Do you live to work — or work to live?

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Do you ever just STOP and take a breather?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent blog post by a good friend — an American living in London — once more reminded me of what I value most…time away from the grind of work:

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.

It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.

You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!

It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.

 

A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.

 

Relaxing.

People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)

Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.

American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.

And —  how dare you look “unproductive”?!

Here’s my whip-smart pal Helaine Olen, writing on this in the Washington Post:

The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.

Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.

I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.

I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.

 

Do you work to live or live to work?

 

Has that changed for you over time?

How do you define success?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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An interesting/depressing essay in The Paris Review by Alexander Chee on becoming an American writer:

There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.

…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.

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Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.

And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.

A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.

It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.

Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).

Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.

Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.

But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.

In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.

Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.

 

But what defines success?

 

For some:

an enormous salary

lots of money in the bank

having and wielding power

owning your home

a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)

surviving tours in the military

having a healthy/happy child(ren)

a happy relationship with your spouse/partner

achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record

regaining (or losing) weight

acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work

helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts

If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.

Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.

But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.

 

Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed

 

If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.

 

How do you measure and define success in your life?

 

 

A week in the writer’s life #MissingAZero!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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What a week, kids!

Here’s some of it:

Negotiated with three different teams of PR people to set up a phone interview with (shriek!) shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. They shift the time of the interview, meaning I have to suddenly shift three competing events in my day to accommodate. This is all very normal in the world of celebrity PR, which is why I generally avoid it. (They called me from London and he was so nice! What a thrill!)

Pitched a new-to-me editor on a story that would require, ideally, a trip to a distant and remote Canadian destination. It’s a great story, but so few outlets have the budget for travel now, (let alone pay enough or offer enough space for a longer piece), and the ones that do are focused on luxury and high-net-worth readers — which attract lucrative ads from companies like Gucci and Vuitton. One reason there are so very few stories about the poor and struggling — you can’t sell ads against those pieces.

Pitched another new-to-me editor whose ideas are quite different from mine. “We’re getting closer,” she said. Not sure how much more energy I want to pour into a speculative project.

Checked the pay rate from The Independent, a British newspaper, when an editor called out online for op-eds. $150. #MissingAZero! Our health insurance costs $1,400 a month.

 

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So much wasted time!

 

Asked three fellow journalists, two good friends, one an acquaintance, to participate in a book project. I anticipated their eagerness to help, and instead was met with resentment by one and silence by another and reluctant agreement by a third. Disheartening.

Invested half an hour interviewing a guy whose social justice work might make a great story — if I can find someone to buy it. Asked him where he attended university, (since successful alumni profiles are often an easy sell.)

The editor of his college alumni magazine says, yeah, we use freelancers — and offered $250 for a story.

The editor of a story I submitted more than three weeks ago, (who I had to email three times to follow up), asked me to hold it for another few weeks for a timelier story to run first. The only acceptable answer? “Sure” — which means another month before I get paid. I only get paid after it’s used.

 

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Back to Montreal!

 

I set up a meeting for early May near Montreal to interview a farmer, my second such assignment for a farming magazine. Glamour! In fact, it’s a lot of fun and I’m delighted to get outdoors, work face to face, and get a paid trip back to Canada.

I taught my final two writing classes, of four nightly classes, of this semester at the New York School of Interior Design, where I studied in the ’90s. The class only had four students enrolled and one never even showed up. Another skipped the last class and didn’t do the work. I found this depressing. The one diligent student, luckily, was terrific. She worked really hard and is a lovely writer. But seriously?

Honored to be included with other women journalists, and called both smart and generous in this piece, which ran on a very high profile site in our industry, Poynter.com, on how to survive tough times in journalism.

Read this deeply depressing article on Columbia Journalism Review, about how frequently editors simply “kill” stories — and pay a fraction of the agreed-upon fee when they do. This deeply cuts the income a freelance writer relies on, and is a practice I know of in no other business.

In my 30-year career, I’ve had very few stories killed, (thank heaven) but it hurts. The last one, January 2015, cost me $900 in lost income. What we often end up doing, (angrily and quietly), is taking a financial hit to retain the working relationship. The editor keeps collecting their salary while we scramble to replace income we expected to earn — that we’re not going to receive.

From the CJR piece:

My ultimate hope, as a person from a family with deep roots in organized labor, is that one day freelance writing will be sold through a kind of union hiring hall, similar to that utilized by unions in the building trades. But that goal will entail a lot of self-help: holding other writers, particularly academics writing solely to burnish their “brands,” accountable for writing for exposure; sharing information about pay rates and editorial practices; and ensuring that all commissioned stories, however small the offered rate, come with contracts that specify detailed procedures about kill fees.

The sad truth of my business is that few work well with others, sometimes instead cutting their own very best deal — and the hell with everyone else. I rely on wide, deep networks of people to be honest with me about what they’re getting paid, or not. Only then can you discover (to your horror) how badly you might be getting screwed — and how much better you need to negotiate.

Coached a fellow writer by phone, my happiest and easiest income of the week, $225 for an hour of my advice. (Interested? Details here!)

 

The best part?

 

Took a hooky day! I visited one of my favorite museums in New York City, the Neue Galerie, a gorgeous Beaux Arts mansion on East 86th. Street bought by Ronald Lauder, (he of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune.) It contains, among many other items, a legendary  portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907 by Gustav Klimt, for which Lauder — in 2006 — paid a staggering $135 million. I went to see a powerful show of German and Austrian art before and after the rise of Hitler.

The show ends May 28; if you can get to it, go!

Having recently watched the TV series Babylon Berlin, which I blogged about here, I’m a tad obsessed with the Weimar Republic and want to learn more about it.  Treated myself to a cake and coffee in the museum’s popular and elegant Cafe Sabarsky, one of the prettiest rooms in New York. Bought three books on the Weimar period — ready for the next two weeks’ break, visiting friends and family in Ontario.

 

 

The pinball machine of success

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Remember those?

 

The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, due to contact with objects on the playfield or by the player’s own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers.

 

I think success is a lot like a pinball machine…

 

You put in your money, release a ball and hope like hell to keep that ball moving, and rack up enough points by the end of the game.

But, like pinball’s bumpers and alleys and pits, some of us face multiple obstacles to overcome:

sexism

racism

chauvinism

chronic illness

mental illness

disability

surgeries

illness

unemployment

underemployment

debt

lack of self-confidence

language barriers

death of  a loved one

divorce

lack of education

lack of skills

lack of social capital

poverty

luck

timing

the larger economy

Which means, when you “fail” — and, like many of us, might then wallow in shame and frustration and self-flagellation — be a little kinder to yourself.

I see the people who succeed, at least here in sharp-elbowed New York, and know the incredible advantages some of them bring, and take for granted, whether prep school and Ivy League educations or access to decision-making people in power through their social networks, often both.

They keep winning and think: I did that! All by myself!

It was said of one American President — using a baseball metaphor — he was born on third base, confident he had hit a triple.

As that little metal ball pings and caroms around the pinball machine — as in life — we  react as quickly as we can, flipping flippers and trying our best to guide it and keep it flying.

 

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But, as in life, not every game ends in delight.

So there’s a larger, deeper, more candid conversation we need to be having about who’s winning, who’s losing and why.

In the United States, there’s a firm and fixed belief that every success — and every failure — is due only to each individual’s hard work, determination and intelligence.

Hah!

Talk to a person of color.

Talk to a woman of color.

Talk to an immigrant whose graduate degrees from a foreign/unknown institution mean nothing to American employers.

Talk to someone waylaid by their partner’s terminal illness, death and grieving.

Which is why we all need to lighten up on the fantasy that success is soooo easy to achieve, which — if you look at social media — can drive you mad with envy.

We hide our struggles and defeats: the crushing student loan debt, the chronic pain, the multiple surgeries, the needy relatives or un(der) employed partner…

We also need to lose the conviction that only visible wealth, prestige, power and luxury goods mark us as “successful” while kindness, generosity, frugality, humility and wisdom remain dismissed and perpetually undervalued.

 

We need to be ruthlessly candid about what powerful headwinds some of us face and what tailwinds propel some of us forward with a speed and velocity that look so, so effortless

 

When they’re not.

Your “failure” may have very little to do with your hard work, determination, education or skills.

Same with your success.

 

 

 

The reality of the creative life

By Caitlin Kelly

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This essay, from LitHub, is brilliant and spot-on:

The writerly apartment in this fantasy is bare and minimal; the walls are unpainted plaster, or the wallpaper is peeling; the heat is faulty or not there; there are books stacked on the floor. It looks this way because it’s Paris struggling out of the deprivation and destruction of a world war, or New York soldiering on through the Depression, living in the wreckage of 1920s glamor. The writer spends hours in cafes, working and drinking, because the cafes are heated and the apartment is not. The aesthetic of this fantasy is permanently frozen in the first half of the 20th century, in the cities (and occasionally the beach resorts near cities) of Europe and the United States. The reason the fantasy writer lifestyle is set in such a particular time and place is that the interwar and postwar American writers who went to Europe for cheap rents have exerted a massive influence on the American idea of what literature is. Who casts a longer shadow across American fiction and curricula than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin?

While considering the specificity of these images, recently, something came to me: It’s an Anthropologie catalog.

(For those unfamiliar with it, Anthro is a major American retailer, with stores that change their look every few weeks and who sell a costly-but-gauzy kind of clothing and accessories to women who typically work in a corporate environment.)

Everyone wants to be a writer!

Or make films or art or music because…freedom from typical work constraints is so deeply appealing.

The catch?

 

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Life costs money.

I grew up in a household of creatives, and we did live in a house my father owned, and drove decent used cars. Some years were better than others financially, but we also lived in Toronto, where the CBC and NFB had appetites and budgets for my father’s work as a film diector, long before there were dozens of cable channels seeking content.

Living in Canada also meant we never paid a penny for healthcare — which has cost me and my husband, living in New York as self-employed workers, $1,700 a month for the past two years.

Yes, really.

Thanks to a new plan, I’ll “only” pay $700 a month starting today, saving us $700 a month.

But our monthly “nut” is still more than $5,000 and we have no children.

Living a life creating things is one many people dream of. But it still has to be supported by someone, usually multiple someones, actually paying for food, fuel, medication and housing — let alone haircuts, dental work, new eyeglasses, etc.

The solo creative life is affordable only to those who can stand to live frugally, and for long periods, because so little creative work actually pays well enough to live a life that allows for sick days, a vacation, owning a home.

As one childhood friend, who, as a single mother helped to create animated films you might have watched, told me recently: “I lived on air.”

I know artists and illustrators and film-makers and writers and playwrights and poets. They love their creative work but rarely enjoy the payment and insecurity that comes with it.

 

So, to pursue this life often also means having a side hustle, a day job, a trust fund, a hard-working, well-paid spouse or partner.

 

It’s extremely rare for me to have a month in which I’ve generated no income from my writing, because I don’t have a side job. It is my job! That means, without my husband’s hard work at his two freelance positions, (and our emergency savings), we’d be in deep shit, unable to pay our bills in full and on time.

It shames me to admit that this is the case for me right now — but the reason I do so here is because it’s true.

This can be a financially precarious life, and often is.

Here’s a post I wrote in 2011 about this dilemma — would you rather be creative or (the great American fetish) productive?

Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.

Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!

The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.

Now….how to be creative?

What does that look like to you?

It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.

 

 

 

Why we’re all so weird about money

By Caitlin Kelly

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Few issues are as fraught with emotion as how we get, spend, save or give away our money.

If you don’t have enough to survive, every day becomes an emotionally and physically exhausting battle.

And when you live in a country devoted to bare-knuckled capitalism like the United States, if you don’t have enough, the social safety net is weak and thin.

The federal minimum wage is still an absurd $7.25 an hour — I’ve never paid any of my part-time assistants less than $12 an hour, even 15 years ago.

American unions now have the lowest membership in a century, even as one third of American workers lurch into what’s now widely and risibly called the “gig economy”, a jaunty and inaccurate euphemism for fiscal insecurity.

This week Richard Thaler just won the Nobel Prize for Economics.

From The New York Times:

 

Professor Thaler’s academic work can be summarized as a long series of demonstrations that standard economic theories do not describe actual human behavior.

For example, he showed that people do not regard all money as created equal. When gas prices decline, standard economic theory predicts that people will use the savings for whatever they need most, which is probably not additional gasoline. In reality, people still spend much of the money on gas. They buy premium gas even if it is bad for their car. In other words: They treat a certain slice of their budget as gas money.

He also showed that people place a higher value on their own possessions. In a famous experiment, he and two co-authors distributed coffee mugs to half of the students in a classroom, and then opened a market in mugs. Students randomly given a mug regarded it as twice as valuable as did the students who were not given a mug.

This “endowment effect” has since been demonstrated in a wide range of situations. It helps to explain why real markets do not work as well as chalkboard models.

Money is so often a proxy for other, often deeper, darker issues: power, control, status, humiliation, (why Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein could be a sexual predator and so many people who relied on his goodwill to help them get or stay rich remained silent for so long.)

I’ve been fairly obsessed with money for a long time.

It’s caused no end of drama within my family and I’ve been handling my finances alone since I was 19 and moved out of my father’s home to live alone in a large city and pay for university from my earnings as a writer and photographer, with a small monthly income from a grandmother.

It taught me very early to know my worth and to bargain hard for it. I still remember the joy of earning 18 percent on a Canada Savings Bond, whose value quickly doubled.

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One place I do spend money freely — travel

 

I also remember vividly being so strapped then that it took me months to save the $30 I needed to buy tights and slippers so I could attend a free ballet class.

My living expenses were phone/rent/tuition/books/clothes/groceries/answering machine.

No car. No TV. No cable.

My family has plenty of dough, but made clear to me to never ask for a penny of it, nor ever expect to run home for help. I inherited some money from my grandmother in my mid-20s, which helped me to to buy an apartment, a security for which I’m very grateful as I’ve bounced in and out of the job market, survived three recessions and work as a full-time freelance journalist — an industry now in complete chaos.

I break into a sweat when spending money on more than the basics; (except for making our home lovely and travel.)

My cellphone and computer are probably four or five years old, (no big deal.)

But our Subaru has 180,000 miles on it, is 16 years old and cost us $1,800 in repairs in recent months — so we’re finally about to lease a gorgeous luxury vehicle.

The thought of committing to anything beyond our monthly health insurance and mortgage payments is scary even though we have the cash, (money we’ve saved for years), and emergency savings, so this is not — as Thaler would nod knowingly — 100 percent rational thinking.

 

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Airfares? I’ll splurge on those…

 

Some of the financial challenges I see so many women struggling with:

1) being scared to ask for more (i.e. raises, bonuses, negotiating a higher salary or fees)

2) giving money and gifts to children and grand-children to their own financial detriment

3) under-earning because of sexism, racism or other institutional barriers

4) under-earning while taking time away from paid work to care for children and/or others

5) failing to understand the devastating financial impact of divorce and planning for that. I had a prenuptial agreement in my first marriage and could have ended up in very dire straits without it.

 

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Does handling and managing your money cause you anxiety?


 

Self-indulgence, self-denial, self-care

By Caitlin Kelly

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Which of these best describes your default choice?

I know a few people who immediately choose the first, justifying their expenditures — sometimes far beyond their budget or means — with “I deserve it” and “I work hard” or “It’s only X$/euros/pounds.”

I watch those people from a distance, warily.

Not spending money can be a monumental challenge for some. Or not over-eating or drinking or smoking.

Maybe my perspective is a result of my unlikely and stringent childhood, shuttling between a strict girls-only boarding school and more permissive but still-regimented girls-only summer camps.

The former offered very little comfort, softness or emotional respite, only a large, shared dark green wicker basket of cookies every afternoon and the chance to watch television in the common room for a few hours one evening a week.

So I’ve always been suspicious, sometimes even disdainful, of people who constantly insist on pampering and spoiling themselves, having seen too much of it in adults who should have been more aware of, and attentive to, their responsibilities.

I do enjoy many pleasures — good food and wine, travel, music, a lovely home — but I can also wear myself out battling internally over how often and how much is too much.

I sometimes find it hard to just be nice to myself.

 

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And, as someone who works alone at home, with no boss or colleagues, no performance reviews except winning repeat business from my clients, it’s all up to me to find and complete enough work to earn my living.

That means no dicking around — I don’t even sit on our comfy sofa until my workday is done, daytime television only tuned to CNN or BBC in the case of huge breaking news.

Self-care, a word I find odd although I heartily endorse its spirit, can be difficult for people who’ve been raised to be stoic and uncomplaining. It can feel like self-indulgence when it’s really just putting gas back into your depleted physical, emotional and spiritual tank.

It’s also deeply unAmerican, (a nation founded by Puritans), to take time off, to slow down, to actually take and enjoy vacations.

It’s so much easier, in an economy driven by consumer spending, to just buy stuff, more stuff, better stuff and newer stuff — which (funny thing!) also takes no time away from remaining “productive”.

It does very little to produce happiness.

And not being perpetually busy here is often seen as evidence of stupidity or laziness — not a smart decision to rest and re-charge.

My six weeks off, unimaginable to some, (and yes, a huge investment), was a great gift to myself.

Many could see it as self-indulgence, and maybe it was!

But here’s the thing….

The money that funded it only resulted from years of self-denial, saving hard, whether an unexpected windfall, (a massive copyright settlement in Canada that won me and many journalism colleagues five-figure sums), or my own income.

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Americans also continue to have frighteningly low rates of savings, for a variety of reasons: health insurance and post-secondary education — hardly luxuries! –— are now big-ticket items, for one.

Low and stagnant wages are another problem.

But if you’re making enough to surpass basic needs, you have to save. And that often means — ideally for a while anyway — doing fewer fun, cool, tempting things, like buying the latest tech toys or phone or putting a vacation or wedding or new something on credit cards.

I’ve also been fasting, (800 cals/day, 2 days per week) since April 2016 and it’s helped me to lose weight; I’ve blogged about it here.

No one wants to go through life forever feeling deprived. But, I’ve seen, if you can stick it out and be patient, results do accrue.

Writing for money

By Caitlin Kelly

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“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”

— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)

Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.

If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.

If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.

If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.

If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.

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There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”

Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)

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

I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.

I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”

Yes, a hugely lucky break.

But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.

The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.

That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.

I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.

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My second book, published in 2011

So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.

I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.

Bullshit!

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If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:

Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.

You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.

You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)

You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)

You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..

You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.

You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.

You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.

You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content. 

You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.

You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste  time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

An exercise in optimism

By Caitlin Kelly

I have my new passport in hand now — and it’s good for ten years.

I hope I am!

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada

Acquiring a new passport really is an exercise in optimism, as international travel, (all travel, really) always requires three key elements:

Good health

Jose and I are now at an age we read the obituaries and keep finding people our age, and younger, who have lost their lives prematurely, most often to cancer and heart attacks. We pray for continued good health, without which travel — let alone anything else — is out of the question.

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Co. Donegal, Ireland, June 2015

Leisure

This is such a privilege!

So many people work in jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, that allow them little to no paid time off, or are too scared to actually take their paid vacation or — worst — insist in answering work-related demands even while they are supposed to be resting and recharging.

Jose and I both work full-time freelance and are only paid when we work; i.e. no paid vacation days, ever. Every day we take off without pay means we have to make it up somehow, since our overhead costs are fixed.

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A cup of tea at the Ritz in London, January 2015

Disposable income

Another mark of privilege.

Many people just can’t afford to go anywhere a passport is needed, i.e. to leave the United States (or their home country) — poorly paid or unemployed or beggared by debt service.

We don’t have children or dependent relatives, so we have more options in this regard.

Of course, travel and adventure can also be found and enjoyed close(r) to hand, exploring your own neighborhood, town/city/state/province. Both my native Canada and adopted U.S. are enormous, tremendously varied and filled with alluring places to visit.

The places in Canada I still want to see include Newfoundland, P.E.I. and some more of the Far North.

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Paris

In the U.S., I hope to visit Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and several more national parks. I really want to do a driving trip the length of California. I’d like to visit Portland, Oregon, where we have several good friends.

Internationally?

It’s a very long list of places I’ve yet to see, including Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, South Africa, Namibia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, islands of the South Pacific, Antarctica, Lebanon, Greece, Croatia, Finland, Iceland and Morocco.

Where do you want to travel to next and why?

A barstool conversation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?

Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.

It was about 6:30.

Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.

Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!

I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.

A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.

“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.

He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.

He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?

It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.

That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.

An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.

I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.

He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.

We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)

“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.

It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.

He was a little drunk.

It made me a little sad.

He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.

We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.

I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.

(Just in case, though:

  1. Make sure you don’t get drunk; stay safe!
  2. Make sure no one has access to your drink except you (beware someone dumping rohypnol; i.e. getting roofied.)
  3. Make sure you feel 100 percent comfortable with the tone and content of any conversation. If not, move or leave.
  4. Make sure you can leave quickly and safely, if necessary; trust your instincts.)

 

Do you ever sit at the bar?

Do you ever talk to strangers there?