It all began with…

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of you want to become journalists or non-fiction authors.

Some of you have just graduated from college or university, wondering when your career will begin.

It will.

I recently found a piece of my early career that I’m so glad I still have, as so many of my other clips have been thrown away by accident or deliberately as I’ve moved around.

Today, with everything available on-line, it’s hard to recall a time when print was it and paper clips — (pun intended!) — were crucial to getting more work, carried around physically in a large, heavy portfolio case.

Here it is.

A story about testing cosmetics and other products on animals. Very tough stuff!
A story about testing cosmetics and other products on animals. Very tough stuff!

The reason this clip matters so much to me?

I was three years out of university, with no journalism training, but ferociously ambitious and already writing for national magazines before I graduated.

Without editors willing to take a chance on a writer in her early 20s, I’d never have gotten started, or so young. That trust meant everything!

I was lucky on a few counts:

I already lived in Toronto, Canada’s media capital; there were then many such magazines, several of them well-respected weekly supplements to newspapers, and they paid well; editors were willing to give me assignments, and more assignments.

And I had the cojones to walk into those glossy offices and make my pitches, sometimes even overcoming their doubts.

I wrote about the (then!) new fashion of wearing running shoes as casual wear, and the warring German brothers Adi Dassler (Adidas) and his brother, Rudolf, who founded Pumas. I also learned to pronounce the name of their town, and never forgot it — Herzogenaurach.

I got to watch a lady parachutist, hoping like hell not to fall out of the open aircraft door myself.

I got sent to Flint, Michigan to watch teen girls play a form of hockey called ringette.

More than anything, I was paid to learn my craft from some of the best, people old enough to have been my parents or professors.

The testing story came to me via a local activist, a woman I still run into when I go back to Toronto and visit the flea market, where she sells terrific jewelry. She was then a passionate advocate for animal rights and told me about the testing, some of which I saw done on cats in a downtown hospital.

It was pretty soul-searing.

But it also set the tone for much of the work I would later tackle as a journalist, whether visiting a cancer hospice in Quebec or writing a book, decades later, about women and guns.

I wanted serious intellectual and emotional challenge from my work and I still do.

This story appeared in March 1982 — the year my career took off after I won, in June 1982, an eight-month fellowship in Paris. I would spend Sept. 1982 to June 1983 in a group of 28 journalists from 19 nations, including Togo, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, New Zealand, Italy and, of course, the U.S. and Canada, with eight of us from North America.

The year was astounding. We traveled as a group to Germany and Italy. We also took off on solo ten-day reporting trips. I went to Copenhagen to write about the Royal Danish Ballet; to Comiso, Sicily to write about Cruise missiles, (speaking not a word of Italian!); to London and Amsterdam to write about squatters and an eight-day trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French truck-driver who spoke not a word of English.

I’m still friends with several of these fellow journalists, looking forward soon to seeing my Irish friend and meeting her two daughters, one of whom is now also a serious and ambitious journalist.

When I came back to Toronto, with the glittering dust of a recent fellowship gilding my resume, I got my first staff job at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. I had never written to a daily deadline in my life.

I stayed there 2.5 years then went to the Montreal Gazette, to work in French and enjoy Montreal. There I met my first husband, an American medical student finishing up at McGill, and followed him to New Hampshire, then to New York, where I’ve stayed ever since.

I hope to retire within the next few years and for now would like to focus all my energy, ideally, on writing non-fiction books, long-form stories and teaching. I love telling stories but also want to travel longer and further away than a deadline-driven life allows.

Journalism is an industry in a state of upheaval — usually politely termed disruption — and I’m grateful beyond words, (ironic for a writer!), that I was able to find staff work at three major dailies (my last staff job was at the NY Daily News, then the sixth-largest in the U.S.) along the way.

If there’s a more fun way to see the world and learn about it and tell others about it — and talk to everyone from Admirals and Prime Ministers to convicted felons and Olympic athletes — I’ve yet to discover it.

This long-defunct national Canadian magazine nurtured some of the nation's best writers, thanks to brave editor, the late Jane Gale Hughes
This long-defunct national Canadian magazine nurtured some of the nation’s best writers, thanks to brave editor, the late Jane Gale Hughes

16 thoughts on “It all began with…

  1. “…an eight-day trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French truck-driver who spoke not a word of English….” – now that is something to write home about, girl!

    Do you still have any old copies of Homemaker’s lying around? I’ve kept a few because my mother, Sybil Young, was fashion editor. Didn’t know that Jane Gale Hughes died. She lived in Cabbagetown, Toronto before meeting an English aristocrat and moving to England. Oh, how I remember the raucous dinner parties my mother held at our house all throughout the 1980s. Jane Gale and so many other bright, creative media people were always there. Did you ever know Jim Allen, Canada’s best fashion photographer at the time?

    1. I am! I also chase them down!

      So much of it is going after what I really wanted — it took me 8 years of applying to the Globe and Mail (ages 18 to 26) before they would even consider hiring me. The French fellowship scared me so much I cried like a baby before I left — leaving behind dog, boyfriend,apt., friends, career for an 8-month commitment. I loved it but it was not easy to make such a huge change.

  2. You have a marvellous work history! I am about to retire and move on to other things but I am also planning a book (is that a clichรฉ or what? ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Would you be interested in inspecting a few words in a few months’ time?

    1. Thanks…It’s been fun.

      I charge for my time, $225/hr, payable in advance by PayPal. Happy to look at anything…just finished up a phone coaching session with a client in Canada today.

      So, up to you! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. lexc13

    Thanks for sharing. Needed this bit of inspiration, it gets hard not to think that there is really no hope of a happy and successful career as a writer. Now I just need to get my butt in gear and not let my anxiety get in my way.

    1. It depends on a whole range of factors: 1) no debt (ideally) except, maybe, a mortgage 2) no kids! or being realistic about the cost of same 3) hustling hard for years to keep and find clients.

      There are many ways to make a living as a writer and journalism is only one of them — and pays much less than corporate writing like speeches, white papers, etc.

      There should be no anxiety ONCE you have your savings lined up for dry months. My next post discusses this.

  4. What an amazing career you’ve had! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I finished my undergrad degree last week and I’m now job-hunting. After the security of university life, it’s a little nerve-wracking but also exciting! I’m planning to do my Masters part time while working and then take some time out to travel and teach English before I start my PhD.

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