The word itself means migration, or flight from danger and the songs are all about movement and restlessness.
On it, Neil Young — another Canadian — plays harmonica and the stunningly talented Brazilian bass player Jaco Pastorius makes this distinctively different from her previous work.
It was a tough year for me, my sophomore year at University of Toronto, both of my parents traveling far away, long before cell phones or the Internet, when a long-distance call to Europe or Latin America was really expensive. I was living on very little, freelancing as a writer and photographer while attending the country’s most demanding school full-time.
I dated all the the wrong men, (as Mitchell did, for decades), discarding them as quickly as I found them. Connection was both alluring and exhausting, a theme of that album.
Mitchell also has a home where my mother — also a fiercely independent traveler for many years — lived for a while, the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver.
I met a friend of spirit He drank and womanized And I sat before his sanity I was holding back from crying He saw my complications And he mirrored me back simplified And we laughed how our perfection Would always be denied “Heart and humor and humility” He said “Will lighten up your heavy load” I left him for the refuge of the roads
The book offers a great ride through her life, from her years in small-town Saskatchewan to her initial success in the coffee-houses of Toronto to playing Carnegie Hall and touring with Bob Dylan.
It offers insights into her addictions — to cocaine and to cigarettes — and her deep ambivalence about marriage, which she tried twice.
It’s a compelling portrait of a fiercely independent woman.
This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.
For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.
For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.
Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.
Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.
Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.
In an era some are calling “post-truth”, who do you believe?
Whose media voice(s) do you listen to and trust?
Personally, I listen most often to BBC (television and radio,), NPR, read The New York Times and the Financial Times. I also listen to other news sources, albeit mostly those leaning to the left.
I suspect some of you read my blog because (?) I’m a career journalist working for decades as a freelancer for The New York Times, which which many consider a great and trustworthy newspaper.
A career journalist who actually hopes to keep working in our industry (even as it’s in chaos!) simply can’t afford to make shit up because you get found out and you lose your job and you lose your reputation for honesty and…you’re done, son!
I don’t make shit up, here or elsewhere.
I adhere to the unofficial motto of the Canadian Press, a wire service, who taught me in my early 20s: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
That was also pre-Internet when the pressure to publish was less frenzied, and no one cared about likes or clicks or whether an algorithm favored your work above that of your competitors.
Back in Toronto recently, I visited the new newsroom of my first newspaper job, the Globe & Mail — which, like most major newsrooms now, has screens visible to everyone showing them data on what’s being read, for how long and how often.
Last week, President Trump promoted new, unconfirmed accusations to suit his political narrative: that a “criminal deep state” element within Mr. Obama’s government planted a spy deep inside his presidential campaign to help his rival, Hillary Clinton, win — a scheme he branded “Spygate.” It was the latest indication that a president who has for decades trafficked in conspiracy theories has brought them from the fringes of public discourse to the Oval Office.
Now that he is president, Mr. Trump’s baseless stories of secret plots by powerful interests appear to be having a distinct effect. Among critics, they have fanned fears that he is eroding public trust in institutions, undermining the idea of objective truth and sowing widespread suspicions about the government and news media that mirror his own.
“The effect on the life of the nation of a president inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract attention from legitimate investigations or other things he dislikes is corrosive,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and biographer. “The diabolical brilliance of the Trump strategy of disinformation is that many people are simply going to hear the charges and countercharges, and decide that there must be something to them because the president of the United States is saying them.” (emphasis mine)
In an era of blame and recrimination, who are we to believe?
If not those given the highest authority (and who does now, whether religious or political) who?
What we politely call “fake news”—a formulation that presupposes some antecedent credible truth called “news” that we’re now abandoning—is just the tribal folklore of a certain (and usually opposing) tribe. Our exhausting and constant absorption in a transitory but completely overwhelming media cycle is our own preliterate eternal present. Who thinks now of Cecil the Lion and the villainous dentist who shot him, whose practice was promptly ruined by an online mob? We’re too busy dealing with the third huge Trump scandal this week, which we’ll forget in due course thanks to next week’s school shooting….
The post-internet generation, weaned almost since birth on touchscreens and fractious digital media, navigates this raucous world with an equanimity that we dinosaurs beholden to a dead-tree age find impossible to muster. It is a different world, one where the universally acclaimed expert or editor has been replaced by internet-enabled rumor and hearsay arbitrated only by algorithms. There are some dominant media outlets with a claim to primacy, just as every village has a particularly well-informed local gossip, but the capital-T Truth, so beloved by the French encyclopedists, will no longer exist across a broad spectrum of society.
Are there official news sources you still actually trust and believe?
I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.
It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.
I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.
There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.
I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.
LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.
I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.
Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.
It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.
It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.
The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)
While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.
As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.
I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.
If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.
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!
It happened this week, as it has now for several years.
It’s when one specific check, (or cheque, as Canadians and Britons spell it), arrives. It’s a payment from a cultural agency of the Canadian government, an annual payment from the Public Lending Rights program.
There are 30 of these programs worldwide, but only one in the Americas, so I’m fortunate to be Canadian and to be a participant — it’s a royalty system that pays people who have created books now held in public libraries.
I had never heard of it when I lived in Canada and only learned of it thanks to meeting a man whose wife was enrolled in it.
If you have published a book, or several, that meets its requirements, and have registered it, and it is held by public libraries, you’re eligible.
It is open not only to writers, but to photographers, illustrators, editors and — crucial to a nation that is officially bilingual (English, French) — translators.
I’ve published two books — both about life in the United States, albeit through the eyes of a Canadian — and both are still receiving this payment.
Last year I got $452, and this year $507.50 — love that 50 cents!
To determine who gets how much, the program samples seven library systems in French and English — that might be a major city like Toronto (my hometown, whose libraries bought multiple copies of Malled), or a collection of smaller ones across a province or territory.
If your book has been registered for 0 to five years, the payment rate is $50.75 for each hit (i.e. it is still in those library systems), dropping each year to $25.38 for those held 16 to 25 years.
It may seem a pittance, but it means the world to me because it means my work still has readers.
The lowest amount one can receive is $50 and the most — even if you have 20 books in circulation — is $3,552.50
The PLR has 17,000 registered and a budget of about $10 million; every year there are 800 new registrants and more than 5,000 titles added.
The check arrived with a charming letter from its chairman, his closing sentence: “I leave you with my best wishes for another productive year of creation.”
I so appreciate that my government supports the arts in this way!
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.