It’s a natural response — and, in some cases, the right response — to try to hold the line against political reaction, to shame people who espouse shameful ideas. But shame is a politically volatile emotion, and easily turns into toxic resentment. It should not be overused. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line between ideas that deserve a serious response, and those that should be only mocked and scorned. I do know that people on the right benefit immensely when they can cultivate the mystique of the forbidden.
In February, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has garnered a cultlike following, asked, in an interview with Vice, “Can men and women work together in the workplace?” To him, the Me Too movement called into question coed offices, a fundamental fact of modern life, because “things are deteriorating very rapidly at the moment in terms of the relationships between men and women.”
Having to contend with this question fills me with despair. I would like to say: It’s 2018 and women’s place in public life is not up for debate! But to be honest, I think it is. Trump is president. Everywhere you look, the ugliest and most illiberal ideas are gaining purchase. Refusing to take them seriously won’t make them go away. (As it happens, I’m participating in a debate with Peterson next week in Toronto.)
I shy far away, here and on Facebook and usually on Twitter, from so many political subjects — gun use and abortion, being two of them — that will only provoke trolls, bullies and harassers.
I have no time, energy or appetite to get into fights with ghosts over this stuff, no matter how passionately I feel about them, which I do.
It’s become a world of virtue signalling, spittle-flecked (out) rage and worse.
I see some bloggers sticking resolutely close to home with soothing/inspiring images and posts.
I get it.
I wish I dared.
But I don’t.
Are you also holding back on your blog and other social media?
There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.
…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.
Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.
And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.
A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.
It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.
Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).
Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.
Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.
But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.
In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.
Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.
But what defines success?
an enormous salary
lots of money in the bank
having and wielding power
owning your home
a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)
surviving tours in the military
having a healthy/happy child(ren)
a happy relationship with your spouse/partner
achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record
regaining (or losing) weight
acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work
helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts
If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.
Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.
But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.
Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed
If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.
How do you measure and define success in your life?
I just finished reading a new memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, by a woman I met through a local writers’ group, Marcia Butler. She was, for years, a skilled professional oboist and her candid and powerful memoir describes in detail both coping with her difficult family and her highly successful musical career.
She also reveals that both her parents are now dead, so discussing their behavior, abusive and deeply rejecting, could have no immediate consequences.
In journalism, we call disclosure “opening the kimono” and, especially when writing personal essays, it’s a challenging decision to know what to say and what to withhold from public, permanent view.
Now that everything can be quickly and widely shared online — and snarled at by trolls — it’s even more daunting to decide how much to tell millions of strangers about yourself, sharing things you might never have told anyone before, not even a best friend or therapist.
Our stories can resonate deeply, informing and educating (and amusing) others. While reading Marcia’s book, there were several moments when I had experienced the exact same thing at exactly the same age. That was a bit spooky!
I’ve had a life filled with fun adventures — meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Brittania, visiting a 500-member Arctic village, traveling eight days across Europe with a French truck driver, performing at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty as an extra.
But, of course, I’ve also had many moments of fear and panic — dating a con man who had done jail time in another state, a quick and ugly divorce from my first husband, bullying at the hands of several bosses. Without the dark(er) bits, it’s all saccharine sunshine.
I too, come from a difficult family and have had many years of estrangement from both parents and a step-sibling.
So, which stories to include, and which to delete?
Which to highlight in detail and which are just…too much?
I recently had lunch with two women, highly accomplished journalists with awards and tremendous track records of professional achievement. One, a good friend who has known me for 13 years, is urging me to write a memoir, and I’m considering it.
But both women freely admitted that they would not. They’d each be too uncomfortable revealing the woman beneath the professional veneer, however truthful that exterior is.
Once something is out there for public consumption, you can’t control how readers will react, whether with compassion and admiration or scorn and derision.
I read a few blogs where the writers share much more intimate detail about their lives.
Not sure this is where I want to go next.
How much do you share in your public writing, like books, articles and blogs?
⇒ If you work in design or architecture, in or near New York City, I’m once more teaching a class I created that starts soon at the New York School of Interior Design, Writing Skills for Designers. It starts March 21 at the school, on East 70th. Street, (very close to the 68th. Street subway.)
The class runs two hours, for four weeks, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. It helps design professionals — architects, interior designers, lighting designers, anyone working in the field — produce lively and compelling copy.
It’s fun and practical and you’ll come away inspired!
⇒ If you are, or know of someone, a truly interesting entrepreneur with an unusual story, (anywhere in the world), please email me at email@example.com as I’m always looking for people to feature in The New York Times column on entrepreneurship.
I’ve been an ASJA member for many years, (membership costs only $235 a year), served for six years on their volunteer board, and every year I volunteer to mentor at the conference as well.
It’s a terrific place to meet fellow writers at all levels, as well as agents and editors.
⇒ I coach writers of all skill levels, focusing on non-fiction, journalism and public relations. Maybe you want to create a better blog or to get a personal essay published and paid for.
I read and offer clear, helpful feedback on finished work and/or answer pretty much any questions you have about how to succeed in journalism, whether writing for websites, magazines or newspapers.
As the winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award, (for an essay about my divorce, in the humor category!), a three-time staff reporter for three major daily newspapers, former magazine editor and successful freelance writer for The New York Times, Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Smithsonian, Sunday Telegraph, VSD and many others, I know what editors, agents and publishers want!
While this blog, on paper, has 20,000 followers, fewer and fewer are arriving and commenting.
I could take it personally, (and maybe I should!)
But I think we’re all overloaded: Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, et al are sucking the life out of us and reducing what little attention we have left to give — beyond that for work, family, friends and life.
The New York Times ran two recent stories addressing this.
This is the most important rule of all. After reading newspapers for a few weeks, I began to see it wasn’t newspapers that were so great, but social media that was so bad.
Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today — and every one we will battle tomorrow — is exacerbated by plugging into the social-media herd. The built-in incentives on Twitter and Facebook reward speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over well-meaning analyzers of news.
You don’t have to read a print newspaper to get a better relationship with the news. But, for goodness’ sake, please stop getting your news mainly from Twitter and Facebook. In the long run, you and everyone else will be better off.
And this, admittedly by man with a highly unusual life — no need to work and no need to interact with anyone every day:
Right after the election, Erik Hagerman decided he’d take a break from reading about the hoopla of politics.
Donald Trump’s victory shook him. Badly. And so Mr. Hagerman developed his own eccentric experiment, one that was part silent protest, part coping mechanism, part extreme self-care plan.
He swore that he would avoid learning about anything that happened to America after Nov. 8, 2016.
“It was draconian and complete,” he said. “It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust.”
It was just going to be for a few days. But he is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history. He is as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.
I get it.
I have online subscriptions to The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — and never use them.
I read The New York Times and Financial Times seven days a week, plus about 20 weekly and monthly magazines. Plus Twitter and Facebook and some blogs.
Plus television and radio.
And I feel increasingly angry and powerless by “knowing” about so much I can do little or nothing to change:
— that the U.S. has a President who lies every day and has sex with porn stars (and lies about that)
— that Yemeni citizens are dying of cholera
— that hundreds of Syrian children are being killed as I write these words.
Thanks to Twitter, I also met up in Berlin with Jens Notroff, an archeologist who works on Gobekli Tepe, a 12,000 year-old Neolithic site in Turkey and Dorothée Lefering, a travel blogger whose post about Rovinj, Croatia impelled me to stay there for a glorious week last July. I’d never even heard of it before!
We all met for lunch at Pauly Saal (a trendy restaurant) in Berlin last July, thanks to “meeting” them regularly through several weekly Twitterchats focused on travel — and Jens and I bonded for certain after trading the lyrics to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Now, thanks to Insta, I’m reviving my photography skills; I began my journalism career as a teenager selling three cover photos to a Toronto magazine, then sold to Time, The New York Times, Washington Post and more.
I love how my Smartphone has made me hyper-aware of my surroundings once more. The glossy perfection and waayyyyyyy too many selfies of Instagram don’t appeal to me, but I’m loving the global reach it offers.
I also spend a lot of time on Facebook participating in online-only women’s writing groups, where we find friendship, freelance work, staff jobs, mentoring and moral support. At worst, it can get ugly and weird, but at best it’s my daily water cooler, as someone who works alone at home in the boring suburbs of New York.
(It costs me $25+ in train and subway fare into New York City to meet people face to face, so social media offers us all an easy and affordable option.)
But I also plan play dates — this week an Oscar-viewing night with a neighbor, lunch here with an editor, a Canadian consulate event at the Tenement Museum in New York City, and meeting friends for dinner in Harlem at Red Rooster.
My weekends are also filled with in-person social activities from now through mid-April, so I don’t feel isolated and lonely, which social media can create online interaction is all you do.
Facebook was also useful recently in a highly unusual way — with a local woman reporting to our town in real time that a woman had been shot in an apartment complex nearby, that the shooter was on the loose (!) and that’s why we heard police helicopters overheard for hours.
(She died and he was captured in New York City at the bus station.)
The hashtag for our town’s zip code, whose Facebook page has thousands of members, was the single best place to find out what was happening.
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.
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.
If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.