The pinball machine of success

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Remember those?

 

The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, due to contact with objects on the playfield or by the player’s own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers.

 

I think success is a lot like a pinball machine…

 

You put in your money, release a ball and hope like hell to keep that ball moving, and rack up enough points by the end of the game.

But, like pinball’s bumpers and alleys and pits, some of us face multiple obstacles to overcome:

sexism

racism

chauvinism

chronic illness

mental illness

disability

surgeries

illness

unemployment

underemployment

debt

lack of self-confidence

language barriers

death of  a loved one

divorce

lack of education

lack of skills

lack of social capital

poverty

luck

timing

the larger economy

Which means, when you “fail” — and, like many of us, might then wallow in shame and frustration and self-flagellation — be a little kinder to yourself.

I see the people who succeed, at least here in sharp-elbowed New York, and know the incredible advantages some of them bring, and take for granted, whether prep school and Ivy League educations or access to decision-making people in power through their social networks, often both.

They keep winning and think: I did that! All by myself!

It was said of one American President — using a baseball metaphor — he was born on third base, confident he had hit a triple.

As that little metal ball pings and caroms around the pinball machine — as in life — we  react as quickly as we can, flipping flippers and trying our best to guide it and keep it flying.

 

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But, as in life, not every game ends in delight.

So there’s a larger, deeper, more candid conversation we need to be having about who’s winning, who’s losing and why.

In the United States, there’s a firm and fixed belief that every success — and every failure — is due only to each individual’s hard work, determination and intelligence.

Hah!

Talk to a person of color.

Talk to a woman of color.

Talk to an immigrant whose graduate degrees from a foreign/unknown institution mean nothing to American employers.

Talk to someone waylaid by their partner’s terminal illness, death and grieving.

Which is why we all need to lighten up on the fantasy that success is soooo easy to achieve, which — if you look at social media — can drive you mad with envy.

We hide our struggles and defeats: the crushing student loan debt, the chronic pain, the multiple surgeries, the needy relatives or un(der) employed partner…

We also need to lose the conviction that only visible wealth, prestige, power and luxury goods mark us as “successful” while kindness, generosity, frugality, humility and wisdom remain dismissed and perpetually undervalued.

 

We need to be ruthlessly candid about what powerful headwinds some of us face and what tailwinds propel some of us forward with a speed and velocity that look so, so effortless

 

When they’re not.

Your “failure” may have very little to do with your hard work, determination, education or skills.

Same with your success.

 

 

 

Coping with rejection

By Caitlin Kelly

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What will you do if that door stays closed?

 

It happens.

It stinks.

It hurts.

 

You want(ed): a job, a friendship, a sweetie, a fellowship, a grant, a book or film or music deal.

When you or your idea face (repeated) rejection, it can feel annihilating.

It shouldn’t.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, who wrote television shows and directed films and series and wrote and shot magazine articles. I saw, firsthand, what it’s like — emotionally, intellectually and financially — to put in a lot of hard work and hope only to discover that your ideas won’t receive funding.

Rejection is a powerful sorting process, quickly winnowing out those who really want it — and may still not get it! — from those who don’t. Maybe they’re ambivalent or don’t work hard or missed the deadline, again.

When you “fail”, (which to me is only temporary; if chronic, that’s not good), what’s your back-up plan?

Aircraft manufacturers plan for failure, creating planes that can still fly and land safely if an engine malfunctions.

Football coaches have a playbook, and everyone, everyone, needs a Plan B, C and D.

You?

If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.

 

How badly do you want it?

 

Here’s a wise blog post on what to do next…

 

I spent the past six weeks working on a book proposal.

Thanks to referrals from generous colleagues, I found top New York agents who replied to my email within hours. I worked with one for several weeks, but we quickly saw — to our mutual regret — this wasn’t a project he felt invested in, and I did. With the best humor and grace we could each muster, we parted ways.

The next agent replied to my email within half an hour — with tart, tough analysis of my idea’s weaknesses (yes, plural) and the intense competition it would face.

To say that — in British terms — these two men were  chalk and cheese, is an understatement. Whew. One was lovely, kind and gentle and encouraging, even if I could tell this wasn’t probably going to work out.

The second was brash, abrasive and cutting.

But neither was a fit.

So, for now, I’m putting that goal on hold; both taught me about the current marketplace (useful) and, essentially, reminded me of the kind of person I want to do business with.

 

None of this, sorry to say, is unusual within the cruelly competitive world of journalism and publishing.

Pretty much every creative field I know — art, music, dance, design, film, theater — is equally filled with smart, talented, well-trained, determined thousands who want the same things we do: money, attention, a job, a gig, a contract.

Recognition!

In my decades in this business, I’ve been rejected so much it just feels normal — I tried for eight years before I was hired as a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper.

I tried multiple times, never successfully, for the Alicia Patterson fellowship, (one of 14 finalists among 387 applicants that year.) The latest winners of the McGraw Prize, awarded to seasoned business writers  — all three of them — beat out the 77 others who sent in their ideas.

Both of my previous books were rejected 25 times before finding a major publisher.

 

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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

 

 

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My second book, published in 2011

 

 

Whether we welcome it or not, rejection offers us information we have to process.

Simply stamping your foot, shouting”It’s not fair!” or pouting in a corner won’t get it done:

What did you fail to include?

What skills do you need to strengthen?

Could you have prepared more thoroughly?

Would additional training or education help you succeed?

Is your network powerful enough to guide, mentor and promote you?

 

I would never dissuade anyone from following their dreams.

 

I would strongly suggest having a thick, strong coat of armor — for your bank balance and ego — if you do.

18 years together — 18 lessons learned

By Caitlin Kelly

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My husband, Jose

 

We met — how better for two career journalists? — thanks to a magazine assignment.

I was writing for a women’s magazine about what was then an exotic, little-discussed way to meet someone, called Internet dating. Long before Tinder or Bumble, it was  considered sad and declassé, something you might do if desperately lonely but definitely not cool.

I got 200 replies to my on-line profile from around the world — with the truthful headline “Catch Me If You Can.”

I stopped reading after 50.

Luckily for both of us, my husband Jose was in the top 50.

I had hoped to find, for my second husband, someone modest but accomplished, a world traveler, someone with a strong spiritual life, if not religious. Someone funny, smart, goodhearted.

And handsome would be nice.

Bingo!

He is, like me, an accomplished career journalist — a photographer and photo editor for The New York Times for 31 years, who covered three Presidents, two Olympics, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping for six weeks in an unheated shipping container in December.

 

5th-anniversary

Sept. 17, 2011, Toronto

 

We met for our first dinner in midtown Manhattan on a cold March evening, and he wore a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl (his practice) as a muffler.

At the end of a long and lovely evening, he wrapped me up in it, warm and scented with his fragrance, a classic scent called 1881.

That was it, kids.

Eighteen years later (!), here we are.

 

18 things I’ve learned:

 

1. Everyone carries some emotional baggage. If you’re lucky, maybe a duffel and a carry-on, so to speak, and not 20 enormous unpacked trunks. But we all bring it with us.

2. Which is why humility is essential to sustaining an intimate relationship. No one, anywhere, is “perfect.” If you think they are, you’re deluded. If you think you are, get a grip on your inflated ego.

3. Affordable access to a good therapist can be the best investment you’ll ever make, for yourself and your partner/spouse. Until you can safely unpack, name and number your personal demons, they can destroy your life and that of anyone trying to love you. This includes addictions.

4. If you find yourself — as we both did on separate occasions — shouting at your sweetie in a blind rage, allow for the possibility you’re shouting at a ghost, at someone from your past who’s still living inside your head. Yes, of course, we can get angry at the people we love, but this is different. Sometimes it’s not about you at all.

5. It can take a long, long, long time to trust another person, and that might have nothing to do with you or how much they love you. I’m forever moved by this verse of this song by John Mayer…

I know a girl
She puts the color inside of my world
But, she’s just like a maze
Where all of the walls all continually change
And I’ve done all I can
To stand on her steps with my heart in my hand
Now I’m starting to see
Maybe It’s got nothing to do with me

6. So don’t ever try to force or rush physical or emotional intimacy with someone you love. Let them feel safe with you and relax. Some of us had scarring childhoods and need a lot more time than you think we should or you expect or makes you feel comfortable. True love is not all about you.

7. If your sweetie never laughs, why not? If you never laugh with them, what’s up? Laughter is a daily constant with us, and deeply healing. Depression is also real.

 

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8. Bad shit is going to happen to you both, no matter how thin/pretty/hard-working/wealthy you are. Parents will get sick and die. Friends will get sick and die. We will suffer illness and injury, surgeries and recovery. We’ll lose jobs and face periods of unemployment. Your partner must have strength of character for your relationship to endure without resentment. You, and they, will have to step up and be a damn adult, many times, no matter how painful or expensive.

9. Which is why, if you’re choosing a life partner, pay very careful attention to their values, ethics and principles — in action. Words are meaningless without consistent follow-through. Choose someone with a strong work ethic or you’ll forever be broke and anxious, pulling their weight and pissed at their entitled laziness.

10. Go for long walks, whatever the weather. Alone, to think. With them, for company.

11. Put down your damn phone.

12. Talk to your sweetie every day for 30 to 60 minutes, (even in 10-minute bits!), uninterrupted by children or work or outside forces. Make them your entire focus when you do, because undivided attention is the greatest gift we can offer someone we love.

 

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13. Take time every day to nurture yourself, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically. Don’t rely on someone to be your “everything.”

14. Have deep, sustaining friendships beyond your dyad, (but protect it fiercely.) If you fear someone’s about to poach, (hence my second marriage), pay attention.

15. Make sure you both have wills, beneficiary statements, advance directives and health care proxy paperwork signed. You never know when you might suddenly need to use them.

16. Create a document, updated every 6 months and printed out, with your every PIN and password and emergency contacts. Include your medical record and the medications you take so your sweetie can easily take charge, should you be incapacitated or die.

17. Celebrate the hell out of your partner’s every success, no matter how small it may feel or seem. Few of us will win an Oscar or ever make the big bucks. Small wins matter too.

18. Savor every minute you’re given with a loving spouse or partner. Too many will leave us far too soon.

 

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Another cold gray day?! 10 comforts

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Naps!

I hate to admit it, and being self-employed allows for this, but I’ve been falling back into bed almost daily at 3:30 for at least an hour. I feel slothful, but my body tells me this is a good choice, so I’m going with it. Hey, animals hibernate!

 

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Fresh flowers and plants

Little hits of color, shape, texture and scent — at bedside, in the living room, at the front door as we enter the apartment.

When all the sky offers, from dawn to dusk, is gray, we need life and color!

 

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Tea and coffee

Moroccan mint tea to Constant Comment to Earl Grey to Irish Breakfast to fruit-y stuff that comes out bright pink. (Did I mention color?) I love the ritual of putting on the kettle and filling a china teapot, then choosing a mug or a teacup and sitting with a steaming little bit of pleasure. No-calorie rehydration is also healthy!

 

Great radio

Living in New York, I enjoy WFUV, the station for Fordham University and WKCR, of Columbia University, which plays reggae on Saturday mornings.  I love many NPR shows, like This American Life and The Moth; you can hear them all on-line. We also enjoy TSF Jazz, a fantastic station in Paris.

 

Vigorous exercise — away from home!

 

I know, some people loathe spin class — which is basically riding fast on a stationary bike for 45 minutes while listening to music. But I really enjoy it. It burns plenty of calories. It’s social. I love the music. It makes me leave the apartment! Thanks to a screwed-up right knee and torn tendon in my right foot, I can’t do a treadmill or elliptical so all I have left for aerobic work is spin and swimming (which I don’t enjoy.)

Go for a walk and get as much sunlight as possible. Our bodies need fresh air and Vitamin D too.

 

Massage/steam/sauna

 

We’ve still got another two to three months swathed in layers of wool and leather (or pleather) and rubber to stay warm and dry. Strip down and sweat for a while.

 

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I designed a broad ledge of marble to allow for comfortable seating

 

Long baths

I just read —- oh, is it possible?! — that a long bath actually burns calories. See y’all later!

 

Moisturize everything all the time

Hair, nails, skin, hands. Repeat.

Winter air, both outdoors cold and indoor heat, is dehydrating in the extreme. I keep tubes of cream and lotion in every room and apply multiple times a day. I fill the tub and add plenty of Neutrogena Body Oil and scented essences like lavender, peppermint or eucalyptus.

 

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Candlelight

I saw this first in Stockholm in late November — when it was dark by 2:30 p.m. and the sun didn’t reappear until 8:30 a.m. Even at lunchtime, candles flickered on every restaurant tabletop and their effect was soothing, lovely and intimate.  At home, I light candles in the morning to wake up slowly and gently, and sometimes as my last illumination.

So much nicer than the cold blue light of a screen!

 

 

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Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

 

Add something new, gorgeous — and permanent — to your home

 

When last winter’s endlessly gray skies made us miserable, we repainted our small sitting room from soft warm gray to pale, subtle lavender, the color of clouds just tinged at sunset; (Peignoir by Farrow & Ball, my favorite brand. I even visited their Dorset factory last summer!)

When you’re stuck indoors day after day, week after week, month after month you really need some color, comfort and beauty!

For us, that’s framed art in every room, well-chosen colors for walls and floors and rugs and furniture, and plenty of comfort — a teal waffle cotton throw we bought in Paris at BHV,  a paisley duvet cover and shams, a  soft sheepskin rug bedside.

A couple of patterned throw pillows, a set of lacy pillowcases or shams, a bright tablecloth or fresh hand towels or a lovely mug don’t have to cost a lot and can add a cheering jolt of pretty. If money is super-tight, thrift and consignment shops can offer great stuff at very low prices.

I love this blog post about true hygge — the newly trendy Danish word meaning cosy and charming. It includes some of my suggestions, (candles, plants, art) but is really a wise life philosophy:

That’s what real hygge is – a simple moment that feels so special, cosy, relaxing, loving or happy that you just need to call it out. It’s not about being fancy, or styled, or being in the best circumstances, or having the right things. It’s literally about being present enough to see how great a moment is, and give that moment a name – hygge.

I’m not against beautiful images and styled things at all. I love to both see these and take them but I am against all the sites, articles and posts selling the concept of hygge as if it’s something you can just buy and do and you’re done. It’s not a “lifestyle” as so many non-Danish posts try to make it out to be. It’s not one thing you can check off your list and your life is better. And it’s not always picture perfect.

Hygge in its simplest form is really about being present. It can happen several times a day, anywhere, anytime – all it takes is you. Nothing else.

 

Presenting the Olympics — the backstory

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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NO PRESSURE

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea start today, and millions will be enjoying them from around the world. Here’s the schedule of events.

If you visit the website abcnews.com, you’ll find a slideshow of images, a tight edit chosen from among the hundreds shot daily by some of the world’s greatest sports photographers.

The man editing those images this year is Jose R. Lopez, my husband — photo of him above with the entire schedule of every event to help him plan and manage his time.

A frail child, he was never an athlete himself, but, as a staff photographer for The New York Times, photographed two Olympics — Atlanta and Calgary, one summer, one winter. He knows the incredible skill and training it takes to even make the team, whether you’re an athlete competing or someone covering it as a journalist.

Thanks to a helpful colleague already on the ground in Korea, Jose has the complete schedule he needs to plan out his coverage.

Because of the 14 hour time difference between our home, (and ABC’s headquarters), in New York and Korea, it’s going to be a rough few weeks, with sleep a luxury and many weird shifts for him. I admire his tenacity and determination and am now in full-on kitchen duty, making sure there’s plenty of healthy home-made food to sustain him.

I’ve never attended the Olympics, but have two personal connections to them — a film my father made about Japan, and some Olympic badges he brought home with him from Tokyo (1964) and having a New York City coach when I did saber fencing who had competed in two Olympics himself. I couldn’t quite believe I even knew an Olympian, let alone got to work with him to improve my skills.

As a Canadian living in the U.S. I have two countries to cheer for.

 

Will you be watching the Olympics?

 

Have you ever attended one?

 

33 things that make me happy

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Lunch with a friend that lasts until dinner

 

Any film starring Kristen Stewart or Michelle Williams

 

Big band music

 

Maja soap

 

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A pot of tea

 

Fresh flowers in every room

 

Diner rice pudding

 

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Anticipating the next journey, whether a weekend road-trip or somewhere distant

 

Speaking and hearing French

 

Reading design and interiors magazines, in print, especially English and French ones

 

Sitting in a movie theater, with popcorn, waiting for the film to start

 

A snooze on the sofa

 

Playing Banangrams and gin rummy (not simultaneously!)

 

Taking a canoe out for a solo ride

 

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Unscheduled time

 

Trimming jib

 

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Setting a pretty table for a party

 

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Lighting candles

 

The delicious sillage of someone’s very crisp cologne

 

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Paris

 

The “blue hour” of dusk when the sky is a deep indigo and everything else silhouetted against it

 

Sleeping beneath a puffy duvet on a frigid winter’s night

 

A crackling fire in a weathered fireplace

 

Saying hello to and patting passing dogs

 

Staring for a long time at a painting in a museum or gallery

 

Browsing for hours in an indie bookstore

 

A very cold, very dry gin martini, straight up, with olives

 

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I love patina! This is the doorknob to our friend’s home in Maine

 

Old, well-made and well cared for objects, the earlier the better, especially textiles, glass and porcelain

 

Reading and choosing recipes

 

Making someone’s day easier

 

The work of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti

 

The stunning opening chords of  Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C

 

Playing vinyl

 

What are some of yours?

The reality of the creative life

By Caitlin Kelly

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This essay, from LitHub, is brilliant and spot-on:

The writerly apartment in this fantasy is bare and minimal; the walls are unpainted plaster, or the wallpaper is peeling; the heat is faulty or not there; there are books stacked on the floor. It looks this way because it’s Paris struggling out of the deprivation and destruction of a world war, or New York soldiering on through the Depression, living in the wreckage of 1920s glamor. The writer spends hours in cafes, working and drinking, because the cafes are heated and the apartment is not. The aesthetic of this fantasy is permanently frozen in the first half of the 20th century, in the cities (and occasionally the beach resorts near cities) of Europe and the United States. The reason the fantasy writer lifestyle is set in such a particular time and place is that the interwar and postwar American writers who went to Europe for cheap rents have exerted a massive influence on the American idea of what literature is. Who casts a longer shadow across American fiction and curricula than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin?

While considering the specificity of these images, recently, something came to me: It’s an Anthropologie catalog.

(For those unfamiliar with it, Anthro is a major American retailer, with stores that change their look every few weeks and who sell a costly-but-gauzy kind of clothing and accessories to women who typically work in a corporate environment.)

Everyone wants to be a writer!

Or make films or art or music because…freedom from typical work constraints is so deeply appealing.

The catch?

 

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Life costs money.

I grew up in a household of creatives, and we did live in a house my father owned, and drove decent used cars. Some years were better than others financially, but we also lived in Toronto, where the CBC and NFB had appetites and budgets for my father’s work as a film diector, long before there were dozens of cable channels seeking content.

Living in Canada also meant we never paid a penny for healthcare — which has cost me and my husband, living in New York as self-employed workers, $1,700 a month for the past two years.

Yes, really.

Thanks to a new plan, I’ll “only” pay $700 a month starting today, saving us $700 a month.

But our monthly “nut” is still more than $5,000 and we have no children.

Living a life creating things is one many people dream of. But it still has to be supported by someone, usually multiple someones, actually paying for food, fuel, medication and housing — let alone haircuts, dental work, new eyeglasses, etc.

The solo creative life is affordable only to those who can stand to live frugally, and for long periods, because so little creative work actually pays well enough to live a life that allows for sick days, a vacation, owning a home.

As one childhood friend, who, as a single mother helped to create animated films you might have watched, told me recently: “I lived on air.”

I know artists and illustrators and film-makers and writers and playwrights and poets. They love their creative work but rarely enjoy the payment and insecurity that comes with it.

 

So, to pursue this life often also means having a side hustle, a day job, a trust fund, a hard-working, well-paid spouse or partner.

 

It’s extremely rare for me to have a month in which I’ve generated no income from my writing, because I don’t have a side job. It is my job! That means, without my husband’s hard work at his two freelance positions, (and our emergency savings), we’d be in deep shit, unable to pay our bills in full and on time.

It shames me to admit that this is the case for me right now — but the reason I do so here is because it’s true.

This can be a financially precarious life, and often is.

Here’s a post I wrote in 2011 about this dilemma — would you rather be creative or (the great American fetish) productive?

Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.

Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!

The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.

Now….how to be creative?

What does that look like to you?

It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.

 

 

 

An ER visit (I’m OK!) — and lessons for women

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I awoke this morning at 4:40 a.m, feeling like my chest was being crushed.

I sat up in bed, trying to focus on whether this was a heart attack, knowing that symptoms are very different for women than men, and because of that often overlooked or ignored.

I had never had one, but knew to pay close attention to my body’s signals.

 

These include:

 

shortness of breath

nausea

dizziness

pain in chest, jaw, back, shoulder and arm

cold sweat

light headedness

 

I felt light headed and, although there is no history of heart disease in my family, I’ve been taking a low dose of cholesterol medication daily for a few years.

We have health insurance and a very good regional hospital that I know far too well from multiple orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000, only a 10 minute drive from home.

The roads were empty at 5:00 a.m. so my husband got me there fast and the  emergency room luckily, had only one other patient in their 30 rooms.

I was quickly given an EKG, X-ray and had four vials of blood taken. The nurse put in an IV line in case (as I did need) they would need to take more blood later.

The pain subsided and within a few hours, thankfully, I was pain-free, if exhausted.

I learned a lot.

If it had been (thank heaven it was not!) a heart attack, specific proteins like troponin-1 are released into the bloodstream as heart cells die. The first blood test showed I was probably fine, but the second one needed to be taken six hours after my symptoms — i.e. I arrived at the hospital by 5:00 a.m. but had to wait there til 11:00 for the second set of blood samples to be taken and results read and shared with me.

I also learned that if it had been a heart attack, I would have been sent to another larger hospital for the insertion of a stent.

I also learned that many people present at the ER thinking, like I did, they were having a heart attack but it was — as we think it was for me — a very bad case of acid reflux, an esophageal spasm. (Very unusually, I had eaten a very small snack at 11:15 the night before. Normally, I know better, and don’t eat anything later than 8:00 p.m. now.)

 

We are very lucky:

— we have good health insurance, so few fear of surprise huge bills for this treatment; we’ll see

— it’s a very good hospital, created by the Rockefellers who live a 10-minute drive east

— we didn’t need the cost of an ambulance (which, we hope, would have been covered); our town has a volunteer ambulance squad as well.

— my treatment was quick, respectful and detailed.

— the hospital was recently renovated so the ER, which we knew too well from a few broken fingers and my husband’s biking concussion, was very different from a few years ago. Now it’s attractive and very comfortable; I was a bit stunned to have a TV screen in the room with me. Each room had an internal privacy curtain and a sliding glass door and an overhead light that didn’t glare into my eyes.

It was so American — each room had a glass plaque by the door with the name(s) of the donors who gave the funds for it.

But I’m grateful as hell for their generosity.

 

If you’re female, please memorize these symptoms — and make sure your partner/spouse and/or family know them as well.

 

They’re easy to ignore or dismiss.

 

 

How a book gets born

By Caitlin Kelly

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Ever stand in a bookstore, see thousands of books and think — how the hell did these even get here?

If you work in journalism, publishing or academia, writing and publishing a book is a big deal, a standard milestone of success and achievement that you’re expected to reach as many of your peers will, and sometimes sooner, and more successfully.

When it comes to trade non-fiction — i.e. books written for a general audience, not academic — the trajectory is fairly consistent.

 

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You, the writer, come up with an idea.

— Maybe it’s a historical figure who intrigues you enough to want to write a biography.

— Maybe there’s a trend in current culture you want to explore and have a specific and interesting viewpoint on.

— Maybe you have exclusive access to a compelling story no one else can tell.

— Maybe you’ve been working the beat and have so deeply understood a special subject that you’ve got amazing sources willing to tell you things they won’t tell anyone else and you can tell it best.

You need to know what else is out there, the comparables, what’s been published, by whom, in what voice, by which publisher(s) and, key, how well those competitors sold.

You need to think your idea through carefully, maybe check it with a few smart friends to hear their thoughts on it.

You must have a clear and consistent track record of writing well for demanding editors and audiences, especially if this is your first book. EVERYONE wants to “write a book” but not everyone (yet) has the skills and stamina to actually do it successfully.

You need to find an agent, without which you will have a difficult-to-impossible time trying to get a major publisher to read and consider it. You essentially ride in on their established coat-tails and reputation, since they are there to know the marketplace and who would potentially be most interested in your project and why.

You need to win their representation. If you’ve previously published and have a good and established reputation as a writer, you’ll probably know many other published writers, several of whom might be willing to introduce you to their agent(s.) Then you hope to find one who feels like a good match. That’s a delicate mix of personality, skills, experience, vision for your project, etc. (The agent I’m working with, who was recommended to me by a writer I know, told me he got [wait for it] 10,000 unsolicited submissions in 2017. He took one.)

You need to have an established “platform”, ideally a combination of expertise and track record writing on your subject and in that genre, and an audience hungry to pay money to read more of your work. That’s your blog, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn following.

You need to put out a fair bit of unpaid labor to create a complete book proposal, with marketing plan, your bio, your idea, table of contents and chapters outlined.

You need to decide what the minimum advance is you can afford to work with — if it’s $30,000 paid out quarterly, for example, how will you make up the additional income you need for living costs, let alone paying for travel and research help, if needed? Can you get a grant or fellowship to offset costs?

 

You need to hope…because there’s no guarantee anyone will buy the idea.

 

If they do (yayyyyyy!) you’ll sign a very lengthy contract, agree on the date to submit your manuscript and get ready to rumble.

They’ll also have done a P & L (profit and loss statement), which makes immediately clear(er) that acquiring and publishing a book is very much a business deal, not the imagined, unsullied realms of Art.

Along the way, your title may change, you’ll see a few possible ideas for its cover, (which you won’t have the power to change, only consult on), and work closely with your editor, making whatever changes s/he requires. Your manuscripts will be copy-edited and possibly checked by the publisher’s lawyers to make sure you and they can’t be sued successfully.

If it all goes well, within 18 to 24 months at the earliest, your book will be available to readers and you’ll sit there, gnawing your fingernails, waiting to see if they, and critics, like it.

Ready?!

 

 

 

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!