Five questions about my 2 books

By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.

 

 

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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

 

 

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When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.

 

For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.

 

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

 

For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.

For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.

 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

 

They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.

 

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

 

My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.

 

Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.

 

Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.

Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.

Who do you believe?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In an era some are calling “post-truth”, who do you believe?

Whose media voice(s) do you listen to and trust?

Personally, I listen most often to BBC (television and radio,), NPR, read The New York Times and the Financial Times. I also listen to other news sources, albeit mostly those leaning to the left.

I suspect some of you read my blog because (?) I’m a career journalist working for decades as a freelancer for The New York Times, which which many consider a great and trustworthy newspaper.

 

A career journalist who actually hopes to keep working in our industry (even as it’s in chaos!) simply can’t afford to make shit up because you get found out and you lose your job and you lose your reputation for honesty and…you’re done, son!

 

I don’t make shit up, here or elsewhere.

I adhere to the unofficial motto of the Canadian Press, a wire service, who taught me in my early 20s: “When in doubt, leave it out.”

That was also pre-Internet when the pressure to publish was less frenzied, and no one cared about likes or clicks or whether an algorithm favored your work above that of your competitors.

Back in Toronto recently, I visited the new newsroom of my first newspaper job, the Globe & Mail — which, like most major newsrooms now, has screens visible to everyone showing them data on what’s being read, for how long and how often.

 

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A recent take on this issue from the front page of The New York Times:

Last week, President Trump promoted new, unconfirmed accusations to suit his political narrative: that a “criminal deep state” element within Mr. Obama’s government planted a spy deep inside his presidential campaign to help his rival, Hillary Clinton, win — a scheme he branded “Spygate.” It was the latest indication that a president who has for decades trafficked in conspiracy theories has brought them from the fringes of public discourse to the Oval Office.

Now that he is president, Mr. Trump’s baseless stories of secret plots by powerful interests appear to be having a distinct effect. Among critics, they have fanned fears that he is eroding public trust in institutions, undermining the idea of objective truth and sowing widespread suspicions about the government and news media that mirror his own.

“The effect on the life of the nation of a president inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract attention from legitimate investigations or other things he dislikes is corrosive,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and biographer. “The diabolical brilliance of the Trump strategy of disinformation is that many people are simply going to hear the charges and countercharges, and decide that there must be something to them because the president of the United States is saying them.” (emphasis mine)

In an era of blame and recrimination, who are we to believe?

If not those given the highest authority (and who does now, whether religious or political) who?

Some thoughts from wired.com:

What we politely call “fake news”—a formulation that presupposes some antecedent credible truth called “news” that we’re now abandoning—is just the tribal folklore of a certain (and usually opposing) tribe. Our exhausting and constant absorption in a transitory but completely overwhelming media cycle is our own preliterate eternal present. Who thinks now of Cecil the Lion and the villainous dentist who shot him, whose practice was promptly ruined by an online mob? We’re too busy dealing with the third huge Trump scandal this week, which we’ll forget in due course thanks to next week’s school shooting….

The post-internet generation, weaned almost since birth on touchscreens and fractious digital media, navigates this raucous world with an equanimity that we dinosaurs beholden to a dead-tree age find impossible to muster. It is a different world, one where the universally acclaimed expert or editor has been replaced by internet-enabled rumor and hearsay arbitrated only by algorithms. There are some dominant media outlets with a claim to primacy, just as every village has a particularly well-informed local gossip, but the capital-T Truth, so beloved by the French encyclopedists, will no longer exist across a broad spectrum of society.

Are there official news sources you still actually trust and believe?

 

Which ones, and why those?

Four harrowing tales — but worth it

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Whew.

I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.

Here’s the Guardian’s review of it.

It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.

I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.

There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.

I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.

LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.

I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.

But it’s a great film and I urge you to see it.

I also just saw First Reformed, which is winning rave reviews for its writer/director Paul Schrader and its lead actor, Ethan Hawke, playing a disillusioned, divorced upstate New York Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) minister.

Like LOP, it’s not an easy film, but also deeply moving and raises essential questions of what we’re doing to the environment.

I recently read Born A Crime, the memoir by South African mixed-race comedian Trevor Noah. Not an easy read and you come away awed by what he survived with grace.

Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.

It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.

It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.

The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)

While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.

As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.

I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.

If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.

 

The blog post I dare not publish

By Caitlin Kelly

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Actually, there are several.

Maybe you have a few as well.

These are not posts that are deeply and personally confessional, but my (generally left-leaning) opinions on politics and my disgust with where we’ve ended up in 2018.

Here’s a recent New York Times column by Michelle Goldberg that expresses it well:

It’s a natural response — and, in some cases, the right response — to try to hold the line against political reaction, to shame people who espouse shameful ideas. But shame is a politically volatile emotion, and easily turns into toxic resentment. It should not be overused. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line between ideas that deserve a serious response, and those that should be only mocked and scorned. I do know that people on the right benefit immensely when they can cultivate the mystique of the forbidden.

In February, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has garnered a cultlike following, asked, in an interview with Vice, “Can men and women work together in the workplace?” To him, the Me Too movement called into question coed offices, a fundamental fact of modern life, because “things are deteriorating very rapidly at the moment in terms of the relationships between men and women.”

Having to contend with this question fills me with despair. I would like to say: It’s 2018 and women’s place in public life is not up for debate! But to be honest, I think it is. Trump is president. Everywhere you look, the ugliest and most illiberal ideas are gaining purchase. Refusing to take them seriously won’t make them go away. (As it happens, I’m participating in a debate with Peterson next week in Toronto.)

I shy far away, here and on Facebook and usually on Twitter, from so many political subjects — gun use and abortion, being two of them — that will only provoke trolls, bullies and harassers.

I have no time, energy or appetite to get into fights with ghosts over this stuff, no matter how passionately I feel about them, which I do.

It’s become a world of virtue signalling, spittle-flecked (out) rage and worse.

I see some bloggers sticking resolutely close to home with soothing/inspiring images and posts.

I get it.

I wish I dared.

But I don’t.

 

Are you also holding back on your blog and other social media?

How to choose great home colo(u)rs

By Caitlin Kelly

Few challenges can feel as daunting — and turn out so horribly — as choosing paint colors for your home. Even selecting a white (creamy? icy? blue undertones?) can be tougher then you think.

 

People also forget, or don’t realize, a few basics when choosing colors:

 

What color is the existing floor? If wood, it is pale, orange-y, dark? White tile? Your permanent flooring, unless you plan to change it or renovate, adds a huge chunk of color to your room. Will it go beautifully, or badly, with whatever you put on the walls and baseboards (what Britons call skirting boards)?

What direction(s) does the room face? A north-facing room will have a different kind of light than one facing south.

What views does the room have? If it overlooks leafy green trees, (or a red brick wall), do you really want purple? Don’t forget, each color you choose should relate well to all the colors around and near it, (which is why a huge black sofa doesn’t help much.)

How much division does your space have between rooms? i.e. if it’s mostly open plan with each color immediately adjacent to one another, a stark contrast will look odd and unattractive. The eye should travel easily from one space to the next without jarring interruptions.

— Who’s mostly going to be using that room? A young child? An older person? A teenager? What do they love most?

How do you want to feel in that room? Calm? Energized? Soothed? Color powerfully affects our mood.

Matte finish, semi-gloss, gloss, Venetian plaster finish, faux finish?

What colors are your existing furniture, rugs, curtains and other major accessories?

What color scheme? Our living room is a classic pairing of opposite colors on the color wheel (red and green) — but a soft muted red and a pale yellow-green, not the dark/harsh Christmas combo that mix usually brings to mind.

Here’s a super-helpful explanation of various color schemes and the differences between shade, tone and hue.

House Beautiful magazine also publishes, every month, great colors designers select as some of their favorites.

The colors in our apartment are all from a British company in Dorset, Farrow & Ball, who add to their stunning range every year, currently with 132 colors. They also offer their discontinued colors, (like the Gervase Yellow on our living room and hallway walls.)

I visited their paint and wallpaper factory last July, a 2.5 hour train ride and 30 minute cab ride from London. I met their production director and their head of color consulting, Charlie (Charlotte) Cosby, both of whom were warm and welcoming and took me through their facility.

What I like about F & B colors — apart from their great names, like Elephant’s Breath, Clunch and Dead Salmon — is their subtlety and depth. My husband, who’s done all the painting, loves the paint’s texture, which he compares to melted ice cream.

Gervase Yellow is warm but gentle, and goes very well with our mid-brown wooden floor, wooden furniture and mixed art; that room’s colors include sage green (sofa), deep burgundy (rug) and these striped curtains.

 

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Our bathroom walls are Hay (I think!), a deep mustard; I love their acid-bright Yellowcake and Babouche, (the color of fresh egg yolk), one of the best yellows anywhere.

Our bedroom is (I think!) Hardwick White (might be Skimming Stone), the warm soft gray of cigarette ash.

Our wooden kitchen cabinetry and the drawers shown below are in French Grey with Clunch (a neutral gray-white) on the walls.

 

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The sitting room is Peignoir, a very pale lavender, which picks up a color in the existing curtains and is subtle but warm. It doesn’t so much read purple as…almost a pale gray; it also works really well near Gervase Yellow because purple and yellow are opposites (again!) on the color wheel and because they’re very similar in value, (i.e. there’s no huge contrast between a light color and a darker one.)

 

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Gervase yellow (in shadow) meets Peignoir (in light)

Here are some more, quite technical explanations of color theory.

If you read interior design magazines, you’ll see, lately, a lot of rooms in two of F & B’s saturated and dramatic deep blues, Hague Blue and Stiffkey — and their pale, gorgeous, ethereal blue of Borrowed Light.

The trick, of course, is to paint a big enough sample before painting a whole room; get a piece of foamcore or stiff cardboard as large as you can — and sit with the color for a day or two to see it in daylight, candle-light, whatever illumination that room will be using. (Every light source adds its own color as well, with incandescent light being warmer than halogen or fluorescent.)

 

 

Are you a culture vulture too?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As someone who grew up with limited access to television, (spending much of my childhood in boarding school and summer camp), my cultural consumption was books, art and music. (Although every dinner at home in my teens began with the theme music to As It Happens, the nightly CBC radio current events show.)

I do enjoy some television, mostly BBC, PBS, Netflix — original series, not the standard stuff of weekly network shows. Favorites include Wallander (Swedish version), Babylon Berlin, Call The Midwife, Victoria.

I confess — I’m also a fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, now heading into its 17th season.

My favorite media are radio and film.

I listen to radio daily, (NPR, WFUV. WKCR, TSF Jazz from Paris) and typically watch two to three movies a week, either on TV or in the theater. (Not a fan of horror films, which I avoid; writing a book that included gun violence was quite enough!)

Only in later life did I appreciate what beauty I enjoyed in my parents’ homes, filled with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Inuit sculpture, mirrored Indian textiles and more. That visual feast much shaped my own tastes — whether a Mexican wooden mask or a vintage photograph.

Today, thanks to the Internet, we all have ready and free access to millions of exquisite images, through the British Museum  (37,000 images) and many more. Even if you live very far from a gallery or museum, even just scrolling through Instagram, you can stumble across an incredible array of beauty and history.

I’m not as familiar with, or fond of, contemporary art and design (I try!); I do love the work of Julie Mehretu.

Growing up in Toronto, a large and multi-cultural city with good museums and galleries, also helped me develop my taste. Travel to Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, Boston, D.C. and San Francisco, (to name a few places),  has showed me more amazing art.

Two of our favorite museums focus on Asian design — the Sackler in Washington, D.C. and the Guimet in Paris.

 

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A very rare event for me — I went to this auction and bought two 1920s French prints (Dufy, Vlaminck)

 

Musically, I feel woefully behind! I haven’t (she says embarassedly) yet tried Spotify, so I need to expand my horizons, although I’m not a fan of rap, hip-hop or country.

Only in the past month have I seen two operas, the first for me in decades, and enjoyed both. I don’t attend as many classical music performances as I could — in New York and environs, there are so many to choose from! — but enjoy it when I do.

As for popular music concerts…sigh. Some of the people I want to see sell out within minutes, generally.

I recently loved Old Stock, a terrific Canadian musical that’s just ended a two-month Manhattan run, and is headed for Bristol, England and Edmonton, Alberta.

I also saw a dark/powerful art show, “Berlin, Before and After”, at New York’s Neue Galerie, one of my favorite (small!) museums.

Living anywhere near New York City costs a fortune: highway and bridge tolls, taxes, commuting costs, crazy-high rent so you have to take advantage of all its various cultural offerings.

A daily list of low to no-cost NYC fun is The Skint; (“skint” is a British word for broke.)

 

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This amazing image was in the hallway across my room in a boutique hotel in Rovinj, Croatia

 

I do read a lot, but mostly non-fiction, magazines and newspapers. I just finished astronaut Scott Kelly’s memoir, “Endurance” and am now reading “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” from 1929.

I write for a living (as some of you know!) so am always hungry for inspiration.

 

How about you?

 

What has shaped your cultural tastes — friends? family? the internet? TV? YouTube? formal education?

 

Any terrific recommendations to share?

 

Oooh, I love a good flea market!

By Caitlin Kelly

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All sorts of oddities await!

 

I make a beeline in almost every city I visit to its local flea market.

When I lived in Paris for eight months in my 20s, I went almost every weekend, and not only to the enormous and overwhelming Puces de Clignancourt, but to Porte de Vanves as well. (Here’s a helpful guide.)

Here’s a great 20-point list of how to best shop flea markets anywhere.

In London last summer, I was up by 6:00 a.m. to visit the Bermondsey Square market, a small, courtyard-contained group of vendors. I bought a great hot breakfast from a guy making eggs and bacon, and sat on the edge of a cart to eat it.

Here’s what I bought, paying 10 pounds for a ceramic shard found on the banks of the Thames by a man who, like many there, is a mudlarker — someone who digs in the riverside muck and pulls out ancient treasures buried there.

 

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I’ve been trying to research it, but so far, no success; guessing 17th century or so.

 

Here’s a great description of mudlarking from The Guardian:

 

Over the years I’ve eased buttons, lace ends, buckles, dress hooks and thimbles from the mud and plucked clay wig curlers, wooden nit combs, needles, beads and bodkins from its surface. I’ve even found a beautifully decorated gold lace end, with possible links to the Tudor court, lying on the mud just waiting to be picked up.

But perhaps the most personal objects are leather shoes. The anaerobic properties of Thames mud means that its treasures are cocooned in an oxygen-free environment, which preserves them as if they had been lost just yesterday. My Tudor shoe is a moment trapped in time, with wear creases across the top and indentations in the sole from the toes and heel of the last person to wear it more than 500 years ago.

 

In Dublin’s monthly flea market, I found a terrific mirrored small handbag from Rajasthan for 10 pounds and a fistful of heavy silver-plate forks for the same price. (All our cutlery is flea market material, heavy silver plate in a variety of early styles.)

I also scored a gorgeous fuchsia hand-crocheted sweater. Even if I decided it wasn’t for me, (and I re-sold it to a consignment shop), it wasn’t a huge investment.

 

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In Toronto recently, I found a tiny 1930s Paris pin, with a dangling Eiffel tower, for $2  — and am still regretting passing up four gorgeous lilac engraved crystal glasses for $20.

Flea markets reward the decisive!

Toronto’s major flea market runs Sundays behind the legendary St. Lawrence Market downtown, held in a large white tent. It has washroom facilities and several very good places to eat, literally next door — including the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.

 

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I really enjoy the banter and wisdom there — vendors are often also collectors, full of  knowledge about the things they’re selling and generally happy to share that intel, even if you don’t buy something. (Um, not so much with some Paris flea market vendors, who have been downright snappish with me, même en français.)

 

Flea markets, the best ones anyway, bear witness to our material past — not only the gilded elegance we see behind museum glass but the daily household objects we once valued

 

or our ancestors did: typewriters, enamel, tin and copper cookware, porcelain and crystal and silver, delicately embroidered and crocheted linens, (old pillowcases and sheets and tablecloths are so soft and lovely!), early editions of books.

 

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There are much beloved/battered old teddy bears and toys, handmade patchwork quilts and homespun blankets, wooden breadboards, buckets and piles of old coins.

You do have to be cool with crowds and being bumped constantly — and they’re best enjoyed without the responsibility of a dog or small children.

 

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If you’re really serious about collecting things like silver (is it EPNS or sterling?) and jewelry, bring a loupe (a tiny magnifying glass) with you to read hallmarks.

Never denigrate the goods!

Almost every vendor is willing to be a bit flexible; ask, very nicely, “What’s your best price on this?” Or “Would you take (name a price maybe 10 to 20 percent lower) for this?”

Take cash!

 

Are you a fellow flea market maven?

 

Which ones have you enjoyed — and what did treasures have you found?

 

How do you define success?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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An interesting/depressing essay in The Paris Review by Alexander Chee on becoming an American writer:

There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.

…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.

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Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.

And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.

A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.

It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.

Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).

Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.

Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.

But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.

In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.

Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.

 

But what defines success?

 

For some:

an enormous salary

lots of money in the bank

having and wielding power

owning your home

a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)

surviving tours in the military

having a healthy/happy child(ren)

a happy relationship with your spouse/partner

achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record

regaining (or losing) weight

acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work

helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts

If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.

Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.

But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.

 

Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed

 

If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.

 

How do you measure and define success in your life?

 

 

The allure — and falsity — of Instagram

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all images: Caitlin Kelly

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Are you a big Instagram user?

I only started posting — usually three to four images a day — about a month or so ago. My long-term goal, possibly, is to sell my images to interior designers and stagers, people who furnish and decorate homes for sale. I began my career as a shooter, and have sold my work to The New York Times, Time and the Washington Post,  so we’ll see.

 

My work: @caitlinkellynyc.

 

I’m enjoying it for a few reasons, which are very different from my frequent use of Twitter and (sigh) Facebook, whose behavior has proven so deceptive and appalling it’s difficult to use it now in any good conscience.

 

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What I like about Instagram:

 

Non-political. It’s not filled with people ranting endlessly, let alone arguing with others, about their specific causes.

Global. I’ve been stunned (and delighted) by literally instant responses to my images, from a 13-year-old fellow baker in Britain to an auto body shop in Brazil to an Istanbul photographer.

— Not just photos, but photos of some of my favorite passions: pilots and their airplanes (especially women!), vintage clothing, jewelry and flowers.

Creative inspiration. Photos of places I long to visit; interior design; terrific art and ceramics, like the guy from Australia who hand-painted exquisite blue-on-white tall vases. I found a young British art student, Kat Thomas, (katt_artt)  whose work is spectacular.

— Playful connection. I snapped a pair of studded black leather boots on a red carpet at the Met Opera in Manhattan, then spotted an almost identical image, by an Italian man, of his cool studded black boots on a red carpet. I suggested he check out my picture, and he did. Silly? But fun!

It’s sharpened my own gaze. Thanks to the camera in my cellphone, an IPhone 7, I’m forever seeing, appreciating and capturing beauty around me, night or day, rain or shine. On a recent foggy, rainy morning I hastened to get out to our local reservoir to snap some images. I’m so glad I did because by afternoon, skies were clear and the mood was gone.

 

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What I dislike:

Selfies. Just stop. Seriously. I don’t get why people keep posting image after image after image of themselves! When someone follows me, and I see nothing but selfies, I’ll never follow back.

Endless self-promotion. Yes, Insta is a great place to promote your product or brand. But enough!

Too much photo manipulation. I’m old school! I began my career shooting film, so when I see images that have been heavily manipulated and filtered, I often flip away fast.

Too much lifestyle content, posed and perfect. Many of the most popular sites are perfectly posed and lit, whether of people carousing (usually white, thin, young people) in trendy/cool places or of food or tourist-y moments. Insta is a place for people to escape into fantasy, but it’s also feeding some tremendous envy and resentment.

Why can’t I ditch my messy life today and live on a Greek island, too?

 

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Do you use and enjoy Instagram?

 

A week in the writer’s life #MissingAZero!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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What a week, kids!

Here’s some of it:

Negotiated with three different teams of PR people to set up a phone interview with (shriek!) shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. They shift the time of the interview, meaning I have to suddenly shift three competing events in my day to accommodate. This is all very normal in the world of celebrity PR, which is why I generally avoid it. (They called me from London and he was so nice! What a thrill!)

Pitched a new-to-me editor on a story that would require, ideally, a trip to a distant and remote Canadian destination. It’s a great story, but so few outlets have the budget for travel now, (let alone pay enough or offer enough space for a longer piece), and the ones that do are focused on luxury and high-net-worth readers — which attract lucrative ads from companies like Gucci and Vuitton. One reason there are so very few stories about the poor and struggling — you can’t sell ads against those pieces.

Pitched another new-to-me editor whose ideas are quite different from mine. “We’re getting closer,” she said. Not sure how much more energy I want to pour into a speculative project.

Checked the pay rate from The Independent, a British newspaper, when an editor called out online for op-eds. $150. #MissingAZero! Our health insurance costs $1,400 a month.

 

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So much wasted time!

 

Asked three fellow journalists, two good friends, one an acquaintance, to participate in a book project. I anticipated their eagerness to help, and instead was met with resentment by one and silence by another and reluctant agreement by a third. Disheartening.

Invested half an hour interviewing a guy whose social justice work might make a great story — if I can find someone to buy it. Asked him where he attended university, (since successful alumni profiles are often an easy sell.)

The editor of his college alumni magazine says, yeah, we use freelancers — and offered $250 for a story.

The editor of a story I submitted more than three weeks ago, (who I had to email three times to follow up), asked me to hold it for another few weeks for a timelier story to run first. The only acceptable answer? “Sure” — which means another month before I get paid. I only get paid after it’s used.

 

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Back to Montreal!

 

I set up a meeting for early May near Montreal to interview a farmer, my second such assignment for a farming magazine. Glamour! In fact, it’s a lot of fun and I’m delighted to get outdoors, work face to face, and get a paid trip back to Canada.

I taught my final two writing classes, of four nightly classes, of this semester at the New York School of Interior Design, where I studied in the ’90s. The class only had four students enrolled and one never even showed up. Another skipped the last class and didn’t do the work. I found this depressing. The one diligent student, luckily, was terrific. She worked really hard and is a lovely writer. But seriously?

Honored to be included with other women journalists, and called both smart and generous in this piece, which ran on a very high profile site in our industry, Poynter.com, on how to survive tough times in journalism.

Read this deeply depressing article on Columbia Journalism Review, about how frequently editors simply “kill” stories — and pay a fraction of the agreed-upon fee when they do. This deeply cuts the income a freelance writer relies on, and is a practice I know of in no other business.

In my 30-year career, I’ve had very few stories killed, (thank heaven) but it hurts. The last one, January 2015, cost me $900 in lost income. What we often end up doing, (angrily and quietly), is taking a financial hit to retain the working relationship. The editor keeps collecting their salary while we scramble to replace income we expected to earn — that we’re not going to receive.

From the CJR piece:

My ultimate hope, as a person from a family with deep roots in organized labor, is that one day freelance writing will be sold through a kind of union hiring hall, similar to that utilized by unions in the building trades. But that goal will entail a lot of self-help: holding other writers, particularly academics writing solely to burnish their “brands,” accountable for writing for exposure; sharing information about pay rates and editorial practices; and ensuring that all commissioned stories, however small the offered rate, come with contracts that specify detailed procedures about kill fees.

The sad truth of my business is that few work well with others, sometimes instead cutting their own very best deal — and the hell with everyone else. I rely on wide, deep networks of people to be honest with me about what they’re getting paid, or not. Only then can you discover (to your horror) how badly you might be getting screwed — and how much better you need to negotiate.

Coached a fellow writer by phone, my happiest and easiest income of the week, $225 for an hour of my advice. (Interested? Details here!)

 

The best part?

 

Took a hooky day! I visited one of my favorite museums in New York City, the Neue Galerie, a gorgeous Beaux Arts mansion on East 86th. Street bought by Ronald Lauder, (he of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune.) It contains, among many other items, a legendary  portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907 by Gustav Klimt, for which Lauder — in 2006 — paid a staggering $135 million. I went to see a powerful show of German and Austrian art before and after the rise of Hitler.

The show ends May 28; if you can get to it, go!

Having recently watched the TV series Babylon Berlin, which I blogged about here, I’m a tad obsessed with the Weimar Republic and want to learn more about it.  Treated myself to a cake and coffee in the museum’s popular and elegant Cafe Sabarsky, one of the prettiest rooms in New York. Bought three books on the Weimar period — ready for the next two weeks’ break, visiting friends and family in Ontario.