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Toughen up, buttercup!

In behavior, books, education, journalism, life, parenting, photography, work on May 23, 2015 at 1:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible.

A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible.

Have you seen this interesting list of the seven habits of the mentally tough? From Inc. magazine, it includes no whining, acting as if you’re in control (even when you’re not) and refraining from the bad habit of freaking out endlessly over…everything.

It seemed quite a contrast from this post, from a blog about what it felt like for this writer when her agent wasn’t wild about her finished manuscript, from Women Writers, Women’s Books:

The sounds you just heard were my dreams and confidence being blown to bits.

Super Agent’s opinion – and she was right – was that I needed to do a major rewrite. The story concept was strong, but the story structure didn’t work at all. She said that she knew the audiences the editors who are interested in me are selling to, and the manuscript as I wrote it wouldn’t be a good fit. In publishing, not being “a good fit” is a death sentence.

You, shakily: But what about the betas, they liked it a lot. [My note: a “beta” is a “first reader”, someone you’ve asked to read your book before your agent and/or editor do.]

Super Agent, calmly: Betas know writing. Agents know the market.

I’m going to be honest with you. This was a very dark day. My lips and hands trembled. For weeks, my breathing would be shallow and intermittent…

It was a Thursday. By Monday, I had pulled myself together. This is not because I’m some kind of hero. I’m not. But what choice did I have? There are only two: leaving it wrong or making it right.* I love my story and my characters. I have big dreams for my career. Super Agent was right on every count. There was only one thing I could do. Write it again. I wrote her an email thanking her.

Then I dedicated myself to taking my magnum opus apart, scene by scene, word by word. It was excruciating, but that wasn’t the only problem. Firstly, I had no idea how to put it back together any better than before. Cue the panic. Secondly, my heart was still in pieces…

I found myself talking to a writer-friend who happens to be an award-winning, bestselling author..when I abruptly spilled to her what had happened and how I felt…

That is when I heard the words that put me back together. She said to me, “This is how it goes.”

I had a similar moment when I received the notes on my second book. “I really liked Chapters 11 and 12,” said my editor. Um…what about the first 10?

I felt the same panic, that I wouldn’t be able to make it good enough. Like the author above, I called a calm friend who said six fateful words: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

So I did.

My husband began his career as a news photographer working for a small town newspaper. He had a mentor, a highly accomplished older professional with national experience to whom Jose would proudly mail copies of his published photos.

A manila envelope would return — filled with confetti. Jose’s work. (He went on to a 31-year career at The New York Times as a photographer and photo editor, and helped them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of 9/11. Here’s his blog.)

But what if he had given up?

Sugar helps!

Sugar helps!

Maybe journalism self-selects people who can withstand pretty harsh criticism, even if it’s painful.

It certainly comes with the territory — our editors, highly-competitive colleagues, determined competitors from other outlets and readers are all quite delighted to tell us when we’ve screwed up. Our ass-whipping is also relentlessly public, whether in comments on a blog or website, nasty Amazon reviews or letters to the editor.

And newsrooms are rarely warm, nurturing places where someone will hand you a tissue if, ego battered, you start crying. No crying!

One super-talented award-winning friend of mine in his mid-40s recently won a prestigious and well-paid year studying, thanks to a fellowship. It was his third attempt.

My first book -- 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

My first book — 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

He did not give up.

I’ll probably re-apply for a similarly difficult-to-win fellowship this year, for the third or fourth time. It’s annoying to keep putting my hand up and never winning, but them’s the breaks.

As someone who’s competed at a national level as an athlete, I know what mental stamina it takes to just keep going in the face of frustration, exhaustion or disappointment.

So I really find it sad and surprising to see how fragile some young women are in the face of fairly standard forms of bullshit — sexism, chauvinism, rejection.

Criticism.

They freak out when people don’t admire their work or quickly promote them or don’t answer their emails quickly or don’t “like” their posts on social media.

Toughen up, buttercup!

I was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, surrounded night and day by strangers, a place where comfort was elusive, at best. So maybe this is just a habit learned early.

I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been mercilessly bullied, in high school and in several workplaces. I’ve survived divorce, four orthopedic surgeries within a decade, criminal attack.

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

Both my books, both well-reviewed, were rejected by 25 publishers apiece before they finally found a home.

Whatev.

To some people, I appear mean and impermeable. I’m neither.

But I do know how to armor up.

How many things can you do well at once?

How many things can you do well at once?

It’s an essential skill for anyone who hopes to thrive professionally, and, often, personally. It’s essential to anyone doing creative work, whose income relies on the subjective opinion of others.

Oh, yeah…like…everything.

Here, from the brilliant blog Brain Pickings, is a post about Henri Rousseau, the French painter who worked as a toll collector, taught himself to paint and was nastily dismissed for decades. Without his persistence, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy his gorgeous, complex and mysterious paintings.

Are you mentally tough?

You’ve graduated college! Now what? Ten tips…

In aging, behavior, education, life, work on May 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

First — congratulations!

Maybe you’re one of those whose cap read Game of Loans.

Maybe you had a full ride and are graduating debt-free.

Maybe you’ve already found your first job.

A few thoughts as you head into off-campus life:

Stay in touch with any professors with whom you had a great relationship

Many students leave college without ever having spoken to a professor outside of class. They might have stuck to email or texts or simply focused only on their grade. Mistake! Every bright, ambitious student who has forged a more personal relationship with a professor, or several, has already significantly smoothed their path to internships, jobs, freelance work, fellowships and graduate school recommendations.

Time to up your wardrobe!

Even if you’re only working part-time or job-hunting, know that almost every opportunity to connect with an adult in your life can open useful doors. But only if you leave a favorable impression. While baggy jeans, sloppy PJs, purple hair and 12-hole Doc Martens might have been your school’s unofficial uniform, you now need to impress a different set of people. Employers!

Same with grooming

Details matter, even if not to you or your friends: raggedy cuticles, chipped nail polish, hair that’s weeks past needing a trim or cut, shoes that need new heels or a coat of polish. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

It's not personal! Armor up, kids!

It’s not personal! Armor up, kids!

Look people in the eye, smile and offer a firm handshake

Many of the people you’ll now be interacting with — whether work colleagues or supervisors — are people of a different generation, and they expect you to arrive with polished social skills. No matter how shy or scared you really might feel, people respond best to someone who looks them in the eye when they speak and who is clearly paying careful attention to what they say.

Scrub your existing social media and keep it clean

No one, I assure you, wants to see photos or videos of your drunken or stoned exploits. Nor angry/obsessive comments about your love life or lack of same. Make sure you have a LinkedIn profile with a terrific recent head-shot and fill it out completely; it’s many employers’ first stop when deciding who to interview for a position.

A blog can be a great sales tool

If you don’t have one — and you have an area of expertise, especially — get started! WordPress themes are free and dead easy to set up. Think of your blog as a 24/7 marketing tool. If it is well-written, free of spelling and grammatical errors and well-illustrated, it can show off a wide range of your skills and some of your personality in a way that no resume can match.

Get a great-looking business card and hand them out wherever possible

Moo.com makes great-looking ones. Al you need is your name, email address, phone number and Twitter handle.

Use a stamp!

Use a stamp!

Attend every conference, event and panel in your desired field or industry that you can afford

Now that you’ve finished with classes and grades as your measures of success and learning, it’s time to start connecting with some of the people you might like to work for. Seek out a few Twitterchats in your field or desired industry. Lurk long enough to see who’s who, but adding smart, insightful comments will make people curious about you and what you have to offer.

Almost every conference offers some opportunity to save costs by volunteering there. And be sure to introduce yourself politely, (see: business cards.) A bright, well-mannered, friendly fresh grad — with a business card and some wit and charm — can make powerful impressions in only one day. (Follow up quickly with the people you’ve met and want to stay in touch with before they forget who you are.)

Informational interviews are a terrific way to gather intel on where to go next

I’m surprised how little-known this technique is as an excellent way to learn a lot about possible careers or graduate programs.

When I considered leaving journalism for interior design — quite a leap! — I interviewed three women working in the field and asked them some basic questions: What do you like best about this work? What do you like least? What are the three most essential skills needed to succeed in this industry?

You can learn a great deal from conducting a focused 20-minute informational interview, including that you really don’t want to do that dream job after all. Arrive at each face-to-face or Skype meeting with a prepared list of 8-10 focused questions, take careful notes, do not ask them to hire you — and send a hand-written thank-you note on good plain stationery, (yes, with a stamp), within two days.

If you can afford to travel for a while, go!

If you can afford to travel for a while, go!

Breathe!

You’ve worked really hard for four or more years. You’ve made great friends, enjoyed a wide range of new experiences (see: scrub social media!), gained intellectual confidence and skills. While “everyone else” might have a job or a plan for grad school or a sexy internship already, take your time to decompress a bit.

Go!

Go!

I think the very best choice any fresh grad can make — if you can afford it financially — is to travel as far and for as long as possible; post-graduation I spent four months alone in Europe, traveling Portugal, Italy, France and Spain and it taught me a lot more about how to be independent. It also helped me win the best experience of my life, an eight-month journalism fellowship based in Paris, whose criteria included language skills and a demonstrated interest in European affairs.

Done!

The rest of your life awaits.

Stretching your comfort zone…to the breaking point

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, life, love, parenting, women on May 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker -- an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new adventure for both of us!

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker — an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new and fun adventure for both of us!

If there’s a phrase I hate, it’s “comfort zone”.

How big is it?

Why is it so small?

Or so large?

Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.

And, really, what’s “safe”?

Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.

To never show a moment’s vulnerability.

To do it all, all alone.

As if.

I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.

They'll just keep going...

They’ll just keep going…

That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.

That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.

That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.

Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.

He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.

Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”

A comfort zone -- enjoyed far too long -- becomes a soul-cage

A comfort zone — enjoyed far too long — becomes a soul-cage

It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately  — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.

Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.

You become a reluctant witness.

They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.

It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.

Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.

It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.

It is real.

You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.

No whining. No complaining.

We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.

But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.

And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.

I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.

As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.

We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.

We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)

Feelings?

Surely you jest.

Frailty? Pain?

Not so much.

And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.

We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.

(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)

New horizons!

New horizons!

Have you been stretched recently?

How did it turn out?

The tribe meets…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, work on May 4, 2015 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book

My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.

photo(45)

People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

The love of learning

In behavior, blogging, education, life, work on April 28, 2015 at 3:00 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I attended two schools of higher education, as different from one another — as the British say — as chalk and cheese.

I did four years of undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, Canada’s toughest university. Our professors were world-class scholars, some of them terrifying in their capes and bow ties, quoting in Latin or German or Greek.

We didn’t dare speak to them outside of class, and rarely during class. They had little idea who most of us were — lost in a sea of 53,000 students across a downtown campus so large it took me 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other.

I later attended the New York School of Interior Design, where I also now teach occasionally, and found a totally different experience: warm, welcoming, demanding but supportive. I love its bright red door on the north side of East 70th., ducking into Neil’s Diner down the street for a coffee before or after class.

Our classes were small, our teachers consistently insisting on our excellence. I loved it all. OK, except for drafting.

I decided not to switch careers, but don’t regret a minute of the thousands of dollars I spent there. I loved my classes and have developed a strong and solid alternate skill set.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

I’m happiest as an experiential learner — which is why journalism is such a good fit for me. Here, on assignment in Nicaragua, for WaterAid

Learning can be fun, exhilarating, inspiring.

And exhausting.

So, too, can teaching.

Not because simply transferring skills and knowledge is pedagogically complex. People learn at different speeds, with different levels and styles of intelligence, aptitude or interest.

Did you see this extraordinary recent story about an American professor who failed his entire class?

After 20 years in the classroom, he lost it.

malled cover HIGH

Last Saturday I attended and spoke at a writers’ one-day conference in Bethesda, Maryland; I was on the day’s final panel about how to turn a print career into a book.

I’ve been writing for a living for decades — why bother listening to all the others?

What’s left to learn?

Lots. If you’re open to it.

I sat beside legendary biographer Kitty Kelley at lunch and heard delicious out-takes from her book about Frank Sinatra as we ate our sandwiches.

I heard a law professor describe her solution to the exact problem I’d just faced in my own classroom and asked her if she’d advise me more in future.

I heard one biographer describe how much — after years of work — she decided she loathed her subject, Harold Ickes — and gave all her materials to another writer. What generosity!

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

This week I’ll teach my two college classes, as usual, on Thursday.

Then, all day Friday and Saturday, I’ll sit in stuffy hotel meeting rooms for the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual conference in New York City, and learn as much as I possibly can — about new markets, about how to do social media better, about how to improve my thinking and writing.

I’ll meet old friends from across the country, and make some new ones.

Learning is something we do, ideally, until the day we die.

How about you?

Do you love learning (or teaching)?

The having (or not) of faith

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, design, education, life, religion, work on April 19, 2015 at 12:35 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action -- that collective community response still matters

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action — that collective community response still matters

I married a PK, a preacher’s kid.

Jose’s father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parish numbered about 30 — with a church large enough to hold 200. He faced many empty pews, yet kept on going.

His mother was a kindergarten teacher.

She was, he says, the epitome of faith.

Money was often tight and Jose, the sensitive, often worried baby of the family, sometimes wondered if everything would be OK.

“Have faith,” his mother told him.

We tend to talk about faith in narrow religious terms, as faith in a deity or a set of guidelines.

I’m interested, here, in the faith we place in ourselves, in one another and in the world around us.

Without it, without even a shred of it, we’re paralyzed. Too scared to move.

I started selling my creative work to strangers when I was 12. I sat on a Toronto street corner and sold bead necklaces. At 15, I sold my home-made stationery and at 18, my photos — and was gratefully stunned when one of the city’s top fashion photographers bought one.

Maybe that flickering flame of faith in myself, in my nascent skills, in my ability to connect with others who found value in my work danced a little higher then.

Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn't, then what?

Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn’t, then what?

Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.

Without faith in our parents — to guide, teach, protect us — we feel un-moored and unsafe.

Without faith in our intelligence and stamina, we can’t accept that learning can be exhausting and difficult.

Without faith in our elected and appointed officials, we can’t function — imagine the rage and distrust so many African-Americans are feeling in the face of the five unarmed black men recently shot in the United States by police.

It takes tremendous faith to forge ahead in the face of despair, illness, fear and anxiety.

To wake up with pennies in your pocket and to find the faith that, somehow, things are going to get better.

To face a diagnosis that terrifies you, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

To inhabit a home that once welcomed  your husband or wife, now fled to the arms of someone else, wondering if anyone, anywhere, will ever love you again.

I think faith is forged in the fire of fear.

Phoenix-like, we have to rise from the smoking embers of what-we-thought-would-happen, while we figure out what happens next instead.

Without some solid skills we know we can trust, without friends and family who know and believe in the best of us, without some notion it will all be OK, we’re toast.

Having survived some horrendous episodes in my own past — a mentally-ill parent, family alcoholism, divorce, job loss, criminal attack — I know I’ll make it through. Somehow.

Faith + I’ll-get-through-this-somehow = resilience.

The past few weeks, for a variety of reasons, have demanded I stolidly move forward, in spite of sometimes paralyzing doubt in a few outcomes. Without the faith I’ll survive them, emotionally and physically, I’d consider staying in bed in the fetal position.

IMG_1529

Instead, I went out this weekend to play softball with my co-ed pickup team, a posse of people, some 50 years apart in age, that I’ve known, loved and shared post-game, beneath-the-trees lunches with for a decade.

I stepped up to the plate, picked up the bat, wondered, in my first game of the season what would happen next — and hit a single.

Do you have faith in yourself?

In others?

Without trust, journalism simply doesn’t work

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, news, women on December 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust the media? Should you?

Do you trust the media? Should you?

Some of you are journalists and some of you are studying it.

So maybe some of you have followed this disturbing story about a recent Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that, suddenly, seems to have gone very wrong.

From the Washington Post:

A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statement rebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.

Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.

The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.

This is the sort of story that — initially — won thousands of high-fives and re-tweets, from journalists applauding the brave, investigative, nationally-published work that so many of us aspire to.

Those fighting against rape and sexual violence were thrilled to see this issue was getting so much attention.

Then the dominos started tumbling…

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!

I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

Journalism is nothing more, at root, than a very long and sometimes fragile set of interlocking expressions of trust.

Whether the story is being published by a small-town weekly or broadcast by a multinational  conglomerate, this is typically how it works:

— A source decides to share their story

We think:

Are they lying? What’s in it for them? Why are they telling me? Why now? Is this an exclusive? Why? What conflicts of interest do they have? Do I really believe them? What doesn’t make sense here and who else can confirm or deny it?

— We decide the source is credible and pitch the idea to our editor, whether we’re freelance or staff, newbie or 30-year veteran, working for a website, newspaper, magazine or broadcast.

They think:

Is this reporter reliable? What’s their track record of errors or corrections? Do I like them? Do I trust them? How well-trained are they? Do I trust their news judgment? Is there a conflict of interest here between the source and reporter that would compromise our organization’s reputation for judgment? How about our credibility?

— They pitch it in a story meeting, typically attended by other editors competing hard for a limited space for telling stories and tight budgets for paying freelancers and acquiring illustration, (art, photos, graphics, maps) to accompany them. There may be significant travel and fixer or translator expenses to argue for and defend. They also have to persuade the most senior editors, their bosses, that the story (and the reporter and the reliability of the source), is unimpeachable. Their own reputations are on the line every time. And no one, ever, wants to look like a gullible or naive fool.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

They think: We’ve done that story a million times already. What’s new? What’s different? Why now? Can it wait? Who else knows about this story — and what are the odds they’ll beat us to it? Do we care?

— The story is assigned and the reporter (and photographer and/or videographer) go out to shoot it and report it. They invest time, energy, skill and limited resources in this decision, leaving other stories undone.

They think: I hope this one gets a lots of clicks. I hope this this one makes front page. I hope this one wins me a major award/promotion/fellowship/book contract. I sure hope this story is solid.

— The story is in and being edited by an array of editors, each of whom is expected to bring their savvy and insight to it, asking every possible question. It must hold up. It must make sense, not merely as an emotionally compelling story but based on a set of facts that are verifiably true.

They think: Does this narrative actually make sense? Has the reporter interviewed enough people? The right people? Who else do they need to talk to and how soon and in what detail? So, why does this piece feel…odd to me? Who should I talk to about my concerns? When and why and how soon? Should I get this piece reviewed by our company’s lawyers?

— The story, if run by a major magazine, may be fact-checked, with staff paid to call sources back and to confirm facts and check to see if quotes are accurate. Copy editors and proofreaders check spelling, grammar and style. The editor in chief and/or publisher (may) read it one more time and sign off on it, knowing their personal reputation — and that of their outlet and parent company — are on the line.

The piece appears.

Do you trust what you hear and read?

Should you?

 

Four blogs worth a visit — my Pratt Institute students!

In behavior, blogging, culture, education, life, love, women on November 30, 2014 at 2:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955

“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

It’s been a great semester with the four senior students who signed up for my blogging class at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a small art school with a justifiably excellent reputation.

It’s been fairly challenging to teach and engage so small a group, but we’ve had fun and we’ve had some fantastic guest speakers, three who came out to Brooklyn in person and two via Skype.

My husband, Jose Lopez, a photo editor at The New York Times, explained how to use photos legally and well; Troy Griggs, a Times graphic designer, shared his thoughts about how to design a blog that will really engage readers and Rani Nagpal, who works with a major Manhattan real estate firm, taught us about SEO.

Anne Theriault, a Toronto feminist blogger whose work on the Belle Jar has been featured many times by Freshly Pressed, Skyped in, as did Sree Sreenivasan, who is the chief digital officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both were funny, lively and super-helpful. Much to my surprise, Anne told us she breaks several blogging “rules” — she doesn’t revise every post to death before posting, she posts only once a week and she rarely answers comments from readers.

Here are two of my students, Grace Myers (left) from Bowie, Maryland, and her bestie Ellen Trubey, from California.

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Grace’s blog is Rough Guide to Life, a lovely, thoughtful guide to meditation, breathing exercises and ways to slooooow down and enjoy life; the photo of her in a tree on her blog is very Grace! She graduates soon, so I hope her blog will continue, and continue to attract and inspire readers.

Darnell Roberts, our only male student, and an illustration major, writes this blog about video games. A passionate gamer, his drawing work is charming — one of his super-heroines is called GravityGirl. It’s been a sea of estrogen with four chatty women in the class, but he’s held up well.

Ellen’s blog, He Is Out There Somewhere, details the ups and downs of dating in 2014 and beyond, especially the travails of using sites like Tinder and OKCupid. Ellen is also an illustration major, and uses many of her own drawings to illustrate her posts. Like her, the blog is chatty, down-to-earth and practical.

Tiffany Park’s blog, Morning Calm, follows Asian artists exhibiting in New York City; her blog has won her three internships so far and she’s even been re-blogged by major artists like Takashi Murakami.

I also privately teach blogging webinars, and offer individual coaching at $150/hour (one-hour minimum), so if you feel it’s time to up your own blogging game, please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com. I work by phone or Skype, at whatever time suits you best.

I’ve helped bloggers from New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, NY improve their writing, photo selection, graphic design and theme, whether for a blogs that’s personal or one that’s professional, designed to attract new clients; some testimonials here.

Please visit my students’ terrific blogs — and please comment!

So proud of them all…

 

Should a teacher publicly praise or shame their students?

In behavior, business, children, culture, education, parenting, Technology, US on November 18, 2014 at 1:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!

“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!

I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.

I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.

One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.

Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?

I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.

So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:

ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.

I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.

One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.

Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.

Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.

“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.

I could, and did.

Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.

If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.

In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.

An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.

It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!

No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”

There’s no app for compassion.

There’s no app for sensitivity.

Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?

Would you use it? Are you using it?

 

The writer’s week: mice invasion, a huge new assignment, a bad fall

In behavior, books, business, education, journalism, work on November 8, 2014 at 1:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

What’s it really like to work as a full-time freelance writer in New York?

Strap in and hang on!

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Monday

My husband flies home today to New York from Texas, where he attended the memorial service for his half-brother. I meet him at Laguardia airport, a journey by car that costs more than $16 in tolls and $12 for parking. Some people wonder why I set my rates so high — costs like this are one reason.

I’ve been asked to come up with a projected budget for my expenses for an assignment in England in early January. It’s easily done, thanks to Google, but imagine life without it. We take quick, ready, free access to information totally for granted now, but I began my career long before there was an Internet or email or Google.

I call a client I last spoke to in August, and for whom I’ve set aside most of November to work on her organization’s project. That also means I am relying on the income from it. I call her — and she blithely tells me, with no prior warning, they won’t be doing it until February.

Another client referred to me who said she had almost $600 in her 2014 training budget to hire me tells me I had to have invoiced her last week. Now it’s too late.

Not a good start to the week, or month.

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Tuesday

I read and grade the papers of my 12 freshman writing students; I teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’ve decided to mix things up and gave them a visual writing prompt, a photo of a WWI soldier and a photo of a WWI uniform. I gave them total freedom to produce 500 words, and the results are stunning: original, moving, evocative.

I confirm with my two guest speakers, one for the writing class and one for blogging, that they’ll be coming this week.

We have a mini-invasion of small brown mice. We lay traps, which I hate, but we live in a small apartment and I work at home. Co-existence is not a realistic option.

Wednesday

I start the day with my usual walk, with a friend who lives across the street. The fall leaves are at their glowing peak, so it’s a gorgeous way to kick off the day. I live 25 miles north of New York City, so have the best of both worlds, ready access to it, but leafy, quiet and more affordable life just beyond its borders.

More questions on one story from an editor. Sigh.

I teach my last writing class at the New York School of Interior Design, where I was a student in the 1990s when I considered leaving journalism for design. I’ve only had two students here, but have really enjoyed both of them, one of whom is working on a renovation of the Plaza Hotel and shows me some photos.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Thursday

It’s pouring rain so I’m in the car by 7:00 a.m. to drive to Pratt, which usually takes 60 to 75 minutes. This time it consumes 2.5 hours.

My guest speaker for the writing class fails to appear and I scramble to fill that hour by discussing the week’s reading — an excerpt from “Hella Nation” by Evan Wright.

My friend, in a neck brace (!) has traveled 90 minutes by subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but arrives just as class is ending! We pivot, and seven of my 10 students sit around a cafeteria table downstairs so they can still have a chance to hear him and ask questions. He and I catch up personally for the next hour before he heads back to Manhattan.

Another guest speaker, a friend of a friend, also arrives from Manhattan to address my blogging class. I’m so grateful for their expertise!

I’ve been negotiating a profile of a local lawyer for a major women’s magazine and scheduling time with her through her assistant; my editor and I chat by phone and email about what she needs and when I will file a first draft, December 1. It’s not much time in which to research and write 3,500 words! But I’m really excited. This is the biggest assignment I’ve had in a while.

I drive home, and arrive exhausted; as I’m walking across our driveway in the dark, I slip and fall — hard. My laptop (not in its padded case) skids across the wet cement and I bruise and scrape my bare right knee. Ouch!

I watch an extraordinary film on TCM from 1941, Meet John Doe, in black and white. The film begins with a newspaper publisher firing half his staff and bringing in cheap, new, desperate blood. Too ironic — my husband’s employer of 30 years, The New York Times, needs to have 100 employees accept their offers of a buyout by December 1.

Plus ca change…

Friday

It’s a cold, blustery day with thick gray clouds scudding over the Hudson River, which I can see from my bed, where I spend the day reading, napping, listening to the radio, drinking bright pink herbal tea and eating popcorn.

Sometimes you just need a rest!

How was your week?

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