Help! I need somebody…

A group of security guards in Hong Kong lined ...
A group of security guards in Hong Kong lined up (fall-in) before on duty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you work for yourself, alone, you tend to think you can — and should — do it all. You get used to not having a boss, or colleagues or tech support or a janitor or security guards, any of the other people that normally surround us in an office or work setting.

You’re the CEO, CIO, CFO, R & D….and the janitor!

So hiring and paying others for their skills is something I have to force myself (Ms. Cheap) to do, while knowing it’s going to help me do my work better and faster. We all need a few smart brains to help us think through a problem that just stares us in the face sticking its tongue out…

And there’s a fun, honest piece on outsourcing grooming and fashion help from the current issue of American beauty magazine Allure, (which they offer no online link to):

I wish the tech nerds would get together with the fashion nerds and invent a company that would not only body-map the exact topography and physique of my physique, but also take it a step further and send me the following items in my exact size — hosiery, socks, T-shirts, jeans and bras.

Here’s a lovely post from mashedpotatoes about how much her husband does for her…

And another, from one of my favorite blogs, by singer Jessie Veeder, (which always has spectacular photos of her life on a ranch):

for all the Valentines Days I’ve been able to share with with a cute and thoughtful boy who turned out to be a man who makes the coffee nice and strong, searches for his clothes in the early hours of the morning with a headlamp so he doesn’t wake me, knows his way around a kitchen, unclogs the clogs, fixes broken things and promises he will be there tonight when I sing again, no matter the hours and miles he has to put in at work today.

A few of those helping me get it done these days:

The redoubtable C

It seems too unlikely to find and hire a terrific assistant through reading her blog, and vice versa, but that’s what happened. (A well-written blog lets readers know who you are and how you think and what your values are, so I felt no fear asking her to work with me as a researcher and general dogsbody.) She lives very far away from me and always will, although there’s a chance we’ll meet this summer. Her energy, enthusiasm, smarts and humor are a godsend. Here’s a link to her blog, Small Dog Syndrome.


Ricky comes to our apartment every two weeks to clean it. I pay her $55 for about 90 minutes’ work, a fee some of my friends consider a lot of money. Not me. She’s quiet, efficient, meticulous and allows me to focus on high-value work. And she’s nice.


My hairdresser of more than a decade.


A local hairdresser in my suburban town, she’s happy to meet me at 7:30 a.m. to do my hair, necessary when I’m asked to do a TV appearance. No, I can’t begin to approximate the quality of a professional blow-out! (And it’s a business expense.)


He created my main website,, which is due for a major re-do. We spent a good hour on the phone recently — as he now lives in Portland, Oregon — trying to figure it all out. I’m grateful for someone who’s known me so long and watched my career and skills morph since we put the site up in 1995, when very few writers even had one.


My financial planner in Toronto. OK, he’s not mine — he handles 100 accounts, mine among them. I’ve heard his gravel voice for years, but finally met him face to face recently and we chewed around some ideas for my portfolio. Given that mine may easily be the smallest he manages, I’m lucky he’s as gracious and helpful as he is.


My accountant for more than a decade. Even in my scariest, nail-biting, can-I-pay-the-bills years, and there have been a few, Peter has been encouraging, warm and proud of my ability to save 15 to 20 percent of my income — as a percentage, far more, he tells me, than clients earning much, more more. He even makes filing my taxes pleasant!


In May 2010, it was he, a massage therapist who knows me and my pain threshold all too well, who figured out something was seriously wrong with my left hip due to the sort of 24/7 pain I was suffering. After another MRI, at Tony’s urging, the dismissive surgeon who had given me steroids that destroyed my hip bone, said those three fateful words: “We missed that.”

Assorted helpful colleagues

The one serious drawback of working alone at home all day? Loneliness, isolation and brain-freeze. With no one across the desk or in the next cubicle to ask for help or advice or to brainstorm with, you can quickly burn out. My friend K, in Nova Scotia, always makes me at least 32% smarter after every call, no matter what the subject. G, in upstate New York, is high-energy and optimistic, and W., a new friend in Montreal, brims with fantastic ideas and helpful connections.

Roy and Yvonne

Every time I do a local event for my book, the owners of The Village Bookstore, one of only seven bookstores left in our large and affluent county, come out with a box of books and the hope that, after my presentation, we’ll sell some. Sometimes the drive is 45 minutes each way. No matter what the hour or weather or day, they’re there and cheerful and I’m grateful!

My brother

I have two. This one is ten years younger and runs his own software company, a fact that leaves me awestruck. The other day I needed all sorts of advice on creating and protecting IP — intellectual property — for a new project I’m working on. He totally got it and referred me to his patent expert and an IP lawyer. It’s really helpful to have someone I know, like and trust who sees all the issues and had dealt with many of them already.

My husband

I had neglected (!) to include him in this initial list, which proves how ungrateful utterly reliant I’ve become in 13 years on his good will, good humor, generosity and energy. I hate buying anything to do with technology — I’m cheap, hate making major financial commitments and yet appreciate every single thing he’s bought for me/us, including the coolest thing ever, a MiFi, the size of a credit card which turns anywhere, (short of the Grand Canyon), into an instant wi-fi spot. He also does all the laundry, some cooking and, far more safety conscious than I, thinks of things like — “Hmm, we’re driving up to Canada in the winter. Maybe we need new snow tires.” Which we desperately did. I’m lucky that he, too, has been a journalist, (albeit on the photo side), since his freshman year of college as I did, so he’s helped me many times with work dilemmas.

Who is essential to helping you run your life better or more easily these days?

Out of your PJ’s, you slackers! Yahoo orders workers back to the office

Telecommuting (Photo credit: ScottMJones)

You can hear the sighs from here.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new CEO, has ordered all remote workers, those at home in their bunny slippers and sweatpants, back to work in the office.

You know, where they can make sure you’re being productive:

A memo explaining the policy change, from the company’s human resources department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture — a hallmark of Google’s approach to its business.

In trying to get back on track, Yahoo is taking on one of the country’s biggest workplace issues: whether the ability to work from home, and other flexible arrangements, leads to greater productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration. Across the country, companies like Aetna, Booz Allen Hamilton and are confronting these trade-offs as they compete to attract and retain the best employees.

Bank of America, for example, which had a popular program for working remotely, decided late last year to require employees in certain roles to come back to the office.

Employees, especially younger ones, expect to be able to work remotely, analysts say. And over all the trend is toward greater workplace flexibility.

Still, said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement and executive coaching firm, “A lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home some of the time or all of the time because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.”

Excuse my language, but I call bullshit.

Every time a company wants employees all perky and visible and audible and crammed into cubes they insist it’s all about the innovation.

Yeah, right.

I worked for a martinet at my first New York City magazine job, who insisted I be at my desk “and working!” by 9:00 a.m. sharp, even though taking a slightly later train in from my home in the suburbs meant arriving at 9:15 or so.

It’s a power game, a way to demonstrate — just in case you forgot! — who’s in charge of your life.

I’ve been working, alone at home, since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper, in June 2006. Alone for almost seven years, working — yes, even as I type this — in sweat pants. Yet I’ve managed to produce a well-reviewed memoir, dozens of newspaper and magazine stories, edit others’ work, consult, fly around the country on well-paid speaking gigs.

Productive? I dunno. Look at my retirement savings account. I’d say so.

Every morning I get up and no one anywhere, tells me what to do or when to do it or how to do it. I have not one penny of income guaranteed to me. I have to hustle it up every single month, a minimum of $2,000 a month, just to meet my basic bills.

Any one of you who works in an office knows this — just because an employee’s butt is in a chair in some manager’s clear sightline doesn’t mean they’re not lazy, ass-kissing or politicking or backstabbing.

Innovative? Collaborative? Cooperative? You wish!

With a phone call or email to the right colleague — whether in Nova Scotia or California — I can get serious, smart help and advice. At the Daily News, despite every effort to be collegial, I was ignored by colleagues and managers alike.

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

My husband commutes every day to The New York Times, at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street. It costs him about $600 a month to go to work in an office: $200+ for his train pass; $200 month for the taxis that take him to and from the train station in our town (too far to walk); $200+ for subsidized cafeteria meals at work. Plus commercial laundering of his shirts.

He also has six meetings every day; putting out a newspaper like the Times, like many enterprises, does require incessant discussion and teamwork.

Yes, some workers are indeed quite incapable of self-discipline and do better work under others’ supervision. Some workplaces really do thrive on having lots of smart people in the same building to rub brains and bump into one another in the hallways and suddenly come up with some fabulous, profitable new solution.

But mostly they want to Own Your Ass.

I spent a day last spring at Google reporting this story for the Times. It was a little creepy — OK, a lot– how much they wanted their hip employees, hoodies and all, to be there 24/7, providing them with free food, laundry rooms on-site, even a hair-stylist.

In the 21st century, long past the Industrial Revolution that took us away from artisanal work and attached us all to machines inside large buildings, here we are again.

Plus ca change, mes chers…

Who’s your audience? At what cost?

If you missed last night’s Oscars, lucky you!

I watched Seth MacFarlane as host — and yes, I had to Google him — and thought “Seriously?” I found him crude, sophomoric (freshmanic? even better) and deeply off-putting.

English: Seth MacFarlane at the 2010 Comic Con...
English: Seth MacFarlane at the 2010 Comic Con in San Diego (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not, however, the demographic the Academy Awards producers so desperately crave, 18 to 49 year old men. By hiring MacFarlane, and larding the show with sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic “jokes”, they thought for sure they had a win.

And they did.

But for every teen boy yukking it up out there, a million others, men and women of all ages, were tweeting and Facebooking their shock and disgust throughout, and after, the show.

Sure, grow your audience…

At what cost?


Seth MacFarlane was full of surprises when he hosted the Oscar awards show last night. This morning came another one: TV ratings for the 85th celebration of Hollywood’s love affair with the movies were up over last year in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic.

Early tallies for the show say it earned a 12.1 rating for that group, up more than from 3% from last year’s final 11.7 figure, according to a report in Broadcasting & Cable, citing preliminary figures from Nielsen. Entertainment Weekly notes that total ratings for the Oscars also probably rose over last year’s show hosted by Billy Chrystal. Final ratings, which may be different, will be released by Nielsen later today.

If these ratings hold, it will be a pleasant surprise for ABC and its corporate parent Walt Disney (DIS +0.22%).Some had wondered whether MacFarlane, whose TV shows and movies appeal largely to men, would turn off the mostly female Oscar audience. His song-and-dance number celebrating actresses who have shown their breasts on the silver screen may have offended some, but it was tame stuff by MacFarlane’s standards.

Best known as the creator of “Family Guy,” MacFarlane got mixed reviews for his performance.

Best Actress Academy Awards
Best Actress Academy Awards (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

For Broadside, an unpaid gig, I want an engaged, civil conversation with smart, global, interesting people. I have them! Yay, you!

For my books, I want readers of all ages simply open to new ideas, especially those interested in a new spin on old narratives — whether gun use or low-wage labor. Fortunately, I’ve found them as well.

When I write on business for The New York Times, I want readers to enjoy, think, argue, share. My stories are consistently the third most read and emailed of the entire Sunday paper. So, I’m pleased that my fairly careful targeting of the audience I seek is indeed out there.

But the pursuit of the Big Bucks, in many fields, means lowering the bar — of taste, execution, style, content, tone or intelligence.

It’s not a trade-off I’m willing to make.

How about you?

Who is your audience?

How do you try to win and keep and grow them?

Does it involve making trade-offs between your personal ethics and principles — and making a decent living?

Writers aren’t circus bears!

Canada Reads 2013
Canada Reads 2013 (Photo credit: gorbould)

Here’s a thoughtful recent essay from Canada’s National Post:

There is a clause on page five of my book contract that states, “The Author must make herself available to the media to promote the work.”…Not only does literary life seem to require a new kind of written personal transparency, the obligations that follow publication seem to have become increasingly more invasive.

How is “available” defined when we can reveal our private lives in real time via a variety of different digital outlets? When accessing almost any author with immediate, unfiltered comment and criticism is a click away? How much does the media, and the public, want, need or even deserve?

As writers feel more and more pressure to be 24/7, real-time public figures, we need to consider those who are disclosure-averse, who prefer to hide away and let their work stand as they have constructed it.

Writing is a solitary act, while publishing is a shared one, and skill at being a likable public figure who gives great readings and interviews is in no way a quality of producing quality literature.

It’s certainly not news that the Internet is not exactly a bastion of thoughtful dialogue and critique — it’s a vile, abusive place that no amount of “haters gonna hate” can ease the blow of. The result of putting oneself “out there” is commonly getting badly beat up, shattering your confidence in yourself and your work…

Exposure can be a terrifying and exhausting process, the demand for the author to step well out into the fray constant…

Being good at self-exposure and promotion doesn’t make you a better writer, it makes you a more popular one.

This resonated deeply for me.

As you read this, I’m at an assisted-living facility about 10 minutes’ drive from my home, doing another public event for my retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I’m not being paid for it, which I sometimes am, (usually $50 to $250 for a small, local event.) A local indie bookseller will be there with a box of my books and a credit card machine. (If I sell them, they don’t count for royalties, i.e. lowering the initial advance payment with every sale, albeit a tiny fraction of the cover price the publisher actually pays the author.)

It’s showtime, folks!

This, my second book, came out April 2011 in hardcover, July 2012 in paperback, but  — like many authors — I’m still out there selling it to the public and press when possible. If it doesn’t keep selling, it will disappear from bookstores, go out of print and die. Staying silent and invisible seems unwise.

Before almost every event I have no idea, really, how many people will show up, or in what mood, or with what level of interest in me or my topic. Someone in the crowd might get nasty. I might fill the room — and not sell a single book. (My book discusses low-wage labor, and both times this has happened was after addressing library audiences in two very wealthy towns, Scarsdale, NY and Westport, CT.)

Frankly, it’s stressful.

The last event I did was in January at a local library on a bitterly cold night. I was suffering terrible bronchitis, my barking cough frequent and loud. To my delight, a friend came, as did a woman who had heard me months earlier, and she brought two friends. One man blurted “I love your book! I stayed up til 1:30 last night reading it.” Which was, of course, all lovely.

Then I asked one audience member, working retail, what she sells: “Clothing, to women your size.”

Holy shit. That hurt! I smiled my usual bland, friendly, I-didn’t-feel-a-thing smile. But her impertinent and bizarrely personal remark still hurts, weeks later.

Writers are hungry to be read, to communicate our ideas and passions, but we’re not schooled or trained — nor eager for, or desirous of, sustained public attention and unsolicited, often anonymous, commentary.

We do this public song-and-dance because we have to, because we’re proud of and love our books and want them to be read as widely as possible. But many writers are ambivalent about, even resentful of, the misleading and false sense of intimacy our public appearances create with audiences.

You don’t know us.

You just know what we wrote. 

When doing public and press events, no matter how stung or annoyed you feel, you have to react quickly and calmly, as I did on live radio with 2 million listeners on The Diane Rehm Show.

And I won’t rant here about the public, permanent and often anonymous “reviews” on amazon, some so vicious they’ve left me shaking: “Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy” wrote one.

Many writers are desperate to be published, and would kill for the chance to garner lots of media and/or public attention. For their work, yes, of course!

But you personally ? To have your looks, personality, clothing, diction, mannerisms and family discussed (and quite possibly dissed) by curious strangers?

Maybe not so much.

If you’re interested in writing-as-process, here’s a two-part interview I gave recently to fellow writer Nancy Christie, whose many questions were intelligent and thought-provoking.

Bullied? Here’s what it does to you, for life

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...
Physical bullying at school, as depicted in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new study finds that being bullied can affect its victims for life. From The New York Times:

The new study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, is the most comprehensive effort to date to establish the long-term consequences of childhood bullying, experts said.

“It documents the elevated risk across a wide range of mental health outcomes and over a long period of time,” said Catherine Bradshaw, an expert on bullying and a deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University, which was not involved in the study.

“The experience of bullying in childhood can have profound effects on mental health in adulthood, particularly among youths involved in bullying as both a perpetrator and a victim,” she added.

The study followed 1,420 subjects from Western North Carolina who were assessed four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16. Researchers asked both the children and their primary caregivers if they had been bullied or had bullied others in the three months before each assessment. Participants were divided into four groups: bullies, victims, bullies who also were victims, and children who were not exposed to bullying at all.

Participants were assessed again in young adulthood — at 19, 21 and between 24 and 26 — using structured diagnostic interviews.

Researchers found that victims of bullying in childhood were 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults, compared to those with no history of bullying or being bullied.

I read this story, which my husband chose to highlight for me, because I was badly bullied for more than two years when I was a high school student in Toronto. I arrived halfway through Grade 10, into a school where everyone had attended the same local schools since kindergarten. I was pimply, socially awkward and had been attending single-sex schools and camps since fourth grade. Boys were an alien species.

Worse than acne, I had confidence, the kind that often is deeply nurtured by single-sex environments, where every teacher and student leader is female. Deferring to male authority? Why would I do that?

And so a small gang of boys made sure to teach me a lesson. They called me Doglin, barked at me down the echoing hallways, even brought a dog biscuit and laid it on my desk. I walked home every day alone, in tears, often getting into bed with all my clothes on to cry and sleep and recover before it all started again the next day.

Hell. School was hell.

English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, th...
English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first class day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I eventually managed to turn it around, snagging a cute boyfriend, starting a school newspaper and — score! — was even named Prom Queen. It taught me that a shitty situation can, sometimes, be transformed.

But there are days I feel like there’s still a target on my back. I’ve experienced much bullying since then, mostly in work settings where casual cruelty is considered normal. I also come from a family of people with explosive, nasty tempers — being the recipient of verbal abuse will set me back for days, even weeks.

I know why people bully. I get it. I don’t care.

And far too many of those who see it choose to turn a bind eye: “Suck it up. Man up! Kids will be kids.”

My husband, who was small and slight as a boy, was also tormented by bullies. We both know what this does to you, then and later. There is no excuse for verbal abuse or physical harassment — we all refuse to tolerate physical assault and know it’s against the law.

Here’s my essay about it that ran in USA Today. And here’s a recent helpful book on the subject.

This 7:37 animated video is moving, powerful and made me want to cry.

He gets it.

Have you been bullied?

How has it affected you?

They’d read your blog (more often) if only…

Homes & Antiques magazine cutting: Dec '09
Homes & Antiques magazine cutting: Dec ’09 (Photo credit: H is for Home)

You used photos, videos, drawings — visuals!

I’m amazed, and dismayed, by how few bloggers consistently add visual content to their posts. A sea of words is daunting and dull. Magazines and newspapers know they must seduce readers into their material, not simply subject them to an unbroken and wearying sea of type.

You thought more like an editor

When you write for an editor, your ideas, and how you plan to express them, have to pass muster with someone else, often several. They usually ask you to explain, a little or a lot, why you think this story is worth doing now. Blogging offers writers tremendous freedom of expression — please don’t abuse it.

You remembered that your readers are busy, easily bored and quickly distracted

Journalists are taught to use the “inverted pyramid”, in which the most essential information in any story is at the very top, usually within the first sentence or paragraph. We do it because readers are like very small tired children — they have short attention spans and wander off within seconds. Grab them fast!

You wooed me in with a fab headline

Magazine editors sweat over coverlines, the teasing short sentences they choose to put on their magazine covers, hoping to make you buy their edition over that of their competitiors. Newspaper editors know they need powerful, succinct or amusing headlines to catch our eye and pull us into a story. Have you ever studied some of the best heads? “Headless body found in topless bar” is a classic. This is an excellent headline as it immediately made me read the post — it’s bossy, very specific and focused on a place I know well. Sold!

Here’s a link to how to write great heads —  and another.

You used lots and lots of paragraphs

Don’t force readers to scale a huge unbroken block of copy! It’s lazy and editorially rude. They’ll just click away, irritated. And I see this a lot.

You posted more frequently

A blog that shows up every few months is the sign of someone who just isn’t that into blogging. Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it takes time. Your readers are there for a reason. They want to read what you have to say! Don’t disappoint them.

You posted less frequently

True, dat. Some bloggers, giddy with the delicious freedom of being able to hit “publish” after every little thought flitting through their head, post constantly. I know that some bloggers relish the writing challenge of producing a post a day, but do your readers have that much time or interest?

We’re not writing for ourselves, but our readers’ pleasure.

You had more of a sense of humo(u)r

The best blogs have some lightness to them. They’re not a laugh riot all the time, and can often be serious. But being earnest all the time ? We usually shy away from that in real life, so why would we choose to read it? Mix it up a little.

You remembered I don’t live nearby, and don’t get your points of reference

I live in a town north of New York City, and most of my readers also live in the U.S. But I also have readers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, India, places where a reference I might make to a local politician or cultural figure or news story may mean nothing to someone who’s never heard of them. Add a link to help your readers far away better understand what you’re talking about.

English: Broadway show billboards at the corne...
English: Broadway show billboards at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 47th Street in Times Square in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You didn’t mistake a public blog for a private journal

This is the single greatest mistake I see in too many blogs. I really don’t want to read someone whining: “I don’t know what to write.” A blog is a public document, visible in perpetuity to anyone who finds it — your friends, family, employer, future employers. Make it lively, interesting, compelling and intriguing.

You didn’t underestimate the power of a great blog

A few bloggers have won paid writing opportunities, or more, thanks to their terrific blogs. A well-written and illustrated blog, with smartly-chosen links and consistently compelling material, is a fantastic way to showcase your design, thinking, ideas and insights — far more effectively than any resume can.

If you’re a current high school or college student, fresh grad or work-seeker, consider creating a blog strategically. It’s your very own billboard.

You understood that it takes time to grow an audience

Some fortunate few find thousands of followers within weeks, but more likely this will take months or years. Broadside has almost 4,000 followers now, but it began in July 2009, has more than 1,300 posts, (archives help), and has been chosen for Freshly Pressed six times, each time bringing in thousands of views and new followers. (My best-ever day, thanks to FP, brought in 7,606 people.)

Tried using bold and italics once in a while

A sea of unbroken copy is bad enough. Readers need breaks! We need to know when and where to pay extra attention. Read books and magazines — even their on-line versions — to get a better feel for this.

Linked to and quoted others

Readers are hungry for well-curated content. What else are you reading or listening to?

You revealed more of yourself

Readers are hungry for authenticity. We don’t need all the gory details, but we want to feel we “know” the people who are asking us for our limited attention.

Or less…

Some bloggers beat us to death with detail. Why is what you’re posting of compelling interest to others?

You introduced yourself

There are far too many blogs where the writer hasn’t even bothered to fill out the “about” page. Every single magazine includes an editor’s letter and their photo, in addition to “our contributors” pages, with their photos and mini-bio’s. In a world of competing voices, why should we listen to yours? Who are you? Where do you live? Have you any specific experience or credentials that add authority to your posts? Don’t be too cute or coy. The blogosphere is a public space and staying totally anonymous means I have no idea why I should give you my very limited time and attention.

You leave me wanting more

Don’t overshare. Many bloggers bury readers in minutiae, a level of detail about their kids or cats or classes, super personal stuff that’s too internal and not focused on me, your reader. Make me hungry to hear more, not covering my ears going lalalalalalalalalalalalalalala.

What’s the most important letter you’ve ever received?


You know, something written on paper, possibly even written carefully in ink by hand, folded into an envelope with a stamp on it…?

kim letter

This lovely object was a going-away card made by my friend Kim, a former colleague and close Toronto friend, when I moved to Montreal in September 1986.

For a generation or two, and possibly future generations, a letter on paper may soon be, if not already, some odd artifact of the ancient past, like cuneiform carved into stone or hieroglyphics painted on papryus.

For historians and writers and researchers of all sorts, letters are gold, a direct and unadulterated conduit into how someone, possibly someone we’ll never meet, maybe centuries dead, was thinking at a particular moment in time.

What did Chopin or Livingstone or Emerson think? Here’s a link to books with their letters.

Do you follow the phenomenal blog Brain Pickings? You must! Here’s her 2012 post on books of letters, with several lovely and moving excerpts.

Here is Friedrich Engels, writing on Nov. 12, 1875:

The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois economic theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population. This feat having been accomplished – (as indicated under (1) I dispute its unqualified justification, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned) – the same theories are next transferred back again from organic nature to history and their validity as eternal laws of human society declared to have been proved. The childishness of this procedure is obvious, it is not worth wasting words over.

Some of the most life-changing messages have come to me by mail, like the letter from Paris that arrived in my Toronto mailbox in June 1982. I had just turned 25, and became the year’s youngest fellow in an eight-month journalism fellowship that would base me in Paris with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Japan to Brazil. We would travel alone to report stories all over Europe, (and fall in love, break hearts [sorry, Carlo!], and discover ourselves and the world in ways then impossible to imagine…

When I was 12, at summer camp, I wrote to Ray Bradbury, a writer whose work left me awestruck and envious, urging him (!) to not stop writing. I was in Northern Ontario and mailed my letter to his Manhattan publisher, Ballantine. Within a few weeks, I had a hand-written reply, on a blue custom postcard with his address and signature, from Los Angeles.

It was magical and improbable as finding a unicorn in the mailbox.

A writer, thousands of miles away in a foreign country, a man of tremendous accomplishment and repute, had bothered to make the time to write back to me, a young girl. Writers were real people! They had hearts, and postcards and pens and stamps. They care what we think!

This early success later emboldened me, and I wrote, in my early 20s, to the late John Cheever, another giant of American literature. My first was a fan letter, (to which he replied), about Falconer, an astonishing novel. But I wrote again, from a long trip through Europe alone, to ask him to explain an expression he has used in his earlier stories. He wrote back again.

(I now live a 10-minute drive from his home, his daughter reviewed my first book and I met his son at a local authors’ event. How odd, and unlikely.)

My mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship, lived most of her life very far away from me — in Peru or New Mexico or Mexico or England or British Columbia — but wrote me typewritten letters almost every week for many years. I have only a few of them now, and they have a poignancy that is almost unbearable in their chatty, loving desire to stay in touch with me, her only child.

I cherish a few personal letters in particular, two of them photographed here. One is from a former assistant minister at our church, which he wrote to me when my first book was published to thank me for sharing my talent. Another  — with no year’s date on it — is from a man whose vision and humor and affection changed my life, the late Philippe Viannay, who founded my fellowship (and a newspaper, and a home for boys and a sailing school and…)

I cherish the last line of his letter: “Thanks again for the way you played the game.” (More precisely, the spirit with which…) It was important to me, then as now, to be so appreciated by someone I so deeply admired.


For all you Indigo Girls lovers, here’s one of my favorite songs: Burn All The Letters.

What letter has changed your life?

A party: the ambassador, the Arabist and instant invisibility

The odds are fairly unlikely of naming an island so remote than it’s a pin-dot on a map of the South Pacific — 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti — and meeting someone at the cheese plate who says: “I sailed past there once.”

The island is Mangareva, in French Polynesia. I knew of it from translating 19th century French historical documents for a freelance project. My cheese-plate-sharer turned out to be a sixth generation Caucasian Fijian, the nation’s ambassador to the United Nations, a tower a few blocks north of the party.

Mangareva Island, Gambier Islands
Mangareva Island, Gambier Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course!

Somewhat pneumatic after six weeks of illness and no exercise + a gluttonous vacation, I felt ill at ease amongst the 20-something women, all of them as thin as praying mantises. Manhattan women are almost terrifyingly, uniformly lean, their thighs the size of my forearms. It’s hard not to feel intimidated, outsize and unattractive in their midst.

I sat beside a man in a pink oxford cloth Ralph Lauren shirt, wearing a Cartier watch on his left wrist. He began our conversation by warning me that he is deaf in one ear, so we would have to adjust accordingly. As one always does here, I asked if — like our hosts and many of the guests — he, too, was a journalist.

“I’m a bad guy,” he replied. Cool! The ambassador had already told me about his four-day prison term and later house arrest. What had this man done?

“I work on Wall Street.”

Yeah, that qualifies.

We shared memories of Corsica and had a great time, his gentle modesty refreshing.

Then a woman, a fellow freelancer for the same paper, and I started talking. Ego, beware! There are few moments more deadly than the “So, who do you write for?”  which is really a whole new fresh hell of potential insecurity and one-upmanship. What you really want to snap is “Google me!” But you can’t.

So she told me all about her four fancy steady freelance gigs, (to my none), and I began to feel very small. Then a friend of hers showed up and I was instantly, after an introduction, invisible as they heartily reminisced about their recent Caribbean vacation.

I edged toward the door, in the narrow hallway, where I started talking to a young woman about some astonishing meals we had recently eaten. Common ground!

She teaches Arabic, which struck me as amazing and exotic and one hell of an accomplishment. Somehow we got onto the subject of church attendance and discovered we both attend Episcopal churches — and that you just can’t talk about religion in New York because it doesn’t do what everyone expects of you — prove that you’re (just as) rich, connected or powerful. It was a rare opportunity to talk about spirituality in daily life, as lovely and unlikely as discovering a stranger with a shared knowledge of one of the Gambier Islands.

Have you been to any good parties lately?

The joy of blog pals

So I get this email a while back from Elizabeth Harper, an American from Atlanta who fell in love with an Englishman and now lives in Cornwall, and who writes the lovely blog, Gifts of the Journey: “I saw something that made me think of you and I’ve mailed it.”

I wondered what it might possibly be, while touched and grateful that a woman I’ve yet to meet or even speak to was kind enough to think of me and send me a present.

A pub bar towel. Thanks, Elizabeth! So fun!


The other night, barely minutes after I posted, I got an email from Michelle in Minneapolis, pointing out (thank you!) a typo I’d missed. How unlikely, and helpful, to have a sharp-eyed volunteer copy-editor a few time zones in the other direction.

She and I had breakfast there in October 2012 when I went out to give a speech at the University of Minnesota. We had a blast. It’s the oddest moment, these blogging blind dates, when you finally put a voice, face and body to the person whose writing you’ve been reading for months, maybe years. She writes The Green Study, in a voice that’s consistently clear, crisp and no-nonsense.

Plus, the woman served in the military as a Russian linguist!

Depending what you write about, a fellow blogger may come to know you quite well indeed, and vice versa. I felt immediately at ease with Michelle, and we quickly fell into deep conversation.

English: Entrance sign at the northwest corner...
English: Entrance sign at the northwest corner of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My first blog blind date was with Lorna, a young woman in Edinburgh who writes the blog Gin & Lemonade. I met her and her fiance, then beau, at a Manhattan bar.

On our recent vacation, we had a sudden family crisis to deal with and I knew, of all people, Elizabeth would know how to cope. It felt bizarre to fire a panicked email across the Atlantic, but she quickly wrote back a long and compassionate reply — a measure of her great kindness, as she and John had just survived a truly terrifying experience, a head-on collision. Here’s her post about it, with photos.

And then there’s C, who writes Small Dog Syndrome, which I’d been reading and enjoying for a while.

A few months ago, I needed a new assistant, someone really smart to represent me and my business interests. I need a challenging mix of charm and utter tenacity and wondered if she might be the one, and now she is. Thanks to her candid, tart blog posts, I knew we shared a love, and experience of, world travel and ex-pat life, and a stiff upper lip in the face of unpleasantness, personal or professional. You can’t intuit that from a resume!

Have you met or worked with any of your blog pals?

How did it turn out?

If you ever speak to a reporter…

The Interview
The Interview (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who have never spoken to a reporter, or been media-trained, here are a few basic ground rules that might be helpful.

This first one is a new and — to a veteran like me — really egregious problem:

Pre-publication, social media are off limits! Do NOT tweet or Facebook giving any hint of who is coming to interview you, what about or for which media outlet.

I’ve been working in journalism since 1978 and younger public relations people, as well as journalists and photographers, have done this to me and to Jose, my husband who assigns photographers for The New York Times, causing us personal and professional embarrassment or worse. They seem to have no understanding that journalism — more than ever! — is a highly competitive industry. The second you tip my hand to any of my competitors, I’ve lost the whole point of my story, which is to beat them, possibly handily, to a great piece they have yet to notice or work on themselves.

If a reporter wants to interview you, ask them a few questions before you agree, or begin speaking:

How long is the piece? What section is it running in, or, if a magazine, which issue? What’s your deadline? What’s your angle? Who else are you speaking to? (They may not tell you.) It’s helpful to understand how your comments or views fit into the larger picture.

Don’t insist on reviewing your quotes before publication.

This is taboo for almost all reporters. It wastes their time, it slows down production and — most importantly — it shows ignorance of journalism norms. Many magazines still employ fact-checkers, people who will call you up later to ensure that what is said by or about you is factually accurate. Freelancers tightly budget their reporting time and may be speaking to a dozen sources or more, not just you. We don’t have time!

You can speak on background, off the record, not for attribution or on the record. Make sure you are clear before the interview begins and that both you and the reporter have agreed.

On background means they will never name or identify you in any way. You’re helping them better understand a complex issue and possibly pointing them to other sources, but you won’t be named as the referral source. NFA means I can broadly identify you: “A highly-placed White House source” or “A 20-year employee”, i.e. your name and title are not used, but your credibility or authority is established. If you speak on the record, every word you say can be used and attributed to you by name.

English: Ft. Pierce, FL, September 16, 2008 --...
English: Ft. Pierce, FL, September 16, 2008 — FEMA Public Information Officer(PIO) Renee Bafalis and Community Relations(CR) Specialist Rene Haldimann speak on camera with WPTV-TV (5) reporter Bryan Garner at a manufactured home park which was affected by Tropical Storm Fay. George Armstrong/FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can ask for questions in advance — but it’s annoying.

Yes, you want to prepare. But we expect you to know your stuff well enough to anticipate most questions.

Every good interview will also go off on a few tangents. We don’t want to — and won’t — stick to a pre-determined list.

Don’t put us on a choke chain.

It’s annoying, but common, to have a press officer in the room or on the phone with us during an interview, but if you don’t give us enough time, or interrupt us, we’ll just pester you and your staff later.

Don’t haggle or harangue about attribution after you’ve spoken.

Once an interview has begun, unless you say “This is off the record” before you say it, it’s on, and usable. Same with phone interviews. If doing it by email, mark these comments off clearly.

During a phone interview, ask if the reporter is taping or taking notes.

They’re likely doing both. A note-taker (like me) may need additional time to catch up.

Ask how much time they need, and make sure you have no interruptions.

Some may only need five or ten minutes, others an hour or more. I’m suspicious of any reporter who wants only a very brief interview as most issues are too complex for a sound bite. Television and radio interviews demand precise, quick answers — but print interviewers may want a lot more detail, and time.

Research the reporter beforehand.

Everyone is findable now: Google and LinkedIn being the two quickest and easiest ways to get a sense of who you’ll be speaking with. Are they fair-minded? Experienced? Well-regarded in the industry? If you can spare the time to read a few things they’ve written — and can genuinely compliment them on one — why not? It shows us a little respect as well.

What have I left out?

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