Writing “longform”: 12 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

My 5,000 word story for The American Prospect is by far the longest I’ve written in a decade.

My book chapters are usually that long, but a book is a very different animal.

Today’s journalism too often demands writing “light, bright and tight” — jamming a story into 700 or 900 words.

So reporting and writing at length demands a wholly different approach and strong skills.

 

Some tips:

 

1. Who is your (ideal) audience? How much do they want to know? What are their most burning questions? Who else has so far answered them poorly — and how much better can you do?  How will you achieve that?

2.  Make sure from the very start, after you’ve found an editor who wants this story, that you’re both clear on expectations: story length (is there wiggle room?), date of publication, what illustrations or graphs or charts or photos does it need and who will be responsible for obtaining those, who’s handling social media, payment (how many days after acceptance? after invoice?), what about a kill fee, who owns copyright and make sure you will be given a chance to read the edited story with enough time before publication to make sure it is accurate.

 

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Get clear on your story’s direction!

 

3. Check in with your editor — and don’t be annoying. If the story, for any reason, might be delayed or is changing shape or focus, they need to know now. On my healthcare story, I sent my source list early on.

4. What is the key issue your story will address? The clearer your initial focus, the clearer your roadmap of who to interview, what documents to read, what videos or podcasts you need to listen to, etc. Time is money and you have to be efficient.

5. Who will you interview? Stories develop as you go, but you should have a solid idea of your key characters before you start. And bear in mind that senior/high-level sources are super-busy with work, teaching, conferences, travel. You may need weeks or even months to get some of them to agree to speak with you. Be strategic.

6. If you need help — a fixer, translator, researcher — use them, and give them clear direction. Pay as much as possible, ideally no less than $20-25 an hour; 20 years ago I was paying $15/hour to my researchers. Quality costs!

 

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Coffee stains optional!

 

7. It’s a line of dominoes. Every source you speak to on a lengthy and investigative story of any true complexity will be assessing you…not just vice versa! Are you smart, well-prepared, asking intelligent and incisive questions? Are you polite and patient? Every source who decides you, too, are of value may then refer you — often unasked — to others at their level of wisdom, access and insight.

8. Share as much as you can with your sources. Some writers refuse. It’s totally personal, but I typically share quite a bit. In my decades of experience, I find that it establishes trust, credibility, a human connection. Sources aren’t gas pumps! Some will appreciate being included and feel respected.

9. How will you structure your piece? What’s your “lede” — the opening few sentences that have to lure your reader in at once? Do you have a terrific “kicker”, the final few sentences that leave your reader thinking, remembering, moved? Here’s an excellent and helpful book, “Follow the Story”by a legendary American journalist. What are your “golden coins” — bits of material (a great quote or anecdote, a compelling data point) that will continue to lure your reader deeper and deeper. You can’t lose them!

10. Find at least three “first readers” whose fresh eyes on your copy will immediately see what’s missing, what’s over-written or under-explained. These should be people whose solid judgment of the issues and how to write well you know and trust. They will help you polish your story even more before it goes to your editor.

 

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11. Pace yourself! My interviews are usually at least 60 minutes, sometimes 90 and sometimes even (whew!) 120. By that point, we’re just pooped. Two a day doesn’t seem like much, but these days it is. So if your story — like mine — includes 30 sources, do the math and plan our your time accordingly. Same for writing. I write quickly, and produced this story within maybe three days, plus revision time. But everyone works at a different pace. Do what works best for you.

12. Savor the result! It’s a serious accomplishment to win an assignment of this length and to complete it to the editors’ satisfaction. 

The lost art of listening

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Great essay, in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.

The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.

This past week was hectic and one day was sunny and clear and I needed some silence! I headed to our local reservoir and went for a walk — the only sounds the distant tapping of a few woodpeckers and the rustle of dry leaves as gray squirrels chased one another.

Bliss!

I really enjoy interviewing people, key to my work as a journalist, but — obviously — it demands close and careful and sustained attention, because I don’t use a tape recorder. I don’t want to waste unpaid hours transcribing or paying $1/minute to have someone else do it nor ever fear that the recording didn’t work.

A pen and notebook are fine with me, and force me to pay very close attention, not only to someone’s words, but their silences, pauses, hesitations, sighs, laughter.

My interviews are usually 30 to 45 to 60 minutes and after an hour, I’m tired! More than that gets really tiring — but it also creates a better bond, deeper conversation and, typically, better results in the form of great quotes or insights.

We’re rarely brilliant from our very first sentence!

A bit more from the essay:

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because good listening improves your chances of delivering a message that resonates.

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough.

I also coach other writers, in 60-minute sessions by phone, Skype or face to face. They, too, are a challenge because my role is to help, quickly! I’m both diagnosing and prescribing solutions on the fly. I love it, but whew! Listening so intently and responding helpfully is serious work.

It’s fair to acknowledge that listening and paying attention are tiring, and so it can be tempting to tune people out, nodding but not really there. I’ve realized that journalism is a good fit for me because so much of it is experiential, and why studying interior design — as I did in the ’90s — was so joyful: it was tactile!

I didn’t have to just sit still and listen.

But I also listen carefully wherever I go, whether to silence in the woods or music on the radio or the distant honking of passing geese.

We’ve also had some recent moments in our 20-year marriage that have revealed how differently each of us listens and hears, and what very different language we choose to express how we see the world.

And, thanks to my recent healthcare story, I’ve received some very long and critical — albeit polite and smart — private emails from a reader, an American living in Canada. I could have dismissed her, or not replied, or been defensive but we actually exchanged several very long and thoughtful emails, even though we’re politically quite different!

 

We chose to listen to one another.

 

In today’s headphones-on, “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” deeply divided culture, that’s now a radical act.

 

Where do you listen most closely — and what do you gain from doing so?

The big story: writing it!

thumbnail-7Drowning in data!

This shot of Niagara Falls snapped during my return trip to New York after three weeks in Canada, 12 hours by train back from Toronto

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

Five notebooks full.

Reports and books read.

Thirty original interviews completed, some by phone, some face to face.

Five towns visited in five days to meet and interview sources in each one.

Here’s my post from August 13, as I was starting to work on my biggest story in years:

https://wordpress.com/post/broadsideblog.wordpress.com/52759

I had a maximum of 5,000 words.

Here’s the link to my story about Canada’s healthcare systems— there are several — and how they work. It’s for The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly publication.

I spent more than three months on it, and lost money in the process, as the basic cost of a room in Toronto alone cost twice my allotted travel budget and I spent four days there working.

 

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Love these Muji notebooks, $1.70 apiece.

 

But, rarely, a story is worth it and I hope this one is.

 

There were some challenges along the way, which is normal, some of them less so:

 

— I knew from the start this would cost me money, not earn nearly enough to cover three months’ exclusive attention, plus travel. I applied for grants from two American organizations offering them to journalists and was denied by both. The ugly truth is that I’m making less than a third of what I would have earned for this story in the 1990s, back when journalism paid well, and when my health insurance cost $500 a month, not $1,700.

— I suddenly developed gout (!), an excruciatingly painful right toe condition, making every step painful for weeks.

— At the same time, I got a bad leg infection on my right shin, so bad it really scared me. I finally saw my doctor when I got back home after a three-week absence, and knocked it out with antibiotics. The pain, at its worst, was breathtaking, That, plus gout, made it  hard to focus on interviews that lasted up to two hours. I popped plenty of painkillers!

 

 

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The son of a friend of mine, David Dennis, proved a perfect interview subject, and the lede (top) of the story. photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— As often happens, I set up a few interviews fully expecting to discuss X…and Y proved to be much more interesting. Gotta roll with the punches!

— One key source remained, even after months, hopelessly elusive, so overworked that his secretary and I got to know one another well, and he sent many apologetic last-minute-cancellation emails. Fortunately, I found two long and helpful videos of him speaking and quoted from them instead.

 

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Sitting in a cafe in Picton, Ontario, interviewing Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— The top-level sources I spoke to all know one another and realized that my reporting was deep and serious in including them all.

— You do eventually reach a point of total saturation, when you think you can’t possibly do another interview, but someone urges you strongly to do so and recommends someone else. I did, and the guy was astounding, possibly the best of the lot.

 

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I got off a bus at 3:30 after an hour’s ride to/from a source to meet another at this downtown Toronto hotel bar at 3:45 so he could run for his train at 4:15. Gotta do whatever’s possible!

 

— I rarely went into each interview with a set list of questions, but kept them more conversational, which allowed for unexpected and welcome diversions and insights.

 

 

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photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— I bought a huge white-pad to help me visualize what to do next. I decided to structure my story around the Four Ps: patients, providers, pundits/academics and policymakers/politicians.

— Others’ generosity and good humor made this very challenging project not only manageable but a pleasure to work on; every source was helpful and smart, referred me deeper into their expert networks and shared their insights and wisdom.

— Three “first readers” helped me as I revised: a veteran American health and science writer, a young, progressive writer in D.C. and a Canadian editor. Fresh eyes matter!

 


 

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Smaller towns are having a rough time attracting and keeping local physicians…Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— It took a lot of self-confidence to tackle this complex topic. So I felt much better when a man who’s an acknowledged leader in this field, when I admitted that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it, said that after decades studying it, he sometimes is as well.

Here’s a fantastic piece — written in 2005 for the journalism website Poynter — on the iceberg theory of journalism…that only a tiny fraction of what you’ll see, hear and read will actually be visible in the final public version, no matter all the invisible hard work that preceded and informed it:

 

What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that give writing its greatest strengths.

As someone prone to turning every story into a project (only because it lets me postpone publication, which will reveal all my inadequacies), I have to keep reminding myself that you can never over-report but you can under-think, under-plan, under-draft and — worst of all — under-revise.

The social media dance

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Let’s keep it civil!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I bet some of you remember life before Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter.

It was a time of  social interaction that was, de facto, personal. We spent time sitting with someone, or walking with them or dancing or fishing. Not sitting at a keyboard and staring into a screen.

So we’re basically talking to total strangers and trusting in their goodwill and intelligence to respond civilly and calmly.

These days, that feels like more of a gamble.

I do see a lot of good thanks to social media.

You, for example!

Knowing that people still find value here — after ten years! — is heartening indeed. I really value the conversations and insights and humor and global perspective you bring.

I enjoy Twitter and have also made new friends from it, meeting them face to face, people I really enjoyed after months of tweets-only.

But a few downsides are increasingly diminishing my pleasure in using social media, and competitiveness is the primary driver.

In my business, of journalism and coaching and writing non-fiction, the LOUDEST voices seem to win, There’s a tremendous amount of chest-thumping, crowing over enormous success. Frankly, even with decades of my own accomplishment, I find it intimidating and exhausting.

I also see, increasingly, a sort of competitive victimhood, with millennials and Gen X vying for the title of whose life is most miserable — and it’s all thanks to those greedy Boomers. (My generation, of course.)

There is no legitimate argument to deny the challenges these two co-horts face. There are many and they intersect: high student debt, low wages, intermittent work, climate change…

I read some of those threads on Twitter, where even the calmest and most reasonable objection or alternate point of view is blocked for being unkind and invalidating — when it’s an alternate view.

I don’t dare mention on Twitter that Boomers like me have weathered three recessions, each of which slowed our careers and damaged our incomes. Then the crash of ’08.

 

This “lalalalalalalalala I can’t hear you” equivalent online is a disaster.

 

There’s little point in “connecting” with an enormous global audience, potentially, only to whine and rage and stamp your feet insisting your life is the worst ever.

For you, it is.

I get that.

 

But until or unless we can cultivate modesty and empathy, compassion and a clear understanding that we each see the world through our own filters of age, race, income, education, political views, sexual preference, gender identity, cultural norms….it’s a dialogue of the deaf.

And here’s a powerful plea about how to better handle other’s bereavement and grief on social media.

 

 

The creative life has never been easy

 

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The bright lights of Broadway

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine needing a job.

Imagine having 20 children to support.

Meet Johann Sebastian Bach, who in 1721 presented six concertos — now named the Brandenburg Concertos, named for the Margrave for whom they were written — to a local official he hoped would offer him a job.

Today, these much beloved pieces resonate still.

The Margrave did not hire him and it’s possible he never even heard them.

The 1946 Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, is equally hailed as a great of the film classics.

It failed at the box office and the original story met with such rejection that its author decided to self-publish and send it to 200 friends instead.

At museum shows of the legends Michelangelo, Charlotte Bronte and the Japanese print-maker Hokusai — whose Great Wave is one of the most familiar of all images — I learned the more nuanced truth of these lives, of penury and struggle, their lost and cancelled commissions.

It’s tempting to think that all the great art and music and literature we still enjoy today was produced from warm homes filled with good food, with healthy children and wives and husbands. In fact, there was much sorrow to endure.

 

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Bronte’s dress and boots

 

Bronte suffered the early death of all her siblings, married late (37) and died the following year.

 

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Bronte’s writing desk

 

I so admire anyone who chooses the creative life.

My father made films and documentary television shows. His second wife wrote and edited television scripts. My mother worked as a print and radio journalist.

I get it!

We lived its ups and downs, emotionally, intellectually and financially. Rejection can feel annihilating, most often wielded by people with salaries and pensions, unwilling to take creative risks themselves while harshly judging those of us who do.

Without a wealthy family or partner (and some have this) it can mean many years of financial struggle, and the endless hope of recognition.

No one needs a new novel or oratorio or painting!

So I gave my husband — a freelance photo editor and photographer this book for Christmas.

 

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One of my favorite sources of inspiration is Tharp’s first book, The Creative Habit; she’s a choreographer, but the challenges she faces, and her wisdom and practical advice, are just as fitting to many other creative efforts.

 

If you’re working to create something new, keep going.

The world needs it.

You need to make it.

 

Writing is lonely! Solutions…

 

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There are some great words in there somewhere!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Sure, some people can write well in a noisy and crowded coffee shop.

Not me.

For truly focused, uninterrupted work, I need quiet, either at home alone or at a library.

Writing really means often wondering — does this sentence/paragraph/chapter even make sense?!

So I’m fascinated by two recent reports of writers meeting face to face to help one another thrive, one in Hollywood and many others more private.

The one in Hollywood is called Rideback.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Lin is betting that Rideback will strengthen and accelerate the creative process. It is a Hollywood twist on WeWork, the shared office space company. Mr. Lin said he was also inspired by Pixar’s “brain trust” sessions, in which directors and writers candidly critique one another’s work, and by “The Medici Effect,” Frans Johansson’s 2004 book about the ignition of the Renaissance.

“If you put a bunch of creative people from different backgrounds into one space, something magical will happen,” Mr. Lin said. “Studio lots used to be just that. You would walk around and everyone would be there. But studio lots aren’t as much fun anymore. They can feel corporate.”

Mr. Lin has 15 employees of his own. They work on the Rideback campus, where they are focused on finding a way forward for the “Lego” series, most likely with a new studio partner. (Universal is one option.) Other front-burner projects include an “Aladdin” sequel and a television spinoff; “Lethal Weapon 5,” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover signed up to return; movies based on Cirque du Soleil shows; and a remake of the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

 

 

Writers also meet face to face with trusted peers:

 

Writing is often considered a solitary act, but some writers have figured out a way to make the process more collaborative even before editors, agents and other publishing professionals get involved. Zhang’s group, which includes Alice Sola Kim, Karan Mahajan and Tony Tulathimutte, has been meeting about every month since most of them were undergraduate students at Stanford University. Their sessions are highly structured, with deadlines for submitting drafts and detailed manuscript notes, while other groups gather more informally to talk about their careers, commiserate over deadlines or gossip about the publishing industry.

“You will feel like writing is very lonely and very difficult and very frustrating and that you don’t really know what you’re doing,” said the Chicago-based writer Mikki Kendall. But in a writing group, “you can talk to other people in that place and that are feeling their way out.”

 

I don’t belong to any such group, but I do belong to at least six on-line writers’ groups — and have done so online for many years, still close friends with a few people I only initially knew that way. One, a writer now living in California, and I shared a room at a Boston writing conference never having even met in person, launching a long and treasured friendship.

It really cuts the loneliness to be able to talk your ideas and challenges through with people at the same level of skill and experience and, if you’re lucky, those a few steps beyond you, willing to be generous.

One such group (many are private Facebook groups), is small — only 200 — and only those with a decade’s experience can join. I know, even if I don’t like the answers, I’ll get a quick and candid reply from someone else who’s been around the same block a few times.

 

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Writing books makes me really happy — but also very nervous!

 

The challenge of all writers’ groups, in any form, is the classic writers’ combo of insecurity and ego. I’ve seen several such online groups explode in outrage and vicious bullying. It can get weird and ugly quickly.

And to share, let alone publish your work — poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays, journalism — demands the courage to have a voice, to put it out there for comment, criticism and potential disagreement. That opens you up, de facto, to potential hurt.

So I have what I consider a bit of a brain trust; to gather feedback on a recent story of 5,000 words — my longest and most complex in a decade — I enlisted the fresh eyes and expertise of three people whose judgment I trust. One is a man half my age who’s very good; one is a woman my age whose writing I deeply admire and the third is a professional book editor. These “first readers” are so helpful and so important.

After revising your work over and over and over and over — you’re tired! You have blind spots. The material has become so familiar you’re likely to miss places that it’s still confusing to someone who has never read it at all. So these trusted peers are so valuable.

I’ve done this for others, of course, helping to review their stories and book manuscripts. I’m honored to do it.

If you’re lucky and talented and persistent, you will find a peer group and they will help steer you through.

Movies, movies, movies

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Three in a day.

No big deal!

Yesterday, another gray, rainy day here, meant movie day. We are incredibly lucky to have an art house theater — a former vaudeville theater from the 1920s — renovated and a 15-minute drive north of us, offering an amazing array of documentaries, series, events and features. Annual membership is $85 and tickets are $10 (only $8 two years ago.)

Some weeks I’m there several times.

I also watch on TV and streaming.

I don’t watch horror or kids’ films. Not much into animation — but recently re-watched the 2003 animated stunner Triplets of Belleville — which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and lost to Finding Nemo.)

I enjoy foreign films — and have raved here before about some of them, like Capernaum.

 

I love movies!

 

My father made documentaries and feature films for a living so this is a world I grew up in and knew and respected. I didn’t want to make them myself, too in awe of the tremendous skills and the huge teams needed: greensman, Foley artist, ADR, grips, gaffers, make-up and hair and costumes.

Not to mention the cinematographers and directors.

 

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LOVE!

 

I find film utterly immersive, a dream state, and when I write, try to use similar ideas — tight close-ups, establishing shots, scenes and dialogue.

I love being in a theater (a quiet one!) with some popcorn, ready to disappear once more.

Here are the three films I saw yesterday:

 

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In 1964, a Canadian film-maker named Paul Almond made a film about 14 British children, meant to show how class affects them. It became a series,with fresh interviews every seven years, and offers a sometimes sad, sometimes moving look at how we age and change — or don’t. The 14, typical of Britain then perhaps, includes only one black boy and all the rest are white.

One man suffers mental illness and homelessness. Several marry and divorce. Almost all have children and grand-children. I hope it continues and is well worth a look.

 

Knives Out

A who-dun-it filmed in an astonishing mansion, with a rapacious family fighting over their inheritance from their mystery-author father, played by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer. Daniel Craig, best known for playing James Bond, here plays a southern detective, with a weird drawl. It’s an amusing film, but too long and not one I would see again.

 

The Favourite

 

This really is one of my favo(u)rite films so I watched it on TV for maybe the third or fourth time.

Set during the reign of Queen Anne, who suffered the unimaginable loss of 17 children, it’s the devilish tale of a scheming fallen aristocrat, Abigail Masham, up against brilliant, witty Sarah, Lady Marlborough. As the Queen, Olivia Colman is stunning — and won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2018 for it.

Set in early 18th-century England, it’s a feast of gorgeous cinematography (with a lot of fish-eye lenses, adding visual distortion to the emotional weirdness), music, costume, sets and make-up. Nicholas Hoult is Lord Harley, and deliciously awful.

It’s a moving, sad, gorgeous tale of power and attraction, of love and flattery, of how easily a weak, ill Queen rejected her best ally and friend for a sneaky underminer.

And based on historical fact!

My favorite medium

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My poor little radio! Still working, even after (!) it fell off a shelf into a bucket of soapy water last week

 

By Caitlin Kelly

A writer…Must be print!

Nope.

 

Radio.

 

I grew up in Canada, where the CBC was huge; we now listen to it on the Internet, and it makes me homesick!

At boarding school, always sharing a room with three or four others, we’d get into radio wars, turning up our little transistors as loud as possible to drown out competing music.

Guess whose radio got confiscated?

As a teenager living in Toronto with my father, the CBC nightly news show, As It Happens, dominated every dinner.

I didn’t own a television in my 20s. In the days before cable and hundreds of streaming services — and with plenty of friends to hang out with — it wasn’t interesting.

So radio has long been my low-cost, portable stalwart companion.

When I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, I’d listen to the news before heading to work — and hear my own stories reported again: “rip and read radio” we called it.

One of my favorite memories was arriving in Salluit, Quebec, at the Arctic Circle in December, on assignment for the Montreal Gazette. The tiny village had disliked a previous story of mine (poorly edited!) and no one wanted to speak with me now.

I had 24 hours there and the flight had cost $5,000.

So I went into the particle board shack that was their local radio station and a local man interviewed me in English, then translated my replies into Inuktitut and broadcast them to the village.

It worked, and people at the village hall that evening shared a powerful story with me of government mismanagement. Not the original assignment, but much stronger.

I recently re-watched the terrific The King’s Speech, the 2010 film about King George VI having to give a radio speech despite his stutter.

Then there’s Van Morrison’s classic Caravan, a radio-themed song, off of Moondance.

My favorite Saturday routine is listening to This American Life at 1:00 pm ET, followed by The Moth, on NPR. The first is a set of three related true-life stories, the second story-telling before a live audience by regular (coached) people. I enjoy “appointment radio” — when, of course, everything is now easily listened to by podcasts.

I also enjoy WKCR’s reggae Saturday morning show, followed by Across 110th St., with funk and blues; it’s the radio station for Columbia University.

Then our favorite, TSFJazz, from Paris, which plays a phenomenal range of music, with and without lyrics.

I work alone at home, without kid or pets, so the radio is such a welcome companion, whether music or talk show while television requires me to sit still in one place; I can enjoy the radio lying in bed or the bath or doing some housework at the same time.

In our car, we have Sirius XM, with its enormous array of stations — from Canadian comedy to my current favorite, Channel 163, Chansons, which only plays French music, a mix of country (!), folk, hip-hop, pop. It’s helping me stay fresh with my French vocabulary and introducing me to so many great new performers.

I love this one, Courir, by Gaspé musician Guillaume Arsenault.

Do you listen to or enjoy radio?

 

30 terrific holiday gifts; 2019 edition

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Welcome to this annual tradition, my personal selection of 30 gifts for men and women of all ages, except kids and teens.

No tech. No affiliate payments.

Lovely things for home, body, life!

 

Have fun!

 

Here’s a great pair of cufflinks, tiny blue birds, from Liberty of London, one of my favorite stores in the world. $64.74

 

Also from Liberty, this white woven leather handbag is super-chic, minimal, and blessedly free of designer logos. (I have a fairly similar bag in black and get compliments every single time I use it.) Personally, I would have a cobbler add metal studs to the base to help keep it clean. $485.48

 

There are so many ways to donate to charity and all so individual. I have previously here included the Daphne Sheldrick Trust, established in 1977, which works to protect East African wildlife, especially elephants.

 

This is a great French brand, Laguiole. A set of six wooden-handled steak knives, $98.00

 

You can’t beat a short pair of fabulous ankle boots for a hit of style in a long, boring, cold winter. Love these, in three colors, from Anthropologie, (which offers four pages of amazing boot options, short and tall.) $160.

 

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The chic-est winter women I know are those in Montreal and Toronto, and a brightly colored, oversized wrap adds warmth and style to any outerwear. This one comes in five colors, including teal, red and bright yellow. $48

 

I love anything with a patina — the weathering of age and use. This 15-inch-high ceramic vase looks like an amphora dredged up from some Cretan shipwreck, but it’s new. I love its organic simplicity and its scale. $88

 

And these, in two sizes, for candles, look like something from the 18th century with their coppery floral exterior. $18-28.

 

I love, love, love the elegance of UK old-school stationery brand Smythson. How about a tiny, perfect leather notebook marked, in gold script: Small Book, Big Ambition? (So many other great choices here as well.) $60.  Or this jaunty striped 2020 agenda, the perfect size to tuck into a suit pocket. $110

 

A cable-knit crewneck men’s sweater is hardly (as Miranda Priestly might drawl) ground-breaking…but in a cool pale blue? Also in red, from UK brand Boden. $120

 

You’ll love or hate this 8 foot by 11 inch rug — but I love its sharp, graphic black and white stripes. In the right room, it would be terrific. Also in 5 by 7 size for $199. From Ikea. $299

 

This throw, in charcoal gray with caramel stripes, is elegant and simple. It’s polyester, which explains its crazy low price. $4.99

 

This tea towel is so gorgeous I’d even frame it, with fantastic colors, marking an essential piece of American gay history, the June 29, 1969 attack on Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn. $22

 

A splurge, but John Robshaw’s linens are really special. This Japanese-inspired quilt, in crisp blue and white, reversible, is a lovely investment, for full/queen size. $296.25 on sale

 

I recently bought this yummy sandalwood soap from the classic American company Caswell-Massey, (which offers many other products) and am really enjoying it; this one is oversized and soap on a rope. $22

 

A huge fan of transferware, I like these new brown and white bread and butter plates in that style, also perfect for appetizers. $21 each

 

An odd gift, perhaps — but this black oak shelf is minimal and elegant; imagine three or four of them…$135

 

Really lovely and totally useful, a corkscrew that resembles a small bird, from a fantastic museum gift shop, The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. $14.95

 

Also from the same shop — and do explore their website deeply for a wide array of lovely things — how about a Mad Hatter or Alice in Wonderland tote bag? $24.95

 

Well, you all know how much I love jewelry! But with a very specific aesthetic — not rubies, emeralds, sapphires or diamonds. Not Big Brand Names. This company, which I follow on Instagram, has two shops, in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and I want everything! The look is minimal, clean and modern but also very beautiful. Like these oxidized silver pierced earrings in the shape of an ammonite $253.

 

And I’m also a big fan of London-based jeweler Ruby Jack, whose earrings I purchased in 2018 and absolutely love. (These are the ones I bought.) She has much expanded her line, which is sculptural and dramatic, but not weird. She ships internationally (obviously!) and was very helpful. This sculptural silver ring is a knockout. $423.51

 

I love fragrance and wear it daily. Now you can wear the smell of where I live (!) — THVF — That Hudson Valley Fragrance. I smelled it at their Manhattan store and it’s quite lovely, as are their several other options. $110

 

For your favorite tools nerd — the old-fashioned analog kind — this cotton black and white Hermes scarf with an illustration of elementary mechanics is a cool choice; it’s on their men’s site, but anyone could enjoy its graphic simplicity. $200

 

If you’re offended by curses, this is not the site for you — but this terrific red and white hockey jersey is safe-for-work, made by my Canadian pal Aaron Reynolds, inventor of Effin’ Birds, a mini-empire of sweary pins, T-shirts, mugs, sweatshirts, playing cards, posters and more. I love the baseball shirt he gave me, (moi?!) that says “Listen to My Opinions ” — and we laugh so hard every time we play with his playing cards it’s positively distracting. $60

 

Another talented Canadian, another highly creative friend, Ali G-J of Toronto, makes scarves, tote bags, laptop cases, phone skins, phone cases, pillows and more. This gray and white throw pillow with a pattern of tree branches, made from her own watercolor, is simple and lovely. $64

 

Books are such a deeply individual gift, but I’m going to recommend two that I love and own — fascinating and visually beautiful reference books to savor at leisure: A History of the World in 100 Objects, published in 2010 and What Great Paintings Say.  $20

 

Coffee! There are so many ways to make it, but this is terrific — a stoneware French press, in six gorgeous colors. I house-sat a few years ago for someone who had a similar style and it was efficient and perfect for just a few cups — and without fear of the inevitable shattering of the usual glass container. From Williams-Sonoma, in red, orange, light and dark gray, navy blue and white. $95; Not as pretty, but also in stainless steel $55

 

For your favorite Star Wars fanatic, an R2D2 popcorn maker. Yes, really. $99.95

 

 

Shameless self-promotion!

I sell my images from Instagram — CaitlinKellyNYC — and I also coach other writers of journalism and non-fiction; details here.

 

Some things I’m looking forward to

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By Caitlin Kelly

One of the many challenges of working freelance, as my husband I both do, is having basically no structure at all to many of our days. When he works at The New York Times and United States Golf Association (his two anchor  clients), we know what hours and days are committed.

But without setting up planned pleasures for ourselves, we often just end up working too much and even on official holidays.

So for the end of 2019 and heading into 2020 I’m going full steam ahead and making plans for fun, for culture, for travel.

Yes, it’s expensive — but without joyful things to look forward to, it’s just toil and sleep.

Especially after a breast cancer diagnosis, time is more precious to me than ever.

 

December 2019

 

On the 6th, I’m headed to a service of candlelight and carols with a friend, at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, maybe with dinner beforehand at La Bonne Soupe, a terrific French bistro in business since 1977.

On the 13th, at home in Tarrytown, The Hot Sardines are playing — and I’ve been following them since the very beginning, having met their Canadian-French singer at a dinner party years ago when she was still a journalist. They tour globally and have had huge success.

On the 17th., we’re off to hear the New York Philharmonic play my favorite music — Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos — the greatest hits of 1721!

In January, a friend and I have tickets to Porgy and Bess at the Met Opera.

A new colleague at the Times is a balletomane as well, so we’re planning to see some ballet with him in 2020.

I keep looking at sites for cottage rentals and just need to commit; I have been dying to spend time in Cornwall after the end of my favorite BBC series, Poldark, set there at the end of the 18th. century. I want to spend two weeks there, a week in London and maybe even another week elsewhere in the English countryside and October 2020 is the only time we can do it.

Thanks to my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the last six months of 2018 really disappeared into a fog of anxiety, tests, surgery, radiation and fatigue.

In 2020, I’m still tethered to doctor appointments and follow-ups in March and also have to renew my green card (which allows me legal residency in the U.S.), which we are told can take six months, so that also limits any international options until the new one is in my hands.

But the more art and culture I enjoy — whether paintings, drawings, concerts, ballet, opera — the happier I am. It’s why I wanted to live here, close to New York City. Not savoring its cultural riches seems silly to me.

What are some things you’re looking forward to?