This is journalism, not that

By Caitlin Kelly

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I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.

This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.

Guess which got the most attention?

To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.

Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.

I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.

What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.

All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.

If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!

Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.

In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”

In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.

In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.

Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 50 stories for them

It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”

David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his meticulous accounting of every dollar President Trump’s foundation made to charity. Very few, it turned out.

Here’s a story with an image of his notebooks. Pretty old-school stuff. But it did the job.

As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.

That’s real journalism.

Writing for money

By Caitlin Kelly

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“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”

— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)

Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.

If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.

If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.

If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.

If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.

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There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”

Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)

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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 obsessions

I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.

I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”

Yes, a hugely lucky break.

But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.

The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.

That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.

I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.

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My second book, published in 2011

So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.

I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.

Bullshit!

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If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:

Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.

You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.

You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)

You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)

You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..

You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.

You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.

You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.

You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content. 

You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.

You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste  time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Where to travel (next)? — My A to Z

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been, so far, to all of my native Canada except Nunavut, PEI, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, to 38 of the 50 United States and 38 (soon to be 40) countries.

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Here’s an alphabet of some favorites:

Andalusia/Auckland

Andalusia is an absolute must-see, even though most people choose (rightly!) Madrid or Barcelona when first visiting Spain. I began my trip through Spain, (alone), in Huelva, arriving by train from Portugal, visiting Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Ronda. The region, which spans the entire south of Spain, is heavily influenced by Moorish design and architecture, from the Mezquita of Cordoba with its red and white stone arches to the white beauty of the Alhambra. Ronda is simply spectacular — a town set high upon a cliff.

I loved Auckland: great food, lovely setting, friendly people, easy access to countryside. New Zealand, a costly/long air journey to reach, is worth every penny. One of my happiest trips anywhere, ever.

Bangkok

Picture “Blade Runner”, with a river and amazing food. I spent much time on the narrow boats traveling up and down the Chao Phraya River, enjoying the breeze and watching people. The late Jim Thompson, whose textile company is still in business, has a house there, open to tourists. The city can feel crazy, but I loved it.

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I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal

Copenhagen/Corsica

I spent 10 days in Copenhagen and could easily have stayed longer: compact, beautiful, set on the water. Not to mention Tivoli, its famous amusement park.

Corsica, of every place I’ve ever seen, remains one of the most breathtaking in its rugged, mountainous beauty. I traveled around the north by mo-ped, alone, inhaling the scent of sun-warmed maquis, its scrubby herbal underbrush. I loved everything about this French island, lesser known to North Americans than Europeans.

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Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland

Donegal

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in Rathmullan, in this northwestern-most county of Ireland. The attendance records from his one-room schoolhouse include his record of bad behavior — with my grandfather scolded for “persistent talking.”

We rented a cottage in Dungloe and did day-trips around the county. It’s Ireland at its wildest, wind whipping in from the Atlantic, sheep grazing at the very edges of steep cliffs. I’ve been to Ireland five times, and this bit quickly became a favorite.

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships

Eastern Townships

Just south of Montreal, a 90-minute drive, lie the gently rolling hills and small towns of L’Estrie or the Eastern Townships. We’ve been many times since 2001, staying every time (splurge!) at Manoir Hovey, a family-owned resort on Lake Massawippi. Intimate and elegant but not stuffy, perfect for a romantic or restful weekend.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

Fiji/Flagstaff

I ended up in Fiji thanks to my peripatetic mother, who spent years traveling the world alone. Blue starfish! Cricket matches! Lush green landscapes!

I’ve been to this small funky college town in northern Arizona a few times, en route to the Grand Canyon. I stayed last time at the Monte Vista, built in 1927, and ate breakfast at the bar, watching a local cabbie have his first Bloody Mary at 8:00 a.m.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring

Gros Morne National Park/Grand Canyon/Grand Central Terminal

We still haven’t made it to Gros Morne, a UNESCO world heritage site, and one that looks like Norway — in Newfoundland — but it’s high on our list.

The Grand Canyon is everything you want or hope it will be: majestic, awe-inspiring, stunning. The best way to experience it is to hike deep into the canyon, (starting very early in the morning to avoid summer heat and carrying a lot of water), to truly appreciate its flora, fauna and silence.

GCT, (my station!), is truly a cathedral of commutation. Filled with great restaurants and shops, it’s a jewel of New York City with its star-studded turquoise arched ceiling.

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A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

Hudson Valley

My home of several decades. Visitors to New York City should set aside even one day to take the train, (Metro-North, a commuter railroad), north along the eastern edge of the Hudson River. It’s so beautiful! The western shore are steep rocky cliffs called the Palisades, the eastern edge a mix of New York’s second-largest city, Yonkers, and the “river towns”, small, historic villages set like beads on a string at the water’s edge, including mine, Tarrytown. Most have great restaurants and shops, and you can see Manhattan to the south, glittering like Oz. One of the most spectacular towns is quaint Cold Spring, where the river narrows dramatically and you can rent kayaks.

Istanbul/Istria

I spent only three days in Istanbul, while working, but it’s unlike any other city I’ve seen. Where else can you ferry between Europe and Asia? Its minarets and muezzins alone create a skyline/soundscape distinctive from anything Western. I spent an entire day in the Grand Bazaar sipping mint tea and looking at rugs.

I’ll be in Istria this summer, for the first time, really excited to explore a new-to-me part of the world; 89 percent of it lies in northern Croatia, where I’ll be visiting the towns of Rovinj and Bale. From there, it’s a quick trip northwest to Venice.

JFK airport

I couldn’t think of anywhere I’ve been yet that starts with J! But living in New York, this is one of our two major international airports, so it’s key to international air travel.

Key West/Ko Phi Phi

Key West, Florida, the southernmost point in the United States, is funky, offbeat and a great spot for a long weekend. No sandy beaches, but lots of fun bars and restaurants. Best of all — rent a bike or walk everywhere.

It’s been a long time since I landed on Ko Phi Phi, but it remains in my top five most indelible travel experiences. A two-hour boat ride from Krabi, in southern Thailand, Phi Phi was tiny and gorgeous — I hope it still is.

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London

London

It can feel enormous and overwhelming, so take it slowly, neighborhood by neighborhood. Stroll the Thames. Have tea! Stop for a pint at a pub. Visit Primrose Hill for a great city view, and enjoy the shops and restaurants along Regent’s Park Road; PH is a lovely residential area with pastel-colored villas. Visit Hamley’s toy store and Liberty, possibly the prettiest retail store in the world. Visit Freud’s house and marvel at his odd office chair!

Machu Picchu/Maine

It’s everything you think — timeless, breathtaking, mysterious. Watching the sun rise over the Andes, light spilling into valley after valley after valley…

I love Maine and have been back many times. The coastline is rugged and beautiful, its small towns varied and interesting, Acadia National Park worth a visit. Blueberries, antiques, ocean and lobster — what’s not to like?

Ngorongoro Crater

What Eden must have looked like. You reach it after descending for an hour of hairpin turns, and see animals spread out for miles. This stunning landscape lies in northern Tanzania; damned expensive to get to from almost anywhere, but worth every single penny.

Oaxaca

Mexico, one of my favorite places; both the city and the state.

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One of our Paris faves…On the Ile St. Louis

Paris

Regular readers here know how much I love Paris, where I lived at 25 in a student dorm in the 15th, and have returned to many times, usually renting a flat on the Ile St. Louis or in the Marais. In any season, (but especially fall), it’s a city that always rewards the flaneur/euse — the meandering explorer with no set agenda.

Quebec City

Especially (brrrrr!) mid-winter. Set high on a cliff above the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is a taste of Europe without crossing an ocean. Narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets, (treacherous when icy). Delicious French food. Some shopping. Have a drink at the bar of the elegant, classic Chateau Frontenac hotel.

Rovinj

I know, you expected Rome! I’m headed to this town in Istria/Northern Croatia, eager to explore its narrow, lovely cobble-stoned streets and deep sense of history. I’ve never been to Croatia and am so looking forward to it.

Savannah/San Francisco/Sintra

Savannah, Georgia is a perfect weekend getaway — charming, elegant, historic. Great food and shopping. The city is a series of small squares; earthier and less manicured than Charleston.

San Francisco…swoon. Small enough to feel manageable but large enough to offer a variety of museums, restaurants, great shopping and architecture. Sacramento Street, for sure. The Presidio. Drive out into Marin County, filled with perfect small towns and lush green hills.

Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, a day trip from Lisbon, that feels like a children’s book illustration — steep wooded hillsides and castles filled with glorious Portuguese tile, azulejos. Simply astounding.

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Taos/Tucson/Toronto

New Mexico, (where my husband was born and raised) is one of the most beautiful states of the U.S. — the light, the landscapes, the mountains. Taos is a small town but feels like, and is, a place people actually live; (Santa Fe is gorgeous but expensive and touristy.)

I went to Tucson for work, and loved it. A small city with some great restaurants, an 18th century mission and (geek alert!) The Pima Air & Space Museum. I love aircraft — and what less likely place to see a MiG?

My hometown. Not the prettiest city, but great food, several very good museums and, my favorite, the Islands, reached by ferry within about 15 minutes, year-round. Set in the harbor, they offer a great view of the skyline at sunset, several cafes and bike rentals — and beaches. Check out Kensington Market (funky/vintage/ethnic foods) and St. Lawrence Market (huge, amazing.)

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Maybe the best part of travel — heading into new places for new adventures.

Vancouver/Venice

Few cities have so spectacular a setting as Vancouver, my birthplace — with mountains to the east one side and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The local art gallery is small but has a great cafe. Take a day to enjoy Granville Island, with shops, artists, food markets and restaurants. Stanley Park is fantastic; rent a bike and do the circuit, allowing time for the most YVR of experiences, watching seaplanes landing and taking off.

All that you think — mysterious, crumbling, narrow alleyways, the enormous piazza of St. Mark’s Cathedral. One of my favorite spots is the studio of Spanish textile designer and inventor, Mariano Fortuny. I spent my 21st birthday here, alone, staying at the legendary Gritti Palace.

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Washington, D.C.

It’s easy to spend days here just visiting every one of its many museums and art galleries. But it’s also a city that rewards walking, to appreciate its low-slung, elegant layout, created by a Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant, in 1791. Enjoy its smaller neighborhoods as well, and take the Metro — you’ll see the city’s unique mix of uniformed military, eager young interns with their badges and lanyards, students and government workers.

Xel-Ha

On my to-do list, on the Mexican Caribbean coast. I’ve been to Mexico many times, and love it, but not yet to that part of the country.

YUL

I’m going to cheat here and go with YUL — the airport code for Montreal. One of my favorites, a city I’ve lived in twice, as a child and as an adult. Summer offers the Jazz Festival and a comedy festival and winter is really cold and windy. But ohhhhh, the restaurants! The shopping! The city never disappoints. Small enough to scoot around by cab or public transit.

Zagreb

I’ve never been, but will be there this summer as part of my six-week journey through some of Europe.

The tyrant in your pocket

By Caitlin Kelly

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Not my words, but powerful ones, from The New York Times‘ writer Ross Douthat, on our addiction to smartphones, tablets and digital interaction:

Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.

Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.

I know, I know…how else could you be reading this, except on a device?

So, of course, I want you here and I want your attention (hey, over here!) and I want you to keep coming back for more.

But I agree with him that life spent only attached to a screen is a miserable existence:

It’s dangerous

American car accident rates are much higher now than a few years ago, due to drivers texting while behind the wheel.

It’s distracting

People walk into the street, into objects and into other human beings because they refuse to pay attention to where they are in the real world, aka meatspace.

It’s alienating

For all the connection it brings, staying tech-tethered also distances us from the people and experiences all around us.

It’s rude

The worst!

It may be a sign of my generation, or my friends, but when I’m with someone in a social setting, like dinner or coffee or just a chat, we aren’t looking at our phones.

On a recent week’s vacation, breaking my normal routines, I stayed off my phone and computer — and took photos, read books and magazines (on paper), ate, slept, shopped, walked, exercised, talked to friends.

Do I care if everyone else “likes” my life?

Not really.

If I like it, I’m fine.

Do you take technology sabbaths and turn off or put away all your digital devices?

Why Pulitzer Prizes still matter

By Caitlin Kelly

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Pulitzer

This week the most coveted awards in journalism were given out, the prizes named for Joseph Pulitzer, a man born in Hungary in 1847 and who became a legendary publisher of major American newspapers; (pronounced Pull-itzer.)

It is a very big deal to win a Pulitzer Prize, both for the writers and photographers who win it for their individual, often team, efforts, but also for their editors and publishers.

It can take decades to win one, or, for the fortunate few, it arrives early in their careers. The photographer who’s won the most ever in journalism, four, is Carol Guzy, of The Washington Post — who began her career as a nurse.

In a time when our industry is struggling mightily — tens of thousands of us having been laid off in recent years — this sort of accolade is still something many of us strive for.

If you stay in journalism a few decades, you come to know, and sometimes work with, and possibly deeply admire, many colleagues, sometimes scattered globally. When they win, we’re also cheering for our tribe.

Here’s the list of all the 2017 winners, including history, poetry, drama and music.

One of my favorite stories of 2016, a stunning 18,102 word account of a young combat veteran, was written by The New York Times’ staff writer C.J. Chivers, himself a former Marine. He won the 2017 Pulitzer for feature writing.

His award is one of three Pulitzers awarded to the Times this year. Another went to Australian-born, New Delhi-based freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak for breaking news covering the drug war in the Philippines being waged by President Duterte. He also won the award in 2015 for feature photography for documenting the Ebola outbreak.

From his website:

Their Ukrainian practicality did not consider photography to be a viable trade to pursue so at an early age Daniel worked on the farm and at his father’s refrigeration company.

Not so surprising — journalism is still considered a terrible career choice by many parents: it’s professionally insecure, badly paid and sometimes dangerous.

It’s one of the many reasons we, (I’ve been a journalist for decades), are so proud of our colleagues who persist and succeed. It’s damn hard!

In an era of “fake news” and endless claims to the “truth”, we need media literate readers/listeners and viewers more than ever.

And we need smart, tough, determined reporters, whether visual or word-focused, and their editors and their publishers, to stay committed to strong, intelligent work of lasting value —- not just chase clicks and views.

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David Farenthhold — we all knew he had this one in the bag — took the prize for National Reporting, on Trump, for The Washington Post.

In 1912, one year after Pulitzer’s death aboard his yacht, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 under the supervision of the advisory board to which he had entrusted his mandate. Pulitzer envisioned an advisory board composed principally of newspaper publishers. Others would include the president of Columbia University and scholars, and “persons of distinction who are not journalists or editors.” Today, the 19-member board is composed mainly of leading editors or news executives. Four academics also serve, including the president of Columbia University and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Also from the Pulitzer website:

What do Pulitzer Prize winners get when they win?

There are 21 Pulitzer categories. In 20 of those categories the winners receive a $10,000 cash award and a certificate. Only the winner in the Public Service category of the Journalism competition is awarded a gold medal. The Public Service prize is always awarded to a news organization, not an individual, although an individual may be named in the citation.

Selfishly, I have a deeply vested interest in the Pulitzers — as we have one in the family. It belongs to my husband, Jose R. Lopez, whose blog is here.

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On 9/11, as fighter jets screamed over Manhattan and the Twin Towers fell, Jose was a team member of talented, fast-thinking, quick-acting New York Times photographers and photo editors covering it.

They won the Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography.

Jose, then a photo editor, (and former news photographer), literally turned his basement Brooklyn apartment, (the very day he was to move in with me and everything was already packed!) into a local Times bureau — scanning and transmitting images from his computer as photographers delivered their film to him.

There was no way to physically get into Manhattan from Brooklyn in time, to reach the Times‘ building that day.

On a day of confusion and terror and trauma, the Times team stayed calm and organized. Their job — our job — always, is to witness, testify, explain, share.

That’s what we do.

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Columbia Journalism School

A morning filled with orchids

By Caitlin Kelly

Are you as mad for flowers as I am?

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My friend Pam is crazy for orchids, so we made our first-ever journey this week — about a 20-minute drive south of our town — to the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary destination we had never seen.

The show, which filled room after room of the enormous conservatory, was spectacular, complemented by hanging lanterns and tinkling exotic music.

It ends April 9.

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I’ve been fortunate enough to see huge baskets of orchids when I visited Thailand, but typically have only admired them in nurseries and flower shops.

This was an astonishing array — and this year’s show, their 15th focused on orchids, was all about Thailand, which has 1,200 species of orchids.

The displays included several small altars, enormous topiary elephants and a temple.

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The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

Routine vs. novelty

By Caitlin Kelly

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My former employer, The Globe and Mail, an espresso and a yogurt — a typical breakfast!

I love trying new things, and am often easily bored by routine.

It’s why I generally do better being self-employed, as any truly tedious gig is easily-enough ditched, soon to be replaced with something more interesting and challenging.

But, like everyone, I also find real comfort in the familiar, the tried and true, the reliable and known.

It’s one reason, I confess, I return on vacation to places I already know — my hometown, Toronto; Montreal, Mexico, Paris and London (all of which I’ve lived in), D.C. (to visit friends) and New Mexico (where Jose was born and raised.)

My recent week in Toronto offered both; I deliberately chose to stay in a downtown rented flat, the location and the apartment a novel choice for me. Loved it!

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I tried a few new-to-me restaurants and cafes, and also enjoyed a cafe I’ve been eating at since I left the city for good in 1986, The Queen Mother Cafe. I love its booths, its oddly Asian menu and ohhhh, the cakes!

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One afternoon I headed out, looking forward to trying a new-to-me restaurant — only to find it empty and closed. So much for novelty! That’s the challenge of a city with rapidly-accelerating property values and rents. Your beloved whatever may well be gone the next time you visit a favorite city or town.

In daily life, it’s a challenge to keep mixing it up, balancing a thirst for the new with the stability of reliably knowing that some things won’t change, at least for a while.

Between birth and age 30 I changed cities four times, countries four times. I’d attended five schools. I’d lived in 13 different homes, from apartments in Cuernavaca and Montreal to a student dorm in Paris to a stone cottage in Scotland; (this doesn’t include five years in a Toronto boarding school and nine summers spent at four Ontario summer camps.)

I’ve now stayed in the same one bedroom apartment since moving to the U.S. in 1989.

The thought of packing/sorting/moving/adapting again? Brrrrrr!

I was burned out from moving too often too quickly; between 1982 and 1989 I’d moved Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-NH-NY. I was fried. I wanted roots. I wanted to find and nurture new professional and personal relationships, which I have.

I’m still using the same doctors, hair salon, library since I arrived and am 17 years into my (happier!) second marriage.

But these days, finally,  I’m feeling a bit restless and so I’m actively seeking out some novel experiences.

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A favorite Toronto store. I always visit and always find something fun to buy

This week, (however small it may seem), I’m reading a collection, a best-of 2015’s science fiction and fantasy. Loving it! As someone whose normal media diet is news and non-fiction, reading in this genre is a stretch for me but one that’s really proven pleasurable.

I’m now absorbing less news, unusual for me.

I may (gulp) sign up for a decorative arts course in London this summer, as I’ll be there anyway. It’s not cheap, but it’s focused on two of my passions, combined — antique textiles and Asian art.

I dread intellectual sclerosis!

Here’s a 27 year old woman who set two Guinness World Records for seeing every country in the world, as the fastest female to do so…talk about new adventures! She began in Palau and ended in Yemen. (The video I link to here is 22 minutes long.)

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Riding the Red Rocket, Toronto’s streetcars…this one, the King St. car,  blessedly empty at noon.

Which of the two, novelty or routine, do you prefer?

Why?

A midwinter visit to Toronto

By Caitlin Kelly

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The view from my rented flat, 30 stories up!

 

First question — why would anyone do such a thing?

Today’s temperature? 18 F, -8 Celsius.

Bloody cold, kids!

It was a week that fit my work schedule and I needed to renew my passport. I could have mailed away my old one (no thanks!) and paid $260. Instead I spent a lot more to stay in a rented flat for a week off, to see old friends and family.

I was out of the downtown Toronto airport — located on an island in the harbor — by 10:30 a.m., got my photos taken and had my application in, ($210, all in, including $50 for the rush job) by 12:30. Sweet!

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Isn’t this a hoot? The Museum subway stop, which has been renovated and designed to a fantastic level (the Royal Ontario Museum sits just above)

 

Here are some of the things I’m enjoying this week, despite the bitter winds and blowing snow:

 

Seeing dear old friends

Catching up with people I knew at summer camp 40 years ago and from my college years at University of Toronto. My friend K was pregnant with her first child when she danced at my first wedding — her daughter is now a successful actress here. Whew!

Thinking in metric and Celsius

I bought 100 grams of salami, and have to keep looking up the temperature in F.

Canadian cash

No pennies. Loonies and toonies. (Those are $1 and $2 coins.) The Canadian dollar is 74 cents U.S., giving me an automatic discount on everything I spend here.

A modern, downtown rented flat

It came up on a search on Trivago, $109 U.S. per night for a 700 square foot condo on the 30th floor of a residential building downtown. It’s super-bright, quiet, and has a brand-new kitchen, bathroom and comfortable queen bed. I come and go with all the other residents, meeting their kids and dogs in the elevator. I like it.

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OK, no big deal, but I love these biscuits, not easy to find in New York — here, for sale in a subway newsstand

Great food

Went to the legendary, enormous St. Lawrence Market, (took the streetcar for $3.25), to buy food for breakfasts at home and, of course (always!) fresh flowers to make the flat feel more like home. Brought home an olive baguette, a muffin, some cheese and pate and salami, butter, jam, fruit and a fistful of glorious, fragrant purple hyacinth.

Restaurants, bars, cafes

Had a very good lunch at Milagro, a 10-year-old Mexican restaurant, the one on Mercer. Anything that survives that long in a foodie city must be good, and my meal was.

Loved Balzac’s, a cafe chain across Ontario. I stopped in at the one next to the Market for a cappuccino and a scone.

A must-do on most of my visits is the roof bar on the 14th floor of the Hyatt Hotel, at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road. Small, intimate, quiet, elegant, it has terrific views of the city. I’ve been drinking there since college — Victoria College at University of Toronto is only two blocks south — so it’s full of memories. On one visit, the Prime Minister and his entourage sat in a corner.

My friend J introduced me to the Museum Tavern, a terrific five-year-old bistro directly across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum. Great atmosphere and food — and lots of memories, with some of the original decor from a long-closed TO restaurant I once enjoyed, Bemelman’s.

Enjoyed breakfast at Le Petit Dejeuner with an old friend and colleague.

Convenience

I left Toronto decades ago and the downtown core has totally transformed, thanks to a forest of condo skyscrapers, which means there is every possible amenity within a few blocks.

I took a spin class at 7:45 at night, then walked a few blocks, slowly, back to the flat, staring up into the night sky at the CN Tower, with its lights beaming in rainbow colors. (I once interviewed the man who designed it — then later got a marriage proposal from him — and recently ran into him in a town near our NY home. Small world!)

Easy-going diversity

Yes, Toronto has racial tensions and even crime, just like other major cities. But it’s overwhelmingly a city of immigrants, with every nation you can imagine represented. I miss that; New York City is, arguably, diverse, but it’s very segregated economically.

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A cardboard Mountie stands guard at St. Lawrence Market. A must-see!

Heading into the world…

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’m on an airplane today, for the first time in almost a year, the last time also headed back to the city where I grew up and lived for 25 years, Toronto, a 90-minute flight from New York.

Last June I flew up for only three days, (a splurge we couldn’t really afford), to attend the wedding reception of a dear old friend, marrying at 70. It was an elegant crowd, many of the guests sporting a tiny white enamel flower lapel pin — a signal to the cognoscenti that they had won the Order of Canada.

This time I’m heading north to renew my passport and to take a badly needed break from work, from the U.S. and from the daily stress of life under a President whose behavior leaves me, at this point, adjectivally challenged.

I don’t really miss Toronto as a city. Housing is very expensive and often not of great quality. Winters are long, cold and gray (or grey, as Canadians spell it.) Traffic is now monstrous.

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But I do miss my dear friends, people I’ve known since summer camp and high school and university and my first newspaper job. I’ve stayed in close touch with them and can’t wait to see them again.

I’m also planning an extensive — six week — trip to Europe, beginning in early June to celebrate my birthday (again!) in Paris with my husband and some friends who live there and some friends who’ll come over from London to share our rented apartment. (I’ll be blowing through some savings. Gulp!)

I’ll have one week there with Jose, who then flies home to photo edit a major golf tournament in Wisconsin. We’ve been to Paris together several times, usually staying in a rented apartment on the Ile St. Louis, (this time in the Marais.)

I know the city well, having been many times and having lived there for eight months on a journalism fellowship.

Then I’ll head off solo to wander, something I’ve done many times before.

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I know people in various parts of the world, so that even new-to-me places like Berlin contain people I’m eager to finally meet, like this blogger and two Twitter pals, one of them an archeologist.

From Berlin, I’ll head to Budapest to meet up with my best friend from university and one of her grown daughters.

I’m also looking forward to visiting and writing about Korda Studios, near Budapest, one of the largest sound stages in Europe — where The Martian was filmed.

One of the fun things about being a journalist is that I sometimes find great stories to write about while traveling, and can then deduct some of my travel costs while working there as legitimate business expenses.

After Budapest…not sure yet!

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London

I’ll finish up that trip with a visit to my friend C in London, who writes the fab blog Small Dog Syndrome. We share passions for several things, including beauty products, great food and vintage clothes. We had a blast the last time roaming Bermondsey Market and a few flea markets.

Another friend has moved there, so I’ll have another playmate; it’s a real luxury to travel and to re-connect with pals abroad.

In 2016, I only left home for six days’ vacation; three in D.C. and three in Toronto, all in June — not enough for me, having so far been to 38 countries, 38 American states and most of Canada.

I love to savor the familiarity of beloved old haunts and the excitement of making new discoveries.

 

Are you heading out into the world on an adventure this year?