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Six days of silence

In behavior, culture, education, Health, life, religion on July 20, 2016 at 4:02 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Five years ago this week, my husband — then fiance — decided to take me to a silent Buddhist retreat.

It was a birthday gift, one he thought might prove calming and healing.

I went in like a sulky five-year-old, arms crossed, dubious.

I emerged with a lot of new insights — if you’re interested, search my archives for July 2011 and you’ll find them, as I posted every day, a bit stunned by how powerful my feelings were and how much they changed over that week.

I’m not a Buddhist, but have spent time at various sanghas with Jose, who is, so was already familiar with the language, precepts and rituals like mantras, chants and prayers. I also knew and was friends with his lama, Surya Das, so wasn’t intimidated by him or his presence. Had every single bit of it been unfamiliar, it might have been even more challenging.

It’s never a bad thing to withdraw and retreat from the insanity of “normal” life and this was an opportunity to do so, and one — I admit — I would never have undertaken on my own.

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A play is on in New York City right now, Small Mouth Sounds, premised on exactly this thing — a group of people attending a week-long silent retreat —  and it addresses the emotional turmoil so many people bring with them into the meditation hall.

 

In a week of silence, your heart speaks very loudly indeed.

 

Every morning, as we nestled once more into our cushions or chairs for the morning teaching, more and more were empty as people fled, unable or unwilling to stay.

Even those who stayed rebelled, some driving off-campus in their cars to a local bar or standing deep in the woods, yammering on the cellphones — both a violation of the rules we agreed to when we arrived; 75 of us had come from across the globe to do this thing, knowing it would be difficult, and craving that discipline.

I emerged from it dazed, sharpened, newly and exquisitely aware of the daily noise we barely even notice, and had never been conscious of before: cars, sirens, animals, neighbors, airplanes overhead, people talking on their cellphones or listening to music too loudly through headphones.

Jose and I drove to a local bar — where two enormous television screens blared…something. Instead of it feeling, as it usually would, like background noise it was suddenly alien and very much in the foreground. We felt assaulted and exhausted by it.

I missed the precious, glorious, cocooning silence we’d bathed in all week.

I missed the inter-generational community we had created in our silence, sometimes with just a raised eyebrow or shy smile.

I missed sitting in the retreat’s luxurious garden, alone for an hour, my only companion a very bad bunny eating everything he could reach.

I missed the soothing simplicity of our days, from the waking early-morning hand bell rung down the long corridors to our meals eaten together at long wooden refectory tables, the only sounds the clinking of cutlery on china.

Here’s my first entry:

The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.

Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.

We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.

I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.

So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.

I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.

 

 Have you ever taken a silent retreat?

 

Would you?

Alex Wroblewski, NYT photo intern — and talent!

In art, beauty, culture, journalism, news, photography, the military, work on July 14, 2016 at 1:08 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Alex and I have been friends for a few years. We met through the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a program offered annually to ambitious and talented young journalists. My husband taught him and we stayed in touch, with Alex coming to stay with us in New York.

This summer he’s one of three photo interns at the Times, a coveted opportunity to show his skills once more. He also won the White House News Photographers Association student award for 2016.

I so admire his work, and work ethic, that I asked him to share his ideas and some of his work with Broadside:

Sunday, June 22, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

Sunday, June 22, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; Chicago

Tell me a bit of your history…where were you born? Raised? Did you move around a lot as a child or teen?

 I was born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin called West Bend and had a pretty quiet childhood growing up… I started skateboarding in my early teens and my friends and I would shoot photos and videos of each other jumping down stairs and the like, which is how I got into photography originally.

What sort of work do/did your parents do? i.e. where does your creative spirit come from?

My father worked in a factory for 25 plus years and my mother had worked odd jobs before a decade plus career working at Walmart and in other pharmacies as a technician. My dad is still working 50-60 hours a week today but has an office position which I think he enjoys more, and my mom was still working in a pharmacy at a hospital before she passed away from cancer.

She went to work the same day she would do chemotherapy, driving herself to both. She was incredibly hard working, so is my dad, and I think that’s where my work ethic comes from.

My creative spirit early on came from skateboarding and the films and photographs I’d see from the street/skateboarding world. Music eventually became a big influence, I remember getting into The Beatles/Bob Dylan/Jack Kerouac and just the whole scene in the sixties, the photographs had such a unique look, everything from that era.

 

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; Ferguson, Missouri

I remember having this John Coltrane poster on my wall forever, just collecting photos like that. And eventually I got interested in other types of photography, with photojournalism being a big one, and eventually I decided to go to school for it.

Where did you attend college and why?

I went on and off part time at a community college, but was never sure what I wanted to go for but eventually settled on photography with some encouragement from my Mom, who always wanted me to go to school but never pressured me to do so. I had moved to Los Angeles after high school with some friends to go skateboarding.

I worked in a factory for the summer to save for LA and then ended up working at Starbucks in  L.A. to pay the bills, and would shoot video and photos of my friends skateboarding in my free time.

In 2009 I started going full time to Brooks Institute in Ventura, California for visual journalism, where I bought my first serious camera, a Canon 50D. However I would only stay at school for a couple of months, it just became too expensive and there were few scholarships, so it wasn’t long before I moved back to Wisconsin.

I eventually went back to college in 2013 after freelancing at the local paper, the director of photography and a mentor of mine at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel told me that it would be important to have a bachelor’s degree to get a full time job at a news organization, something I have and still inspire to do. If all goes well I will have my degree by the end of spring 2016.

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Mourners in Baghdad, April 11, 2015

 

Did you enjoy it – how has it helped (or hindered) you?

College has opened up the doors to many opportunities, and I’ve been blessed to meet some amazing people, that I would not have had working odd jobs forty hours a week, however it has also been without some serious debt, but again, I could easily have stayed at whatever dead end job with no opportunities… so I am thankful that I had a Mom and Dad that were willing to cosign my student loans so I could go back to school and pursue a career in photojournalism.

And not every school is expensive, I could have gotten a BA for less but the faculty and location was really important in my decision, Chicago has a great journalism scene here, and Columbia had both a strong reporting/writing program, and photo. I went for reporting/writing to learn something different since I had been freelancing as a photographer, and wanted to learn a different skill to fall back on. And at that point of deciding I was really interested in the reporting side as well.

 When and where did you first get interested in the work you do now?

I was interested in photography first and then sort of fell into journalism, I was reading a lot about the Iraq war and then got my hands on Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, and Annie Liebovitz books at Brooks Institute…

So that was really inspiring from the photography side, but with journalism it was NPR that really made me fall in love with the news. Audio is a really different way to “experience” a story, and something about it just clicked where I developed an appetite for consuming not just NPR but reading whatever newspaper I could get my hands on as well.

 

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Tikrit, Iraq, April 2015

Who, if anyone, encouraged or mentored you the most?

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors over the past few years who I still keep in touch with, including Jackie Spinner, a professor at Columbia College Chicago who is part of the reason I chose that school… Jose Lopez, who I met at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute who has always been beyond encouraging, and many friends and colleagues whose advice and support have been invaluable.

What lessons did they teach you that have proven most useful?

I think what I learned most from them is how to work in the industry itself, it’s a small world and very competitive. Getting to learn the ropes the past couple of years, I could always reach out to them with whatever question I had. But theirs and others encouragement, I found equally important. Getting positive feedback on your work is always motivating to do more and think of new ideas and push yourself.

You’ve traveled the world…what gives you the confidence to do so?

I have always been interested in traveling, meeting new people, and learning about new cultures, I suppose from a lot of the skateboarding videos and magazines I’d see/read when I was younger. With street skateboarding the pros would travel the world, and many professional skaters were from different countries as well so being exposed to that made me want to travel.

My parents didn’t travel much, but were always encouraging and supportive and I’ve always worked odd jobs to save money to get myself places and when it came to journalism, I have been able to work on spec. [i.e. without a previous assignment] for the most part.

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Near Tikrit, Iraq, 2015

Other people look at a creative life, and a somewhat transient one, as scary and unpredictable. How does it feel for you?

I really love having a creative outlet, but like many careers that are based on creativity it can feel really stressful and unpredictable. I find that being so passionate about photojournalism makes it much easier to spend so much time and effort without a monetary return, to eat sleep and breathe it, and just being obsessive about it is okay with me because its something I really love.

I know I will not become wealthy as a photojournalist, but as long as I’m doing something I enjoy and can live off of, is what’s important.

Where do you find creative inspiration? Do you have any role models or people you especially admire (in or out of your field?) Why them?

I find a lot of inspiration in friends, colleagues, mentors and other photographers I look up to. Seeing their work and whatever new projects they’re working on inspires me to go out and shoot. I feel that you can learn a lot not just taking pictures but looking at other peoples work, it gives you a different outlook or different way of thinking that can sometimes help you get outside of “your box.”

I also find inspiration in the art, music, and film world, anything that gets me thinking in a new way.

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; a woman hit by tear gas has her eyes rinsed; Ferguson, Missouri

What advice would you offer to people who wish they had your life? (i.e. creativity, freedom, travel, etc.)

Don’t give up. Hard work pays off. For me it’s been a long road but has been truly rewarding knowing I’ve been persistent. And spend time or surround yourself with people who are positive and will challenge you. And be sure to spend time with family.

A week in D.C…

In cities, culture, design, History, life, travel, U.S., urban life on June 25, 2016 at 11:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Union Station, Amtrak station in D.C.

Have you ever been to Washington, D.C.?

I’ve been coming here since I was 12 — even though I grew up in Canada — as I had cousins living near the capital, (whose father ended up being the U.S. ambassador to several countries.)

It’s such a different city from New York!

Manhattan is a grid — avenues and streets. Dead simple!

Not D.C., with its circles (roundabouts) and hub/spoke configurations and sections like NW and streets with letters and streets with numbers…I actually got lost a bit walking only a few blocks and had to use a statue of Hahnemann as my landmark (albeit one of three statues all within the same two blocks!)

A fellow journalist on my fellowship pulled out her phone and said “I’ll use GPS” and the voice said “walk southwest” and we had no idea what southwest was.

I asked the hotel doorman instead.

And, in summer, when the temperature at midnight Saturday was still 74 degrees, walking around in the 88-degree sunshine can be exhausting.

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The scale of the city is meant to awe, and it does, certainly anywhere near the White House, The Capitol, the Library of Congress and its many monuments.

My hotel was a block from 16th street and, as I stared down its length it terminated in a building I was sure had to be a mirage.

But it wasn’t.

It was the White House.

If you’ve ever watched the (great!) Netflix series House of Cards (the American version), the cityscape will be familiar, even eerily so.

But you’ve also seen these iconic buildings in films and on television, possibly for decades. To stand in front of one, let alone walk into it, is both disorienting and amazing.

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I was there a few days after the Orlando attack; this was a memorial service outside the offices of the Campaign for Human Rights

 

It’s a city filled with men in dark blue suits, white shirts and polished black shoes, all wearing a lanyard or ID badge. The subway cars are filled with soldiers in uniform, a rare sight in other cities. The streets throng with eager young interns, many of them long-legged blondes wearing expensive clothes.

Here, you walk past places you normally only read about — The Brookings Institute or Johns Hopkins University or the National Geographic Society — (where I was lucky enough to meet with two editors and hope to do some writing for their travel magazine.)

The place vibrates with power.

It feels like everyone is either lobbying or being lobbied or about to be.

But it’s also a city filled with serious, intractable poverty.

I got onto the 54 bus heading down rapidly gentrifying 14th Street — now all cafes and bars and high-end furniture stores, (the pawnbroker now closed, the liquor stores still in business) — with a woman clearly homeless, carting all her clothes and belongings with her, even in broiling heat.

A woman with a paper cup held the door at a convenience store two blocks from my hotel (charging $259/night) and Union Station, which is one of the most beautiful, clean and well-organized train stations I’ve seen in the U.S., had many homeless as well. It’s a shocking and strange feeling to be in the center of political power, the gleaming white dome of the Capitol easily visible, and see the effects of the nation’s thin and fraying social safety net.

These are some images of my week here, the longest time I’ve ever spent in the city; (only 3 days of which were leisure, the rest spent in a financial planning fellowship with 19 other journalists.)

Enjoy!

IMG_20160618_210328574I attended the 95th annual White House News Photographers Association annual dinner, cheering for my friend Alex Wroblewski, who won Student Photographer of Year

 

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Love this shop — Goodwood — on U street at 14th. Gorgeous and affordable antiques, furniture and vintage-looking clothing and jewelry. (Sort of like a real-life Anthropologie.)

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Had lunch at the counter at this fun, enormous eatery — Ted’s Bulletin — on 14th street.

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Gorgeous, minimalist men’s and women’s clothing at Redeem on 14th Street

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The D.C. Metro is in terrible shape — slow, needing a ton of repairs, but it’s still working. The stations always make me feel like an extra in Blade Runner!

 

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This was a real thrill for  me — I met with several editors there and hope to write for National Geographic Traveler.

 

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The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress

 

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This is why I went to the Library of Congress — a powerful and moving show about the Danish journalist, photographer and social reformer who received essential political backing from Theodore Roosevelt, first as New York’s mayor, then governor — then U.S. President. Riis, an immigrant, was key to illuminating the appalling poverty in New York City during the Gilded Age (late 1890s.)

Real journalism still matters — and it costs

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

It costs lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.

They’re messy and can slow us down.

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

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

Here’s a print version of it.

An excerpt:

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

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

 

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

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

It’s called a press pack for a reason…

 

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

 

 

 

More simple pleasures…

In beauty, culture, domestic life, life on April 30, 2016 at 12:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

An ongoing series of some of the simpler pleasures in my life…Hope they’ll inspire you.

Playing my vinyl, everything from Genesis to koto to Jacques Brel

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It’s the weekend! It begins with the weekend Financial Times and the Saturday New York Times.  Yes, we still read on paper .

 

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The weekend FT is one of my favorite reads — global, witty, incisive. It’s very much a publication of the educated upper class and its various tastes and interests but it’s smart and interesting and much more global in outlook than the Times.

The FT magazine is called — without irony or embarrassment — How to Spend It. While 99% of it is directed to the wallets of the 1%, it’s fun to read.

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There’s all kinds of beauty in our small suburban town, 25 miles north of Manhattan. You just have to look for it.

 

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Beauty is everywhere — like this Paris cafe

Looking through photos from past journeys while dreaming up the next ones…this image is from a cafe in Paris, taken on our visit there in December 2014.

Every morning and evening we get a different view of the Hudson River from our top-floor apartment on the sixth floor. Some mornings it’s so foggy we can’t see anything but the very closest tree-tops.

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Our view

 

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This Moomin mug also makes me happy!

 

Silly treasure. If you don’t yet know about the Moomins, check it out! They’re a series of storybook characters from Finland.

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Yum!

 

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Travel is our one consistent extravagance…My next trip is to Washington, D.C. mid-June for a three-day journalism fellowship. I’ll probably stay there a few extra days to relax and explore.

We had planned to visit Gros Morne in Newfoundland this summer but have postponed it for a year.

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The lilacs are back!

I live for the moment when this spectacular tree, at the very start of our reservoir walk nearby, bursts into fragrant bloom.

Few scents are as intoxicating to me as lilac…you?

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I love cooking, and reading through my various cookbooks for inspiration and ideas. This is a favorite, written by the sister of British actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

One of the things I love most about living in New York is ready access to iconic landmarks like these…

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I snapped this one from the back seat of a cab traveling from Brooklyn to midtown. This is the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River.

One of the great secrets of that bridge is that it would never have been completed without the intelligence and guts of a woman — Emily Roebling — to whom a plaque is affixed to one of the columns. Her father-in-law won the prestigious and highly-coveted commission to build it but died of tetanus.

His son, Washington, took over — and got sick from going into the underwater caissons too often. Emily took over the management of the final eleven years of its construction.

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It really is a cathedral of sorts — Grand Central Terminal. Lots of great shopping and two restaurants under that glorious arched turquoise ceiling. Stop in for a drink and enjoy!

 

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Looks a bit like snow-capped mountains, but it’s one of our two local boatyards, the boats shrink-wrapped during the long winter.

 

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Jose and I have spent decades on this commuter train!

It’s a quick 38 minutes from our town into midtown Manhattan, with a gorgeous ride down the eastern edge of the Hudson River. The train itself is no great beauty, but it’s generally on time, safe, clean and semi-affordable.

I snapped this photo as I got off earlier this week, just as the sun was starting to set.

I hope you’re having a great weekend and enjoying some simple pleasures of your own!

How badly do you want to be a writer?

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It takes talent

 

Yes, it does.

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

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

 

It takes training

 

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

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

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

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

 

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STUDY THE GREATS!

It takes practice

 

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

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

We all crave success and admiration.

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

It takes social skills aka charm

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

Charm is an under-rated skill.

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

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

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

 

It takes skills

 

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

You are not An Artist here.

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

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

We’re hired help.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

It takes studying the greats

“You can’t write without reading.”

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

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

 

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

 

It doesn’t matter what the work is.

T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.

Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.

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

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

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

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

It takes patience

No one writes a perfect first draft.

No one.

 

It means being edited

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

Just don’t even bother.

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

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

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

How badly do you want to improve?

BLOWN AWAY COVER

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

It means being read

Obvious, right?

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

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

A thick skin is key.

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

It means being — publicly –critiqued

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

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

BOOM!

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

(Several other reviews were much kinder.)

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It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair

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

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It means being lucky — or not

 

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

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

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

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

(See a pattern here?)

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

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

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

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

How badly do you really want it?

 

Some insider views of my New York…

In beauty, cities, culture, design, life, photography, travel, U.S., urban design, urban life, US on April 16, 2016 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

You can always see the famous icons of New York City, on postcards and T-shirts and in movies and television.

It can make you feel like you know the city even if you’ve never been here.

But, like every major city, it’s a place of many facets, most of which tourists will never see.

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One of the coolest aspects of New York — and one so easy for pedestrians, drivers and tourists to forget — is that it’s a busy, working harbor.

The East and Hudson Rivers are as crowded with marine traffic as there is vehicular madness on the FDR (highway on the East Side), the BQE (heading out to Brooklyn and Queens) and the West Side Highway.

 

Every day dozens of tug boats are pushing barges somewhere — or guiding enormous cruise ships through a harbor filled with treacherously narrow and shallow channels.

 

I spent one of the happiest days of my work life here aboard a tug boat and came away in awe of these workhorses, each worth a ton of money and able to keep the city moving in ways no other craft can.

What many people don’t know is how crucial tugboats were to us all on 9/11, a day of utter terror and chaos. Here’s a story about their amazing, unsung role.

One of my favorite sights is seeing a tugboat at night, its lights stacked high like a mini wedding cake as it chugs along the river.

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Broadway is still a real treat.

Despite crazy-high prices and the impossibility of getting tickets for some shows like Hamilton, seeing a performance in one of these classic, small, intimate theaters is well worth doing and can create a lifetime memory.

My favorite? Attending, of all things, Mamma Mia, with my husband’s Buddhist lama (yes, really)…Namaste on Broadway!

 

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And Lincoln Center; this is the David Koch Theater. What a pleasure to wait for the house lights and the jewel-shaped lamps fronting each balcony to dim, the hush as the curtain rises on another ballet.

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The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

The entire building is delicate and lovely and ethereal — very early 1960s with all that white marble and gold — and makes an event there feel, as it is, like a special occasion.

 

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Now this is how to sell clothes!

 

This is a classic! One of my favorite shopping streets, East Ninth.

 

There are, still, a very few streets left in Manhattan, (more in Brooklyn now), that are funky and filled with quirky independent shops.

Rents skyrocket daily, forcing many long-time renters and businesses to shut and leave, sometimes to close for good.

The latest?

A gas station at Houston and Broadway, one of a very small handful of gas stations in Manhattan, is soon to be torn down and replaced with….what else?…more million-dollar condominiums.

Hey, who needs gas anyway? Just thousands of working cabbies, to start with.

One of my favorite cafes, Cafe Angelique, (now on Bleecker’s eastern end) had to vacate its spot in the West Village when the landlord jacked the rent to…$45,000 a month.

Find — and support — the indies while you can!

 

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The NYC food bank — which I saw while working on a story about it

 

Never forget — this is a city of incredible, rising income inequality.

 

The photo above, of a space that dwarfs airplane hangars, is filled with food, all of it destined for the city’s poorest inhabitants, many of them elderly.

You can enjoy the High Line and Times Square, dear tourists, but it’s only one tiny sliver of New York City.

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

The film-maker of The Wolfpack literally found her documentary subject on the sidewalk — passing this group of handsome young men — and wondering who on earth they were.

Their story is almost unimaginable, raised inside their Manhattan apartment by a fiercely controlling father.

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Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

 

If you like shopping, you might enjoy a visit to Saks Fifth Avenue. I like eating lunch there, and enjoying this view.

 

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One of the most fun things you can possibly do — dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

 

Or, getting up to dance with 800 strangers at 7 in the morning.

 

Yes, I’ve done it, several times.

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If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see all sorts of elegance and beauty in the least likely places. This is a lamp on a private college campus in Brooklyn.

 

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Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

 

And this tea and coffee shop, here since 1907, makes me happy. I stagger out every time laden with pounds of beans and tea.

 

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The pattern of a metal plate on a Soho street…This is a city that still truly rewards a close look and sustained attention.

 

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The back of a store on Spring Street in Soho. Speaking of quirky…

 

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My birthday month…a facade in midtown Manhattan. Note the twins of Gemini.

 

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A firehouse. How gorgeous is this?!

 

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Nope, not Rome or Florence or Paris…Soho, Manhattan. The cast-iron facades downtown are a terrific reminder of the city’s past, not just the gleaming multi-million dollar condo towers.

 

And for those who still dream of becoming journalists…Columbia Journalism School.

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Columbia Journalism School — there’s a lot they still don’t teach you in the classroom!

 

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I studied here in the 1990s — now I teach writing there!

 

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How can you resist? The city is filled with delicious bakeries and temptations…

If you come, make time to walk sloooooowly and savor all these sights.

 

Three thoughts about the theater

In art, beauty, culture, entertainment on April 9, 2016 at 3:24 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The Belasco theater, Broadway, NYC

What a feast!

I’ve seen four plays within a month: “Blackbird” on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, Wild Sky at the Irish Arts Center, Hughie on Broadway with Forrest Whittaker and The School for Scandal at the Lucille Lortel, a 200-seat theater on Christopher Street in the West Village.

Thanks to tdf.org, all four shows (single seats, all excellent seating) cost $147, about the cost of one Broadway ticket.

I’m a movie buff and my first entertainment choice, at home or out, is always to choose a film, whether a documentary, foreign film, drama or comedy. (I don’t watch horror films.)

So this theatrical binge was both unusual and instructive.

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I loved Blackbird; here’s my blog post about it.

I didn’t much enjoy Hughie and found it (written in 1942) very dated. But the set and lighting were gorgeous and the acting excellent.

Wild Sky reminded me what a magic act theater really is: three actors, no scenery, a tiny stage and audience. It was about the 1916 uprising that led to Irish independence.

And The School for Scandal — written in 1777 (!) — was funny, fresh and delightful. The costumes were a hoot, (the men wore tremendous wigs, some lime green or purple), the sets inventive and the acting terrific. When you come home imitating specific lines and quoting them verbatim, that’s a great play and performance.

Theater is, by definition, a high wire act, both for the actors and the audience.

 

Here’s a recent interview with playwright Kenneth Lonergan and Timothy Olyphant and WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate. (28 minutes.)

The pair point out that every night, and every audience, is different, as are their reactions — a laugh line met with hilarity one night can be met with frosty or confused silence the next.

That silence can rattle the best actor, unless they realize what a living, breathing thing every performance is.

They’re both eloquent here on this fundamental point.

An audience member might fall ill or have their cellphone ring. A piece of scenery might break or fall, (one show here was notorious for its many injuries, including broken bones and a concussion). Someone might forget their lines.

We all hold our collective breath and, as the house lights dim, embark on that show’s adventure together.

In a mediated screened world, it’s an intimacy hard to duplicate.

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Great writing speaks to us across centuries

 

Most of us know the works of Shakespeare and some of the classics. It’s rare that we get to see a production from the 18th century — The School for Scandal met its first audience the year after the United States declared independence from Britain, in 1777.

Imagine the world then!

No radio, television, Internet, airplanes, penicillin, women’s emancipation.

No cars or computers or endless Presidential election campaigns.

And yet…and yet…the most human urges: to scheme, to gossip, to backbite, to create false rumors, to swindle, to grab an inheritance, to marry someone twice (or half) your age, all of which are addressed in this excellent play with wit and charm.

There’s slapstick, romance, surprise, betrayal. They all cross the centuries quite nicely.

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Sound familiar?!

 

Success is fleeting, elusive and rarely a permanent condition for playwrights, (or many other creative people.)

 

On my way home, an hour’s drive, I listened to the great CBC radio show q which is also played now by some NPR stations in the U.S.

The Pulitzer winning playwright, Ayad Akhtar, discussed his play Disgraced; here’s the interview (13: 26)

I loved his calm demeanor when asked about his fame and fortune after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he replied. “I never internalized my rejections — why would I internalize my success?”

Brilliant.

And, even as we all still watch and savor SFS’s playwright Sheridan’s work — 229 years later — he, of course, died in poverty.

So many of the artists whose work we revere today, which draw audiences and whose paintings now sell to Chinese and Russian billionaires for millions, struggled lifelong to earn an income and support a family and find appreciation for their ideas.

 

A good and powerful reminder, I think.

Why being “productive” is a waste of time

In behavior, business, culture, domestic life, life, Money, U.S., work on April 2, 2016 at 11:56 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Attending the ballet and staring at the ceiling — OMG, wasting time!

If there is an obsession I really hate, it’s “being (more) productive”, i.e. making sure that every minute of our every day is spent doing something, preferably as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Do more!

No, do even more. Better!

I live near New York City, a place where if you’re not working reallyhardallthetime — gobbling lunch at your desk with no break in your day — you’re seen as some witless, gormless slacker.

It’s hardly a point of view confined to New York, but it does feel very American, with a deep-rooted and long-established cultural emphasis on making lots and lots and lots of money and never wasting time because…you could be making more money!

All of which strikes me as sad and weird.

This mania for measurement began, as some of you know, with Taylorism and Fordism, ways of manufacturing, (to profit corporate owners and their shareholders), more quickly and efficiently, named for the men who created these systems.

Here’s a great video from the website Aeon, on the topic.

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Time or money? Which do you value more? Must we always choose?

As the video wisely points out, you simply can’t quantify intellectual output the way you can time with a stopwatch how long it takes to install a windshield or weld a joint.

The other essential problem with focusing all our energy on being more productive is that we are not machines. We are not industrial creatures, made of metal and oil.

We need to rest, to think, to reflect, to stare at the sky.

Constantly pumping out goods or services guarantees burnout and resentment.

It’s like dancing with fog, really, if you try to make creative work more efficient.

How long does it take to produce an idea?

A good idea?

An idea that isn’t shot down?

An idea that actually earns a profit?

And must that profit be purely monetary to have value?

What if your idea, instead, saves a life or soothes a colicky baby or gladdens your neighbor’s heart?

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Here are a few things you can’t do more productively:

 

Kiss

 

Die

 

Be born

 

Pray

 

Create a work of art

 

Meditate

 

Comfort someone

 

Be generous

 

Breathe

 

Four spring days in New York City…

In beauty, cities, culture, life, travel, U.S., urban design, urban life on March 30, 2016 at 1:08 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The view north from her apartment, East 81st. Street.

Thanks to my friend D, who lent me her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan while she was out of town, I just enjoyed four days wandering the city, staying overnight.

What a luxury!

I’ve been living near New York City since 1989 but have never lived in it; paying a ton of money for a very small amount of room doesn’t appeal to me.

But, having grown up in Toronto, Montreal, Paris and London, I’m used to — and really miss — the energy of living in the middle of a major city with ready access to culture, museums, shopping and restaurants.

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These are glass circles inlaid into the sidewalk, to allow for illumination below. At night, they were lit up. You’ll find these in Soho, downtown, and they’re often purple as the magnesium in the glass has changed color over the years.

Not to mention the pleasure of not driving everywhere, which I consider the worst curse of suburban life. It’s polluting, isolating and expensive. And makes you fat.

You can’t help but stay in city-shape, thanks to climbing all those subway stairs and walking long cross-town blocks.

(There’s also been a recent, terrifying and unresolved series of slashings and stabbings in and near the subway here, making cabs and walking and buses even more attractive.)

Walk even a few blocks in New York City, and notice all the  details as every building, old or new, has some sort of decoration — glazed bricks, carved gargoyle faces on either side of the entrance, lacy wrought-iron over the glass doors, windowboxes filled with daffodils and ivy.

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You also see the city as it’s lived, not jammed into a throng of fellow tourists.

As I stopped into Cafe Anneliese for my morning coffee, several uniformed police officers emerged, arms piled high with pizza boxes.

At 9:00 a.m.? Turns out the 19th precinct was having a bake sale.

Those are the sort of intimate details you’ll never see wandering midtown or Times Square.

Some of my observations:

So many people!

 

Turns out New York is now the biggest and fastest growing it’s been since the 1920s. Some eight million people now live here.

I never quite grasped the density that entails, but walk just a few long blocks filled with 10, 20 and 40-storey apartment buildings and you start to get the picture.

So many kids!

 

In these four days I realized, because we don’t have children, how little daily exposure to them we have; suburban kids are either in school, being driven somewhere, at some organized activity or at home.

They’re not, at least in my town, playing on the street or swarming a playground.

In the city, I saw them sitting on the bus, (like the four-year-old girl wearing silver leather boots!) and subway and sidewalk, running through the park, chattering to their mom or, as one little girl was, fast asleep on her nanny’s lap.

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So many dogs!

 

If you’re a tourist in New York City, you might not even notice all the dogs. But if you live here, even for a few days in  a residential neighborhood like the Upper East Side, it’s dog city! I had a great time watching all the dog-walkers with their furry charges.

Met two gorgeous fox terrier puppies, one wire-haired named Tulip, one smooth-haired named Panda.

I was also impressed at how spotless the sidewalks were; people definitely seem to be picking up after their pets.

So many tourists!

 

I barely heard a word of English in four days, and in a variety of neighborhoods. Instead, I overheard Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and an Eastern European language I didn’t recognize spoken by four young women, all wearing black, sitting beside me at the bar of an Indian restaurant on Bleecker Street.

One of our games is “guess the tourist”. They don’t need to be holding a map or guidebook for us to know who you are:

1) You’re wearing nice clothes. On weekends, certainly, everyone who lives here is wearing what I wore: leggings, athletic shoes and a jacket or T-shirt. i.e. not an outfit or shred of elegance. It’s all about comfort.

2) You move realllllllly slowly. Jesus, people, move it!

3) You stand still, blocking the exits and entrances to subway stairs, stores and restaurants — or spread your entourage across the entire sidewalk. Please don’t! We move fast and hate it when we can’t.

4) You’re wearing an I Love NY or FDNY T-shirt or sweatshirt. Or, like the young German couple on the uptown 6 train, scrubbing their hands with sanitizer.

So many flowers!

 

This year — hello, global warming?! — the trees are already blossoming: cherry, magnolia and others bursting into white and pink glory about two months too soon. The parks are filled with daffodils and tulips soon to join them.

Not to mention all the flower shops and corner delis filled with plants and flowers to take home.

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Al Dente, a pretty, quiet Italian restaurant at 80th and Amsterdam

 Some of the many activities I enjoyed (all of which you can too, as a visitor here):

Ate well:

Surya, (Indian on Bleecker Street); Virgil’s (barbecue, on 44th St.), Al Dente, (Italian, corner of 80th and Amsterdam, UWS), Patisserie Claude (West 4th, West village.)

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Got a haircut:

At Hairhoppers, my go-to salon for the past 16 years, on Grove Street in the West Village. With only three chairs, it’s tiny and fun, always an unlikely mix of age, gender and kinds of people. On various occasions, I’ve sat beside a Grammy-nominated musician, a Brooklyn museum curator and an I-banker off to the Bahamas.

Alex is the owner, Benny his assistant. My cut was $100, (I can hear you gasping), but I know what rent he pays — and it’s a fair price for terrific work.

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Enjoyed a park

You might not think of parks, beyond Central Park, when you think of New York. But the city has far more green space than Paris, and many lovely pockets of greenery and silence around the city, like Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side, topped at its northern end by Gracie Mansion, the elegant official home of the city’s mayor.

In an overwhelmingly residential neighborhood, it offers the city at its best — clean, manicured, right on the East River so you can watch the barges and police boats and DEP crews zipping past.

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Downtown, before my haircut, I sat for a while in Sheridan Square’s park, marked with several life-size white statues that commemorate a piece of history for the city’s gay population, the Stonewall Inn, which sits just outside the park.

Be sure to just sit still for a while and savor the incredible variety of people who work, live and play here.

Chatted with a stranger

One morning at the corner coffee shop, we got into a conversation with an older woman sitting beside us. Turns out — of course! — she and my husband knew someone in common.

Even in such an enormous city, it happens.

Walked

This is the single best way to enjoy New York City.

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There’s such great architecture almost everywhere; (walk 42d Street from the East River to Fifth Avenue to see Tudor City, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal and the Public Library. Be sure to go inside GCT and the library.) If you love the Bourne films as much as I do, you’ll recognize Tudor City– an elegant series of apartment buildings and a park — as a key scene in one of them.

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Took the bus

The subway? Fuhgeddaboutit!

Buses are by far the best way to see the city without getting crushed, trampled or having your I-phone grabbed out of your hand. If you have mobility issues, buses easily accommodate travelers using wheelchairs and walkers, by “kneeling”, lowering almost to pavement level and with a special lift for access.

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Saw a few shows:

I had never been to Le Poisson Rouge, a concert venue on Bleecker St. near NYU. For an admission fee of $10 and sipping a $10 glass of Malbec, I listened to two of the three bands on that evening. Really enjoyed it.

I discovered that show by reading The Skint, a daily listing of affordable fun events and a must-read for everyone hoping to enjoy New York on a budget.

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Attended Easter service at one of the city’s greatest churches:

Nope, not St. Patrick’s Cathedral but St. Bart’s.

My parents, a New Yorker (my mother) and a Canadian from Vancouver (my father) married at the spectacular church of St. Bartholomew on Park Avenue, so I’ve long felt an attachment to it. The entrance has five mosaic-filled domes overhead and deeply sculpted entrance doors.

Its location — a block north of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and a few blocks from all the major banks and (once) investment houses — locates it in the center of New York power and money. It was founded in 1835 but the current building went up in 1918.

I hope this offers you some inspiration for your next visit here!