My writing life, recently

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a long time since I’ve offered an update here on my writing life.

Most recently, I coached two writers in two days, very different personalities working on very different projects. I really enjoy coaching, but sometimes — rarely — I have to conclude I’m not the right person to coach a particular writer, whether our differing personalities, goals or the type of work they want to pursue. As an old-school hard news reporter, having worked for three major daily newspapers, I believe in original reporting, thoughtful interviews and smart, incisive work. Lighter stuff just isn’t really my jam.

When people hire me to coach them — at $250/hour — I’m very aware they’re entrusting me with their hopes for bigger and better sales or new markets. If I really feel I’m not a fit, as I recently did with one writer, I’ll say so and not take on the work. I’ve now helped more than 50 people worldwide; most find me organically through my social media profiles. It’s hardly a full-time income, but a very welcome piece of my annual revenue.

This past week I also began a four-part series with another writer, a first for me. I’m really excited by this new opportunity.

In my own writing, I’ve been doing profiles of grant recipients for a non-profit, of highly accomplished academic researchers working on complex and thorny issues. It’s challenging! I don’t get a byline (i.e. my name on it as the author), but I’m happy to have the work, as it’s well-paid and interesting.

I also recently applied for another job, writing about a local non-profit organization, and we spent a lively hour on Zoom getting to know one another. These initial meetings are uncompensated, as we both need to discover if there’s a good fit between our styles, deadlines and budget. Budget is often a sticking point, as inflation is making me ask for higher rates now. The meeting was terrific and we’re going to re-group in about a month.

I had another hour-long meeting, also by Zoom, also with two principals, about my ongoing work as a design blogger for ZZDriggs, which recently hired two specific experts — aka my new bosses! We had a great conversation and discussed a few ideas; re-grouping in a few weeks as well.

The truth of these meetings with strangers — they’re tiring, really an hour of selling myself to them, truthfully, as someone smart and fun and collegial and skilled and…whew! It’s also a two-way street as, even though I need to earn income, I’m now more cautious about who I work with, having had a few disappointing experiences where I had to walk away and lose the money I had budgeted for.

Jose and I have been working on an idea for a book about how to freelance successfully, as something we’ve done. I hope we can find an agent and publisher.

I’ll also be writing for a trade publication, also about design; I studied at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s while still married to my first husband; a physician, he made a good income, which would have allowed me to start a new career at the bottom. But he bailed after two years of marriage, so I never went into the industry. I loved my training and it’s helping me now, years later, with expertise and authority — two things I can offer as someone deep into my career.

And someone referred me for a science-writing opportunity; I need to find out more to see if there’s a fit.

As a generalist, I really enjoy this odd mix of topics. It keeps me intellectually nimble, which is welcome in a time when so much journalism is tedious clickbait.

I’m doing less and less journalism, which is in some ways sad — but pay rates are abysmal, and contracts hideously restrictive — so there’s little pleasure to be found!

My last published story was February 10 in the Financial Times, which I’m super proud of. But a later pitch to another editor there, of course, was completely ignored. This is quite normal at larger outlets, where one editor has no say over another, so a referral onward internally can mean almost nothing. It’s extremely frustrating!

I found out, after long months of waiting, that I did not win a fellowship I applied for — nine others did. These things are horribly competitive, always. Having said that, I might try for another fellowship, one that offers more money and is less initially demanding (like insisting only people with guaranteed publication can compete.) That’s massively unfair to most freelancers.

I loved my month off, and came home completely refreshed and grateful to just not have to hustle, negotiate, produce or revise for those blessed weeks while Jose’s June freelance photo editing schedule was truly heinous — 15-hour days every day, plus the endless noise of renovations in our apartment hallway and in the apartment below.

There are days I think: “NO more work!” But I have an appetite for luxury, mostly travel, and the income still has to come from somewhere! I’m grateful so many people still want my skills and my point of view; I’m finding a new and much happier way to work when it’s not journalism, which remains a greedy and hierarchical model. My non-journalism clients really appreciate the skills I bring and even some of my ideas, a breath of fresh air when they’re internally stymied or new to the organization. Cooperation! Teamwork!

As I contemplate retirement I also have no hobbies! A friend suggested birding, which doesn’t feel like a fit.

For now, a slower schedule bringing in a decent-enough income is fine with me. It allows time off for travel and brings in the means to do it.

10 thoughts on “My writing life, recently

  1. it sounds like you’ve found a good balance for now, and it’s amazing how much time and energy it takes to create that balance. best of luck on your potential work and congrats on the work you are now doing –

  2. rwh

    IMO hobbies are very important for a good life! I’m a person who likes to try different things – it’s ok with me that I’m not an expert on anything. I could never be an Olympian!

    Over my adult life I’ve done a lot of different things. I used to volunteer with my synagogue, do all kinds of needleart, yoga, snd a lot of board work and performing- community theater, bands, choirs, etc. Currently I’m working on gun violence prevention and some elections. I also am volunteering with a music festival that is a fundraiser for one of the environmental organizations I support. And I help out an interfaith organization in Trenton- it’s mostly pastors of color and me. I find charitable work rewarding and I’ve met some of the most awesome people ever.

    People know how busy I am- a full time job plus many hours on my volunteer work. I’m often asked for suggestions for hobbies. Having followed you for a long time (we met when you interviewed me for your book on retail work), you like athletics. And like you said, travel and design. Maybe sign up for pickleball classes? Golf, too, but it’s very expensive. I play some pickleball – it’s less jarring on the body than tennis and there’s less running. Better for my knees. Try an instrument! You can likely find one that interests you on your local Buy Nothing group for free. Maybe a recorder? You can watch YouTube to learn. And perhaps you could sign up with your local library or adult school to teach a class on travel or design? They’d be lucky to have you!

    1. Thanks.

      I own a guitar and need to buy some new songbooks. Many people are suggesting pickleball!

      Have never been a huge volunteer person for a variety of reasons…but it is also being suggested.

      Golf is not that bad — we only play a few times a year because I feel ill in high heat; fall golf is great.

  3. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, what an interesting variety of work you’ve been doing. It’s great to see how your skills and broad knowledge have enabled you to succeed as a generalist. And it is certainly fortunate that you don’t need to rely entirely on old style journalism for income, although it’s incredibly sad to see what has happened in that field. I can’t imagine you ever retiring. You might do well to just work part-time as a writer

    1. Thanks! I feel really lucky to have found such a good variety of work — and to have it be a welcome supplement to our income, but not the bulk of it. It’s really not possible now in journalism.

  4. You’ve been a busy girl! I really enjoyed reading about your west coast driving trip, that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
    I saw you mentioned your guitar. I hope you give it a try. I’ll bet you can type like a rocket sled, while blindfolded, so you already have the physical tools you need. Most people quit because they don’t develop those skills, not because it’s really difficult to understand.
    There’s a guy on YouTube named Rick Beato. He has lots of lessons, but he’s not just a guitar teacher, he’s a music scholar at the highest level. The depth and breadth of his knowledge and insight is nothing short of incredible. You may even want to interview him, he’s a real interesting guy.
    It’s great to see you out in the (Metaphorical) sunshine. In the words of Viv Savage, keyboard player for Spinal Tap, “Have a good time…all the time.”

  5. Thoughtful interviews are the hardest thing to find. It’s such a joy to find that someone took real time with the subject and reported something giving a sense of who the person is and not just what they wore or said in the moment.

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