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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?

Do you know “the other”?

In behavior, cities, education, life, news, parenting, politics, religion, travel, U.S., urban life, world on July 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

It’s been a week of horror, shock, dismay.

It’s been a week of disbelief that American police officers are gunned down in cold blood in Dallas during a peaceful march — and disbelief that even more black men have been shot and killed by police as well.

In Dallas, local residents are approaching police officers, many likely for the first time, to hug them and pray with them and thank them for getting up every day, ideally, to serve and protect them.

In normal life, barring bad luck or criminal behavior, very few of us ever talk to a police officer.

Few of us are likely  to know one socially unless police work, as it is often is, is part of your own family.

As a career journalist, for whom aggressively challenging hierarchy and questioning authority is key to doing my job well, interactions with police have been been few and far between — I didn’t cover “cops” as part of my job and, more generally, the way police are trained to think and behave is very different from that of journalists.

 

So how, then, do we ever meet, sit down with and get to know “the other”?

 

That “other” — i.e. someone whose race, religion, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic class is wildly different from our own — is someone we really need to know and care about, more than ever.

The divisions, literally, are killing us.

How, then, and where, do we meet one another?

In a world now devoted to narrowed and narrower niches of communication — Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, blogs, media slanted in one direction or another — how do we find and listen thoughtfully to other points of view than our own?

How do we sit down face to face and have a civil conversation?

 

It doesn’t have to be about anything serious. It might be about baseball or music or what books you’ve been reading or your theory about Dany and her dragons on Game of Thrones.

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A tram ticket in Dublin. Travel, to anywhere new to you — if you’re curious and open-hearted — can broaden your vision and understanding.

For me, there are only two places like this right now, and I wish I had more.

One is the church I attend, although less and less of late. It is in a small, wealthy, white and conservative town near me. Of those labels, I’m white.

It’s a polite crowd, but deeply corporate and high-earning, with no one who really understands why I and my husband would choose such a poorly paid industry as journalism. What we have done for decades, and done very well, seems like an amusing hobby to them.

I’ve stayed partly because of those differences, although they are starting to wear me down.

The challenge of engaging with “the other” — beyond stilted chit-chat — is initial discomfort. They might have grown up somewhere far away you’ve never seen or attended a college you’ve never heard of. Maybe they didn’t go to college.

They might out-earn you by a factor of 10, or vice versa. Your collar might be white, blue or none, because you work, as we do freelance, at home in a T-shirt.

The discomfort of “the other” — and theirs with you! — is the point of friction we have to move beyond to create and enjoy dialogue, understanding and friendship.

Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort.

The other place I frequently meet a wide range of people and experiences is with a group of men and women, ages 20s to 70s, who play softball on Saturday mornings. We’ve been doing that since 2001, an unimaginably long time to do anything in a world that changes daily.

Here’s my New York Times essay about them.

In a time of economic and political disruption, even chaos, it’s a haven of comfort and familiarity — even as it brings together a disparate group: a retired ironworker, several physicians, several lawyers, several editors, a gallerist.

After each game, about a dozen of us sit under a tree at a local cafe for a long lunch, whose conversations can turn surprisingly personal and intimate.

It’s not some Kumbaya moment and the group could be even more diverse — people find us through our friendships, generally.

 

If you never meet or talk to people who are very different from you, how can you credibly listen to their experiences and concerns, giving them the same validity you do your own group(s)?

 

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Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp! My week in rural Nicaragua, working with WaterAid, was an extraordinary education. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere

I grew up in Toronto, one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, in a country whose population of immigrants remains higher than that of the U.S. — 20.6 percent.

In the  U.S., with 10 times the population of Canada — it’s 13.3 percent.

Statistically, there, your odds of encountering someone very unlike you — in your classroom at school or college, on your hockey team, in your apartment building, on the subway or bus — are high in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Calgary now has a Muslim mayor (as does London.)

So it’s normal to know, like and respect people who worship on different days, wear different clothing, eat different foods. They’re just…different…not, per se, a threat.

When Jose and I think about moving elsewhere for retirement, our first question is not just “can we afford it?” or “what’s the weather like there”?

It’s — how comfortable will he feel as a man with brown skin?

Donald Trump’s dog whistles of hatred and racism are deeply shocking to many people, in the U.S. and beyond.

My husband is of Mexican heritage, and well established in his field so the taunts can’t hurt him professionally.

But they are a disgusting way to dismiss a nation of people whose hard work has helped the U.S. for decades, if not centuries.

In  a time of relentless, growing fear and xenophobia, I hope you’ll keep talking to, listening to and staying close to “the other”, however that plays out in your life.

Without that, we’re lost.

 

Sharpening the saw — off to D.C., then Toronto

In behavior, business, education, journalism, life, travel on June 11, 2016 at 12:36 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Time for refreshment!

OK, laugh…but I do, occasionally, read self-help books, especially those focused on business.

I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2005, and have done so several times in my career. Which means I have no boss or manager to, ideally, train and guide me, or mentor me or help me get better at what I do.

And being a freelance writer is — very rarely — about the quality of your actual writing, but about your ability to sell, close deals, hustle, to create and sustain profitable new relationships.

So I need to seek, and to find, people and ways to help me stay fresh, smart and sharp.

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New horizons!

A classic of the business self-help genre is Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”, originally published on August 15, 1989, which I read and enjoyed.

Here’s the seventh one, which he calls sharpening the saw:

Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:
Physical: Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Social/Emotional: Making social and meaningful connections with others
Mental: Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spiritual: Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you.

 

Those of you who read this blog regularly know how deeply I believe in and evangelize for a life filled with joy and connection and rest, not just a hard charge from cradle to grave.

 

In that spirit, I’m heading to D.C. this weekend for a firehose of data on writing about retirement. I’ve been writing often for Reuters Money on a variety of personal finance topics, from taxes to how to establish a scholarship. This three-day D.C. fellowship, offered to 20 journalists from across the country, will, I hope, better prepare me to pitch and write smart, incisive stories.

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Lincoln Center, New York City — where my friend invited me, as a young journalist, to perform as an extra in Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet of Canada. I did eight shows, terrifying fun, and wrote about it for the Globe and Mail.

While in Washington, I’m also meeting editors at two major publications and hoping for new work from each of them.

I’ll take three days to rest, recharge and enjoy the city, which I’ve visited many times; favorite spots include the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Sackler Museum, the elegant, serene Asian art wing of the Smithsonian.

I’ll get home, have a day to unpack and repack, then fly to Toronto, my hometown, to attend the wedding reception and brunch of one of my dearest and oldest friends, a woman marrying after decades of independence and financial success running her own business.

I’m super excited for her and her fiance, a distinguished author and professor, and thrilled to be there to share their joy; she spoke at my second wedding, in September 2011 in a small church on an island in the Toronto harbor.

She has known me, and nurtured me, from the very start of my journalism career, when I — a wildly ambitious writer in Toronto — apparently (!?) pestered her for free tickets to the ballet, which she represented for years as their press officer.

We quickly became good friends, and she has welcomed me into her home many, many times. I later wrote several times about the National Ballet, and had some great adventures as a result; I was honored to write an essay for their 35th anniversary souvenir program as well.

She is more family to me than anyone to whom I’m related.

It’s also been a busy spring with no out-of-state travel since early January, so I’m really ready for a break, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

How have you been “sharpening the saw?”

 

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.

 

 

 

The true meaning of collegiality

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 25, 2016 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Writing for a living can be lonely!

 

Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.

As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.

It’s a real loss.

 

We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.

 

We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.

And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.

 

Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.

 

I attended, along with 599 others, the annual meeting the of American Society of Journalists and Authors, held every spring in midtown Manhattan at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.

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The writer and I have become Twitter friends — but have yet to meet in person. Terrific book!

After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.

The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.

Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.

I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.

 

We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.

 

On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.

Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)

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

Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!

A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.

That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.

It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.

We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.

How and where do you find true colleagues?

Mentoring 3.0

In behavior, business, education, life, work on May 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Which path should I choose?!

 

The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.

You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.

But here’s the thing.

I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.

The economy has changed.

Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.

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Books can offer lots of great advice, too!

Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.

So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.

We all need to adapt.

I’ve mentored many people throughout the years.

Some have become and remained dear friends, like this talented young woman in London. I’m super thrilled to see what a great career and life she has created for herself.

A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!

Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.

I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.

Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.

Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.

Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.

They might not even have a “job” anymore!

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It all feels so mysterious, though. Help!!!

Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!) — pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.

Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.

Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.

We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.

Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.

No one owes you this!

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker — and generous mentor to many in our field

And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.

In the new economy, we all need one another.

A life-changing week — without easy access to water

In culture, domestic life, education, journalism, life, travel, urban life, world on March 23, 2016 at 1:33 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

In a good way!

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On assignment in rural Nicaragua…

Two years ago this month, I was returning home to our apartment in suburban New York from a week that radically altered my views on work, on luxury, on life.

With a multi-media team — a photographer from Cuernavaca, Mexico (where I lived as a 14-year-0ld), a blogger from Brunswick, Maine and a communications officer from New York — I spent a week working with WaterAid in Nicaragua, a country I had never been to before.

On paper, the whole thing sounded a bit crazy, putting together a team of people ranging in age from 20s to 50s, who had never met or worked together, and jamming us into a rickety van we needed to push occasionally to work 12-hour days in 95-degree heat.

 

Best week of my life.

I had gotten to know the comm’s person, Alanna, and knew she was fun, smart and warm. That was enough for me, so whoever else she had chosen would be fine. And they were. We had many hours together, traveling in a very small plane (so small they weighed each of us, not just our baggage!) and by van.

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Our WaterAid team

We met up in Managua, a three-hour flight from Atlanta. We flew from there to Bilwi, a town on the eastern coast, of 40,000 people.

We quickly learned that our hotel’s showers and toilets and sinks with running water were a rare luxury there — that almost half the population had none of these things. They had a pipe in their front yard with water supplied by the city, if they had it at all. Or they walked a mile or more to the nearest well.

It was really hot, about 90 degrees every day all day. When you sweat that much, you need to drink a lot of water and you really want to bathe and clean off at day’s end. Now, I realized, these were luxuries I had taken for granted for decades. My whole life.

We drove into the countryside, a two-hour journey each way, to watch local villagers building their own toilets and sanitation projects so I could write about them for WaterAid and Rodrigo could make photos and videos. Jen and I did a Twitterchat later in the week to explain what we were seeing; it gathered a staggering response.

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid; Jen beside me, Dixie in the background

To conduct interviews, we worked in Spanish and in Miskitu, for which we had a translator, a local academic with the delightful name of Dixie. Tall, gentle, Dixie was our right hand.

One night we all stayed in the home of one of the women we were writing about, Linda. The house was all made of wood, with a corrugated tin roof and wide open windows, without glass but with curtains. The floors were soft and smooth beneath our bare feet, meticulously clean and free of insects.

 

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Linda’s home

We brought our own food, which Linda and her family cooked for us on their clay stove. Their home has no electricity or running water, so they cooked by the light of flashlights and headlamps.

We slept together in one large room on narrow cots with sleeping bags and mosquito nets, lulled to sleep by the sound of someone speaking in Spanish from the transistor radio hanging from a very large nail on the balcony.

In the morning, Jen and I traveled with Linda and her mother in law and her daughter across a river to collect vegetables from their plot there. We walked through the forest to reach the river, followed the whole way by a very large, very friendly and very determined turkey, one of the many animals living beneath their home.

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Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

As we reached the river’s edge, Linda’s mother in law, wielding a very sharp long machete casually reached behind herself, lopped off two lengths of bamboo, cut their ends at an angle and dropped them into the wooden dugout canoe for us — seats!

We were accepted without demands or interrogation. Welcomed into their home and treated as guests with kindness and respect. For most of us, there are few moments in life when you connect across culture, language, nationality, age, education. They are deeply moving. Unforgettable.

 

On both side of the river, we climbed steep sandy banks to reach the vegetable crops. By the time we returned to the house, the sun was so hot that I feared heatstroke, heading to the well to throw buckets of water over me.

The time we spent in Nicaragua — working as a team, meeting and interviewing and getting to know some of the local people — also could not have been a greater contrast to my work at home in New York.

It was a week of easy cooperation (not relentless competition.) Open-heartedness and kindness (not resentful close-fistedness.) Bottles of ice-cold water and comfortable beds to keep us going, comfortably (not the standard annoyance of being ignored or rejected by busy editors.)

And what joy to be part of a team of smart, passionate, funny and warm professionals. I work alone at home, and have done so for a decade. This was a great break from isolation and total self-reliance.

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When we parted ways in Managua, we were teary. Two years later, Jen and and Alanna and I remain friends, in close contact still. Their country director, a fellow Canadian named Josh, came all the way out to our home to visit when he came up to New York.

I cried several times over this experience, which shocked me — I never cry.

But what I saw and felt there deeply touched me, both the ridiculous contrast between our easy life here and the penury we saw in Nicaragua. And also for the kindness and camaraderie I felt that week.

Journalism is very often a brutish business and its people too often gruff and dismissive, no matter what level of experience or skill you offer. They rarely praise or thank. They fight you over every penny you need to earn or to do the job well, and more than 24,000 of us have been fired or laid off in recent years.

To be treated as…valuable? Enjoyable? That was a blessedly unfamiliar feeling.

I now look for different kinds of work and deeper relationships with people whose values I admire.

I also turn off the water when I brush my teeth.

650 million people worldwide lack access to safe water.

Imagine being one of them.

 

 

Why read?

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, culture, education, journalism on March 16, 2016 at 12:44 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? I LOVED this book, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

You’re doing it this very second. (Bless you!)

We’re all so time-starved,  between school and work and kids and aging parents and illness, (ours or others’) and income (getting, keeping, investing if lucky). Oh, and TV and movies and other places on the Internet.

Some days I picture libraries and bookstores as a piteous forest, arms reaching out entreatingly — read us!

In an era of CPA, continuous partial attention, (a phrase coined in the Dark Ages, back in 1998), our undivided attention is now a rarity.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

Each weekend, I plow through the Saturday New York Times, Sunday New York Times and the weekend Financial Times; two of these include magazines also full of content and images.

As my husband asked recently, “How many words do you think that is?”

I read them in print, as much for the pleasure of its tactility as the satisfaction of tossing all the read sections on the floor.

Done! Progress!

I also read in print as an escape from the computer screen, to which I’m attached for so many hours every day — like you, I suspect!

My eyes get tired. I want a different medium.

In addition to these, I read the NYT and FT daily and, for work and pleasure, magazines ranging from Period Home (a British shelter mag) to Wired to Bloomberg Businessweek. (My husband subscribes to photo and golf magazines and Monocle and Foreign Affairs as well.)

I make a little time to consume digital stories, and some of them are terrific, (on Medium, Narratively and others.)

I follow 905 Twitter accounts, about 85 percent of which are news sources and, when read  en masse, can be deeply disorienting and confusing — I’ll see graphic news photos of the latest MidEast terrorist bombing followed immediately by a pastel Dorset living room from a design magazine.

 

And I still make time to read books, the most recent being “Answered Prayers”, a classic by the late Truman Capote, whose desperate indiscretion destroyed his glittering career. I found it odd, bitter, not enjoyable. I’m glad I’ve read it, but what a nasty little creature he was! (This, in case you forgot, is the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, later adapted to a legendary film.)

And another American classic, the 1937 “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I put it off for ages, then couldn’t put it down: great characters and plot, written in dialect.

I never leave home, (and have done this my whole life), without a book or magazine or newspaper, and often all of these at once.

These bookshelf photos are some shelfies — what’s on our bookshelves at home here in  New York…no, I haven’t (yet!) read all of them.

 

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As author of two well-reviewed works of non-fiction — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (2011) — I also have a vested personal interest in how much readers care about books!

BLOWN AWAY COVER

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My second book, published in 2011

Here’s an interesting new effort to actually figure out why people stop reading a book:

Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to write a review, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information that the device has recorded. The information shows Jellybooks when people read and for how long, how far they get in a book and how quickly they read, among other details. It resembles how Amazon and Apple, by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps, can see how often books are opened and how far into a book readers get.

Jellybooks has run tests on nearly 200 books for seven publishers, one major American publisher, three British publishers and three German houses. Most of the publishers did not want to be identified, to avoid alarming their authors. The company typically gathers reading data from groups of 200 to 600 readers.

Mr. Rhomberg recently gave a workshop at Digital Book World, a publishing conference in New York, and some of his findings confirmed the worst fears of publishers and authors.

On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.

Some of the reasons I read:

Style

What words and phrases did the writer choose? Do they work? What emotions are they eliciting in me?

Do I love their choices or am I finding them irritating and distracting? Why?

Do I wish I could write as beautifully? (Read “H is for Hawk” for some exquisite use of language.)

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Information

Forever deeply curious about the world — history, politics, economics, nature, science, belief systems, psychology, business, music, art, antiques. There’s so much I don’t know! So much I want to understand.

Writing that clearly and compellingly teaches me?  Yes, please!

New worlds

Maybe it’s ancient Egypt or Edwardian-era London or Paris in the 16th. century or a rural town populated primarily, in an era of segregation, by African-Americans. I need to visit other worlds, literally and imaginatively.

Great writing takes us there.

Escape

It’s such a joy to escape into a great piece of writing, so that when you stop reading you look up, disoriented and a bit dazed.

Where were you? Where are you now?

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Characters

Love savoring characters so real you want to have lunch with them and miss them terribly when you’re done. I still miss the cast of “The Goldfinch”, a doorstop of a book given to me for my birthday two years ago. I wonder about the residents of the Paris apartment building in “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”

I also wonder about the ongoing lives of so many of the people I read about in journalism and non-fiction, from soldiers to aid workers to choreographers

Inspiration

As someone who writes for a living, I need to read great work by other writers, whether a book review, an essay, an op-ed, a novel, even a great tweet. I want to see how other writers have chosen to structure a narrative, create suspense, choose and carry a theme, or several, to completion.

It can be non-fiction, journalism, an essay, from the 21st century or the 16th.

Artists in every genre look to the greats for inspiration. I do too.

Beauty

Jose and I have a collection of reference books — of photography, painting, decorative arts, antiques and home design. These include works on Inuit women artists, Gustav Klimt, elephants, jewelry, vintage textiles and a gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of global interior design.

On a cold wintry afternoon, paging through these glorious images is a lovely break.

 Emotional Connection

Depending on  genre — self-help, memoir, essay, religion, philosophy — what a writer chooses to share about their life and their intimate struggles can help readers facing the same or similar challenges.

 

Are you an avid reader?

 

 

 

How to conduct an interview: 10 key decisions

In blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, news, work on February 4, 2016 at 3:23 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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My recent interview with this author, posted here, was conducted by email, a Q and A

For those of you who work in journalism, or need to interview someone.

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004. I interviewed 104 men, women and teens from 29 states.

For some people, the idea of actually having to question another human being is terrifying and which — to their professional detriment and the weakness of their stories — they try to avoid.

But very few pieces worth reading are constructed without interviews, whether they provide fantastic sound bites or simply (not simply!) the essential foundation for understanding a complex issue so you can explain it cogently to your readers.

I conduct many more interviews than may actually appear in my published stories; while I typically need three to four interviews per 1,000 words, that’s not a rule.

I’m writing a 900-word story this week and have already done more than 10 interviews, several of them 45 to 60 minutes each.

Why not use them all?

Sometimes the quotes are boring, but the information was important. Maybe what they said they sent me hurtling off in an unexpected, new direction.

Conducting an interview takes forethought, planning, skill and considerable emotional intelligence. You can’t just go down a laundry list of your questions and not, as it’s happening, respond and react to what you’re hearing.

In my 30 years as a journalist and author of two non-fiction books of national reporting, I’ve done hundreds, probably thousands, of interviews. I really enjoy them!

These have included a female admiral, a Prime Minister, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, crime victims and victims of torture. It doesn’t matter who you’re interviewing — what matters most is how you approach them and your time with them.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit. READ a lot. Be smart before you pick up the phone or send that email!

Do your damn homework!

Read as many boring long detailed government, policy, non-profit scientific or academic reports as needed before you start asking silly, elementary questions.

Watch videos and listen to broadcasts and podcasts on your subject so you know what the hell they’re talking to you about. Get up to speed!

Because every interview you conduct is a potential and crucial link in your reporting chain; if you impress each subject with your preparation and ability to handle yourself well, they can lead you to the next one, and possibly with a key introduction.

I’ve won national exclusives this way. We are being evaluated every single time. Never forget that.

It means paying careful attention.

 

First decision:

Who to speak to and why? What do you need from each person? How available are they — or will you get stuck with a spokesman from their PR department instead?

Second decision:

Will the interview be conducted by phone, email, Skype or in person?

In person is almost always the best, giving you a chance to closely observe their dress.  grooming, demeanor, reactions, silences, body language and surroundings. If by phone, be sure neither of you will be interrupted by pets, children, co-workers, and block out at least 15 minutes or more — you’ll get very little of value in only five minutes.

Some interviews work well by email, especially if your subject is traveling and/or in a distant time zone; the risk is that their replies will feel stilted or, worse, be written by someone who’s not your subject. Skype can work well for subjects too far away to reach in person or by phone.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes! Don’t forget “vox pops” — interviews with people in the street and those who have turned out for an event

Third decision:

What do you want from this interview? Facts? A great anecdote? A terrific quote? Confirmation of others’ opinions — or denial? Analysis of a complex issue?

Fourth decision:

Is this interview on the record — i.e. will you be able to quote this person and use their full name, age, location and profession? If not, you need to negotiate — before they begin to speak! — if they are speaking not for attribution, on background or off the record. Only before someone speaks should this agreement be made, not afterward when they suddenly regret something they have told you. Be sure you both understand the terms of the interview before you begin.

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid, our trusty translator, Dixie, in the background

Fifth decision:

Take notes or tape? Both? Use a laptop for note-taking or pen and paper? To me, these are highly individual choices, although some clients will insist, as part of your contract, that you not only tape record but provide them with a full transcript of your notes. I use pen and paper. I find laptop note-taking noisy and intrusive. It’s important to be able to look your interview subject in the eye! Don’t be a robot.

Sixth decision:

What’s the tone and mood of your interview? Confrontational? Insistent? Humorous and relaxed? Deferential? Just because your topic is serious doesn’t mean you have to be leaden and tedious. Think through the best way to make your interlocutor feel most comfortable and go from there.

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Will you share your secrets with me?

Seventh decision:

Where will you conduct the interview, if meeting in person? Ideally, their home or office, as a space potentially filled with intriguing clues about their interests and passions. But if they’re traveling or a celebrity, you’ll likely be stuck in a hotel room or restaurant.

Eighth decision:

How much time will you spend with them? I rarely allow less than 30 minutes for my interviews. It takes time for your subject to feel at ease with you and for you to develop some rapport with them. If you’re writing a profile of them, be prepared to spend a lot of time around them to get a feel for their character and behavior patterns — I once spent eight hours (four two-hour sessions) with one woman I was profiling (plus many additional hours speaking to her family, colleagues and former colleagues.)

Ninth decision:

When will you ask the tough(est) and most challenging questions? You can’t just wimp out for fear they’ll get angry or yell at you (they might) or hang up or say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard!” While working on a fantastic national piece for the New York Daily News, I knew I’d hit pay dirt when a Homeland Security flack sneered: “There’s no story here!”

Structure your interview time thoughtfully and be sure to get those harder questions asked, even if you have to repeat them multiple times and/or rephrase them. Yes, typically, we save them for close to the end.

Tenth decision:

The snowball effect, it’s called in sociology. Ask: “Who else should I be speaking to next about this issue?” If you’ve done your homework, conducted the interview sensitively and intelligently, they’ve enjoyed it, and you, and will send you on to your next great source.

 

 Still need some help?

I coach individually at $225/hour, with a one-hour minimum, via phone or Skype, and also offer several terrific webinars, which we schedule at your convenience, at caitlinkelly.com/classes.

What lessons did your first boss teach you?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, life, work on January 23, 2016 at 1:53 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

As a follow-up to my Devil Wears Prada post, I’ve been thinking about my first editor(s) when I started out in journalism and my first full-time-job boss and the lessons they taught me — some of which might resonate for you.

I began freelancing as a writer for national publications when I was 19, having grown up in Toronto, the center of Canadian publishing.

Eager to join the world of journalism, I immediately signed up as a reporter for the weekly campus newspaper at the University of Toronto, and started writing as much as they would let me. Within a year, I had a good pile of articles, (aka clips), to show to professional magazine and newspaper editors I hoped would pay me for them.

I first started writing for a national Canadian magazine, then called Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

My editor was ferocious!

Her own mother was a legendary writer and so is her younger sister. I had never formally studied journalism or writing, beyond a BA in English literature from the equally-ferocious University of Toronto.

No one in my new worlds, either college or journalism, suffered fools gladly!

My editor would circle every misplaced or misused or lazy word with a red pen — this was in the day of typewriters and paper copies.

My first few stories were an embarrassing sea of red circles.

The New York Times newsroom...since 1990, I've written more than 100 stories for them

The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

She taught me a lesson I never forgot: to use specific verbs in the active tense.

When we spoke on the telephone, (no Internet!), and she told me what was wrong with my work, I would occasionally end up in tears.

Was it always fun? Clearly not.

Was I learning (and getting paid to do so?) Clearly so.

I could give up and walk away — or continue to learn my craft.

She and I are Facebook friends today.

My first book, published in 2004...all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first book, published in 2004…all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first newspaper boss was a man so shy most people thought he was cold and unfriendly but he was really someone who valued guts and intelligence.

He took the crazy risk of hiring me — although I had zero prior staff newspaper experience — to work for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s daily national newspaper.

My first day, staring up at the large overhead clock that still rules every newsroom, I thought: “Wow, they want this story….tonight.

He kept throwing me into huge, terrifying, front-page stories, from covering an election campaign in French in Quebec, (I had never covered politics, anywhere, for anyone, let alone en francais), to a two-week national tour trailing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip from New Brunswick all the way to Manitoba.

The lizard part of my brain sent me to cry in the bathtub, scared to death I would fail every time and get fired. That was his agenda!

The rational part of my brain told me to shut up and get on with it. I was being offered tremendous opportunities to shine. The rest was up to me.

I did fine.

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid in March 2014

I remain forever grateful to both editors for giving me amazing (scary!) chances, knowing I was still young and fairly green, knowing I might have proven a terrible disappointment. They had more confidence and faith in me than I often did.

That’s my definition of a great boss.

What did your first boss or job teach you that was most helpful?

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