Why emotional armor is useful now

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the things that marks a hard news journalist is that, for better or worse,  we wear, and take pride in wearing, a sort of emotional armor.

I started my professional writing career at 19 and even then was assigned some emotionally difficult work — like a story for a national Canadian women’s magazine interviewing women much older than I who had survived harrowing experiences: one whose house burned down, one who had a double mastectomy and one whose husband died in front of her.

It was tough!

But I did it  — turning down offers of well-paid work is dicey when you work freelance.

The very nature of hard news journalism — whether you’re writing or editing or taking photos or video  — means you’ve chosen to cover the world and the many things that happen to other people, some of which are simply horrific and traumatic, for them and for us.

The biggest stories, the ones that make front page or gain millions of page views online, are often the ones that can also exact a heavy toll on the people producing them, no matter how calmly they appear on-camera or taking notes.

 

01- NM Prison Riot-J.R. LopezJose Lopez (my husband) at 23, on assignment, decades before we met

 

27- NM Prison Riot-J.R. Lopez

The interior of the prison after a riot and many murders

 

Jose covered the worst prison riot in New Mexico’s history as a news photographer.

I’ll spare you the details of what transpired, but they are the stuff of horror films.

It traumatized him, but he had chosen to become a news photographer, and it can come with the territory.

In later life, for The New York Times, he spent six weeks in the winter covering the end of the Bosnian war. His Christmas meal was a bowl of soup and one night he even slept in an unheated shipping container. When he finally left, initially flying into Frankfurt, he remained scared to be out after dark, his protective war instincts still functioning.

By definition, stories like this push us without warning or preparation into frightening, even horrifying situations, while demanding we  shove our personal reactions — fear, anxiety, grief, despair, confusion — into a sort of lead-lined box so we can pay full attention to our work. To witnessing and reporting what we have been sent to cover. To telling the story accurately and in detail.

The day before my driving test, age 30, I covered the aftermath of a head-on collision between a bus and a small car on a Montreal bridge. I’d like to forget what I saw decades ago, and cannot.

My editors told me I was the only reporter to have gotten close enough to the wreckage to get the make and model of the car.

 

Mine explosion on road
01/03/96–On Military Route “Arizona”– An anti-personnel mine explodes after it was safely detonated by members of the Croatian army. Soldiers from the Croatian army were clearing the mines along this route that the US Military will use when they take up the peace keeping duties. According to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, a report in 2015 stated, “Of the total number of affected communities 1,369 communities are contaminated by mines, while 60 communities are contaminated by cluster munition (of which 31 communities have combined contamination of landmines and cluster munition). “

Not really “another day at the office”…

 

I’ve cried maybe once while in public covering a story, (the funeral of a young girl who was raped and murdered in Toronto), and have since covered many stories that left me shaken and upset, sometimes as upset as the people I spoke to — like those I wrote after 9/11 and a Canadian national magazine story about women who had suffered a severe side effect from taking the drug Mirapex.

The larger challenge, and burnout and PTSD are very real in our industry, is if, when and how we do finally acknowledge and process those complex emotions.

I’ve never studied journalism and have never been trained in trauma reporting. which de facto means  you’re asking people who have faced trauma — rape, war, conflict, natural disaster, a shooting — to discuss it in detail with you, a stranger they have never met before.

But I’ve done a lot of it and I know it’s changed me. I don’t think for the worse, but it does stiffen the spine and harden your heart. I don’t mean you stop caring or don’t feel compassion for the people you are writing about.

It does mean, to stay sane and productive, especially on tight deadlines, having the ability and self-discipline to create and maintain a critical, detached distance from whatever is distressing — physically, emotionally and intellectually. No matter how terrible the details, we need to learn and share them.

So it’s one of the reasons I miss being around other career journalists, because we all know what the work requires and there’s an unspoken sort of code about it all.

It’s not really like most other jobs in this respect.

 

Jose and I were talking about this in regards to our unusually phlegmatic reaction to the endless death rate from COVID.

 

We sleep well at night.

We nap.

We don’t spend a lot of time discussing it, or listening to (in fact, actively avoiding)  Trump — because there’s nothing we can do right now to change any of it.

I see a lot of people complaining, daily, that they suffer insomnia, anxiety, grief.

If you’ve lost your job, income and housing, I get it!

If you’ve lost someone to this terrible disease, I get it!

But if you’re marinating in anxiety, I question the utility.

We can, unless we are in truly dire shape, control our moods and reactions.

I have since posting this been told that many people with chronic anxiety are managing this with much greater difficulty and this post seems unfeeling or uncaring about their issues.

We all handle things differently.

 

I leave this medical insight here as well, from The New York Times:

 

Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.

“The stress of Covid-19 is now acute, but if it persists long after April, which it likely will, it will take an enormous toll on world health,” Mr. Ropeik said.

Thus, in addition to heeding the recommended personal precautions to avoid an infection, people feeling unduly stressed about the pandemic might try to minimize the damage caused by unmitigated anxiety.

A psychotherapist I know has advised his patients to limit their exposure to the news and discussions about Covid-19 to one hour a day and, if possible, in only one location, then use the rest of the day and other parts of the home for productive or pleasurable activities.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s just paper and words

 

IMG_5361

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.

None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.

No travel.

A good long time to reflect.

And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.

I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.

It’s not Art or Literature.

It’s just journalism.

I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.

But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?

I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?

Did it help anyone?

How?

I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.

But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.

The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!

 

We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.

We love finding and telling stories to strangers.

We see story ideas everywhere.

We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.

 

 

“Trapped” — perfect pandemic TV!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Thanks to a Nordic pal here in the U.S., we recently discovered Trapped — and loved! — this Icelandic cop show.

It’s the most expensive series ever filmed there, two seasons of 10 episodes each, from 2015.

I might be the only person left in the world who has yet to visit Iceland, but I can now really see why people go. What a spectacular and dramatic landscape it is!

It only has 364,000 people, and 60,000 in the capital, and is the most sparsely-populated nation in Europe.

The characters in Trapped are all very human, often confused, working either in Reykjavik or an isolated small town on a fjord — where the evil runs mighty deep and sometimes for generations.

There’s Andri, the police chief in Season One, who’s a tall, hefty guy with a thick brown beard and hair that always needs brushing, His assistants, Hinrika and Asgeir, are small town residents, and a real contrast — Hinrika is tough, smart and cynical while Asgeir is always vaguely goofing off and playing chess on his computer.

Their police station is small, and, like everything here, absolutely dwarfed by snow-capped mountains.

The sense of being trapped in this show has many layers: by small town life, by family dramas and secrets, by unsolved murders and disappearances, by ambition. Mostly by weather! So much snow, rain, ice! Roads get shut down and planes and helicopters grounded.

The opening credits are visually very strong and the music very good, initially composed by the late and very talented Johann Johannsson.

By Season Two, Andri has moved back to big-city Reykjavik, and Hinrika is now police chief. But her marriage to Bardur, 20 years her senior, is ending and Andri’s oldest daughter has become a rebellious 15-year-old in a lot of black eyeshadow, living with an aunt.

The pace is slow, but there’s plenty of plot development and it takes a while to finally reveal who’s the true baddie.

Along the way, we get to see Icelandic sheep farmers and ponies and an enormous ferry that is key to the first season plot. There’s a female minister whose formal collar is a white ruffle that looks positively medieval.

Several people die in gruesome ways — consumed by flames, and one with a bolt gun used to kill sheep.

But it’s really compelling and the murder of one character left us on the the verge of tears.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry about Baltasar Koromákur, its creator.

 

Have you seen it?

 

 

Listening well

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.

 

An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.

 

I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 

 

 

IMG_5361

 

I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.

 

When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:

 

empathy

compassion

curiosity

cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:

 

Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.

 

Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

Visit the UK, through 18 great TV shows!

Here’s a great list of British TV shows from The Guardian:

I’ve seen some of those they recommend, my thoughts on these:

 

Derry Girls

Heaven! I’ve watched this one several times and can’t decide which of the girls I love best — dreamy Orla, brash Erin, permanently-outraged Clare or hellraiser Michelle. And their goofy aunt Sarah and their cousin James, initially very much derided for being…OMG… English. Their accents are so thick and they speak so fast you’ll be hard pressed to follow along, a great excuse for watching it over and over! If you can resist Sister Michael, I despair. Also, great new vocabulary — vomit (boak) or a sexy guy (ride).

 

Poldark

Sigh. Swoon. Sigh.

I’m crushed the pandemic will postpone my Poldark-inspired trip I’d so hoped to make this fall to Cornwall, a place I’ve never visited yet whose landscapes and town names have become so familiar, thanks to this gorgeous show.

It’s the unlikely love story of Ross Poldark, injured fighting against would-be Americans in the Revolutionary War, returning to his ancestral home after four years, eager to marry his sweetheart, Elizabeth — newly engaged to his cousin. Instead, he ends up marrying his kitchenmaid, Demelza, flame-haired, outspoken, and a scandal to all his well-born neighbors.

Ross fights endlessly to make local copper mines profitable, with multiple story lines through it all, like the initially doomed love story between Morwenna and Drake. If you, as I do, enjoy spectacular scenery and 18th c interiors, clothing and other details, you’ll love it.

 

Broadchurch

Hard to go wrong with the tremendous Olivia Colman (who went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Queen Anne in The Favourite) in the lead! Her partner is the  lean, foul-mouthed David Tennant, a pair of police in Dorset trying to solve the murder of a young child.

 

Shetland

Spectacular scenery — made me want to get there asap! Another police show, but in a setting very few of us will likely ever see firsthand.

 

A few more The Guardian didn’t include:

 

Endeavour

A cop show set in and around Oxford in the 1960s and 70s, with a young police detective named Endeavour Morse and his older fedora-clad partner, Fred Thursday — who, in earlier episodes, drive the most gorgeous vintage Jaguar you’ve ever seen.

 

Happy Valley

A cop show, much darker in tone, with the tremendous Sarah Lancashire in the lead, in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. The lead bad guy, who is really scary, is played by the dishy James Norton.

 

Call The Midwife

 

This is a must-see, (even if you’ve never had kids) or don’t especially want to watch every episode’s inclusion of a (very quick!) birth. Set in Poplar, a poor section of East End London, this long-running series starts in the 1950s and as it progresses through the years, includes medical plotlines like polio, thalidomide and the Pill. Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth.

 

Grantchester

The pairing of a handsome young vicar and a crusty local cop, Jordy, makes this show charming and quirky. James Norton is the vicar — quite disorienting if you also watch Happy Valley!

 

Last Tango in Halifax

Welcome to the world of Sally Wainwright, who created many of the shows I’m recommending here, including Gentleman Jack. LTIH is one of the very few shows that features a married couple in their 70s and their two adult daughters are — as the British would say — chalk and cheese, wildly different. Gillian is the feckless farmer always in some sort of trouble (Nicola Walker) while Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) is a prim, blonde, expensively-dressed headmistress of a private school. Many family dramas, but none unbelievable.

 

Bodyguard

I love Keeley Hawes, probably best-known as playing Louisa Durrell in The Durrells in Corfu. Here she’s a steely, cold senior government official — with a troubled soldier appointed to become her bodyguard.

 

Gentleman Jack

An 1832 setting, a wealthy and very determined landowner — female, lesbian — and you have an unlikely story, based on period diaries. Suranne Jones is fantastic in the lead role.

 

Unforgotten

I love watching Nicola Walker in anything and this detective show — with her as the lead — is excellent.

 

Two things strike me about these British shows — they often include a number of older (60s, 70s or older) regular characters, almost invisible in American television.

And the number of times you’ll see the same (very talented) actors playing wildly different characters can be quite disorienting!

Do you have any favorite British TV shows?

 

My writer’s life — mid-pandemic

 

IMG_6403

From my last group experience, attending and speaking March 8 in Fairfax, VA at the NSC 2020

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

We haven’t yet received our badly-needed $1200 per person from the Federal government, nor even tried to apply for unemployment payments (which freelancers are entitled to) , nor pandemic payments of $600/week….all of which we could use!

A lot of outlets have cut back on their freelance budgets, so it’s easy to panic, but panic never paid the bills.

Work, thankfully, continues to show up.

This past week offered three fantastic windfalls — all of them totally unexpected — and for which, even more now, I am so grateful:

— A woman writer who follows me on Twitter booked me for a coaching session from across the country for this weekend.

— A doctor I helped a few weeks ago (months?), discussing his amazing Twitter story-telling and whether it’s book material, suddenly dropped some very real cash into my PayPal account.

— I posted a question in one of the private writers’ groups I belong to on Facebook, asking for peers’ advice on where to place an unusual personal essay. An editor saw it and commissioned it.

And, always, the usual searching for more work…

A few months ago, I began working with an intern, (now home from college in Brooklyn at her parents upstate), and she and I are still, slooooowly, plugging away on a potential book proposal. I keep kidding around on Twitter with a few agents and book editors, hoping to get it to them if/when we ever get back to a more thriving economy.

I applied April 8 for a Canada Council grant, asking for the maximum of $25,000 (Canadian) to research another stalled book proposal. Only 20 percent of applicants win one and it might not be the full amount and I won’t know til August….but at least I tried. It’s open to Canadian citizens, not only residents.

 

IMG_5361

 

I’ve pitched a number of COVID-related ideas, but others have beaten me to it, or they failed to find favor.

My latest assignment — of all things! — is for Mechanical Engineering magazine, and required me to interview the nation’s top experts in their fields. PANIC! “You have a knees-quaking English major who has never studied physics or chemistry”, I wrote the editor, when he made the assignment.

But it went well and I learned a lot and the scientists were all fantastic to talk to — warm and down-to-earth. I ended up talking turkey hunting with one of them, a female legend who hunts on her Texas ranch on weekends. Of course! Turned out I had two very unlikely things in common with another scientist — we’d flown the minuscule domestic aircraft of Nicaragua and eaten at the same Indian restaurant in Montreal, across from the McGill campus.

It’s these moments of shared humanity that make all the learning implicit in journalism — even a very steep curve sometimes! — still so enjoyable.

I caught up by phone with a pal in California who I met more than 20 years ago when, having never met before, we shared a room at a Boston writing conference to save money. She’s now doing a podcast on education and invited me to talk to her about my last story for Mechanical Engineering (out in June) on STEM.

 

IMG_4350(1)

 

Having read a pal’s story in a magazine I get, I asked her for the favor of an introduction to her editor — which she very generously made and which elicited an immediate and enthusiastic reply to my email and resume. Writing LOIs (letters of introduction to potential clients) is often a total waste of time, and one I avoid for that reason. Hoping for work!

I wrote to two editors of the FT’s glossy magazine How To Spend It. No reply. Will chase further; same for their House & Home editor, who follows me on Twitter.

Advised a Georgia MD up in NYC volunteering at a local hospital, who I follow on Twitter, about gathering details if he hopes to write a book about this pandemic.

I’m always months and months behind on my own reading, so have used some downtime to reduce the piles (three of them!) of Financial Times, NYT magazine, Architectural Digest, Vogue and the now-defunct Photo District News.

When you meet your hero(ine)

IMG_2663(1)

Too late now, but enjoying her letters; legendary journalist

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Inspired by this edition of The Moth, a story-telling radio series I’ve been listening to for many years,  my own moment…

It was the mid-80s and I had won, finally, my dream job, as a feature writer and reporter for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.

There was then, and still isn’t really, no better journalism job in Canada to have — chasing a wide array of stories and knowing we enjoyed a smart, national audience. Every morning, walking up the rear parking ramp past the huge satellite dish that would shoot our words out later that day, made my pulse jump with anticipation and excitement. Before heading to work, we’d hear our own stories on the CBC —- rip and read radio, we called it.

No job since has ever matched it.

But I had originally dreamed of becoming a photojournalist, then as now a very difficult and insecure way to make a living. I shot for a while, selling images to the Globe and Toronto Star and the final edition of Time Canada.

Now I was a word person.

I heard that dozens of legendary photographers were soon arriving in Toronto, some of them to shoot for A Day in The Life Of Canada, one in a series of fantastic coffee-table books; (years later, my husband Jose Lopez, would become a photo editor on A Day in the Life of America.)

Jill Krementz would be one of them.

An idol of mine! There were then so very few women working in the field and she was also well known as someone who takes author photos; for a while, married to Kurt Vonnegut.

I asked my editors if I could shadow her for the day.

 

It became one of the most fun days of my life.

 

We went to the home of Arthur Erickson, one of Canada’s top architects. He invited us into his living room — and Krementz said: ‘Ignore her”, meaning me. She stood on a sofa and started shooting.

So that’s how a successful New York woman behaved! I took note, my long-held dream to one day work in New York City. (I did!)

Our entire day was filled with meeting some of Canada’s most amazing talents. On assignment, she shot writer Alice Munro — and en route we ran into (!?) producer Lorne Michaels, of Saturday Night Live.

We went to the National Ballet School (where I had taken classes) and at day’s end I spotted some teens all dressed up for prom heading into her hotel.

“What do you think?” I asked. She sprinted over, hardly winded after a long, grueling day.

Then — imagine! — we sat on her hotel bed as she unrolled all her film. I couldn’t believe my good fortune to meet her, talk to her, watch her work.

Wait for the ending…

We’re now Facebook friends.

Not sure how we found one another, except through New York’s creative circles, and I was surprised and delighted to see she reads my posts there and invited us to get together PP — post-pandemic.

 

Have you ever met someone whose work you so deeply admire?

 

Water dripping on stone

IMG_5361

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve always — imagine! — been impatient.

Have always hoped, somehow, my journalism would make a difference to the world, to its readers, maybe even to voters or policy-makers.

In my early 20s, I tackled a grim and difficult and important story, the testing of cosmetics and other products on animals. I won’t detail what I saw, but I never forgot it, and to see that as a young person is to be changed. I wrote it for a brave editor, the late and much missed Jane Gale Hughes, whose Canadian national magazine — as small in size and apparently unsubstantial as a TV Guide — was called Homemakers.

Its name was misleading, suggesting anodyne chitchat.

Quite the opposite!

Jane, extremely rare for any editor who hopes to keep their job, had to fight the advertising department because, of course, the advertisers of the products being tested would object and pull their lucrative ads.

The ads whose revenue paid her salary and my freelance work for her.

She ran my story anyway and I’m really proud of it and grateful for her belief in me as a younger journalist to produce it.

This tension between money and truth-telling never goes away.

In 2005-6, when I was a reporter for the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest paper, I did a huge investigation of the cruise ship industry.

What I learned persuaded me to never take a cruise.

Of course, the editor refused to run my stories — for fear of losing their ad dollars. They finally ran one-half of my work.

 

Journalism matters!

 

Every story that digs deeply.

Every press conference — pure theater! — during which smart journalists ask challenging, tough questions, even in the face of sneers, insults, pompous political lectures and hostility.

It all adds up.

It must.

Jose and I are soon at the tail end of long and challenging and satisfying careers in journalism. We remain deeply passionate about the need for intelligent, analytical, critical reporting on  every aspect of life.

But both of us were cautioned — long ago — to remember that even a lifetime of our committed excellence, even for the largest and most influential outlets, and all the work of all our talented colleagues, is the equivalent of water drops on stone.

One at a time.

Each story — each image — only a drop.

How can it matter?

Drop after drop — repeated over and over and over and over — as we and others continue the work, and stone wears away.

 

Really missing movies!

MSDBRCL EC016
THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I loved and totally identified with this piece by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis:

For those who came of age with home video it can be hard to grasp why anyone still bothers to go out to see movies. This bafflement has become part of a steady drumbeat of complaints about watching movies in theaters: the pricey tickets, bad projection, overpriced junk food, the creeps, potential maniacs and selfish people texting or talking on their phones. Just stay home, kick back and binge on another suboptimal Netflix show. But moviegoing helped make me who I am, shaped my world and my sense of self, beginning in childhood.

It started with my film-crazed parents, young East Village bohemians who couldn’t afford babysitters and so brought me everywhere, including to the movies. This was in New York in the mid-1960s, a heroic age of cinephilia before home video. When I was 3, they took me to see Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life,” a glorious, overheated drama with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh.

 

 

The first movie I remember vividly was Dr. Zhivago, directed by legendary director David Lean, starring Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya and Julie Christie as Lara. It’s more than three hours, and even has (!) an intermission.

It has everything: great characters, costumes, landscapes, music, history, romance, broken hearts, revolution. Watch the costume colors change as characters change their behaviors, especially young Lara.

 

DrZhivago_Asheet

 

 

I was eight when it was released and have watched it many, many times since, never tiring of it.

My father made films for a living and thought nothing of showing up halfway through any commercially-shown movie. We’d waltz in and just wait in our seats (as you could then) for it to start again.

At 18, I tried, with my late stepmother, to watch The Exorcist, and fled back quickly into afternoon daylight, terrified. I’ve never tried since.

More of Dargis:

So many of my memories are connected with moviegoing; some are of being alone in a theater full of people, which is a metaphor for my life, though also a metaphor for being alive. I love laughing and crying and shrieking with an enthusiastic audience. And while I now go to the movies for work, I also go to the movies for pleasure and for the love of the art. I go because I’m curious, because I like the director or star. I go because I’m happy, anxious or depressed. I go because films have provided comfort throughout my life, offering me an escape from my own reality but also a way of making sense of it, giving me glossy and gritty worlds to discover and reassuringly disappear in.

I spent most of my childhood at boarding school, but Christmas break meant fleeing school to watch multiple movies in a theater with my mother, two or three in a day, popcorn for meals.

She had a firm rule — if we saw a movie that day, no TV. I get it. You really need some time to process and remember what you’ve seen, not chase it all away too quickly with more images and content.

Her favorite, which we saw together, was Gone With the Wind.

With my maternal grandmother, it was the movie musical Paint Your Wagon, whose songs I still remember even though she died in 1975.

One of my favorite things about where we now live is the independent art film house a 15-minute drive north, The Jacob Burns Film Center, housed in a 20’s vaudeville house beautifully restored. I’m a member and sometimes go two or three times a week. Directors visit to discuss their work. Just before the coronavirus sent us all into isolation, I’d taken a terrific three-week class there on documentary films.

 

250px-Original_Rocky_Horror_Picture_Show_poster

 

A classic!

 

One great movie that really shows how a movie theater, especially in a small town, can create community is 1988’s Cinema Paradiso, which won best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars that year. Plus its gorgeous score by Ennio Morricone; (if you’ve never seen another of my faves, The Mission, you must listen to its haunting soundtrack, also by him.)

Yes, I’m obsessed!

So, while we’re forbidden now to go to the theater, I’ll keep watching movies greedily at home, eagerly awaiting the next time we can all once more sit, mesmerized, in the dark together.

The editorial relationship

 

IMG_6211

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The good and bad of blogging  — for writers and readers alike — no editors!

No one to say: “Hmmm, really?”

No one to ask: “What did you mean to say here?”

No one to suggest: “Maybe you wanted a shorter paragraph?”

I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19, so I’ve worked with many editors, men and women of all ages and temperaments, some as my bosses or coworkers, many as those who chose to assign me freelance work, and my two non-fiction books.

The very best are like the best plastic surgeons — when they trim, you barely notice it, but suddenly your material looks so much better.

The very best remain calm and cool, able to re-direct us and soothe us when we’re lost or panicked in the weeds of reporting and interviewing. Book editors are gods to me — helping us make sense of 100,000 words.

I’m always amazed at the trust that each editor places in us and our skills and our character and our ethics and our work ethic when they commit to us. This was a bigger deal when top writers were paid $3/word by the big glossy magazines and a $6,000 or $9,000 or $12,000 check was still possible and not some gauzy memory.

Then as now, editors hedge their bets with contracts that may not contain a kill fee, or a very small one (25 percent), so that $4,000 you expected to earn — hah, now you’re only getting $1,000 and your bills be damned!

It’s one reason smart full-time freelancers are very, very frugal; it’s easy to blow some cash on a vacation or some new clothes or some dental work or car repair — put  it on a credit card — and, guess what?

You aren’t getting that money now.

It’s very stressful and stories get killed for a lot of very bad reasons. One I see a lot (not in my work) is editors who commission a story, disappear for weeks or even months (!?) and then the story is no longer timely or someone else already published it. This punishes the writer, who’s done all the work in good faith.

 

IMG_6011

 

Some of my most memorable editors:

— The one who sent me off to profile David Quinn, then the brand-new coach of the New York Rangers, saying “You’re Canadian. You know hockey!” I did not. Here’s the story.

— The one who just assigned me a scary story about a technical topic for a specialist audience of readers with Phds. “You realize I never studied chemistry or physics?” I emailed him. Onward, anyway.

— The  one who told me to get what he was sure was a totally ungettable interview and I came back within a few hours with a former European leader.

— The one who sent me off on a two-week tour of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Lord, what an adventure: Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick. We flew in Lear jets, allowing Her Majesty the “purple corridor” of advance time for her jet to take off before ours.

— The one who sent me, in December, to the tiny Arctic village of Salluit, ostensibly to deliver an entire small plane-full of donated clothing, with only 24 hours there. We landed on ice and snow at maybe 1pm, and no one wanted the stuff, and it was dark by 2pm and  I had to go on the radio, a particle board shack, being translated into Inuktitut, to calm the village down and get anyone to even speak to me.

 

IMG_2383

 

— The one, at the New York Daily News, my direct manager, who said: “When I want to speak to you, I’ll let you know” and never spoke to me again. That was December and I was let go in  June. Fun!

— The one who edited Boy’s Life, the Boy Scout’s official magazine, and had me interviewing Scouts (by phone) all across America. They were always terrific!

 

malled cover LOW

 

— The one who read my initial manuscript for Malled and said: “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.” The rest? Needed revision. We made it.

— The one who sent me from Toronto, freelance, for The Globe & Mail, to write about performing eight shows of Sleeping Beauty as an extra with the National Ballet of Canada, at Lincoln Center. I typed it up in my room at the Empire Hotel and dictated it over the phone. “This is great!” he said.

 

At best, it’s a collegial collaboration of mutual respect.

At worst, you feel butchered and never want to trust another editor again.

And you never know for sure what you’ll get!