My writing life…the latest

By Caitlin Kelly

Last year was really rough.

This year, for reasons I can’t discern, things have been much better and much busier. For which I am so grateful!

In the past few weeks:

— I’ve pitched three editors at The New York Times (science, At Home, Well) and sold two ideas to them.

Here’s one, about listening to foreign radio.

— Pitched a fun idea I found (by reading the production notes of a recent documentary) to a Canadian magazine I admire, and was initially excited to write for, until they refused to push the pay rate into American currency, cutting a low rate ($500) to $380. Then their contract arrived and it was Biblical in length and demands. I did something very rare and backed out of the assignment. Then I had to manage the legitimately disappointed feelings of the person I was going to profile. But, when I discussed this on my Facebook page, several fellow Canadians suggested alternate editors.

— Negotiated with a physician about possible coaching.

— Did a bunch of Zoom classes with high school and college journalism students.

— Got back in touch with a few editors to try and start lining up assignments for January 2021. I always have to think at least two months ahead!

— Got some good news on a potential book project for which I need to speak to some very senior journalists.

— Connected two writers I admire, one in Nashville, one in London, to help one another on a project. I love connecting people!

— Wrote more blog posts for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds research into pancreatic cancer. The topic is challenging, as so many people don’t survive it, but it’s also been an honor to speak directly to the researchers working on so many different ways to detect and manage it.

— Enjoyed an unusual two-hour phone chat with one of my editors, who’s been buying a lot of my work for The Conversationalist. Only after two hours did we actually discuss work!

— Managed money! I work so hard to earn what I do, it’s easy to forget that what savings we do have need to be properly managed. We expected the stock market to soar after Biden was elected, and it did. I jumped and pulled some of that windfall into cash. I’m damn grateful to have savings and investments, without which I’d live in monthly fear of not being able to meet all our bills. I tell every would-be freelancer this — if you don’t have at least two to three months’ worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll never be able to turn down work or walk away (as I describe above) from a lousy deal.

— Swimming three times a week, at 12:30 p.m. at our local YMCA. They allow only four people at a time, one per lane. It’s bliss. I get some exercise, some social interaction, some relief from sitting alone at home all day. I even found the perfect source for my NYT radio story swimming in the next lane. He connected me, after we chatted as we left, to a great source in Miami.

— Participated in multiple Twitterchats: #TRLT (travel), #CultureTrav (travel) #RemoteChat and #FreelanceChat. I really enjoy these lively global online/real-time conversations and have met some great people through them, like an Australian woman living in France or a Dutch woman in New York. Each session is about an hour and focused on discussing a specific topic. I always learn something new and — especially with the terrible loss of social life due to COVID — they help keep me going nuts from loneliness and isolation.

— Kept up with my normal media consumption. I read the Financial Times and New York Times every day in print. I may scan others, like The Guardian, online. I listen to CBC and NPR radio, for news and pleasure. I also read books (slowly!) and some magazines, although many fewer than we used to. I’m not loving Vogue these days but enjoy reading even old copies of Smithsonian.

I really miss working in our gorgeous local library, with its soaring ceilings and tall windows and enormous tables.

I miss seeing other people face to face!

But we’ve spruced up our apartment, thanks to a good year, and that’s helped: new sofa, new rug, framing some art.

Here’s another writer’s description of her writing life — she lives alone in Brooklyn with her cat and does a lot of science writing.

Our writing lives are all, in some ways quite different and in many ways, very similar.

There’s no “Latino” vote

New Mexico

By Caitlin Kelly

This is a smart and powerful argument why the Democratic party needs to wise up fast — with mid-term elections within two years for both Senate and House seats.

Their abysmal failure to speak intelligently to — and listen carefully to — millions of Hispanic/Latino voters cost them a state they expected to sweep and didn’t, Florida.

As a white middle-class Canadian who grew up in two of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities — Toronto and Montreal — these persistent blind spots are both annoying as hell and depressingly consistent in American politics, at least at the federal level.

Expecting a wildly heterogeneous group — whose birthplace or ancestry maybe as disparate as Chile, Mexico (whose many regions are also wildly different from one another), Argentina, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or even Spain — to somehow share aspirations, beliefs, education and other values is naive at best, desperately ignorant at worst.

There is tremendous racism (thanks to millions of undocumented Hispanics in the U.S.) and wilful ignorance, a toxic combination when formulating intelligent policy and trying to win votes.

I’ve seen it firsthand in a few terrible moments with my husband — a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist mistaken for (of course!) a day laborer.

Both are important jobs but never ever ever assume who anyone is based on the color of their skin!

Here’s Isvett Verde, a New York Times staffer:

Journalists and pundits who have spent some time in Latin America or interviewed a few Spanish speakers (and now fancy themselves experts) have suggested that machismo, and a desire to be closer to whiteness, is what drove these voters to support the man who promised to build a wall to keep caravans of Spanish-speaking brown people out. That may be true, but it’s far from the whole story.

I’m a Cuban-American from Miami, and I’m not surprised that around 52 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Mr. Trump. No one who was paying attention could be. In the weeks leading up to the election, Cubans in Miami composed a salsa song in support of Mr. Trump and organized Trump caravans hundreds of cars long.

It may sound ridiculous, but some of those voters are genuinely afraid of socialism, and he leaned into that. “We will never have a socialist country,” he promised. He understood that for Cubans and Venezuelans, the word is a reminder of the dysfunctional governments they left behind.

I know this firsthand because I live it — as a partner of 20 years with Jose Lopez, born in New Mexico and whose father was born in Mexico. Jose worked for 31 years as a photographer and photo editor and teacher within a bastion of American media power, The New York Times, where a former very senior colleague once said — to his face — “A preppy Mexican!” — when Jose wore khakis, the dull-but-safe East Coast uniform.

It was decades ago….but really?

What bullshit.

Nor does Jose speak Spanish, which I do fluently enough to have worked in it.

Nor is he Catholic — his father was a Baptist minister and he is Buddhist, his sister Baha’i and one sister Catholic. Yes, even within one family, diversity. All three siblings married non-Hispanics. One has lived and worked all over the world.

I lived briefly in Mexico as a teenager and have been back many times, although not recently. I’ve also visited Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, Cost Rica, Venezuela, and Spain.

It’s pretty obvious none of these countries resemble one another beyond a shared language — and even then, not really! I learned to be very careful with local idioms; the verb “coger” can mean quite different things!

I want to see — demand to see — a much much smarter parsing of what it really means to live and work and pay taxes and vote in the United States as someone of Latino or Hispanic heritage.

What do you want them to see?

By Caitlin Kelly

So, finally, I have a new headshot, thanks to a sunny fall day and our balcony and a good salon and Jose’s talent.

I’m really happy with it, as my previous ones were, to my critical eye, all too casual or too formal or just out of date.

My favorite one until now was a quick snap Jose took on our balcony in March 2014 (!) just before I flew to rural Nicaragua with WaterAid for a fantastic week of work with them. I’m always my happiest when challenged, facing a trip or some sort of new adventure and it showed!

I’m very much my parents’ child in this respect — my mother traveled much of the world alone for years on end, and lived in places like New Mexico, Bath, Toronto, Montreal and Gibsons, B.C., a pretty coastal town. My father traveled the world for his work as a film-maker and, at 91, is considering trading the solitary boredom of rural Ontario for….Marrakesh.

I’m in!

Because I live on social media, on here and Twitter and Facebook and (ugh, rarely) on LinkedIn, I always need a fresh, appealing headshot. I do a lot of interviews for my work, and I always look online for any images of the people I’ll be speaking with — seems only fair to let them see who I am as well.

But my image needs to be:

not stuffy

not boring

friendly and approachable but also professional

When you’re in the public eye — and these days if you’re self-employed you really have to be — you need a terrific headshot!

So why does this one work?

— fresh from the hair salon! I can never do this so well myself.

— subtle make-up, but strong enough it reads well in black and white.

— very simple clothing, which is very much my style.

— Simple gold earrings for a hint of shine.

— a lovely background.

— no direct sunlight! We, both being photographers, know this. I see a lot of not-great headshots, often a selfie. I’ve tried, many many times, to snap a selfie that works as a headshot and, occasionally, have done well.

— obviously, very fortunate to have a talented professional as my photographer, my husband Jose Lopez! For The New York Times and others, he has photographed three Presidents and thousands of images, from the Bosnian war to pro football to cowboys.

Taking my photo is never that easy!

I have versions of this high and low-res and both in black and white as well.

It makes me feel more confident to be seen as I am now — but cleaned up!

Caitlin Kelly headshots, October 2020

Why work freelance?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a powerful reminder that some jobs scar us for years, written by an HR expert I really admire and follow on Twitter, Katrina Kibben:

Trauma is the only way to describe what happens when managers go out of their way to demean and shrink their team’s confidence. Nothing is the same. The safety humans need to thrive, especially at work, is gone. Three years into owning my own company, those bad managers still influence how I lead my team every minute. I go to extremes to make sure I’m never like those bad bosses.

I will spend hours writing and rewriting a coaching email to ensure that people know I see them. Why? Those moments when someone you admire makes you feel small are seconds you never forget. When the shame happens on a daily cycle, it’s a whole new world of mind games. I can’t do that to people.

I know first-hand that the mind games don’t end because you quit your job either. After I walked away from my worst managers, I caught myself questioning the intentions of everyone with feedback. Let me tell you – that is not a good way to live your life. I still get coaching on feedback to make sure I deliver and receive it with empathy.

I’ve been doing Zoom sessions with American high school journalism students and really enjoying it — so far, with Florida, Michigan, Ohio, California and with Texas and Pennsylvania ahead.

One of the questions — why freelance?

What are its advantages?

My first reply?

Intellectual freedom!

I enjoyed aspects of my three staff newspaper jobs — at the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national newspaper), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

But each job carried some truly heinous challenges as well: cut-throat internal gossip and competition, stupid or lazy or rote-minded management, sexism.

I loved breaking stories (i.e. getting them ahead of all my ferocious competitors).

I loved the crazy adrenaline rush of reporting and writing on deadline.

I loved learning so many new things and having tremendous experiences — from meeting Queen Elizabeth to visiting a rural Quebec commune to flying into an Arctic village of 500 people.

I loved knowing that my work was being read by so many people and could, occasionally, prove helpful to them.

The Daily News job, as Katrina writes, was the last straw for me. I won’t bore you with all the details but here’s one — I started in June and by late September my direct boss stopped speaking to me. He never again spoke to me until I was laid off about a year later.

As the unofficial company motto said — Sink or Swim!

So I’ve since stayed freelance, which is basically intellectual piecework. We joke that we eat only what we kill — i.e. no paycheck or pension or paid sick days or paid vacation.

Holidays? Hah! Only when we can afford the time and cost of using them.

But it also has freed me from working with and for bullies and brutes, a huge advantage for me.

I’ve also found a few communities of fellow independents on Twitter and participate in weekly Twitterchats, like #remotechat (Wednesdays, 1pm EDT) and #FreelanceChat (Thursdays, at noon EDT.)

The range of people on them is terrific — with people arriving from across the U.S., Canada and Europe. It makes us feel less lonely!

I also really enjoy the wild variety of my work.

In the past year, I’ve written on:

— STEM education (for an engineering magazine)

— pancreatic cancer research (for the Lustgarten Foundation)

— A Finnish energy executive (Neste)

— Why some long-resident foreigners in the U.S. choose not to become citizens (The Conversationalist)

All of these are on my website.

Working on your own — as so many are now doing because of the pandemic — is challenging, and next to impossible for women trying to manage multiple small children (800,000 have left the American workforce!)

It means being super-focused and self-disciplined, and not having an office with an appropriate chair, desk or lighting. (I write on a laptop on our dining table.)

It can also mean working to others’ needs and schedules — not, as some fantasize, sleeping til noon. My husband, a freelance photographer and photo editor, works freelance and his hours can start at 6:00 a.m. and sometimes go until 2:00 a.m.

But we enjoy it.

How to be a successful writer: my video

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a new video, thanks to Abby Lee Hood, who generously included me in her ongoing series of writer interviews.

It’s 1:08 and we talk about how to (re) define success in a world that too often equates making a LOT of money with being “successful”. I argue there are other metrics, as writers and as human beings.

Hope you enjoy!

A perfect afternoon

By Caitlin Kelly

If there’s one activity I’ve missed more than maybe any other thanks to this pandemic — it’s hosting old friends for a delicious meal and hours of great conversation.

Finally, yesterday, we did, and a married couple — both journalists — came up, and with us outdoors, with lots of breeze, it was pure pleasure!

They live in the city but we hadn’t seen them in six months, and a parent had died in June and we had a lot to catch up on.

We baked a salmon and I tried out two new recipes from my Gordon Ramsay cookbook — a green bean/almond salad with honey/mustard dressing and a fantastic cooked lentil salad with roasted zucchini, red pepper and sun dried tomatoes.

Plus our favorite champagne and a bottle of sauvignon blanc and two gorgeous creamy cheeses and baguette and chocolate cake…

The weather was perfect and, with the change of seasons, the balcony was still in shade by 4:30 as they left…it had been sunny by 2:00 p.m. just a few weeks ago.

Our friend was a Times colleague of Jose’s who since re-trained as a medical yoga instructor. Her husband is mostly retired but does translation work. We’ve all covered major stories, have lived in different countries, have shared memories of work and our families.

A deep friendship takes time.

It takes attention.

It takes remembering.

The fallow field

IMG_5301We all so badly need time to just rest!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When you work wholly freelance, it tends to be feast or famine — so much work at once you’re pulling 10 to 12+ hour days, working nights and weekends and not taking a vacation — or panicking because the work has dried up but the bills keep coming.

The pandemic has exacerbated this problem.

 

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Thrilled to have won this in an online auction from the NYC auction house Doyle. It’s a vintage kilim, a flat-weave Caucasian wool rug in perfect condition.

 

We are grateful and lucky to both have a lot of work, enough to even finally add some needed, costly and nice things to our home, like a new sofa, a vintage rug scored at auction, and hiring a painter to do a badly needed repair to the (sigh) cracked walls in our living room, an annoying and ongoing feature of living in a 60 year old building.

But we’ve had only taken four days’ vacation in six months and we’re whipped. We usually take a two or even three week break — doing no work at all — and travel back to Canada or overseas to rest and recharge.

Not this year.

The fallow field is one that isn’t being worked, and is being quietly replenished.

It’s resting, as this writer posted in 2017:

 

 

So there are days now I just do…nothing.

It’s not really nothing, because I’m usually reading for hours and hours, trying to wade through piles of magazines and newspapers.

But I’m reading more books for sheer pleasure.

I’m watching movies and bingeing on Netflix.

I’m taking an hour’s nap pretty much every day.

Unlike a farmer with three fields I only have one weary heart, mind, soul and body.

I have no “extra” brain to keep using for work —- while the other one just rests!

And with almost nowhere safe to flee to because of this damn virus, a change of scenery in every way, it’s even more enervating to try and wind down in the same small space you work in.

We’re very lucky in New York as finally, all our museums are re-opening.

I can’t wait to “waste time” looking at old beautiful things again.

 

The hell with excellence

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Worrying doesn’t get you there…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When Kamala Harris was named as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, a somewhat bitter joke made the rounds of social media — every Indian parent wondering — why not President?!

I realize it’s a mark of real privilege not to strive and struggle to be the best all the time and have done plenty of struggle, thanks — try starting at 30 as a new immigrant to New York City journalism (a cabal of Ivy League graduates) and weathering three recessions in 20 years!

I grew up in Toronto, the media capital of Canada, and competition there has always been extremely fierce, so I’ve always known to bring my A game to work.

But the rest of my life?

Feh!

Our home is lovely and I do brush my hair and we cook some very good meals and I do dress up nicely when I got out and enjoy making that effort.

 

But the endless pursuit of excellence is just too tiring!

 

It feels so American, to constantly be proving you’re better/stronger/faster/cheaper/whatever it takes to be at the top of the heap.

For work, and especially in some fields, of course this is necessary, for years or even decades. There’s no choice.

And I know, firsthand, being married to a Hispanic-American-born man whose own family expected excellence of him, that high parental expectations can be really important.

But the perfection so many people now perform on social media is also so weird to me. I’m so very much imperfect, and I’m fine with it.

There are only two groups of people whose approval I most value —  people I love and respect and people whose good opinion of me as a professional means I can make a living.

So when my poor husband urges me, repeatedly, to improve my golf game — lessons, a special glove, practice — I make a nasty face and shrug because the word amateur means someone who loves….not just someone who’s a REALLY good non-professional.

We recently played one of our county’s most challenging courses, all 18 holes (a first for me) and we did not play slowly (as is deemed extremely rude) and thereby hold up the many players right behind us. So I did fine, even playing poorly compared to many others.

Golf is meant to be fun, but knowing (and seeing!) others right behind you at the last hole is not wildly relaxing at all.

So I need to be good enough to not mess up others’ enjoyment, and I get that. But I don’t feel compelled to get really good at golf or other leisure pursuits.

 

It’s leisure!

 

It rhymes with pleasure.…not work.

This summer I finally started swimming laps in our apartment building pool, building up to 30 laps, about 20 to 25 minutes. I could have pushed much harder but I want to enjoy my life too!

I’ve just never been someone attracted by “perfection” — which is also deeply subjective, as any writer quickly learns. Any creative person learns. What one person adores about you and your ideas another may loathe.

 

So, maybe because of this, you learn to value yourself and your own internal standards.

 

I think this is an overlooked and undervalued superpower.

 

The risk/reward of being vulnerable

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By Caitlin Kelly

In a time of social media perfection, who dares publicly admit to a flaw or two?

This, from The New York Times:

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, a public academic, writer and lecturer, said that vulnerability in practice means allowing others to see what you are ashamed of — showing uncomfortable truths ranging from not being able to afford rent to simply feeling lost. In a culture that places an extremely high value on nearly unattainable perfection and likability, these revelations can be quite terrifying. But “it can benefit us greatly to let down walls that can often be exhausting to maintain,” Ms. Cargle said.

 

A few years ago, attending an annual New York City writers’ conference, mostly filled with others competing for the same pool of well-paid freelance work, a writer I barely knew stopped me in the hall and said, clearly a bit horrified: “Your blog is so…honest.”

Maybe not her exact words, but she was clearly shocked by how much I choose to reveal here, with the potential that employers might see it, and what would they think then?

 

Maybe that I’m simply human?

 

I grew up in a family that just didn’t discuss difficult things and never talked about our feelings. I was in boarding school at the age of 8 and summer camp ages 8 to 16, always sharing a bedroom with four to six other girls, some of whom could be cruel.

So being vulnerable and revealing my fears or doubts or weakness? NOT a wise choice, either at home or there.

I’ve always been able to count on a few very close friends, who know the full story. But being in a public and highly competitive industry has also meant that when, at 30, I very much misplaced my trust in a colleague in Toronto, those juicy details about me provided months of vicious gossip about me —- even spread to a pal in India.

Pre-Internet.

I left Toronto, furious and wary, and never went back.

I learned to be more cautious about being trusting and truthful with anyone professionally, leaving myself vulnerable as a result.

I clammed up tight.

It takes courage to admit things are difficult or you’re scared or you don’t think you’ll ever achieve your dreams or goals. You take the risk, in so doing, that your words will be used to wound you, and it happens.

And the Internet is — like this blog — a very large place full of strangers, some of whom wish us well and some of whom delight in our travails; any time a journalist bemoans losing their job on Twitter, there’s a parade of “Learn to code!” shitty replies.

 

Young Caitlin-01

The only photo I have of me at this age, maybe seven, in the backyard of the last home I shared with both parents, in Toronto. The gate in the background was nicknamed “Catti’s Gate”, my family nickname. I treasure this image because I was happy and relaxed and loved that big house and backyard and neighborhood. I still miss it.

 

So I was always a very private person — until June 2018 when I got a breast cancer diagnosis. It was as good as these things get: stage zero, totally removed and no need for chemo, only radiation. But it cracked me open. There was no way I would get through it all without admitting I was scared, and willing to receive the tremendous love and support that came my way: flowers and gifts and cards and emails and phone calls that revealed that people actually loved me, a lot.

I had never been so sure of that.

 

rhiney

That’s me, pre-surgery, July 6, 2018, clutching a small stuffed rhinoceros because everyone needs a little comfort in those nervous hours.

 

I  now reveal quite a lot about myself on social media — here and Facebook and Twitter. It’s a deliberate choice and one that doesn’t work well for many others. I get that.

But I’m in the last few years of a long and successful career, so if someone dislikes me now — or decides not to work with me because of what they read — see ya!

I’ve posted some serious and intimate stuff here and in my published personal essays, like this one, which ran in 2008 in The New York Times, about why I enjoy my apartment building.

After the story ran, in which I named a neighbor who made me a sandwich after my first husband walked out and I hadn’t eaten in days, she laughed, nicely, and said: “That must have been some sandwich!”

Little did she know how much it really did mean to me — with my family both emotionally and physically distant and not many close friends nearby.

Only by my taking the risk of being vulnerable enough to write about it, to an audience of millions of strangers, did she know.