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!
It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.
None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.
A good long time to reflect.
And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.
I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.
It’s not Art or Literature.
It’s just journalism.
I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.
But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?
I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?
Did it help anyone?
I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.
But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.
The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!
We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.
We love finding and telling stories to strangers.
We see story ideas everywhere.
We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.
Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.
But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.
It’s a challenge!
I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!
My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.
My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.
I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.
The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.
An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.
I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.
To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!)
I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.
The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.
Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.
Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.
When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:
cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)
prior research (to know what to ask)
patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)
editing as we go (see above!)
attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition
Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”
Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.
Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)
Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.
We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.
Jose and I talk to one another a lot.
It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.