The writing life, of late

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My big story, January 2020 — three months’ reporting, 30 sources.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to Twitter, of all things, my recent writing work has been plentiful, interesting and decently-paid.

I have no explanation for it, certainly in a year of enormous job loss for so many, but this year is proving far better than 2019 for me in steady work income.

I make my living writing journalism, content marketing and coaching other writers ($250/hour) through phone, Skype or, in happier times, face to face in New York City.

Recent work has included producing a series of blog posts, like this one, for the Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest devoted to fighting pancreatic cancer, after its communications officer found me on Twitter and asked if I’d like to do some writing for them.

Another Twitter pal, based in London, recommended me to his editor in (!) Helsinki, which produced this piece, a profile of a corporate executive at a Finnish energy company. I know, sounds snoozy! But she was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the project.

Chasing money is an annoying part of my work, and that’s sucked up a lot of energy as well, with late payments from several sources — some $5,000 worth. No one wants to be a nag or a pest, but the bills don’t wait! Before the crash of 2008, I had a $20,000 line of credit with my bank and that made late payments less stressful — the bank killed it, with no warning or explanation, that year. Managing cash flow is every freelancer’s greatest challenge, since the economy remains tediously predicated on a 1950s model of payment showing up in our bank accounts on a regular, predictable and consistent schedule.

We wish!

I keep trying to add more energy to my book proposal, but reporting is only best done face to face — and that now feels largely impossible. Very frustrating. It’s an idea focused on New York City, so I need to start making calls to see if anyone will even meet with me now.

Awaiting news of a grant application for $11,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts for another book project.

Still reaching out to new-to-me editors I’d like to write for at a few sections of The New York Times, Domino magazine (print) and the Weekend FT.

Also emailed a new content marketing opp — a magazine published for a major car manufacturer — and spoke by phone for 45 minutes with another potential client.

So much of a writer’s work, working for income, is seeking, finding and vetting new would-be collaborators. Do you like them? Are they ethical? Do they pay well? Do they pay quickly? Does the content actually interest me enough to commit to doing it well?

It’s a highly competitive business, but you have to know your value and always be your own best advocate.

I had a long conversation recently with a 26-year old freelance writer who’s fed up, as we all are now, with common (appalling) pay rates of $400 for a reported story — which would easily have paid $1,000 or more a few years ago.

 

Freelance journalism, as she said to me and I’ve said to many, has become an expensive hobby.

 

Which is ironic and terrible, since we need smart, deep analysis now more than ever — and it’s increasingly concentrated in the well-paid hands of a few staff writers. This is not good.

And this looks like it’s not going to change anytime soon.

I easily made two to three times my income in the 90s producing only journalism, as pay rates were much higher and demand as well. Some people, with specialized skills or very strong editorial relationships, are still making very good money, but if you want a glamorous, high profile clip from Conde Nast or Hearst the contract will be brutally demanding of all rights and expose you to total liability.

No thanks!

Content marketing requires the same skills — interviewing, research, reporting, writing, revising. But the end user is different, and the tone can reflect that and, some won’t carry my byline, like the Lustgarten posts.

As long as the pay is good and quick, management smart and the work interesting, that’s a lot!

 

The three A’s that matter most

By Caitlin Kelly

You might argue that three C’s matter more: compassion, conscience, commitment.

I’m going with agency, autonomy and authority.

As a writer — and author of two books — I love that the word authority starts with the word author. You have to stand up intellectually and be counted. It’s risky, for sure. But that’s where authority comes from, actually knowing your stuff, not just performing it on social media, preening. Maybe you’ve heard of the 10,000 hours theory — that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.

 

 

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I’ve been writing for decades, and each story, probably, from start to finish, might take 20 hours (at most, maybe 10 at best, for reporting/interviewing/writing/revising.)

So that means producing 1,000 stories before I could legitimately say, yeah, I’m excellent at this — which by now I surely have.

But here’s an interesting story that says — nope, wrong!

I recently went down a three-hour rabbit hole — three videos, about an hour each, of British writer, actor, poet Michaela Coel, who created the hit new HBO series “I May Destroy You” based quite a bit on her own life as an emerging artist and her own experience of being drugged at a bar then raped.

What I found most interesting about her comments in all three, one of which is the McTaggart Lecture, delivered in 2018 to the great and the good of the British TV industry, was how essential it’s been for her to insist on her own sense of agency and autonomy as she has created.

Her lecture is powerful and honest and makes clear that learning how to navigate the arcane and byzantine world of profitably selling your ideas and retaining some control over them is damn hard, and no one really teaches you.

The word agency has multiple definitions; here are five.

It’s fascinating that you hire an agent/agency to represent you in many endeavors, certainly creative — music, film, writing,  art — and in so doing must also surrender your own sense of agency to them, always relying on trust and knowing they’ll claim 10 to 15 to 20 percent of your earnings for the privilege. Which is why I’m loving the three season French TV series “Call My Agent” (10 percent in French), as it lays bare the hustle and drama and chaos behind the scenes of a Parisian talent agency.

Like Michaela Coel, who’s quite adamant about the need for transparency in an industry premised on little of it, I want to see the process, not only the shiny finished object.

How to re-charge your creative juices

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By Caitlin Kelly

If you live and work in the United States, as I do, you will daily — hourly! — be exhorted from every direction to be (more!) productive.

It’s a Taylorist industrial model and has nothing to do with creativity.

An early blog post of mine (2011) — chosen for Freshly Pressed — challenged this:

 

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

But we don’t talk about the downtime, the quiet moments of connection and insight that can, when allowed to blossom quietly unforced by another’s schedule, birth wonders.

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.

360 people liked it.

Nine years later, with so many of us working from home (or living at work!), it’s even harder to carve out the time, privacy, silence, solitude and lack of income-producing pressure to just think.

Uninterrupted.

Not worn out.

Not grieving.

Without free and unstructured time to ponder, noodle, make connections you’ve never seen or noticed before, how is it even possible to create?

Only in conversation last week with a friend we visited upstate for a few days did I realize how much we have in common and how that shared passion fits perfectly (!) into my potential book proposal — because hanging over the toilet in the cramped bathroom of his rented 235-year-old country house is a gorgeous lithograph of the topic I want to explore and which he knows very well.

These serendipitous moments can only happen when we step out of the grooves of everyday life.

I also love reading books that inspire or offer new and helpful ways to think and behave. Not a fan of woo-woo, but practicality!

An older business book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, includes my favorite chapter — Sharpening the Saw —  finding ways to stay sharp and refreshed and use your strengths.

The title is goofy, but there’s a lot of smart stuff in it, even if you work at home in leggings and not in some corporate environment.

I sometimes read business books as well and have found smart ideas in the Harvard Business Review.

 

Here are some of them:

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The Tharp book– by the American choreographer — isn’t new but is excellent. She is not one to sit around waiting for inspiration since no working artist can afford it. Much discipline!

 

Time to get cracking! I’ve written many book proposals, but it never hurts to read up again.

 

Have heard a lot of good things about Big Magic.

 

Uncommon Genius is a brilliant idea — go out and interview winners of the MacArthur “genius” prize about how they think and work.

 

Daily Rituals is good fun — dozens and dozens of creative folk, including those from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in all kinds of fields, and how they work (or don’t!)

Where and how do you find creative inspiration?

Something blue

By Caitlin Kelly

For Joni Mitchell fans, this 1971 release, Blue, remains one of her best albums.

These days, it’s also how I’m feeling, really worn down by endless months of isolating and mask-wearing, not seeing friends, losing friendships over endless drama, working too hard without breaks (while always grateful for work!)

Borders slammed shut because American “leadership” on this pandemic has killed 100s of thousands, with many more ahead. So, no travel!

 

Instead, please just enjoy some of my images, filled with blue, and beauty!

 

 

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A bit of cutwork linen, dyed blue, found in a Paris flea market, which I used as a pillow applique

 

 

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The blue sky over Long Island, NY. Loved this elegant wrought-iron gate.

 

 

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A truck-side sign — “apple-grower” — at the Atwater Market in Montreal.

 

 

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I saw this at one of the entrances to the Piazza San Marco in Venice

 

 

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Sigh.  Spent a perfect solo afternoon here,  Croatia, July 2017

 

 

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A vintage tablecloth scored in Maine

 

 

 

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Fishing lines at rest, Burtonport, Co. Donegal, Ireland

 

 

 

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Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp! A Nicaraguan toilet we used while reporting there for WaterAid in 2014

 

 

 

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One of my favorite Toronto sights, and journeys — the ferry to the Islands

 

 

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I was so touched to get this in the mail from fellow Blogger Elizabeth Harper, then working in a pub, who kindly thought this might be appropriate!

It’s just paper and words

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.

None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.

No travel.

A good long time to reflect.

And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.

I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.

It’s not Art or Literature.

It’s just journalism.

I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.

But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?

I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?

Did it help anyone?

How?

I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.

But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.

The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!

 

We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.

We love finding and telling stories to strangers.

We see story ideas everywhere.

We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.

 

 

Taking a breather

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know everyone’s tired and overwhelmed and distracted right now.

The U.S., for a lot of reasons, is a firestorm both literally and politically.

Millions are broke, exhausted, ill, angry, despairing, grieving.

Writing this blog for so few views these days — sorry! — also means I’m going to take a break.

I’ll see you in a week or two.

Maybe by then I’ll have more interesting material!

Stay safe.

Stay healthy.

Water dripping on stone

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve always — imagine! — been impatient.

Have always hoped, somehow, my journalism would make a difference to the world, to its readers, maybe even to voters or policy-makers.

In my early 20s, I tackled a grim and difficult and important story, the testing of cosmetics and other products on animals. I won’t detail what I saw, but I never forgot it, and to see that as a young person is to be changed. I wrote it for a brave editor, the late and much missed Jane Gale Hughes, whose Canadian national magazine — as small in size and apparently unsubstantial as a TV Guide — was called Homemakers.

Its name was misleading, suggesting anodyne chitchat.

Quite the opposite!

Jane, extremely rare for any editor who hopes to keep their job, had to fight the advertising department because, of course, the advertisers of the products being tested would object and pull their lucrative ads.

The ads whose revenue paid her salary and my freelance work for her.

She ran my story anyway and I’m really proud of it and grateful for her belief in me as a younger journalist to produce it.

This tension between money and truth-telling never goes away.

In 2005-6, when I was a reporter for the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest paper, I did a huge investigation of the cruise ship industry.

What I learned persuaded me to never take a cruise.

Of course, the editor refused to run my stories — for fear of losing their ad dollars. They finally ran one-half of my work.

 

Journalism matters!

 

Every story that digs deeply.

Every press conference — pure theater! — during which smart journalists ask challenging, tough questions, even in the face of sneers, insults, pompous political lectures and hostility.

It all adds up.

It must.

Jose and I are soon at the tail end of long and challenging and satisfying careers in journalism. We remain deeply passionate about the need for intelligent, analytical, critical reporting on  every aspect of life.

But both of us were cautioned — long ago — to remember that even a lifetime of our committed excellence, even for the largest and most influential outlets, and all the work of all our talented colleagues, is the equivalent of water drops on stone.

One at a time.

Each story — each image — only a drop.

How can it matter?

Drop after drop — repeated over and over and over and over — as we and others continue the work, and stone wears away.

 

Six years ago this month, a life-changing trip

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On assignment in rural Nicaragua…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We’re fortunate indeed to ever have a truly life-changing experience — in a good way!

Six years ago, I did, flying from my home in New York to Atlanta and there boarding a three-hour flight to Managua, capital of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere — Nicaragua — after Haiti.

If you’ve never visited or lived in a developing country, especially one reached so quickly, it’s a huge shock.

The air just feels different.

It smells different — of mildew and roast meat and undefined vegetation. Bird calls are unfamiliar.

Horse-drawn carts clop along the streets of the capital.

That $15 you just blew for a sandwich and a drink at the Atlanta airport takes on a whole new meaning when

Nicaraguans’ annual per capita income is just over $2,000.

 

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Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

 

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Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi — and back!

 

 

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On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

 

I went there with WaterAid America, hired and well paid to produce three feature stories about their work, joining a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational and multi-talented team: a blogger from Maine, Jennifer Iacovelli; the WaterAid communications person, Alannah Imbach, and photographer Rodrigo Cruz from Mexico, even from the very city I’d lived in at 14, Cuernavaca.

We had never met before.

We had no idea if we would. work well together or even like one another.

But we did and we did.

We even had such a powerful experience that, when we said goodbye in Managua to the country director, fellow Canadian Joshua Briemberg (a dead ringer for Hagrid!) he cautioned: “No tears!”

What an adventure!

To reach the coastal town of Bilwi, we rode the tiniest commercial aircraft I’d been in so far — they weighed us, not just our bags!

The van we traveled in for hours every day often needed a push. The heat was intense and we were working hard, 12 hours a day, seeking shade wherever we could find it. The van was stocked with plenty of ice water, and we needed it!

 

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

 

The goal there was to teach locals how to build their own toilets and wells.

Until you’ve been in a country where you sweat all day every day — and access to running water is a luxury — you can’t imagine it.

One of my favorite memories, when we visited a village without electricity and running water, sleeping on cots under mosquito nets, was bathing at dusk while trying to pump enough water from the well.

A cow stood nearby.

Just as I finally took off my sports bra…a little boy on a bicycle rode past.

We worked in Spanish, which I speak, and the area’s regional language — Miskito — for which we had translators.

 

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LInda’s home, where we slept w/o electricity on cots under mosquito nets

 

Food was whatever was available, sometimes cooked over indoor wood fires.

The wooden house we stayed overnight in one night was typical — smooth, shiny, spotless wooden floors, painted a bright color, with open windows, and on stilts, allowing storage, shade and room for animals below.

Their turkey (!) followed us through the woods to the river, gobbling happily, until Jen and I got into a dugout canoe there, a first for both of us! Good thing this Canadian knew how to paddle a canoe!

Our seats?

Our host’s mother whipped out her machete (!) and sliced two nearby stalks of bamboo on an angle — boom, seats!

As you can imagine, the week was filled with revelations and kindness, new experiences and the joy of doing some good work in a team of fabulous, easy-going professionals. No one whined!

In the years since, Jen has stayed in Maine doing non-profit work and Alannah now lives in her native Washington State, running Vibe, a gorgeous co-working space she designed with her Swiss husband, Marcel. And they have lovely twin daughters, Noemi and Chiara.

We are still in touch and I’ll forever be so so so grateful for their trust in me and my skills, allowing me to learn so much so quickly.

 

Have you had an experience that changed you or your worldview?

 

 

The editorial relationship

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

The good and bad of blogging  — for writers and readers alike — no editors!

No one to say: “Hmmm, really?”

No one to ask: “What did you mean to say here?”

No one to suggest: “Maybe you wanted a shorter paragraph?”

I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19, so I’ve worked with many editors, men and women of all ages and temperaments, some as my bosses or coworkers, many as those who chose to assign me freelance work, and my two non-fiction books.

The very best are like the best plastic surgeons — when they trim, you barely notice it, but suddenly your material looks so much better.

The very best remain calm and cool, able to re-direct us and soothe us when we’re lost or panicked in the weeds of reporting and interviewing. Book editors are gods to me — helping us make sense of 100,000 words.

I’m always amazed at the trust that each editor places in us and our skills and our character and our ethics and our work ethic when they commit to us. This was a bigger deal when top writers were paid $3/word by the big glossy magazines and a $6,000 or $9,000 or $12,000 check was still possible and not some gauzy memory.

Then as now, editors hedge their bets with contracts that may not contain a kill fee, or a very small one (25 percent), so that $4,000 you expected to earn — hah, now you’re only getting $1,000 and your bills be damned!

It’s one reason smart full-time freelancers are very, very frugal; it’s easy to blow some cash on a vacation or some new clothes or some dental work or car repair — put  it on a credit card — and, guess what?

You aren’t getting that money now.

It’s very stressful and stories get killed for a lot of very bad reasons. One I see a lot (not in my work) is editors who commission a story, disappear for weeks or even months (!?) and then the story is no longer timely or someone else already published it. This punishes the writer, who’s done all the work in good faith.

 

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Some of my most memorable editors:

— The one who sent me off to profile David Quinn, then the brand-new coach of the New York Rangers, saying “You’re Canadian. You know hockey!” I did not. Here’s the story.

— The one who just assigned me a scary story about a technical topic for a specialist audience of readers with Phds. “You realize I never studied chemistry or physics?” I emailed him. Onward, anyway.

— The  one who told me to get what he was sure was a totally ungettable interview and I came back within a few hours with a former European leader.

— The one who sent me off on a two-week tour of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Lord, what an adventure: Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick. We flew in Lear jets, allowing Her Majesty the “purple corridor” of advance time for her jet to take off before ours.

— The one who sent me, in December, to the tiny Arctic village of Salluit, ostensibly to deliver an entire small plane-full of donated clothing, with only 24 hours there. We landed on ice and snow at maybe 1pm, and no one wanted the stuff, and it was dark by 2pm and  I had to go on the radio, a particle board shack, being translated into Inuktitut, to calm the village down and get anyone to even speak to me.

 

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— The one, at the New York Daily News, my direct manager, who said: “When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know” and never spoke to me again. That was December and I was let go in  June. Fun!

— The one who edited Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout’s official magazine, and had me interviewing Scouts (by phone) all across America. They were always terrific!

 

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— The one who read my initial manuscript for Malled and said: “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.” The rest? Needed revision. We made it.

— The one who sent me from Toronto, freelance, for The Globe & Mail, to write about performing eight shows of Sleeping Beauty as an extra with the National Ballet of Canada, at Lincoln Center. I typed it up in my room at the Empire Hotel and dictated it over the phone. “This is great!” he said.

 

At best, it’s a collegial collaboration of mutual respect.

At worst, you feel butchered and never want to trust another editor again.

And you never know for sure what you’ll get!

The social media dance

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Let’s keep it civil!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I bet some of you remember life before Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter.

It was a time of  social interaction that was, de facto, personal. We spent time sitting with someone, or walking with them or dancing or fishing. Not sitting at a keyboard and staring into a screen.

So we’re basically talking to total strangers and trusting in their goodwill and intelligence to respond civilly and calmly.

These days, that feels like more of a gamble.

I do see a lot of good thanks to social media.

You, for example!

Knowing that people still find value here — after ten years! — is heartening indeed. I really value the conversations and insights and humor and global perspective you bring.

I enjoy Twitter and have also made new friends from it, meeting them face to face, people I really enjoyed after months of tweets-only.

But a few downsides are increasingly diminishing my pleasure in using social media, and competitiveness is the primary driver.

In my business, of journalism and coaching and writing non-fiction, the LOUDEST voices seem to win, There’s a tremendous amount of chest-thumping, crowing over enormous success. Frankly, even with decades of my own accomplishment, I find it intimidating and exhausting.

I also see, increasingly, a sort of competitive victimhood, with millennials and Gen X vying for the title of whose life is most miserable — and it’s all thanks to those greedy Boomers. (My generation, of course.)

There is no legitimate argument to deny the challenges these two co-horts face. There are many and they intersect: high student debt, low wages, intermittent work, climate change…

I read some of those threads on Twitter, where even the calmest and most reasonable objection or alternate point of view is blocked for being unkind and invalidating — when it’s an alternate view.

I don’t dare mention on Twitter that Boomers like me have weathered three recessions, each of which slowed our careers and damaged our incomes. Then the crash of ’08.

 

This “lalalalalalalalala I can’t hear you” equivalent online is a disaster.

 

There’s little point in “connecting” with an enormous global audience, potentially, only to whine and rage and stamp your feet insisting your life is the worst ever.

For you, it is.

I get that.

 

But until or unless we can cultivate modesty and empathy, compassion and a clear understanding that we each see the world through our own filters of age, race, income, education, political views, sexual preference, gender identity, cultural norms….it’s a dialogue of the deaf.

And here’s a powerful plea about how to better handle other’s bereavement and grief on social media.