By Caitlin Kelly
For those of you new to Broadside — welcome! — this is an occasional look into my work week as a full-time freelance writer, which I’ve been doing since 2007.
Warts and all!
Headed to church. We hadn’t been in ages, with mixed feelings. I attend maybe every four to six weeks, enough to feel connected but not claustrophobic. I’ve been attending this small Episcopal church since 1998, so have some friendships of long standing and some powerful emotional connections there.
Jose and I carried the Communion elements — wine and wafers — up the red-carpeted aisle to the altar, the chilled, polished gleaming silver of the ewer and bowl cool in our hands.
A friend has sent me her memoir, which arrived in a box from L.A. I’m eager to read it. One of the things I enjoy about writing is the community it creates, globally. I’ve had “first readers” help me out by reading the final manuscripts of my books and have done it, happily, for others. We all need fresh eyes and honest feedback.
Last week I also founded, (by accident, by mentioning the idea on-line to a listserv I belong to), a new writers’ group that promptly swelled to 34 people, from India to Austin, Texas, to talk about the craft of writing. So many of us work alone, with little to no guidance from our busy editors, and have no place to discuss the skills it takes to create excellent non-fiction work. I’m curious to see where we take it.
In the U.S., it’s a holiday — Presidents’ Day. Even after 25 years of living here, I always forget American holidays! Embarrassing. For me, it’s work as usual. Working freelance often means feeling out of step with people whose days off are dictated by their bosses. I take time off when I can and often prefer to keep working on a holiday; Jose is working today, earning overtime pay. (Yay!)
I file a story to The New York Times, with two more cued up for March. As we accumulate our 1099s, (freelance income statements sent to the IRS) for tax time, I see how reliant I’ve become on them as a client — 50 percent of last year’s income. Unwise. I lost an amazing market there when my most appreciative editor got promoted. His replacement hates every pitch I’ve sent. But people there are always moving about, so every few months a new opportunity arises.
I read my friend’s memoir in two huge gulps, all 311 pages of it. I sent her long emails with my feedback, and wrote editing notes on some of the pages.
I saw two job ads last week that made think “Ooooooh.,” one in London and the other in New York City, both for major organizations. After seven years alone at home, endlessly chasing income, it would be pleasant to just have a paycheck, and a large one, for a while.
But I’m spoiled by the variety of skills I use in my work now. The minute you take a job in someone else’s office, it’s their agenda, ethics and principles. Aaaah, the price of independence. The one place that looks appealing is the revived Washington Post, recently bought by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, and on a hiring spree. Can we afford a commuter marriage?
I call my doctor to arrange vaccinations — for Nicaragua! I’ve never been there and am going in mid-March, as part of a team, to do some reporting and writing for a non-profit aid group. I also need to find and order a mosquito net, powerful bug repellent and loose, long trousers.
Plus rehydration salts and additional health insurance that will (!), if needed, re-patriate my “mortal remains.”
The opportunity came about as so many do for me, by taking a chance. I suggested having a panel of freelancers discuss how to pitch us most effectively to a group that works with public relations agencies worldwide; 75 PR people got on the call last summer. One of them was the woman who has hired me for this project.
This sort of sales cycle — six to eight months — isn’t that unusual for me. It’s one reason I pitch almost every day, either to people I’ve worked with for years, or those I hope to. As long as enough work comes in every year, and I meet my income goals, or exceed them, it works out.
This life requires patience, persistence and faith.
I filed a profile last summer for Cosmopolitan and a new editor sends over her questions to answer. I re-interview the subject, who lives in Arizona, and gather a lot more detail, hoping it will be enough.
I go to the post office where I run into our accountant and, after chatting with him, get a great story idea. I buy a new phone — my first upgrade in about four years — and one of the store associates’ ex-girlfriend’s parents would be a perfect source for my new idea.
I pitch it to Quartz.com, (my third sale to them) and they’re in. Cool. Idea to sale — about 30 minutes.
I beg one of my editors for more time to work on a New York Times piece that came back with a lot of questions; when I get back from our week off, I have three revisions and a story to complete before I leave again 12 days later. Oh, and pitching…
I’m offered a last-minute assignment by a regional publication but the negotiations bog down. Just as well. The magazine pays 30 days after publication. Grotesque terms.
I spend an hour on the phone with my friend, in addition to making notes on her manuscript and sending two long emails with advice and suggestions for it. I think there’s a powerful story there, and writing memoir is damn hard.
I scan my passport for the Nicaragua client and review their revised contract for the work.
Hair appointment in the city — then a new headshot taken by my favorite (free!) portrait photographer, my husband Jose. (Check it out on my welcome and about pages here.)
Dinner out with a couple of married friends, one of whom works with Jose, the other a retired journalist now doing French translation work for the United Nations. The couple met in Tokyo and worked in France and Turkey. We take this sort of globe-trotting for granted among our journo friends, and it gives us a great network. As soon as Nicaragua became a real assignment, I emailed a friend in Colorado who has written several guidebooks to that country for his advice.
Submitted my headshot, bio and class description for next fall’s blogging class — I’ve been hired to teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’m relieved to have income lined up, excited to be teaching at college again after a 15 year hiatus, nervous about facing freshman.
We’re spending five days on an island two hours’ drive from Tallahassee, the capital of Florida at a house my father has rented there. No plans but sleep, read, take photos, draw, relax.
Jose and I have never, in 14 years, taken a warm mid-winter break. But this interminable winter, which has pounded the Northeastern U.S. with endless snowstorms and bitter cold, is really tedious. It will be wonderful to not wear boots and a down jacket and hat and mitts for even a few days.
Can’t wait to read for pleasure! Two of the books I’m packing are the new biography of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folksinger, and the second volume of African memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.”