A week in my life as a freelance writer

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Ohhhh, so glamorous!

Not.

At the moment, which is blessedly almost unheard of, I actually have no assignments at all. That means, no income for this month. That means, (thank heaven we have one) dipping into our emergency fund. At least my husband, a freelance photo editor, does have steady work.

For those new to Broadside (welcome!), here’s my website.

I’ve been fighting a cold, sleeping 3.5 hours one afternoon to give my weary body a rest — but also heading 25 miles into Manhattan to meet with friends visiting from far away: a retail expert I’m Twitter friends with and hadn’t met before, from D.C.; a former New York Times story source, who then lived in the Middle East and now lives in London and who I last saw at my birthday party in Paris in June, and a bilingual young friend I met at a writing conference in New York who’s from Montreal and is (yay!) moving to Paris.

I’m excited for her — ditching a well-paid corporate career, selling her condo and most of her belongings — and, single and bold, heading into a great new adventure. I had a life-changing year in Paris when I was 25 on a journalism fellowship so I hold tremendous affection for that city and what spending some focused time there can produce.

Next Monday I’ll meet a talented writer who lives in Mexico City and with whom I’ve only, so far, traded notes with in an on-line writers’ group. Then have coffee with another younger writer, a New Yorker back home after years living in Berlin.

So many writers’ relationships now, working alone at home or in a co-working space or library or cafe, are virtual that I’m eager to meet face to face whenever possible.

 

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My second book

 

I also sent a book idea recently to an agent — whose name and phone number a writer I’ve never even met shared with me. This is, at is best, what a successful career in this business will produce — sufficient affection and respect for one another that we boost those whose work and ethics we admire.

People often wonder: How do you find an agent? Once you’re established, often by a referral like this.

To my delight, the agent called me back that same day saying: “I know your work.” Whew!

 

Because, honestly, there are days, weeks and years it’s too easy to feel invisible and hopeless, watching the Big Name Writers win awards and grants and fellowships and adulation, especially here in New York where people are, ahem, quite vocal about their success.

 

Being modest can feel weird and self-defeating.

So I burbled out my idea to this agent and he listened and said: “Tell me more.” I sent a bare-bones outline.

He didn’t like it, but said, “Let’s keep talking.” So I thought hard and brainstormed with five smart women friends, several fellow writers and a few who aren’t, to help me refine my thinking and expand it.

One of them thought the idea not useful at all, which was worth hearing — and offered an insight I hadn’t considered that was valuable and which I incorporated into the second iteration.

It worked!

 

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This book is by one of the friends whose wisdom I consulted…

 

I’m meeting my new agent, the sixth I’ve worked with, next week.

But, now comes even more unpaid hard work, a larger gamble for both of us, as I produce a full book proposal, which is much less literary than a hard-sell document filled with promises — our goal to win an offer from a major publisher and one big enough I can actually afford to stop most other work for a year or more. Book advances are now paid out in quarters, (thirds if you’ve got some clout), which means a long, long time between payments, from which your agent first deducts 15 percent.

So, if you’re really lucky and get, say, a $100,000 advance (rare!), you’ll net about $28,000 (pre-tax) per instalment — which, in a place like New York, really won’t even sustain a year’s living costs. I know Big Name Writers with full-time well-paid jobs who turn down a book deal because they can’t afford the drop in income.

 

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

 

I’m eager to write more books, though, as basic story-telling already pays poorly and, isn’t sufficiently challenging. I’ve been doing this work for decades, and want to produce deep, smart work — which very few places now have the space or budget for.

I also applied last week for a cool staff job at the Washington Post, because, what the hell? Why not? I asked a friend who’s a writer there who encouraged me, and then (deep breath) took what for me is a huge risk and asked someone for their help. She’s a Big Name Writer at the Post who I deeply admire and met in person in June 2016. We follow one another on Twitter, but that’s the depth of the relationship.

She said she would mention me to the hiring editor and say good things.

I was grateful as hell, stunned at my good fortune. It’s very difficult for me to ask others for help.

I also, being ill and exhausted, sent out some LOIs (letters of introduction) to editors, spoke to one by phone about possible assignments and emailed back and forth with several others.

Still waiting for payment for work already published.

 

So much of this business isn’t writing, but finding and nurturing relationships with the people — agents, editors, fellow writers, grant and foundation judges — who need to place their trust in you: to be accurate, to be ethical, to be a decent person to work with, to not miss deadline.

 

I listened to three interviews with writers and editors from the Longform podcast, one of them the editor of a Big Fancy Magazine which emboldened me to send him a pitch.

If you’re interested in journalism, writing, publishing, media, this series offers 277 podcasts and you will learn a lot, and gain some useful insights into who wins the Big Fancy Jobs, when, how and why.

So, even though I haven’t earned a penny this month (!) it’s actually been great.

 

As we say in New York, go figure!

 

 

Living on — and loving — a river

By Caitlin Kelly

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Early morning — 7:30 a.m.-ish — view from our apartment on the east side of the Hudson River. That gentle pink is the sun’s rays.

 

I started writing this post as I rocketed north toward Canada on an Amtrak train, its tracks right alongside the Hudson River. On the opposite side, I could see cargo trains heading south.

I’ve been living on eastern side of the river now for decades, and love it deeply.

If you’ve never been to New York or to the Hudson Valley, it’s really one of the nation’s prettiest places and I feel lucky to have landed there.

 

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The newly-completed Tappan Zee Bridge

 

We live in an (owned) apartment whose every window faces the river, and I’ve witnessed its changing moods — fog so thick the world disappears, rainstorms sliding down the water like a Hokusai print, heat lighting flashing for miles.

Our little town has a lighthouse and, as you head north up the Hudson, it narrows dramatically, with steep, jagged rock cliffs encircled by bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.

On the west bank sits a collection of buildings, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions — West Point Military Academy. In the winter, you sometimes see its students getting on the train in New York at Grand Central, their thick gray cloaks giving them an 18th-century elegance.

 

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The Palisades, south of us where the river narrows

 

The Hudson is a working river, filled with enormous barges being pushed or towed by small but extremely powerful tugboats.

You can sail, canoe and kayak on the Hudson and even swim off of some its beaches.

There are even (!) oyster beds near our town, which were carefully removed for a few years while they built the new and beautiful bridge between the eastern and western shores.

 

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I’ve lived in cities with a river before — Montreal, on the St. Lawrence, Paris, with the Seine — but never paid as close attention to them as I do to the Hudson.

 

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In winter, it’s equally amazing, with huge blocks of ice shuffling up against one another.

 

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This last image is where the top of the Harlem River — and the beginning of the island of Manhattan — meets the Hudson, one of our regular views from the Metro-North commuter train, and a sight I never tire of.

The station stop where I snapped this image from the train is Spuyten Duyvil, in a fancy part of the Bronx — and in Dutch means Spouting Devil; as you may know, this was once New Amsterdam and many places around New York still bear Dutch names. (The Bronx derives from Jacob Bronck, who claimed the land in 1639.)

 

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To: the world. From: The U.S. We apologize on behalf of our President

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of the pleasures of producing this blog is the incredible range of visitors who end up here — in the past three days alone, from Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Malaysia, France, VietNam, Brazil and a dozen more.

My goal, always, is to civilly engage with readers from around the world. Having been to 40 countries (so far!) and having lived in five, I’m deeply aware of how interconnected we are.

I now live in the U.S., although born and raised in Canada.

I moved to New York in 1989 and have, until the election of Donald Trump — a lying, cheating racist real estate developer who was a pathetic joke for years to anyone near New York City — enjoyed living in this nation.

Today, along with millions of others here (and everywhere!), I’m cringing in embarrassment and shame at his latest outburst, using language no other President has stooped to before publicly.

Here’s a brief report:

Mr. Trump grew angry as the group detailed another aspect of the deal — a move to end the diversity visa lottery program and use some of the 50,000 visas that are annually distributed as part of the program to protect vulnerable populations who have been living in the United States under what is known as Temporary Protected Status. That was when Mr. Durbin mentioned Haiti, prompting the president’s criticism.

When the discussion turned to African nations, those with knowledge of the conversation added, Mr. Trump asked why he would want “all these people from shithole countries,” adding that the United States should admit more people from places like Norway.

About 83 percent of Norway’s population is ethnic Norwegian, according to a 2017 C.I.A. fact book, making the country overwhelmingly white.

 

It is hard to anyone living beyond the U.S., perhaps, to even fathom how a man like him could win the Oval Office, and with another three years in his term, with only the 25th Amendment a way to impeach (i.e. get rid of) him. It allows for the removal of a sitting President only if he is deemed unfit to serve, a term vague enough no one has dared try to use it.

Yet.

 

I write this post only to say — we’re sorry!

By “we” I mean millions of Americans (and those living here) who find this man utterly contemptible in every possible way: racist, rude, deliberately ignorant (he boasts of never reading), sexist and crude.

 

But there he sits, aided and abetted by a Republican House and Senate reveling in their power to stick it to a country they disdain as weak and lazy  — now proposing to require the poor receiving Medicaid (free medical care) to work to “earn” it.

Just know this, please: millions of voters are appalled, furious — and, for the moment, politically impotent.

Do not think, for one minute, that he and his views and his behavior, represent what many Americans want the world to respect and admire.

 

He is an abomination.

 

Last Men in Aleppo

By Caitlin Kelly

If you haven’t yet seen this documentary about the White Helmets — a volunteer group that races to the scene of attacks in Syria — it’s a must.

It won the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2017; Sundance (for those not into film) is considered the U.S.’s most prestigious annual film festival.

I saw it last night.

But it’s not an easy 104 minutes, and I found myself crying this morning as I thought through all the images and sounds it contains:

— a father weeping as his six-year-old son is pulled, dead, from beneath the rubble

— the terrifying sight and sound of a rainfall of incoming bombs

— a car on fire with two civilians in it

— the hammering of an excavator trying to unearth the latest victims

— the challenge of not having enough body bags for all the corpses and body parts they encounter

— the men trying to decide — by looking at a foot they found — whether it’s one of their friends.

It is a searing and unsparing look at daily life in hell.

You can buy it here for $14.99.

And yet, and yet, the director, Feras Fayyad, was wise to also include much laughter and joy, the men singing and even taking a sunny, if brief, day out in the playground, with a bunch of their delighted little kids, to leaven the brutality.

It’s too easy to think we know this place or to not care about it — but here’s a little girl and her Dad going to six Aleppo pharmacies to try to find vitamins because her hands are now weakened by malnutrition. There are none to be found.

Here’s a couple going to get married, in the middle of death and destruction.

Here’s the men buying a bag full of goldfish, perhaps the most unlikely purchase imaginable in what is basically a war zone, combing the city to find enough water and then filling a fountain with fish and water.

With hope.

That’s reporting.

Here’s a brief video clip of Fayyad — who was twice imprisoned and tortured — discussing why he made the film.

To bear witness.

As a journalist in New York, I get invited daily to events meant to promote new products and services, hotels and restaurants. I ignore 99.9 percent of them.

But I’ve long been deeply intrigued by the White Helmets and their work.

Not even sure how I ended up on this press list — as the room was filled with industry folk being asked to vote as Academy members on its merits — but I’m so glad I had the chance to see it, and a brief Q and A in the room with its director, who is now making a second film about a female doctor working there, and having to sneak back into his own country to do so safely.

My father made documentaries for a living, so I’m fascinated — both as a journalist and a lover of film — by how and when these stories are filmed and told.

I’ve read a lot about the war in Syria, and knew of the White Helmets, but never viscerally understood what they do, why they do it and the tremendous physical and emotional toll if takes.

I urge you to see it!

 

 

Journalism: a statement of principle

By Caitlin Kelly

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My husband’s team Pulitzer prize…

 

Some of you might be readers of The New York Times, a newspaper some consider the best of the U.S. press, and my husband’s former employer of 31 years. I also write for them, freelance, several times a year.

The paper now has a new publisher, a member of the same family that bought it in 1896.

He, A.G. Sulzberger, wrote this:

The Times will continue to search for the most important stories of our era with curiosity, courage and empathy — because we believe that improving the world starts with understanding it. The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

I’m not an apologist for the biases, errors and omissions made by thousands of fellow journalists. There’s much that still needs tremendous improvement, including hiring, training and retaining many more non-white and female voices and viewpoints.

But as someone who’s been chasing facts for decades — and reporting everything from 9/11 breaking news to investigative medical reporting to covering a Royal Tour — I believe deeply and passionately that smart, tough, responsible journalism is needed now more than ever.

Winner of a National Magazine Award in Canada, I’m immensely proud of the work many of us do and I know why many of us still do it, even in an industry roiled with change and uncertainty.

(Here’s my website, which contains some of my work.)

Within its ranks are new and impassioned calls for greater transparency about what we cover, when and why.

 

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The New York Times newsroom

 

At its best, journalism’s role includes:

— Explaining a complex world to an audience who may lack the time, education, training, experience — or curiosity — to gasp the implications of public policies that affect them, whether a local school budget or commitment to billions of dollars in tax cuts.

— Explaining scientific advances, (and de-bunking falsehoods),  that help audiences stay healthy, whether the environment, public health issues, (now that Trump has fired his entire HIV/AIDS council) or personal health.

— Holding the powerful accountable for their actions. In an era of stunning plutocracy and lax corporate governance, it’s essential for business journalists to uncover and explain to us all the implications of key business decisions, whether shutting a plant and throwing thousands out of work or striking a deal with local, regional or federal governments.

— Examining the actions of elected officials at every level and how they’re spending taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.

— Seeking out and telling the stories of the poor, marginalized and under-funded who lack ready access to the noisy and powerful machinery of public relations and lobbyists.

— Sharing the successes (and failures) of NGOs and social service groups as they work to relieve struggle, locally and globally.

— Reporting on every form of culture, from ‘zines to opera, because the arts remain an important part of life, and employ millions of creatives.

 

Yes, many journalists do see the world from a left-leaning lens, with the underlying belief that — in the industry cliche — it’s still, ideally, our essential role to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

If you’re firmly persuaded that we all wake up each morning determined to spread lies and create “fake news”, there’s likely little I could say to dissuade you.

I will say that most of the journalists I know, no matter their age or place of residence, are people whose primary goal is a shared one: to tell compelling stories to as many people as often as possible.

Truthful ones.

Ones backed by provable, checked facts.

And, if you want to better understand what we do and why we do it (and how much we think about trying to do it better! you might consider following news from the Neiman Lab, the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter, to name only three sites dedicated to smart coverage of the issues working journalists still care about.

And this very long, very detailed story  by James Risen on The Intercept, about long and protracted battles between the White House and The New York Times, (and internal editorial battles most readers have no idea about) is an absolute must-read to understand the incredible pressures some reporters face to suppress the truth.

 

 

Assert…or defer

By Caitlin Kelly

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I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything
You held me down, but I got up (hey!)
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, your hear that sound
Like thunder, gonna shake your ground
You held me down, but I got up
Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough
I see it all, I see it now
— “Roar”, Katy Perry
If 2017 taught women anything, it was this…
It’s time to assert ourselves and stop deferring to the toxic bullying and sexual harassment of sooooooo many men.
But it’s also an ongoing personal/individual challenge and one that never gets easier, no matter how loudly we roar — I still remember Helen Reddy’s second-wave feminism anthem, “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”…
That was in 1971.

The sad truth is, when women roar — even whimper — we’re too often dismissed, laughed at, overlooked, ignored.

By women and men alike, people who cling to power and are scared to lose it.
We’re told to “pipe down”.
That we’re “over-reacting.”
It’s also deeply cultural, how at ease we feel (or not) asserting ourselves and our needs — whether the honeyed silk-sheathed steel of “Bless your heart” from a Southern American woman to the “Fuck you!” of a ballsy New Yorker. (Neither one of which might win us what we want, by the way.)
I was struck by a friend’s experience boarding a plane to claim the seat for which she’d paid extra — to be confronted by some guy traveling with his large family who preferred (!) to take her seat so they could all sit together.
Excuse me?
My friend chose to defer, and it was interesting to see how differently her friends reacted. Some of us would have told the guy “Not a chance. Move!” and others would have “kept the peace” by allowing him to usurp her spot.
Because when women don’t defer, it can get ugly, even violent.
So we often opt to defer, not because we want to or because we agree with you or because we think it smart or powerful — but because we’re scared of what will happen if we don’t.
It’s a perpetual and not-fun seesaw of being polite (or a doormat?), or being assertive (or perceived as a bitch?) and one that is never going to be perceived the same way by the next person we encounter. That alone makes for exhausting calculations.
I grew up in a family where my deference — like yours, possibly — was expected, taken for granted. I remember little to no negotiation, so I learned that many of my needs were less than.
That’s a deeply female experience.
And yet I was taught, outside the family, to boldly assert myself intellectually and athletically — like a man, really.
Being Canadian by birth and upbringing confuses this further for me, as it’s a culture more attuned to the collective good than the individual-focused U.S., and certainly elbows-out New York City.
How about you?

How do you balance being assertive and deferential?