intimate spots for a cocktail. I’ve been savoring it since I skipped my U of T classes 30 years ago to have a drink there. I went to meet an old summer camp friend, a woman I hadn’t seen since we were 16 and who found me (of course!) on Facebook.
I took the ferry across Toronto harbor to Centre Island to attend service at the tiny church where I was married last fall. I love the ferry and its feeling of freedom, the very best way to spend $7 I can imagine. The island, lush and green in late fall sunshine, is so lovely, its gardens carefully manicured, swans and ducks and geese flapping by. I’ve been going to the Islands since I was little. They’re sometimes what I miss most about the city — wild, beautiful, unchanged.
It was odd but very pleasant to walk the paths alone where I last walked as a newlywed. (The husband is home working.)
On this visit north, I’m enjoying sitting in my father’s house, surrounded by the art and objects I’ve known since early childhood. They’re images I’ve known and loved for a long time; in a life with plenty of upheaval, (a life lived in five countries, divorce, job losses), things and places that remain fixed and lovely are securisant. They soothe me.
It also feels good to finally have an open home to return to. There were many long, painful decades when I wasn’t very welcome. His second family took precedence and didn’t like me much.
As I drove around Toronto the past few days I’ve passed so much of my past — the white brick house I lived in as a teenager, the pool where I first worked when I was 15, my first apartment building, the Victorian red brick house where my writing career began at the college newspaper.
I like revisiting my past, the good bits anyway. It comforts me.
NPR reported early this year that there are more journalism students than there are jobs – not just vacancies, all jobs – in newsrooms across America. It’s not that we don’t need more j-school grads today, though we don’t. It’s that we need more reporters with knowledge of economics, politics, science, business, history and the liberal arts. And they need to love reading.
Far too many of the young reporters I’ve worked with over the past 20 years seem to get their vocabularies from TV and their spelling from text messages. Many regard reading as a chore, maybe even an infringement on their First Amendment rights as j-school grads.
Journalism education is nice, but beyond the basics, not necessary. Anyone who’s smart, cares about news and works hard can learn the five Ws – who what, when, where and why – in a couple weeks. Then, if they learn from their mistakes, they can get good at telling you what’s really going on.
And yet, we still need to agree on a few ground rules — for sources, readers and reporters.
It’s become normal for powerful people to insist that the only way a reporter can speak to them is if they get to approve their remarks after they have said them.
They have other choices, like:
Get media training, which anyone that powerful can afford to pay for.
Keep a flack in the room or on the phone during the interview.
Tape the interview.
Watch your mouth!
I’ve been working as a journalist since 1978 and it’s been depressing as hell to see how things have changed. I was recently interviewed, by email, by an NYU journalism student and I did insist for the first time on quote approval.
Because…I don’t know her, I don’t know anything about her ethics or values and because too many younger reporters have a very different idea what’s fair game.
And plagiarism seems to be rampant, for reasons every working journalist knows all too well. The latest accusations are against Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente, a powerful figure with a sharp tongue.
This comment is from the Toronto Standard:
I bet many an overworked journalist is panicking right now over the thought that, perhaps, in a rush to meet the deadlines that come sooner and sooner, he or she has forgotten an attribution here or there. For too many people these days, being a journalist means a perpetual Please God, don’t let me get laid off next freefall to the bottom of what was once their journalistic integrity.
So, tell me, who in their right mind is going to publicly question Wente and the Globe and Mail when, for all they know, their publication could be guilty of just the same sort of negligence?
I never studied journalism anywhere. I’ve attended many conferences, but they focused on craft or how and where to best sell my writing. I’ve taught journalism, at Concordia in Montreal and Pace University in New York, as well as to adult night classes at NYU.
I have mixed feelings about studying journalism.
I think it’s probably best done as a graduate degree, preferably after a few years in the real world after doing an undergraduate degree (in politics, economics, history, sociology, anything but journalism) or not attending college at all.
I think the most essential ingredient of being a terrific journalist — for print, broadcast, online, books — is a clear understanding of your role as impartial story-teller (for hard news) and well-informed commenter for anything that requires or allows for a point of view.
Attribution — giving full and clear credit to others for their original work — is imperative.
Is how my national anthem begins. One of them. The Star-Spangled Banner is the other.
I left Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal) in 1988 to move to the U.S.
I’m back again for a few weeks, with no greater agenda than seeing old friends, attending a service at the island church where I was married last September, poking around antique stores.
Just being home.
I started my nine-hour drive by crossing the Hudson River, the Manhattan skyline ghostly in the distance, but the spires of the Empire State Building and new Freedom Tower clearly visible. The trip is easy, but wearying as I covered pretty much the entire length of New York State, a 5.5 hour journey just to reach the Canadian border.
I spent the drive listening to some of my favorite tunes from college — Hejira by Joni Mitchell and Talking Heads — but soon switched to Radio-Canada to listen to the news and weather en francais. I love speaking French and hearing it and miss that piece of my native culture terribly. Americans are furious when others refuse to speak English; we grow up in a country founded by two nations, French and English, and much of what we read and touch (cereal boxes, government signs, toothpaste) is labeled in both tongues.
Hejira is a great choice for a woman traveling alone by car — as Mitchell wrote it while on road trip from Maine to L.A., and she says it’s suffused with “the sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Is it ever!
I loved “Refuge of the Road”, which I think might be my theme song.
Here’s the final verse:
In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads
It’s a measure of the independence we both value in our marriage that two days after our anniversary, I left for a two-week trip by myself. I feel such a hunger to travel. Sometimes I really need to travel alone. And I always need to come back to Canada.
It’s such a different place from the U.S., even though both speak English and, to many eyes, look so alike.
Even basics like:
Metric measurements, a $2 coin and colored paper money. A wicked HST adding serious tax to everything — my $2 newspaper cost $2.26.
And the sort of rock-ribbed political liberalism that’s exceptionally rare in the U.S., certainly in the mass media, like this story in the Toronto Star, about an AWOL American female soldier living with her five kids (two born in Canada) in a one-bedroom apartment. Kimberly Rivera, the first female war resister here, was to be deported today.
I’m a little desperate right now to flee the ugliness and in(s)anity of the American Presidential election campaign, and the class warfare that is only getting worse and worse — the latest issue of Fortune magazine asking us not to hate the 1% but emulate them instead.
I miss my personal history, and re-visiting the places and light and landscape that shaped me; Jose deeply misses his New Mexico skies and mountains. He gets it.
And I always miss my oldest friends, people I’ve known since I was 16 or 22. I’ve found it very hard to make good friends in New York.
I like going to the drugstore and the grocery store and seeing brands and magazines only sold here, like Shreddies cereal and butter tarts.
In the small town where I’m staying lives a man, Farley Mowat, whose adventure stories I read growing up. For me, that’s like knowing Shakespeare is around the corner.
I miss knowing people who know who he is. So I’m glad, for a while, to be back in my (second/first?) home.
People tend to be more relaxed when they know (as they do here) they will never be bankrupted by a medical emergency, a pretty standard nightmare in the States.
I also like being reminded of the stiff-upper-lip thing and the we-hate-Americans thing and the no-we-can’t-do that thing, which remind me why I do not weep with longing for Canada but see it with more distant critical eyes as a longtime ex-pat.
If you haven’t seen this amazing video, check out it. It makes me laugh and it makes me hum.
Many people say they want to be professional writers.
Having taught journalism and writing to adults and to college students and writing professionally since 1978, I wonder, though, how many really do.
Here are some of the things you need if you truly want to make a living as a writer of fiction, non-fiction or journalism.
If you’re too scared to attach your name to your work, or to publish it, or to show it to blog readers/editors/agents, how will you ever be(c0me) a published or read writer? Every writer is scared shitless on some level, often on so many levels we resemble a multi-storey office tower. But the whole point of writing is sharing your voice and your ideas with others. You have to be certain you have something to say.
Workshops and classes and graduate school can be amazingly helpful. Or they can sap your self-confidence as you place more value on others’ opinions (and grades.)
Being a writer means you’ll face a lot of rejection. You have to listen to feedback — whether about your ideas, your execution of them, your crappy attitude, your procrastination. Every single person whose work has been selected, edited and chosen by others as worthy of publication faced the same challenges. Get over it!
If you’re not ready for rejection, you’re not ready to be a published writer.
Without which, you’re toast. But talent is subjective, so every rejection can mean you’re lousy — or you just haven’t found your audience yet. You’ll know pretty quickly, because you will sell and keep selling, if you have the goods.
My favorite success is the humor essay about my divorce I sent in to an American women’s magazine, who sent me a smarmy rejection letter. I sent it to a Canadian women’s magazine — who published it and submitted it for a National Magazine Award for humor.
The single most essential element of writing success.
I know people now writing their third or fourth (unpublished) novel. My two non-fiction books, “Blown Away” and “Malled” were each rejected by 25 (!) publishers before a major New York house bought each one. The process was deeply unpleasant and shook my confidence to the core. But my agents (different agent for each) kept plugging away, because they believed in it.
I recently applied for a highly competitive fellowship, again. Too many people just give up and walk away, wounded and whining.
This is not a business of delicate phrases and warm hugs. People yell. Some people swear. Some do both. Readers will loathe you and say so in plain language on blogs and amazon where you cannot respond to them. Some critics will pan you. A sensitive heart
And how, you ask, can you possibly have both of these? You must. The very best writers keep their hearts open — and readers can feel it.
What are you willing to give up or postpone to achieve success as a writer? Work at a horrible day job? Rarely see your husband/wife/sweetie/kids? The world is filled with amusing distractions, but staying focused is the only way to reach your goals.
Especially in journalism and publishing, EQ often beats IQ.
Can you mask your bitterness and frustration (see: drive, persistence, humility) with a big smile and a soft, gentle voice? Can you quickly find a way to relate to someone powerful who’s 30 years younger or older than you? Can you happily continue to network with people whose rudeness, arrogance and/or dismissal of you and your work may have left deep scars?
Members of this tribe are:
passionate about ideas; often deeply insecure about their talent; desperate for recognition and financial reward; ferociously jealous of those above them on the ladder. At every stage of this game, you’ll need every scrap of calm, mature self-management you can muster.
This is also a small industry based on long-term relationships. People in it move from city to city, publisher to publisher. They talk! They meet up every year at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs and at BEA. We attend and teach at the same conferences.
Keep your nose clean.
You’ll need to forgive yourself when your work fails to find a market. You have to forgive your agent and editor if your book doesn’t hit it big, because they probably gave you their best anyway. Your friends and loved ones will have to forgive you the endless, insane absences that a book or serious project demands — travel and/or solitude.
A stiff spine
No one will stiffen it for you on the latest Monday facing a pile of deadlines — or a dwindling bank account. That’s always going to be your job.
If you’re not intensely curious about the world, what do you have to tell us?
If you’re not intensely curious about how writers think/write/teach/succeed/fail, why do you even want to be one?
If you’re not intensely curious about how to get better at your craft, even after decades, how will you do so?
I’ve given away hours, probably months, of my time and skill and advice over the decades. These days I’m likely to insist on being paid for it, but this business depends on reciprocal help. This week, a friend asked me to read her essay — and wrote me a letter of reference for a fellowship. Last week I spent some time advising one of my assistants, a fresh Columbia J-school grad — and asked her if she’d make an introduction for me at the glossy monthly she’s starting to pitch.
I recently started playing golf. I actually haven’t played a game yet. I just keep going to the driving range, buying a bucket of balls, and hitting for an hour or so. It’s a totally new set of skills. My husband says he won’t play a game with me until I can hit consistently.
Same for would-be writers. Anyone can bang out an awesome piece, once. But it’s showing up for years, doing every single one of them well, that creates a reputation for excellence.
Anyone in journalism, especially, has to crank out good stuff every day — sometimes every hour. That’s what they hired you for!
It’s been one year since Jose and I got married, on an island in the harbor of Toronto, in a church from 1888, by a minister with a ponytail and Birkenstocks. It was a lovely day, a small affair of only 25 close friends and family.
Unlike my first marriage, which I knew was pretty much doomed from the start, I was relaxed and happy on my second wedding day. I was marrying someone I knew well, who had nursed me through three surgeries (soon to be four.) We had already weathered the loss of jobs, the illness and deaths of loved ones, professional disappointments, (and triumphs), two recessions…
We were each marrying someone who’d already stayed the course.
Jose and I met, on-line, in March 2000, so we’ve been together almost 13 years.
I was working on a magazine piece for Mademoiselle, to compare and contrast a variety of dating sites. Back then, no one admitted to using them; as a single, lonely gal in the suburbs, with no kids, meeting men was proving sadly difficult.
Jose saw my photo and profile, with the truthful headline Catch Me If You Can, wrote me, and that was the start. Our first date was at a gorgeous, now-gone midtown French bistro, Le Madeleine. He wore a gray wool vintage coat and a bright red silk Buddhist prayer shawl as his muffler.
At the end of the evening, he took off the shawl, warm and fragrant with 1881, his cologne, and wrapped me in it.
A few things we’ve since learned along the way:
— Don’t be afraid to be yourself, even on your first few dates. I think some people are scared to get it wrong, and so they play it too safe, or try too hard to be…something. The right person will love you as you are. Before we met, during one of our phone conversations, he made me laugh so hard I snorted. Sexy! I thought for sure he’d cancel our first date. He loved it. Still does.
— Make an effort. I see a lot of guys these days dressed and groomed like they’re going to the gym when they’re heading out on a date. Seriously? The way we present ourselves sends powerful messages to people who don’t yet know much about us.
— As you get to know one another, see how s/he handles a disaster or two: the car breaks down, you get caught in a snowstorm, the kid and/or dog gets sick. How they handle stress and crisis will tell you a lot about whether you want them around long-term. When my mother was found to have a very large brain tumor (she’s fine), he didn’t hesitate to fly across the country with me to help sort out her house/dog/diagnosis. And because I was broke, he paid for it.
— Fights won’t necessarily kill a new/growing relationship. They might even save it. It took many years before Jose finally understood that just because we had a loud disagreement didn’t mean I hated him. It just meant I was really pissed off. We’re both stubborn as hell, so we were bound to disagree. I learned that he’s blessedly quick to forgive and won’t bail when things get heated.
— When you fight, look beneath the words. Every fight has an underlying driver, often unspoken, often not even well understood, like surtitles at the opera. There’s always a meta-fight behind what’s actually being said. Sometimes your emotional ghosts are really the target, not one another.
— Your relationships needs protection. It took many years before my father and Jose got along. Both are proud, prickly high achievers. Until my mother and I just gave up on one another last year, her neediness often drained us emotionally and financially. Sometimes distancing yourself from family is the wiser choice to nurture one another instead.
— Laugh long, loud and often. We speak a few times a day, even with his six daily meetings and our laughter heals a lot of stress. Knowing your partner is going to lighten your day means you’ll keep turning to them first.
— Hold hands often. Same for kissing. Jose and I smooch (discreetly) when I drop him off at the train station to head to work. The local cabbies waiting there, most of them fellow Hispanics, get a kick out of it.
— Say thank you often. Say please. Tidy up after yourself. Buy her flowers and him a gorgeous new shirt, or vice versa, for no apparent reason. Delight your sweetie whenever possible.
— Listen to them attentively. Turn off the TV, tech and other distractions. Look your sweetie in the eye. Give them the precious gift of your full and undivided attention. It’s so rare these days.
— Take good care of them. Bring an umbrella. Pick up their dry-cleaning. Drive them to the doctor’s office even if they say it’s OK not to. Make them lovely meals.
— Share values, not preferences. My first husband and I liked the same sorts of music, food, books. We loved to travel. On the surface, we looked like a good match. We weren’t. If you don’t share basic moral, spiritual and ethical values, (spending versus saving, a strong work ethic, loyalty to friends, whatever), your odds of long-term success aren’t great.
— Aretha Franklin sang it, baby. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! The day you stop seeing your spouse as someone worthy of respect, yours and others’, is the day your marriage is in trouble. Define what matters most to you and stick to it. Diana Vreeland, in her wonderful autobiography “DV”, said she always stood up a little straighter when her husband entered the room, even after decades together.
— Brag about them. We don’t have kids, so whatever family pride we share is in one another’s achievements and talents. Jose and I tend to be pretty modest, so I have to be the one (brag alert!) to tell people he has a Pulitzer and has photographed three Presidents. I’m flattered when he tells people nice things about me.
— Help them grow. Whenever I get wobbly and lose confidence and am scared to take a risk, Jose says, “Now is not the time to be Canadian!” His grandfather, who fled Mexico and started a chile powder company (still going) in Topeka, Kansas, was a tough old dude. “Pedro up, man!” I tell him.
— We’re always still three or five or fifteen, sometimes all on the same day. No matter your chronological age, our inner child still needs a hug, reassurance or the freedom to just play. Being a responsible adult all the time is exhausting!
— You will face sexual dry spells, sometimes for a lot longer than any magazine or media vision of marriage dares suggest. It’s normal for many people, but if you look at how sex is publicly portrayed/ discussed, you’d think we were all-rabbits-all-the-time. Nope! Injury, illness, surgery and recovery, depression, job loss, death of a loved one (let alone small kids!) and the Big M of menopause will all likely conspire to remove sexual intimacy from your life. Which is why affection, respect and paying attention in every other way will, ideally, steer you through those shoals.
— Reading wise self-help books, like this one, and a great, tough marriage therapist can really help. There were a few times we were really ready to give up. Marc, our marriage therapist, told us at our first meeting: “You each own 50 percent of any problem. If not, we’re not going to work well together.” He was really expensive, but paying so much for someone we liked and trusted sure focused our attention on getting on with it.
What’s keeping your love relationship or marriage in terrific shape?
It’s becoming a serious question, at least here in the United States where student debt is totally out of control, with graduates carrying $30,000 or $60,000 or even $100,000 in debt they’ll be re-paying (or not) for decades.
And that’s not even the bill for medical, law, dental, vet or MBA degrees, or computer science or engineering, each of which can probably net you $100,000 a year or much more, which is at least a decent ROI.
I was very lucky. My entire year’s tuition — no, that’s not missing a zero — was $660 in 1975. Today it’s not much more than $5,000 for most undergrad classes at my alma mater, University of Toronto, consistently ranked as one of Canada’s top three. I studied English and read Chaucer aloud in Middle English, learned about 16th century drama and 19th century poetry. Did it help me be(c0me) a better journalist?
But — perhaps most essentially — I had to work really hard, independently and consistently, for four years on new-to-me and challenging material. None of my profs knew or would have cared that I’d been attacked in my crummy little apartment or that umpteen boyfriends had dumped me or that my growing freelance career was making attending class almost impossible some weeks.
I had to figure all of this out for myself, plus living alone.
All of which, while sometimes horribly stressful, was excellent training for journalism, and for life.
So why go to college?
Can you learn what you need elsewhere — through an apprenticeship, internships, community college or vocational training?
I interviewed seven fellows, (three female, two from Canada, one of them a U of T dropout!), three parents, two administrators and two observers. The gorgeous photos were taken by Peter DaSilva, who is based in San Francisco, and who also shot the images for my Times Google story. The photo editor on this piece was my husband.
Unlike Americans, who often choose to attend college far from home, most Canadians attend their local university. U of T is Canada’s Harvard, tough to get into and tough to get through. It’s also enormous — 50,000+ students — so it’s not a great fit for someone who needs or wants a lot of hand-holding. Its downtown campus, is right in the heart of Toronto, blocks from the provincial Parliament buildings and gleaming office towers.
In some ways, U of T was perfect for me. My fellow students were really smart and, being a competitive person, I liked that. The professors were passionate world-class scholars who took their work seriously. I loved the downtown campus, so gorgeous it’s been featured in many films and commercials.
I started my journalism career there, writing as often as possible for the weekly Varsity. By the end of sophomore year I had enough clips from there to start writing professionally, my dream, for national magazines and newspapers.
My first serious boyfriend was — natch! — the paper’s editor. University gave me everything I so craved in high school: lots of cute boys who liked me, tremendous intellectual stimulation and growth, terrific athletic facilities, new friends.
But in other ways, it was a really rough ride.
My parents were both far away and out of touch, traveling the world, so navigating it all meant living alone in small apartments on very little money while freelancing and attending class. I got a D in French. When I cried with frustration and bewilderment, the prof merely sniffed; “It’s clear you arrived here very poorly prepared.”
A life-changing experience was participating in the Tarheel Exchange, which carried a busload of U of T’ers south to UNC Chapel Hill, in North Carolina in November and returned the Tarheels north to us for a week in January.
In Chapel Hill, we encountered many novelties: attending church service at a black Baptist church and a pig-picking (barbecue) and we heard an administrator struggle to retain his composure discussing race relations. The Tarheels, on their visit, had never seen snow!
I fell hard for a tall handsome redhead named Seth. I went back the next year as an organizer of the group and met Rip and Beau, men whose monosyllabic names stretched to three syllables with their charming southern drawl.
Canada offered nothing so exotic!
College, for me as it is/was for many of us, was a place to grow up quickly, to learn to meet high standards, to deal with demanding strangers, to make new friends, to think deeply and write thoughtfully. Ironically, I was the first in my family to graduate university — my Dad, a film-maker, had dropped out of UBC, my step-mom never attended and neither did my mother. Everyone did just fine without a degree.
Did you enjoy — or are you now enjoying — college?
Do you feel the investment of time and money is worth it?
We lived in Toronto and we had a long, deep, narrow backyard. I decided to create a circus (which was extremely small and didn’t even have animals beyond our black dachsund, Henry Stook Bowser von Hound Dog) so I could invite all our neighbors. I think I wanted to charge admission (I wanted to buy a typewriter) but I can’t remember if I did.
But I look back at that crazy self-confidence and chutzpah and wonder — where on earth did that come from? What made me think it would work? I’m not sure it occurred to me that it wouldn’t.
And why do I keep wanting to erect a large striped tent and fill the seats with an appreciative audience? To bring a bunch of people together and send them away again happy?
(Why I love throwing parties and big dinners. Sort of like this blog, actually.)
Do you ever step back from your daily life, searching for the underlying, even invisible/unconscious, patterns within it?
Taking inventory, as it were, of what you do, and have done, that has filled you with joy and turned into the most satisfying successes — and the holyshitwhatwasIthinking moments that led to the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.
It’s challenging to step away from the non-stop everyday must-dos, from the brushing of teeth and preparing of food to caring for kids and pets to ask, in a non-narcissistic way:
Who am I? What fuels me? Am I really happy?
If not, now what?
It’s easier to sleepwalk through life, doing what our parents want and our friends think is cool and our teachers praise and our professors think well-done and our bosses agree with. Then we die.
So much easier to step aboard a moving conveyance and let it take us somewhere that looks sort of pretty than the terrifying notion of making it up as we go or questioning whether we’re even on the right train, bus or boat in the first place.
Since I was very young, my impulses have remained consistent: create, share it, connect with others, connect them to one another.
It hasn’t been easy, simple or smooth. I could certainly make a hell of a lot more money being less “creative” and more docile, that’s for sure.
I also became a lot more comfortable in my own skin — sad to say — after two hyper-critical voices in my life since childhood were stilled, my late step-mother, who died in 2007, and my 76-year-old mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship.
It’s my oxygen. I start to feel restless and bored if I’m not working on my own projects — usually three or more at once. They may be in totally different phases (vague idea, general outline, asking for advice and input) but without multiple irons in my fire, so to speak, I get so boooooored. I like being able to leap from dyeing and sewing a pillow cover to working on a book proposal to making butternut squash soup for dinner.
I’ll be lecturing at my old high school soon about writing, (Leaside High, Toronto, alma mater for Margaret Atwood), and I once compared writing without publishing to masturbation. I had no idea the principal was in the room! But I meant it. It’s too easy to clutch your work, Gollum-like, to your chest, terrified of others’ judgment. Go on! Creativity is a great gift and one best shared with others, whether on-line, in your backyard, sold on Etsy, donated to a local women’s shelter.
Truth be told, I do like to be paid for mine. I sold my own bead necklaces on the street when I was 12, hand-made envelopes at 15, my photos at 17 and my freelance writing starting at 20. If I’m not out there selling something, I feel a little lost.
Connect with others
The greatest value of my working retail for 27 months, the basis of my memoir, was finally understanding what I love most about my work as a journalist and author. Not writing. Not researching. Not travel. But connecting with others, people I would never have had the chance to meet or speak to otherwise. These have include convicted felons, Olympic athletes, royalty, politicians, a female Admiral, cops, a milliner and the parents of soldiers killed fighting in Iraq. I’ve wept at work (quietly) and suffered nightmares and insomnia from secondary trauma while researching my first book about women and guns.
But the more I learn about the world, the more it’s obvious to me that connecting with one another, with empathy and compassion whenever possible, is what it’s all about.
Connect them to one another
In 2008, I organized and planned, (with four hard-working volunteers’ help), a panel discussion in Toronto that required two writers I had never met to get on airplanes from New York and arrive at that room on time. They did. Whew! The room was SRO and the goal was to help Toronto-based writers sell to American editors. It was so satisfying to make this happen.
One of my favorite examples was getting to know a young, smart writer then in Vancouver, who I finally met and had dinner with on one of my visits there. He’s 30 years my junior (younger, I think), but a lovely guy with great manners. A former colleague from Montreal in 1988 then re-found me on LinkedIn — and needed a smart hire for his new political website in Ottawa. Cha-ching!
Now I’m trying something crazy-ambitious, creating a conference from scratch. The women I’ve reached out to so far for advice and input seem really excited, so let’s see if I can make this one fly. The goal, once more, is to put cool people together to spark ideas and create mutual support.
The past few months — probably like many of yours as well — have been an emotional and financial roller-coaster:
— a new-to-me client decided my story was unacceptable. I lost $1,300 of the income agreed to and expected.
— another new-to-me client assigned an on-line slide-show that sounded easy-peasy, even though I’ve never done one. Hardly. Learning how to work quickly and efficiently for web clients is a learning curve.
— I’m on my third New York-based assistant since May and she’s getting busier with competing projects. Bright, ambitious people, (bless them!), move up quickly. My Toronto-based assistant is good, but really busy and costs $3/hour more.
— I decided to up my speed while walking to burn more calories, (the endless weight loss drama), and woke up crying in pain at 4:00 a.m. I’m fine, but it meant a week of zero exercise while my new hip calmed down again.
— My gynecologist put me on the scale and I hadn’t lost an ounce since my GP told me to shed lots o’ pounds few months ago. I’m torn between frustration/anger and fuckitIdon’tcarenanymore resignation. I loathe dieting and am so scared to injure myself by pushing my new hip too hard, with another five months before it’s 100% healed.
— I’m applying for a competitive annual journalism fellowship again, fearful I won’t even make the finals. But you can’t win what you don’t try.
— I decided against applying for a local award that required a $100 entry fee. Sure, I’d like that line on my resume, and I had a great story worth entering. But $100?
— I’m really getting fed up with the old-school thinking in my industry. Several of these awards and fellowships refuse to accept book chapters in lieu of printed clips from magazines or newspapers clips. Few freelance journalists can afford to write much for print anymore. We’ve had to migrate to writing for the web to make steady, ready cash.
— My toughest challenge? Guessing when, how often and how hard to push,whether for payment, a sale, higher rates. For every editor who says, gratefully “I’m so glad you reached out. I’ve been too busy but I’ll get back to you next week” another snarls “We’re closing three editions at once.” With 90% of our interactions by email, not phone, establishing any sort of a more personal, collegial relationship sometimes feels impossible.
Push too hard, lose a client. Play doormat, go broke.
— Late payments make me insane. I have a five-figure line of credit, at a usurious APR, which I try to avoid using. So I try to schedule my workflow and payments to insure that every single month, enough checks arrive, (they’re almost always on an out-of-state bank) in time for me to pay my bills promptly. One check arrived recently almost seven weeks after invoice. None of my creditors will wait, but I’m expected to.
— Balancing my short-term, medium-term and long-term goals often feels unmanageable. On any given day, I’m juggling all three: make money, line up more work, apply for awards and fellowships with hard deadlines, manage two assistants, squeeze in a personal, social and athletic life, keep a home that’s clean, tidy and attractive, keep my marriage happy, nurture professional and personal relationships. Oh, yeah and lose a ton of weight.
I’m trying to plan a conference for next spring. I’m still serving on a volunteer board. I’m still promoting my new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”. I want to have a book party for its Chinese release in March 2013 and wonder if I can sweet-talk Hong Kong friends into holding it for me. And how exactly will I pay for this?
— Promoting my book to keep it visible and selling. Between October 24 and January 24, I’ve got five speaking engagements, one in a distant state. Every day I spend a few hours trying to think of other venues for this, preferably ones that pay. I was so o and e I managed to fill out and return the wrong contract to one group. Boy, that looked professional!
— Still, a year later, trying to finish the proposal for (what I hope will become) my third book.
— Trying to figure out when and how to re-balance our investments so we might actually, one day, be able to get off this hamster wheel and afford to retire.
— Reading newspapers, magazines and on-line to know what’s happening in the world and what markets I want to sell to as a writer have already published.
— Another freelance friend, 10 years younger, tells me she’s putting away $20,000 to $30,000 a year for retirement. How is this possible? Our expenses are cut to the bone as it is and we have no kids, while she has two.
— Trying to re-sell “Malled” to a Hollywood agent to snag a film and/or television deal. My agent is handling that, but I need to keep on top of her activities.
— Coming up with ideas for stories (see: cashflow.)
— Refining and developing every idea into something salable, with emails and phone calls to make sure that sources are on-board, available and interested (all unpaid time), before I make the pitch.
— Planning (hah!) a long foreign vacation for 2013. Hoping to hike the Grand Canyon with my Dad in May, then Europe with my husband in June. The money for this will come from….? Freelancers get no paid vacations, so every non-working hour has to be earned/saved in advance.
So, I’m fleeing!
I’m heading back up to Canada next week for 10 days alone in the desperate hope of some true relaxation. I’ll house-sit for my Dad (off sailing [sigh] with my two younger brothers in Turkey.) I’ll go biking. I’ll head into Toronto to see dear old friends and enjoy a few good meals.