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Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

In antiques, art, books, culture, History, life, women, work on December 2, 2016 at 12:19 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

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Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

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Truth matters more than ever now

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, Uncategorized on November 27, 2016 at 6:35 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s hard to express how horrified I was by this NPR interview with a happy and wealthy — and unapologetic — producer of fake news.

He makes shit up and earns $30,000 a month from it.

Here’s more.

Just give that thought a few minutes.

It makes my head spin and turns my stomach with rage and frustration.

You step into an aircraft — and assume that its pilots are well-trained, well-rested and sober, that the maintenance crew has been diligent and attentive.

You consume a meal at a restaurant — confident that your food is free of rodent droppings or chemicals.

How to slow or halt the production line of massively lucrative “fake news” sites?

As someone who chose journalism as her profession at 19, married to a photojournalist who did the same, this is no abstract issue to us.

It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.

Some of its most basic tenets:

You talk to real people — and verify their identities.

You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.

You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.

You go in person, regardless of comfort, weather or fear, to scenes of natural disaster and political upheaval — whether Venezuelans fleeing a country in meltdown or those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.

Back to fake news for a moment.

Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.

Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.

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Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.

I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.

But the bottom line of journalism  is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.

 

You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.

If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.

Maybe it affected your vote.

Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.

A recent study of 7,800 students, asking them to discern real news from fake, found that 80 to 90 percent could not.

 

Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.

Dig, dammit!

Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.

This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.

In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.

The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.

Are they accurate?

Deeply sourced?

Reported firsthand?

Probably not.

Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.

The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.

The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.

If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.

That’s journalism.

The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.

So why bother?

Pride of craft.

Because truth matters.

Now more than ever.

Why don’t women speak up?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, life, women, work on November 4, 2016 at 12:41 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. Legendary for her ferocious biographies, she was so much fun!

Fascinating, depressing, unsurprising read in The New York Times this week:

Women’s voices are often missing and discounted in public affairs, even when they have seats at the tables of power. They speak less, make fewer motions and are more often subject to negative interruptions. Similar patterns prevail online.

If they feel at a disadvantage speaking as women, it’s because they are. In settings as varied as school boards, Vermont town meetings, community meetings in rural Indian villages and online news sites worldwide, researchers have quantified how women’s voices are underrepresented.

Women take up just a quarter to a third of discussion time where policy is discussed and decisions made, except when they are in the majority.

As someone — clearly! — unafraid to speak up publicly, whether in a blog post, letter to the editor, (with my letters published in the Times and in Newsweek), essays or op-eds — I’m not someone scared of being heard.

But so many women are!

I was raised this way, and many girls aren’t: I attended a single-sex school ages 8 to 13 and single-sex camps ages 8 to 16, where women led and their competence simply assumed as normal and expected.

I was raised by my father after I turned 14, and he never discouraged me from speaking out, (even if he should have!)

If you’ve ever attended a town meeting or a conference or a public panel discussion, especially when there is a microphone one must speak into, where you’re being recorded on video and audio, it’s an intimidating moment to speak out loud in front of strangers.

They might laugh. They might jeer. They might boo.

Or — they might listen attentively.

I see a similar pattern, and one that disturbs me, everywhere. If you read Twitter, and comments during Twitterchats; if you read letters to the editor in print; if you read on-line comments, you, too, will have noticed the paucity of women’s voices and opinions.

Only one woman’s name stands out as being an extremely vocal letter-writer to the Times, a professor at Brown named Felicia Nimue Ackerman. I don’t know her, but I’ve seen her published comments many, many times.

In one of the many writing classes I’ve taught, I urged my students to start writing letters to the editor, to add more female voices to the overwhelmingly male cacophony. I was thrilled to see one of their letters recently in The Economist.

A random survey this week showed three letters to the October 31 issue of the New Yorker (all women); 11 letters to the Financial Times (no women!); nine letters to the FT (one woman) and eight letters to the FT (no women’s name I recognized; couldn’t tell the gender of three of them.)

Our voices need to be heard!

We vote. We pay taxes. We employ millions of workers. We serve our country in the police force, fire houses and the military.

Why don’t more women speak up?

Frustration at being ignored, talked over or consistently interrupted by men. Responding can make us look bitchy, when it’s they who are being rude.

— Lack of practice: the less often you speak out, the more scary it seems.

— Lack of time. Too busy working/commuting/caring for others’ needs.

— Lack of interest in the subject at hand.

— Lack of self-confidence. “Who’d want to hear my voice anyway?”

— Fear of being trolled, getting rape or death threats. That has happened to women online, certainly.

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of saying the “wrong thing”, whatever that is.

— Fear of losing professional status, especially in a male-dominated industry or field. 

From Guts, a Canadian feminist magazine, written by a woman who fought against workplace bullying:

The suspicion, paranoia, anger and even hatred that was evident in my situation shows the disdain with which women are treated in many workplaces, where women are not encouraged to speak up and confront harassment for fear of further abuse by co-workers, unions and employers.

Any employer or union which claims to want a respectful workplace for all should be concerned about the fact that women are afraid to speak out about harassment and discrimination. Employers and unions should make real efforts towards making the workplace safer for women. This involves diversity training geared towards understanding women and women’s concerns about working within a male-dominated workplace. It also involves a commitment to making fair treatment and respect towards women the norm, rather than an exception to the rule. Employers and unions must support women who come forward and openly report harassment, and encourage others to do the same.

Until this happens, of course, you will be told you are “crazy” for coming forward, for stepping up as a target for retaliation and abuse. However, remaining silent while tolerating abuse will ultimately, really, make you go “crazy”.

 

Do you speak up?

When, where and why?

How “news” happens: my latest NYT piece

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Media, urban life on October 8, 2016 at 3:25 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.

No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!

 

Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)

Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.

It can be something we overheard or saw.

Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.

That’s how The New York Times got wind of Trump’s federal income tax shenanigans, as reporter Susanne Craig described:

Friday, Sept. 23, was different.

I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.

I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.

The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.

Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.

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One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

What makes something a “story”?

— it’s new

— it’s making a ton of money for someone

— it’s the first time this event has ever happened

— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)

— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it

— it’s happened near the story’s audience

I’ve spent weeks on this new New York Times Arts & Leisure story, told to me last spring by  an editor I’ve known for many years and have written for, about someone she knows.

It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:

Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”

With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”

She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.

My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.

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Key to this piece? Serendipity!

I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.

In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.

The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?

The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.

It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.

I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!

The glamorous author’s life…

In books, business, culture on September 25, 2016 at 3:33 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a piece that opens the kimono on one of the sadder moments in many author’s lives, from The New York Times Book Review:

I assumed the humiliations had ended. They began even before my book was published, when network morning shows that regularly had me on now refused my pleas for some airtime to promote it. Once the book came out in 2012, it only got worse…

Less than a year after publication, my publisher, Hachette, told me they were mulching the tens of thousands of remaining copies of my book, “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity,” and suggested I purchase copies while they still existed. I capitulated, sending a check to the very people who once paid me to write it…Perhaps the worst indignity is that Hachette sends me a statement each quarter listing my sales and charting my progress toward paying back my advance. Which is pointless unless Hachette pays royalties to authors’ great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren…

But after three years of suffering through my stupid quest to sell a book, I encountered an ignominy I didn’t even know existed. My 6-year-old son’s friend Livia came over for a play date, and her mom brought a copy of my book for me to sign… “Property of the Calgary Public Library.”

 

I’ve written two books published by major New York houses, and am delighted to have ticked the box on a life’s dream in so doing.

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

But, oy, it’s not what people think!

Authors are rich!

Hah. Some, yes, earn very great sums from their work, self-published or commercially-published. Often it’s not the books you’d think, but might be 100s of 1000s of copies of a self-help book, not just John Grisham or J.K. Rowling.

Those making serious bank see their work optioned for film and/or television and made into a major motion picture.

You get to choose your title and cover — of course!

Hah, again. Yes, if you’re someone they feel is important enough to their bottom line and whose prior sales offer proven clout. For the rest of us? Your contract offers only “consultation”, not “approval.” Luckily, in both instances, I absolutely loved the covers designed so thoughtfully by my publishers. The first title was mine and the second, (thanks!) came from the publisher.

You’d think every author knows exactly what to call their own book, right? Wrong.

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Books tours are amazing

Maybe for some. The Big Names are flown to multiple cities and even multiple countries, met in each place by someone assigned to be their chauffeur and chaperone. The rest of us? That’s where a huge network of well-placed and enthusiastic readers, bloggers, reviewers and media pals is essential. Most “tours” today are by Skype, email, blog “tours” or phone.

Writing books rewards the solitary genius

Nope.

Today, the first question every would-be author needs to answer is: ‘What’s your platform? How many Twitter/Facebook/Instagram followers do you have?”

Until or unless you can prove a potential audience of thousands — minimally 10s of thousands, millions even better — you’re likely to hit a wall.

Writing books helps you make money for years to come

Again, wildly variable.

Write a textbook used by thousands of students? Maybe. Literary fiction? Maybe not. Today’s “advances” — money paid to the author upon a publisher’s acquisition of the right to publish a book — are now typically paid out over years. My final payment (not unusual now) on Malled came a full year after publication.

Very, very writers ever “earn out” — i.e. sell enough copies to actually earn money  beyond your advance. First, you have to repay your advance. That $25 hardcover price? You, the author, see only a small percentage applied from each book’s sale — meaning it can take years, decades or never to earn out and receive a royalty.

There’s also the visceral terror of turning in a full manuscript to be told it’s simply deemed “unpublishable” — and being asked for the advance back. I know someone it happened to, and have heard of others. Brrrrrr!

“Malled” needed a lot of revisions, so many I thought it might be impossible to achieve. Luckily, I had a smart/tough editor and we got it done. (Some readers, of course, savaged it anyway.) Tant pis, mes chers!

 

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The one payment that makes me cry when it arrives, as it has for the past three years, is the royalty I get from the Canadian library system, basically a payment for library readership of my two books.

It’s deeply moving to me, and validating, to know my work is still finding readers years later.

Since a library book is bought once, (even multiple copies), it represents hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially lost sales and income.

Many nations offer this payment to registered authors — but of course not the United States.

Writing a book, especially of non-fiction, also establishes you as an expert; I was interviewed twice this past week, thanks to my books — by The Guardian (on retail) and The Christian Science Monitor, about women and gun use, thanks to Blown Away.

I really hope to write and sell a few more books. We’ll see.

Some of my recent reading…and yours?

In books, culture, entertainment on August 4, 2016 at 12:57 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Not a day goes by that I’m not reading for hours — newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs…

But books.

Aaaaaaah, books!

That’s what I read for pure pleasure.

Here’s some of my recent reading:

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Kicking the Sky, Anthony de Sa

 

Loved this book. Loved!

I grew up in Toronto and, like anyone who knows their hometown or city well, I know its history when I was a teenager there and its urban peculiarities.

Toronto was stunned, in 1977, (I was in my second year at University of Toronto), by the murder of a young boy, a Portuguese immigrant named Emmanuel Jacques. He was raped and murdered and left on a rooftop.

It was ugly and terrifying and the city had never seen anything quite like it, at least not in recent memory.

Toronto is, then as now, very much a city of immigrants, and the Portuguese community was clustered in a few streets downtown. The women would scrub and wash their sidewalks, something I’d never seen anywhere else in the city.

This novel, by a man who grew up in that community himself, is so detailed and nuanced, so filled with moments you know he lived. It’s also set along an alleyway filled with garages, so  much a part of Toronto as well.

His characters are indelible, his intimacy with the subject and the city and the backstory utterly compelling, told through the eyes of a 12 year old boy, Antonio Rebelo.

Although the murder is grim, his characters are not — and I highly recommend it.

(If you like or are curious about other novels set in Toronto, I also really enjoyed Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood and In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, better known as the author of The English Patient.)

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The Killer Next Door, Alex Marwood

 

Wait, more murder and mayhem?

Hmmmm.

Not even sure where or when I bought this book, as it’s not my genre at all. But it’s very very good and very very scary.

Marwood, a London-based journalist, sets her novel in a seedy London boarding house filled with transients, one of who is very much up to no good.

Her characters, and their individual histories, are wholly believable, and if you know London a bit (as I do), you can totally picture this street and the characters’ English reticence that pervades every scene.

She also describes so well the cultivated anonymity of people who need a huge city to disappear into…until it happens to them in a way they hadn’t planned on at all.

 

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Inside, Alix Ohlin

 

Whenever I go back to Canada, usually two or three times a year, I drop into a bookstore to see what’s on the shelves there, always finding fiction and non-fiction I just won’t see in an American bookstore, and prominently displayed.

I normally don’t read fiction, as I so often find it disappointing, but am enjoying this one, interlocking portraits of four people.

I enjoy reading stories set in places I know, allowing me to fact-check the work for veracity and detail while being able to picture scenes easily — this 2012 book is partially set in Montreal, where I’ve lived twice, and New York, where I’ve lived (nearby) for more than 20 years.

Her writing is clear, simple, unadorned, but she paints a picture of people who are complicated and private, trying to know themselves and one another, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

The New York Times review was savage — but this one, from the Rumpus, was not.

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Alligator Candy, David Kushner

Oh, this is a tough one.

I don’t, I promise, automatically reach for books about murder! (Trying to fathom what this inadvertent pattern of mine is saying about my current tastes.)

Yet here’s another, this one a powerful memoir by the older brother of a young boy who was snatched in the woods of Florida, and killed, on his bike, on his way to buy candy.

Jonathan was 11, and it was 1973 — again, a resonant time for me, as it was my adolescence, too, although far from the pine woods of Florida.

I found the book too long and sometimes repetitive, but, like de Sa’s novel, Kushner captures so well a lost sort of innocence, when kids roamed freely outside and they — and their parents –thought nothing of it.

And…on a totally different subject, I’m also reading The Genius of Birds, a new book of natural history by Jennifer Ackerman.

It’s a great read and I’m learning a lot. Our suburban New York balcony is in the tree-tops and we’re happily surrounded by birds, so I’m very curious to learn more about them.

We have swallows fluttering past each morning and evening, hear jays and robins and woodpeckers and crows — and once even had a red-tailed hawk land on our balcony railing. It was amazing!

Last year’s favorite book, by far?

The Goldfinch, a work of fiction by Donna Tartt, which I received as a birthday gift. MUST read that book, (and yes it drags at the end.)

 

What are you reading right now?

 

Anything we should pick up?

Q and A with Plum Johnson: her new memoir: “They Left Us Everything”

In aging, behavior, books, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum! — to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.

As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.

One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.

Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.

I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.

Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.

I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.

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The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?

When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.

After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.

I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!

 

Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?

 

What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?

Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.

 

 

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The American cover

 

Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?

 

Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.

 

Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?

 

I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.

One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.

 

Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”

 

We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.

 

The most fun?

 

Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.

 

Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?

 

Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.

After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding

 

Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!

 

What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!

 

That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.

 

We all have so much in common

 

I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”

 

 

 

Real journalism still matters — and it costs

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, news, television, work, world on June 7, 2016 at 2:01 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

It costs lives.

This week, once more, journalists across the world are mourning the deaths of two more tribe members, David Gilkey, a photographer for National Public Radio (and a veteran of several U.S.newspapers) and his interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.

I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.

It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.

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The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.

You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.

Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.

 

There’s no other way to tell these stories well.

 

Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.

Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.

They’re messy and can slow us down.

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I covered the unity march in Paris in January 2015 — I love breaking news!

If you can spare the time or have the interest, please take 25:03 out of your life to listen to this smart, impassioned commencement speech to the 2016 graduates from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism by Rebecca Solnit.

Here’s a print version of it.

An excerpt:

Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?

 

I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.

It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.

It’s called a press pack for a reason…

 

I hope, as you consume serious, smart  journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.

 

 

 

The true meaning of collegiality

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 25, 2016 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Writing for a living can be lonely!

 

Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.

As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.

It’s a real loss.

 

We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.

 

We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.

And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.

 

Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.

 

I attended, along with 599 others, the annual meeting the of American Society of Journalists and Authors, held every spring in midtown Manhattan at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.

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The writer and I have become Twitter friends — but have yet to meet in person. Terrific book!

After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.

The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.

Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.

I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.

 

We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.

 

On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.

Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!

A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.

That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.

It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.

We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.

How and where do you find true colleagues?

How badly do you want to be a writer?

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on April 22, 2016 at 1:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.

 

For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.

Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.

Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.

Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.

There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.

There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.

There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.

Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:

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It takes talent

 

Yes, it does.

Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.

Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.

 

It takes training

 

You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.

They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.

They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.

The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your  craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.

 

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STUDY THE GREATS!

It takes practice

 

I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.

They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.

We all crave success and admiration.

It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.

It takes social skills aka charm

Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.

Charm is an under-rated skill.

Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.

Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.

Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.

 

It takes skills

 

If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.

You are not An Artist here.

You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.

You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.

We’re hired help.

Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.

Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.

For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.

You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.

If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.

 

I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.

 

 

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This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…

It takes studying the greats

“You can’t write without reading.”

If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.

Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.

 

It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source

 

It doesn’t matter what the work is.

T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.

Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.

J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.

If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.

Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? The author is a 747 pilot for British Airways. Fantastic book!

It takes patience

No one writes a perfect first draft.

No one.

 

It means being edited

If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.

Just don’t even bother.

Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.

A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.

A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.

How badly do you want to improve?

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

It means being read

Obvious, right?

That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.

You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.

A thick skin is key.

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My second book, published in 2011. Some of the Amazon reviews were truly vicious. I stopped reading them years ago…

It means being — publicly –critiqued

Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:

Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.

BOOM!

The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.

(Several other reviews were much kinder.)

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It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.

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It means being lucky — or not

 

This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.

It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.

Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.

It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.

(See a pattern here?)

It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.

Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.

The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.

Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.

How badly do you really want it?