I’m a huge fan of music and film and books and it’s fascinating to consume older media that assumed, rightly, a much longer — and much less distracted — attention span.
Different plot development.
For amusement, I once counted every single image in the introductory credits to the HBO series about journalism — The Newsroom.
The difference between its initial 2012 opening credits — with 53 separate images in 1:29 and the 45 images of the 2015 season, in 1:07 — are striking. The second set are super quick jump shots, much more emotional, much more compelling — with Ron Rosen the editor.
One of my favorite film directors is American Kelly Reichardt, whose films move slowly and beautifully, often through a rural, timeless Oregon landscape.
I keep re-watching the 1968 film “2001”, also intrigued by how slowly some scenes unfold and how very little dialogue it contains.
It demands our sustained, often mystified attention — and amply rewards it.
No doubt our brains were wired very differently before the ’90s when we all started moving online, let alone the daily deluge now on social media.
I find it more challenging than ever now sit still for hours and just read.
I often wonder what it was like to live in the 18th century where domestic amusements were embroidery — slow! — or reading or playing a musical instrument. When a letter sent, sealed with wax, took days or weeks or even months to reach its reader. Then the reply.
What different brain chemistry they must have had!
Living through a pandemic and the useless political “leadership” that’s killed so many is bad enough — add to this grief and anxiety that absolutely rob us of the ability to stay focused and pay attention and retain a damn thing.
But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.
That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.
I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.
How could I ever make my mark?
Find my place socially and professionally?
I needed help!
And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.
I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!
The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.
American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.
Covey’s book up-ended some of this.
I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.
You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.
I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.
But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.
Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.
So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.
So how do I stay sharp?
— Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)
— Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.
— Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.
— Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.
— Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.
— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!
Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?
So, finally, I have a new headshot, thanks to a sunny fall day and our balcony and a good salon and Jose’s talent.
I’m really happy with it, as my previous ones were, to my critical eye, all too casual or too formal or just out of date.
My favorite one until now was a quick snap Jose took on our balcony in March 2014 (!) just before I flew to rural Nicaragua with WaterAid for a fantastic week of work with them. I’m always my happiest when challenged, facing a trip or some sort of new adventure and it showed!
I’m very much my parents’ child in this respect — my mother traveled much of the world alone for years on end, and lived in places like New Mexico, Bath, Toronto, Montreal and Gibsons, B.C., a pretty coastal town. My father traveled the world for his work as a film-maker and, at 91, is considering trading the solitary boredom of rural Ontario for….Marrakesh.
Because I live on social media, on here and Twitter and Facebook and (ugh, rarely) on LinkedIn, I always need a fresh, appealing headshot. I do a lot of interviews for my work, and I always look online for any images of the people I’ll be speaking with — seems only fair to let them see who I am as well.
But my image needs to be:
friendly and approachable but also professional
When you’re in the public eye — and these days if you’re self-employed you really have to be — you need a terrific headshot!
So why does this one work?
— fresh from the hair salon! I can never do this so well myself.
— subtle make-up, but strong enough it reads well in black and white.
— very simple clothing, which is very much my style.
— Simple gold earrings for a hint of shine.
— a lovely background.
— no direct sunlight! We, both being photographers, know this. I see a lot of not-great headshots, often a selfie. I’ve tried, many many times, to snap a selfie that works as a headshot and, occasionally, have done well.
— obviously, very fortunate to have a talented professional as my photographer, my husband Jose Lopez! For The New York Times and others, he has photographed three Presidents and thousands of images, from the Bosnian war to pro football to cowboys.
Taking my photo is never that easy!
I have versions of this high and low-res and both in black and white as well.
It makes me feel more confident to be seen as I am now — but cleaned up!
When Kamala Harris was named as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, a somewhat bitter joke made the rounds of social media — every Indian parent wondering — why not President?!
I realize it’s a mark of real privilege not to strive and struggle to be the best all the time and have done plenty of struggle, thanks — try starting at 30 as a new immigrant to New York City journalism (a cabal of Ivy League graduates) and weathering three recessions in 20 years!
I grew up in Toronto, the media capital of Canada, and competition there has always been extremely fierce, so I’ve always known to bring my A game to work.
But the rest of my life?
Our home is lovely and I do brush my hair and we cook some very good meals and I do dress up nicely when I got out and enjoy making that effort.
But the endless pursuit of excellence is just too tiring!
It feels so American, to constantly be proving you’re better/stronger/faster/cheaper/whatever it takes to be at the top of the heap.
For work, and especially in some fields, of course this is necessary, for years or even decades. There’s no choice.
And I know, firsthand, being married to a Hispanic-American-born man whose own family expected excellence of him, that high parental expectations can be really important.
But the perfection so many people now perform on social media is also so weird to me. I’m so very much imperfect, and I’m fine with it.
There are only two groups of people whose approval I most value — people I love and respect and people whose good opinion of me as a professional means I can make a living.
So when my poor husband urges me, repeatedly, to improve my golf game — lessons, a special glove, practice — I make a nasty face and shrug because the word amateur means someone who loves….not just someone who’s a REALLY good non-professional.
We recently played one of our county’s most challenging courses, all 18 holes (a first for me) and we did not play slowly (as is deemed extremely rude) and thereby hold up the many players right behind us. So I did fine, even playing poorly compared to many others.
Golf is meant to be fun, but knowing (and seeing!) others right behind you at the last hole is not wildly relaxing at all.
So I need to be good enough to not mess up others’ enjoyment, and I get that. But I don’t feel compelled to get really good at golf or other leisure pursuits.
It rhymes with pleasure.…not work.
This summer I finally started swimming laps in our apartment building pool, building up to 30 laps, about 20 to 25 minutes. I could have pushed much harder but I want to enjoy my life too!
I’ve just never been someone attracted by “perfection” — which is also deeply subjective, as any writer quickly learns. Any creative person learns. What one person adores about you and your ideas another may loathe.
So, maybe because of this, you learn to value yourself and your own internal standards.
I think this is an overlooked and undervalued superpower.
In a time of social media perfection, who dares publicly admit to a flaw or two?
This, from The New York Times:
Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, a public academic, writer and lecturer, said that vulnerability in practice means allowing others to see what you are ashamed of — showing uncomfortable truths ranging from not being able to afford rent to simply feeling lost. In a culture that places an extremely high value on nearly unattainable perfection and likability, these revelations can be quite terrifying. But “it can benefit us greatly to let down walls that can often be exhausting to maintain,” Ms. Cargle said.
A few years ago, attending an annual New York City writers’ conference, mostly filled with others competing for the same pool of well-paid freelance work, a writer I barely knew stopped me in the hall and said, clearly a bit horrified: “Your blog is so…honest.”
Maybe not her exact words, but she was clearly shocked by how much I choose to reveal here, with the potential that employers might see it, and what would they think then?
Maybe that I’m simply human?
I grew up in a family that just didn’t discuss difficult things and never talked about our feelings. I was in boarding school at the age of 8 and summer camp ages 8 to 16, always sharing a bedroom with four to six other girls, some of whom could be cruel.
So being vulnerable and revealing my fears or doubts or weakness? NOT a wise choice, either at home or there.
I’ve always been able to count on a few very close friends, who know the full story. But being in a public and highly competitive industry has also meant that when, at 30, I very much misplaced my trust in a colleague in Toronto, those juicy details about me provided months of vicious gossip about me —- even spread to a pal in India.
I left Toronto, furious and wary, and never went back.
I learned to be more cautious about being trusting and truthful with anyone professionally, leaving myself vulnerable as a result.
I clammed up tight.
It takes courage to admit things are difficult or you’re scared or you don’t think you’ll ever achieve your dreams or goals. You take the risk, in so doing, that your words will be used to wound you, and it happens.
And the Internet is — like this blog — a very large place full of strangers, some of whom wish us well and some of whom delight in our travails; any time a journalist bemoans losing their job on Twitter, there’s a parade of “Learn to code!” shitty replies.
The only photo I have of me at this age, maybe seven, in the backyard of the last home I shared with both parents, in Toronto. The gate in the background was nicknamed “Catti’s Gate”, my family nickname. I treasure this image because I was happy and relaxed and loved that big house and backyard and neighborhood. I still miss it.
So I was always a very private person — until June 2018 when I got a breast cancer diagnosis. It was as good as these things get: stage zero, totally removed and no need for chemo, only radiation. But it cracked me open. There was no way I would get through it all without admitting I was scared, and willing to receive the tremendous love and support that came my way: flowers and gifts and cards and emails and phone calls that revealed that people actually loved me, a lot.
I had never been so sure of that.
That’s me, pre-surgery, July 6, 2018, clutching a small stuffed rhinoceros because everyone needs a little comfort in those nervous hours.
I now reveal quite a lot about myself on social media — here and Facebook and Twitter. It’s a deliberate choice and one that doesn’t work well for many others. I get that.
But I’m in the last few years of a long and successful career, so if someone dislikes me now — or decides not to work with me because of what they read — see ya!
I’ve posted some serious and intimate stuff here and in my published personal essays, like this one, which ran in 2008 in The New York Times, about why I enjoy my apartment building.
After the story ran, in which I named a neighbor who made me a sandwich after my first husband walked out and I hadn’t eaten in days, she laughed, nicely, and said: “That must have been some sandwich!”
Little did she know how much it really did mean to me — with my family both emotionally and physically distant and not many close friends nearby.
Only by my taking the risk of being vulnerable enough to write about it, to an audience of millions of strangers, did she know.
One of the things that marks a hard news journalist is that, for better or worse, we wear, and take pride in wearing, a sort of emotional armor.
I started my professional writing career at 19 and even then was assigned some emotionally difficult work — like a story for a national Canadian women’s magazine interviewing women much older than I who had survived harrowing experiences: one whose house burned down, one who had a double mastectomy and one whose husband died in front of her.
It was tough!
But I did it — turning down offers of well-paid work is dicey when you work freelance.
The very nature of hard news journalism — whether you’re writing or editing or taking photos or video — means you’ve chosen to cover the world and the many things that happen to other people, some of which are simply horrific and traumatic, for them and for us.
The biggest stories, the ones that make front page or gain millions of page views online, are often the ones that can also exact a heavy toll on the people producing them, no matter how calmly they appear on-camera or taking notes.
Jose Lopez (my husband) at 23, on assignment, decades before we met
The interior of the prison after a riot and many murders
Jose covered the worst prison riot in New Mexico’s history as a news photographer.
I’ll spare you the details of what transpired, but they are the stuff of horror films.
It traumatized him, but he had chosen to become a news photographer, and it can come with the territory.
In later life, for The New York Times, he spent six weeks in the winter covering the end of the Bosnian war. His Christmas meal was a bowl of soup and one night he even slept in an unheated shipping container. When he finally left, initially flying into Frankfurt, he remained scared to be out after dark, his protective war instincts still functioning.
By definition, stories like this push us without warning or preparation into frightening, even horrifying situations, while demanding we shove our personal reactions — fear, anxiety, grief, despair, confusion — into a sort of lead-lined box so we can pay full attention to our work. To witnessing and reporting what we have been sent to cover. To telling the story accurately and in detail.
The day before my driving test, age 30, I covered the aftermath of a head-on collision between a bus and a small car on a Montreal bridge. I’d like to forget what I saw decades ago, and cannot.
My editors told me I was the only reporter to have gotten close enough to the wreckage to get the make and model of the car.
Not really “another day at the office”…
I’ve cried maybe once while in public covering a story, (the funeral of a young girl who was raped and murdered in Toronto), and have since covered many stories that left me shaken and upset, sometimes as upset as the people I spoke to — like those I wrote after 9/11 and a Canadian national magazine story about women who had suffered a severe side effect from taking the drug Mirapex.
The larger challenge, and burnout and PTSD are very real in our industry, is if, when and how we do finally acknowledge and process those complex emotions.
I’ve never studied journalism and have never been trained in trauma reporting. which de facto means you’re asking people who have faced trauma — rape, war, conflict, natural disaster, a shooting — to discuss it in detail with you, a stranger they have never met before.
But I’ve done a lot of it and I know it’s changed me. I don’t think for the worse, but it does stiffen the spine and harden your heart. I don’t mean you stop caring or don’t feel compassion for the people you are writing about.
It does mean, to stay sane and productive, especially on tight deadlines, having the ability and self-discipline to create and maintain a critical, detached distance from whatever is distressing — physically, emotionally and intellectually. No matter how terrible the details, we need to learn and share them.
So it’s one of the reasons I miss being around other career journalists, because we all know what the work requires and there’s an unspoken sort of code about it all.
It’s not really like most other jobs in this respect.
Jose and I were talking about this in regards to our unusually phlegmatic reaction to the endless death rate from COVID.
We sleep well at night.
We don’t spend a lot of time discussing it, or listening to (in fact, actively avoiding) Trump — because there’s nothing we can do right now to change any of it.
I see a lot of people complaining, daily, that they suffer insomnia, anxiety, grief.
If you’ve lost your job, income and housing, I get it!
If you’ve lost someone to this terrible disease, I get it!
But if you’re marinating in anxiety, I question the utility.
We can, unless we are in truly dire shape, control our moods and reactions.
I have since posting this been told that many people with chronic anxiety are managing this with much greater difficulty and this post seems unfeeling or uncaring about their issues.
Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.
“The stress of Covid-19 is now acute, but if it persists long after April, which it likely will, it will take an enormous toll on world health,” Mr. Ropeik said.
Thus, in addition to heeding the recommended personal precautions to avoid an infection, people feeling unduly stressed about the pandemic might try to minimize the damage caused by unmitigated anxiety.
A psychotherapist I know has advised his patients to limit their exposure to the news and discussions about Covid-19 to one hour a day and, if possible, in only one location, then use the rest of the day and other parts of the home for productive or pleasurable activities.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not worn out.
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!